Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News
An illegal store front promoting itself as cannabis dispensary is pictured at Broadway near 39th Street in Midtown Manhattan. (Luiz C. Ribeiro for New York Daily News)
Amid a sea of complicated proposed or active but largely unenforced regulatory measures to crack down on the proliferation of illegal cannabis shops, Manhattan Councilman Keith Powers has put a simple but effective solution on the table: just shut ‘em down.
That’s the general gist of Powers’ new bill that would classify unregulated cannabis sale as a public nuisance under the city’s nuisance abatement laws and allow officials to bring civil actions against the locations where sales take place. By going after the locations as opposed to the people involved, the approach could allow the quick closure of illegal shops in a way that so far has proved elusive, and avoids the pitfalls of efforts centered around criminal law.
We shouldn’t forget, however, that the nuisance laws themselves have some complicated history. A series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles in this newspaper and ProPublica laid out how they sometimes led New Yorkers and their families to be shut out of their homes without much due process, including those never even charged with crimes. This led to 2017 reforms that, among other things, largely phased out closure orders without notice.
The Powers bill would make unlawfully selling marijuana one of the few circumstances in which a temporary closing order could be served without such notice, which is always a delicate proposition that carries the potential for a business to suffer a disastrous closure before it can defend itself or clear up confusion. Still, given the extent to which illegal sellers have so far brushed off enforcement action — opening again the very day after a raid, for example — it makes some sense to come down hard on them.
In keeping with the structure of the existing nuisance abatement laws, the bill specifies the enforcement action can take place not only against retail locations and businesses but private dwellings. That creates the potential for some confusion when taken alongside the removal of low-level drug possession as a cause for nuisance abatement in the 2017 reforms. Alongside the expected prohibitions against retail and wholesale of unregulated cannabis products, the bill includes “delivering to consumers,” a separate can of worms from retail locations.
Enforcement against delivery services certainly can and should be part of the broader regulatory picture, but presents a slightly more complex challenge than going after easily-identifiable, full-fledged illegal cannabis retailers. What constitutes a location out of which cannabis is being delivered?
There’s no specific amount of product or frequency of sale that triggers a nuisance designation, so would that mean that a person who occasionally delivers small quantities of marijuana out of a home they share with their family could be at risk of having that residence closed off without notice, just the type of heavy-handed enforcement the reforms were meant to mitigate? It’s worth clearing up some of those questions before the bill gets to the finish line.
We commend Powers for taking matters into his own hands after Albany’s failure to address the problem they created. The persistent illegal sale of pot is a nuisance in the purest sense, providing a pathway for underage New Yorkers to obtain the drug unlawfully, putting public health at risk by selling un-inspected marijuana of indeterminate dosage and safety and threatening the viability of legitimate, licensed businesses.