UWS illegal weed shops popping up like, well… weeds, councilmember’s survey finds

A new boots-on-the-ground survey from Councilmember Gale Brewer’s office found more than twice as many illicit cannabis shops operating on the Upper West Side as in late 2022, the last time her staff canvassed the area.

Brewer is one of city government’s biggest crusaders against NYC’s unlicensed cannabis shops, and the informal headcount comes as city and state officials continue to struggle to crack down on an illicit market that’s proved resilient. City officials estimate there are thousands of unlicensed shops, although there’s no official count.

Brewer’s staff found 53 unlicensed shops selling cannabis on the Upper West Side, according to the count released on Thursday. Brewer’s staffers conducted the survey by canvassing shops they suspected of selling cannabis in her district without a license. They visited stores between West 54th and West 108th streets — the same area they covered in 2022.

Some of the shops that were found selling weed this time around were also selling cigarettes without the proper license or banned tobacco products like flavored vapes, according to Brewer’s office.

Brewer, like Mayor Eric Adams, is pushing for state lawmakers to pass legislation giving the city more power to crack down on unlicensed shops. But she’s also urging local agencies to take advantage of laws currently on the books.

The councilmember held a press conference in front of Zaza Waza, a cannabis store the Department of Consumer and Worker Protections padlocked on Wednesday for repeatedly violating the city’s 2013 Sensible Tobacco Enforcement Law. That statute grants city officials authority to seal stores that sell untaxed cigarettes or illegal tobacco products.

Brewer has previously been photographed in front of the store, which she cited as being emblematic of unlicensed cannabis shops’ brazenness and the impotence of enforcement efforts.

Shutting down the store wasn’t easy. The Department of Consumer and Worker Protections conducted six inspections and issued 47 violations before padlocking it, according to Brewer’s release.

Zaza Waza can reopen if the owners pay more than $225,000 in penalties, stop selling cannabis and flavored vapes, and obtain licenses to sell tobacco and e-cigarettes.

City and state officials have attempted to use various tactics to shut down the city’s unlicensed shops as the new legal industry gets off the ground. That includes urging landlords to evict stores that are violating the law, confiscating inventory and issuing increasingly hefty penalties — although many of those fines have yet to be paid.

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