Hempire State: CITY's big-picture guide to legal weed in New York 

What the hell is going on with weed in New York? A year ago, every authority on cannabis had the adult-use retail market in New York pegged to light up in April 2023.

Yet here we are, with little to show for it.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been any progress. There are legal dispensaries in a few boroughs of New York City, and if you happen to be in Ithaca or Binghamton, you can stock up there.

But the delay has left many people wondering whether weed is even really, truly legal. The short answer is kind of. The longer answer is, well, longer.

Weed is legal to have and consume, although where you can buy it legally is confusing. There are only a handful of legal operations in New York, and none of them are in Rochester or the Finger Lakes.

Here’s the run-down on what you need to know about where cannabis legalization currently stands.

Disclaimer: We’re all adults here, but it needs to be said that nothing in this article constitutes legal advice, and every person is responsible for the consequences of their own actions. Consider yourself warned.

DISPENSARIES: WHAT'S THE HOLD UP?
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  • FILE PHOTO - ADOBE STOCK IMAGE
While dispensaries are slowly coming online in other parts of the state, don’t expect to see them in Rochester any time soon.

“There are two reasons there are no dispensaries in Rochester right now,” said Jacob Zoghlin, cannabis attorney and partner at The Zoghlin Group. “One is because the federal court has enjoined an issuance of justice-involved CAURD licenses, and the second is because the state has been slow to issue non-CAURD licenses.”

In layman’s terms, that means that New York and its Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) are currently being sued over their Conditional Adult-Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) program, which is meant to help people who have been disparately affected by formerly stringent criminal laws for marijuana use and possession.

The plaintiff is a man named Kenneth Gay, a Michigan resident who has a stake in a California-based cannabis company, Variscite One.

Gay is suing the state in federal court because he doesn’t qualify for the first round of dispensary licenses under CAURD. To qualify, an applicant must have a significant presence in New York, which the OCM loosely defined as residency in New York, bank accounts or property held in state, or “some other connection with or in New York state.” Applicants must also have a previous cannabis conviction here. Gay has neither a conviction nor “some other connection” to NY and doesn’t want to wait his turn for a wider application process. (He does have a previous conviction in Michigan, however.)

At the heart of his argument is the dormant commerce clause, which prevents state governments from discriminating against interstate commerce. Gay cited five regions in his lawsuit, including the Finger Lakes. In response, a judge blocked the rollout of CAURD licenses in these regions while the litigation is pending. Gay has also filed similar lawsuits in Sacramento and Los Angeles.

The state is expected to eventually issue licenses to a broader swath of the population, but as of publication, that application process and the criteria to qualify had not been made public. When this process will be released is anyone’s guess.

“We don’t comment on pending litigation,” Trivette Knowles, spokesperson for the Office of Cannabis Management, said. “We will continue our work building the most equitable market in the nation and continue to advance retail licenses in the allowable regions. In the meantime, cultivators, processors, and labs continue to be licensed in all regions.”

Steve VanDeWalle, a cannabis entrepreneur from Rochester who is seeking a microbusiness license, is also frustrated by the slow process.

“The whole process has felt like ‘hurry up and wait,’” VanDeWalle said. “I’ve been preparing for this for four years; I have everything ready to go — a turnkey business plan. But not only are all of the licenses not available, we don’t even know when they will be. I don’t even know if I’ll qualify for the license I want.”

HOW MUCH WEED CAN I HAVE?
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A lot. The Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) designated possession limits for adults as three ounces of dried flower and 24 grams of concentrates or edibles.

To put that in context, the average pre-rolled joint has half a gram of weed. Each ounce of flower contains about 28 grams. If you were to buy three ounces of flower, you could roll 168 joints.

ARE THOSE CORNER STORE POT OPERATIONS LEGAL? OR JUST KINDA-SORTA LEGAL?

They exist in a gray area. They’re not legal, licensed dispensaries. But New York lawmakers have made clear that they don’t want to re-criminalize cannabis after making it legal, and law enforcement authorities have shown no stomach for picking nits on the matter.

The OCM has issued cease-and-desist letters to some shops selling cannabis illegally, but they continue to pop up. What can we say other than the industry in New York is a Wild West right now?

The long and the short of it is there are no legal dispensaries in Rochester at this moment. Any place selling THC products is doing so illegally.

“Just because an operator is unlicensed doesn’t mean they’re bad,” VanDeWalle said. “It just means they don’t have a permission slip from the state to do what they’ve done for years.”

HOW CAN I GET WEED, LIKE, RIGHT NOW?
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You have a few options, some legal and others less above board. (Remember the “not legal advice” disclaimer?)

First, you can stop by one of those corner stores that sell weed. But you didn’t hear that from us and don’t come crying to us when the cops decide that the day you visit is the day they raid the place. That scenario is unlikely, but we’re just sayin’. Products here can also be of questionable quality. Do your due diligence.

Another option is ordering edibles online. Products with 2 to 25 mg of THC are available online and can be shipped to most states. How? Thanks to a loophole in federal law, CBD products with .3% THC or less can be sold and shipped over state lines. Check out brands like Exhale Wellness, Koi, Bubpop, and NuLeaf Naturals.

You can also find some THC products (flower, edibles, vapes) at certain CBD stores. When you visit a CBD shop, ask if it sells “stickers” or “memberships.” Many stores get around not having a retail license by taking advantage of a provision in state law that allows adults to transfer, or “gift,” each other up to three ounces of cannabis without compensation. You won’t pay for the pot, but those stickers and memberships will cost you a pretty penny (wink, wink). The practice is a scheme that state officials have railed against but that law enforcement ignores. We weren’t kidding when we said this was the Wild West.

Finally, you can connect with growers online. There have always been weed growers in Rochester, and there continue to be today. The main difference is, you can find most of them on Instagram or Telegram now. Send them a message, but don’t be weird about it. Most of them are happy to share the (literal) fruits of their labor.

Don’t write: “Hey, can I buy some pot from you?”

Write something like: “Hey, love your plant pics. How would I get some flower?/ Do you participate in any local weed events?/ Are you on Telegram?”

WHAT'S THE DEAL WITH DELIVERY SERVICES?
ILLUSTRATION BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • ILLUSTRATION BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
Delivery services will eventually be a separate license type in New York. But — surprise, surprise — as of publication, the OCM hasn’t created the regulations and application process yet. Instead, the agency has decided to allow current license holders to offer delivery. Just don’t expect their range to reach Rochester.

Whether or not dispensaries will still be allowed to deliver by the time they open in Rochester is anyone’s guess. But if you really can’t wait, see the question above about connecting with growers. Some of them deliver if you ask nicely (and pay a fee.)

CAN I GROW MY OWN WEED?
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  • FILE PHOTO - ADOBE STOCK IMAGE
Not yet. Growing weed at home is allowed for medical marijuana cardholders only right now.

Zoghlin noted that MRTA, the law that legalized recreational cannabis, requires the state to issue rules for growing at home no later than 18 months after the first day of legal sales. That suggests the rule should be released sometime in July 2024.

“But,” Zoghlin said, “if the OCM will hit that deadline is anyone’s guess.”

Jessica Reilly is a freelance writer for CITY. Send feedback to [email protected].
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