How do Cannabis users feel about legal dispensaries so far?
Slow and shaky rollout of dispensaries in New York provides consumer benefit and greater accountability but comes at a price.
The first time Howard scored weed, in 1967, he and a friend drove four and a half hours from northern Wisconsin to the South Side of Chicago. That was where they knew to get it.
For the next 55 years, Howard broke the law every time he bought marijuana, outlawed federally since 1937. Now New York, which legalized adult recreational use of cannabis products three years ago and allowed retail stores to open starting in late 2022, has 63 dispensaries, with more announced regularly. Statewide sales for 2023 were projected to top $150 million, according to last year’s annual report of the state Office of Cannabis Management. The agency was established in March 2021 with the passage of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act and tasked with creating the architecture for the manufacture, testing, distribution, sale and enforcement of an entirely new sector of the state economy.
For Howard, an Albany retiree who asked that his surname not be used because he believes stigma remains attached to cannabis use, the nearest legal cannabis shop is 3 miles from his house — only half a mile farther than his closest big supermarket. According to the OCM database, there are two licensed dispensaries in the city of Albany, two in Colonie and one each in in Amsterdam, Guilderland, Menands, Rensselaer, Schenectady and Troy.
Howard now buys exclusively from dispensaries — the shop on the corner, as it were, not the guy on the corner, as he did for half a century.
“I definitely feel safer,” he said, referring to what he sees as sharply reduced risk physically, legally and medically. Because state law requires that all cannabis products sold in licensed dispensaries be grown and manufactured in New York and tested according to established standards, “You’re not running the risk of getting something and you don’t know what’s in it,” Howard said.
While little formal polling appears to have been done so far on consumer attitudes and behaviors since the legalization of retail cannabis in New York, comments across social media and to store personnel indicate general basic satisfaction, and many frustrations, with the state’s modernized laws and attitudes about marijuana products. The view in New York seems to be that, finally, more than a decade after Colorado and Washington first legalized recreational cannabis, the country’s fourth most populous state became the 17th to allow store sales to adults of an intoxicant that federal figures show was consumed in the past year by about 20 percent of Americans overall and nearly 45 percent of those under 30.
The rollout of retail recreational cannabis in New York is a well-documented trail of delay, dissatisfaction, lawsuits, setbacks, regulatory problems and criticism from the highest level of government.
“It’s a disaster,” Gov. Kathy Hochul told The Buffalo News editorial board last week. “I will not defend that for one second.”
The slow opening of licensed stores combined with eagerness to enter the industry — OCM says nearly 7,000 applications were filed last year — has led to the proliferation of shops illegally selling cannabis products, especially in New York City. The New York Post reported last month that an estimated 1,500 illicit stores are in operation in the city, compared to 16 licensed dispensaries, including 30 surrounding the one legal store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
They aren’t as obvious in the greater Capital Region, and even legitimate dispensaries, which are precluded by regulations from traditional advertising, at least initially found difficulty in letting customers know they were open.
“A lot of people didn’t know we were here at first,” said James Frese, who with partner Pasha Adams opened Capital District Cannabis & Wellness on Central Avenue in Albany on Dec. 8. The pair, longtime friends and cannabis aficionados, four years ago started planning a store, initially looking at Massachusetts, where cannabis retail has been legal since November 2018.
When that idea fizzled, Frese, said, the partners spent more than a year working on their Albany store, located on a busy commercial strip between Everett Road and the Colonie town line. It is 3,000 square feet, a third of which is the sales floor. A staff of 20 is required for a business that is open 12 hours a day, six days a week, and eight hours on Sunday. Customers arrive in waves throughout the day, Frese said.
“We see people first thing in the morning, then more at lunch, after work and after dinner,” he said. “Particularly on weekends, we have them coming in right up until the end.” Frese said clientele, split about equally between men and women, covers all ages, demographics and cannabis experience levels. Some, having perused the store’s inventory of approximately 350 products on its website, ordering and paying in advance, spend just a few minutes on the premises, while others need a half-hour’s worth of guidance, Frese said.
“We hear all the time that people haven’t smoked in 20 (or) 30 years, but they’re comfortable to try it again now that it’s legal,” Frese said.
Products include marijuana in flower form, meant to be smoked, as well as pre-rolled joints, edibles, vapes, concentrates and items, from lip balms to bath bombs, containing CBD, a chemical in marijuana said to ease a variety of ailments but not containing THC, the psychoactive ingredient that produces a high. The “Our Collections” area of the Capital District Cannabis website includes categories titled “Energize” and “Relax,” and the site promises, “Whatever your mood, whatever your groove, we got you covered.”
Flower prices at their lowest at Capital District Cannabis — $20 for 3.5 grams, or one-eighth of an ounce — are generally in line with or slightly higher than what nonlicensed sources charge, according to those who buy from both. But going to Capital District Cannabis for 1 ounce of G13 Genius HV flower, produced by High Falls Canna in Ulster County, means a bill for $160 turns into $180.80 with tax.
Elsewhere locally, eighths of whole flower, after tax, run from $33 to $63 at Stage One Dispensary in Rensselaer, $34 to $68 at Royale Flower in Albany and $25 to $60 at Upstate Canna Co. in Schenectady, the first licensed store to open in the Capital Region, according to their respective websites.
Prices, taxes and smaller inventory than in longer-established Berkshires stores are generally the biggest complaints about New York dispensaries among cannabis consumers.
“They are uber expensive and marketed for the soccer moms. The tax is out of control,” said Justin Lawton, a government employee in Albany.
Dan Curtis of Albany, who describes himself as a computer nerd and “decades-long cannabis enthusiast,” said he grows his own flower and buys from unlicensed vendors or legal dispensaries only when traveling or to try something he hasn’t before had. But, he added, “I won’t go to (New York) dispensaries because the costs are pretty wild and the reviews I’ve heard on quality thus far have been pretty abysmal.”
Adam Geiser, a chef in the Adirondacks, said, “Legal in New York has been a messy process of subpar quality products at a premium rate.” As a consequence, Geiser said, “The gray market is stronger than ever.”
Several people who sell illicitly in Albany, Schenectady and Troy said their longtime customers have largely not switched to buying legally.
“They check (the stores) out but come back to me (because) of prices and taxes,” said Ryan, who said his business makes 15 to 20 deliveries a day to college campuses in Troy and asked that only his middle name be used, to avoid drawing attention from law enforcement.
An order sheet viewed by the Times Union for another local gray-market delivery service is distributed by text message. It shows edibles, vape cartridges and other cannabis products, with flower prices starting at $17.50 for an eighth — untaxed, of course.
The sheet gets “sent to (my) staff, and he delivers dispensary-quality weed to the back door,” said the owner of one local business who enjoys cannabis and has no objection to his employees using the service.
The owner, who ask that his and his business’ names not be used because he believes some of his customers would disapprove, said another benefit of changing laws and societal attitudes has been a boom among people planting their own pot.
“The best part of the legality is the home grower friends gifting me ounces of weed,” he said. Some grow more than they can use but don’t wish to sell it; others “just like gardening,” he said. As a result, “My marijuana spending … has gone from around $100 a week to almost zero.”
Curtis, the weed-raising computer nerd, said he believes dispensaries, gray-market suppliers and do-it-yourselfers each have a role in the cannabis market.
He said, “I’m sure the legal shops are a fine avenue for people who are casual consumers and will likely make the state a lot of money. Just leave us home growers and connoisseurs alone.”