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Putting a lid on the pot: Albany bill finally allows quick closures of illegal cannabis shops



With the passage of one of Albany’s budget bills yesterday, the NYPD and other local law enforcement have finally been given the authority to shut down shops illegally selling marijuana — immediately if they are selling to minors, operating near schools, selling unregulated items or have unlawful firearms. Hallelujah!

While due process must be respected, here come the padlocks. The call is easy: either a business is unlawfully selling unregulated cannabis or it is not. The authorities will presumably have access to the directory of businesses licensed to market recreational cannabis, and so will know that others selling marijuana are by default doing so without a license. Bye-bye to the illegals. We hope.

The hunt for the scofflaws should be simple as they are loudly touting what they are selling, so there’s no need for the cops to begin randomly searching shops hunting for unlicensed weed. Practically every neighborhood with a commercial block features at least one weed smoke shop (or maybe a dozen or more) prominently displaying its illegal wares, often with bright colors and stylized mascots, not only flouting cannabis sales but cannabis marketing laws and regulations.

It won’t be particularly difficult for New York’s Finest to establish that a business is in violation of the law when the businesses themselves literally advertise it.

If and when businesses are padlocked, they can file an appeal which must be heard within three days, with a decision due four days after that. That’s an appropriately quick turnaround time to allow a business to return to regular operations in the presumably rare cases where there are mistakes.

You’ll note that what befalls the businesses is padlocking, certainly a financial consequence but not a criminal one. We maintain as we have since cannabis regularization was first on the table that the right approach to those that remain out of compliance with the new laws is not to forget everything we learned about the perils of over-criminalization from the War on Drugs years and try to arrest and imprison our way out of it.

That impulse is likely what led to lawmakers leaving enforcement mechanisms fully out of the retail legalization efforts that culminated in 2021.

Unfortunately, they took that notion too far and set up a situation where the unregulated shops could run roughshod over the nascent legal market and operate above the confines of impotent state regulatory efforts and enforcement mechanisms rushing to catch up.

Three years of these catch-up efforts have yielded underwhelming results; the unlicensed shops just keep getting more numerous and more bold while the rollout of the regulated shops is only now beginning to ramp up, and is still far, far short of meeting demand. We cannot wait until market forces begin taking down some of the proliferating unregulated shops because by then, who knows if there will be any viable legal ones left.

Anyway, that does nothing but send the message that businesses in the state are free to flout the law as long as there are enough of them and they do it blatantly enough, which is certainly not the precedent we want set. This bill has the potential not only to immediately shutter unlicensed shops, but make would-be violators think twice about their prospects.

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