With legalization beginning to look like a reality in 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo granted New Yorkers an overdue sigh of relief at what could be the end of almost a century of cannabis prohibition. Being a notorious alcohol-soaked haven for its entire existence, this party goers’ paradise is also one of the most cannabis-saturated black markets in the world. Just look around this cold, hard, often grey metropolis, and it's plain to see why these citizens need a smoke — the place is packed to the brim, and under those millions of bodies are century-plus-old tenements and infrastructure, often repaired in piecemeal and constantly breaking down (especially, these days, the MTA or subway).
New York’s love of cannabis is an open secret, contributing to a market that consumes over 77 tons of flower, but also fuels a shadow economy that’s filling the coffers of the prison industrial complex. Even its elected officials are beginning to agree that with every moment that enforcement continues, New Yorkers suffer, especially if they are immigrants or people of color.
New York’s buyers are still setting cannabis trends even in an illegal stew. Under this climate, the cannabis user is either brave, committed, lucky, or incredibly privileged — and, universally, they’re still the prime customers in the western world. The undeniable coolness and irresistible capital of New Yorkers means the products they demand must be provided. Though they don’t get all of the best quality cannabis, the state certainly has a steady supply, and its consumers are as discerning as their access allows.
One may wonder, though, what strains are New Yorkers actually smoking? Along with looking at Leafly’s stats on the most popular strains, Civilized spoke with an executive at multi-state operation MedMen and longtime Humboldt County farmer (who we'll call R in order to protect their anonymity in the black market), who's spent over a decade trading cannabis to eager and waiting hands in New York.
Today, this market has become a bit oversaturated — potentially a function of a drop in the arrest rate from 2015 onward — while just a few years ago when stop and frisk was at an all-time high, providers were more limited and the risks were greater. R and similar growers were giving New Yorkers what they wanted, not just what was left over from their licensed grows meant for California medical dispensaries.
R tells Civilized of their time in the bicoastal cannabis trade: "Not a lot of people were serving the New York market and the California market as long as I was, and seeing the strain trends flip in the last ten years has been interesting," they said. "Sour strains top everything in New York, but no one wanted Sour Diesel in Cali — it was only popular in Northern California because out-of-state buyers were coming in."
Strains like Green Crack, Jack Herer, and the "bigger sativas" are among the most popular requests, R says. "In New York it had to hit the nose and the visual. I never got asked for indicas, but definitely was asked for sativas," they said. "It's very much a part of the New York mindset and feeling — they want to be up, they don't want to be stupid or asleep. Now New York is more mature in their cannabis tastes, but up until a year or two ago, people were just looking at the bud's appearance and for quality aromas. They didn’t know much else.”
Sour Diesel is a perennial favorite strain on the East Coast, and this is backed up with some interesting data from Leafly’s Prinicipal Research Scientist, Nick Jikomes, PhD. According to Jikomes, these were top ten most searched for strains in the New York region this past November:
- Sour Diesel
- Blue Dream
- Original Glue
- Girl Scout Cookies
- Sunset Sherbet
- Wedding Cake
- Purple Punch
- OG Kush
- Jack Herer
Consistent with R‘s experiences, Sour diesel is right at the top of the list. When you break down this list, there are seven hybrids, two sativas, and one indica. Plus, these hybrids are also quite sativa heavy, like yummy and fruity Jack Herer and the berry-flavored Blue Dream. This shows that New York has a slight preference for the prophetic workflow weeds like Jack and Sunset Sherb.
New York may be buying the most illicit cannabis, but California has a sizeable say in what goes down back east. According to R, the changes have been pretty surprising: “Even when Cali was all OG and cookies, all heavy indicas, New York was always sativas." However, nowadays, R said, "it's totally flipped and California is into sativas. For the last 10 years if you told someone you had Blue Dream they’d laugh, but they love Blue Dream in New York. I would grow a ton of blue dream, and just sell it all to New Yorkers.” The change can probably be attributed to a flood of new consumers to California storefronts and a longstanding crew of regulars in New York looking for something a little stronger, like number nine on the list, OG Kush.
Growers like R have also been a part of above board cannabis ventures, and this first year of the adult use market in California has been vastly educational for entrepreneurs. The nuance of strain curiosity that New Yorkers are eager for is being condensed out west. Selections are simplified into the binary categories and potency descriptors that are on every regulated California label. R thinks new consumers on the West Coast are approaching cannabis like alcohol, with rigid sativa/indica preferences and a misguided notion that stronger is better.
New York’s black market providers may have even set trends just for being economical, R says, “I tried growing sours, but I realized that the yield is so low that its losing money, I’d only get a few hundred more per pound but way less yield," they said. "With Blue Dream, I’d get more yield and even though it was affordable, it all sold for cumulatively way more.”
Comparatively, New York’s existing medical cannabis program is dramatically less accommodating of patient preferences. Daniel Yi, Senior Vice President of Communications, at Med Men told Civilized what their options are under the current regulations: “Under New York's medical marijuana program, sale of flower is prohibited. Our stores sell capsules, drops and vaporizers. They are not categorized by strains, instead by THC to CBD ratios that doctors recommend for specific ailments.”
As we solve the mysteries of cannabis and its processes in the body, it’s true that strain culture as we know it may dissolve into a less chaotic shopping experience. For now, those who plan to operate are trying to look past cultivar names and trends and look to the future. “Whether in California or any other market, we ultimately look at cannabis as a road to wellness, and that has less to do with any particular strain and more to do with what effects cannabis users and patients are looking for," said Yi.
We may not know specifically what influences New York cultivar trends until we have a robust adult use market to analyze from every possible angle, but pop culture and strain legends seem to maintain the biggest hold. Phenotypes like Gelato and Girl Scout Cookies were rapped about more times in 2017 than any others, and this creates a buzz that needs no dispensary to make sales.
Could this list predict the future of cannabis offerings in the forthcoming legal economy? If the providers enter the space with a desire to please, impress, and serve New Yorkers on their own terms, not just with what works on the West Coast or in Colorado, they will survive the first wave of commerce that will undoubtedly be complicated, covered in red tape, and costly. New York’s cannabis boom deserves to be generated for New Yorkers, by New Yorkers, especially those harmed by prohibition enforcement, not just the big players from existing legal markets.