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Preventing Weed Smoking — Not More Weed Shops — Is What NYC Needs Now

New York Post

March 30, 2024

There’s no getting around the fact that New York’s retail cannabis rollout has been a mess. A few dozen legal weed shops have been swamped, per the most recent count, by at least 2,000 illegal competitors — the unsurprising result of legalizing pot more than a year before the state Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) issued its first official licenses. 

Law enforcement crackdowns have resembled whack-a-mole, exemplified by Upper West Side smoke shop Zaza Waza, which was padlocked by police one morning last week and then reopened by afternoon.  The results can also be tragic — as with the shooting deaths of two Mount Vernon men last week in a robbery gone wrong of what police said was an unlicensed weed warehouse.

As the state’s General Services Commission, per order of Gov. Hochul, undertakes a 30-day “top-down review” of cannabis retailing, it’s time for a fresh — and realistic — restart.

For the moment, Hochul appears to be doing little more than doubling down on her current strategy: increasing the number of legal cannabis outlets. Last week, the Cannabis Control Board approved 114 new licenses, to bring the total to 223, though only 88 “dispensaries” are actually operating.

Here’s a different approach: admit defeat as a first step toward cleaning up the mess. Rather than further burdening police, stop focusing so much of city authorities’ attention on those ubiquitous smoke shops — and direct the OCM to do as the state does with tobacco: launch a campaign that acknowledges that marijuana is a dangerous drug and wholly discourages its use. Especially among young people.

There are those of us who regret the push to legalize cannabis — and increasing medical evidence supports our concern. The CDC warns about “marijuana use disorder” which it defines as being “unable to stop using marijuana even though it’s causing health and social problems.”

Worse, it adds that those “who use marijuana are more likely to develop temporary psychosis and long-lasting mental disorders, including schizophrenia.”  In February, the American Heart Association linked cannabis to increased risk for heart attack and stroke.

If this were a new pharmaceutical drug, the FDA would not likely license it.

But here we are — with illegal smoke shops having sprouted like, well, weeds all over the city. It’s become clear that asking police to padlock — and re-padlock — pot shops will divert them from more pressing tasks. It’s also a losing effort because, as with illegal liquor sales, state agents must accompany local police to make a bust. 

The state’s approach to preventing cannabis use feels equally nonsensical, particularly when compared with tobacco. Rather than discouraging sales as it does with cigarettes, the OCM has been celebrating increased pot revenue. 

At its most recent meeting, it highlighted the fact that “there have been $183 million in sales since New York’s adult-use cannabis market first opened. The month of December was a high mark for sales in 2023.” 

In contrast, the state does not cheerlead smoking as a means of realizing tax revenue. Just the opposite. Tobacco is the province of the Department of Health, which “envisions a tobacco-free and vape-free society for all New Yorkers.”

It sets no misguided goals such as encouraging ex-“loosie” dealers to start their new “social enterprises.” (Think here of  Staten Island’s Eric Garner, who died when police used a chokehold to try  to stop his illegal tobacco sales.)

Instead, it seeks to prevent kids from starting to smoke and to reduce adult smoking. Among its key efforts are those graphic television ads showing dying cigarette smokers gasping for breath — and expressing regret.  This scared-straight approach has been shown to be effective.

A National Institutes of Health-funded study found that “mass-reach health communication campaigns can increase tobacco cessation and change tobacco-related social norms.”

That’s exactly what we need when it comes to drug use:  a change in social norms so that young people don’t start smoking pot, especially because of the finding by the National Institute on Drug Abuse that  “research suggests that marijuana use is likely to precede use of other licit and illicit substances and the development of addiction to other substances.”

We hear nothing about that from the state’s Office of Addiction Services and Support, which advertises instead for all of us to carry naloxone to reverse drug overdoses we might encounter.  This is tantamount to normalizing drug use. 

New York State has received more than $335 million in “opioid settlement funds” from firms that promoted addictive painkillers — with more to come.  Let’s use those funds to educate young people about the dangers of drug use, not normalize it. At the same time, the state should get to work developing a reliable DUI test for cannabis — which, of course, should have been a prerequisite for legalization but wasn’t. 

A clear-eyed rethink of New York state’s cannabis “control” would accept reality: Find a new approach to solve the rinse-and-repeat futility of illegal smoke shops — and take to the airwaves, the subways, and social media to tell the truth: using pot is simply a bad idea. Perhaps by discouraging marijuana use, we’ll kill off the illegal smoke shops along the way.