A man in a pink hoodie smokes out of a tube that is connected to his glitter hat that has a smokingto
Photographs by Rengim Mutevellioglu

Inside the Early Days of NYC’s Legal Weed Shops

A photographer visits the city’s first recreational dispensaries for a look at a changing industry.

New York City has it all: some of the world’s finest museums, nearly every cuisine imaginable, and a legally dubious weed shop on every single corner called “ZazaVille” with a stoned gorilla on the sign. Decriminalization in NYC has led to a massive proliferation of these gray area storefronts, but over the last few months, NYC has also become home to three official recreational cannabis proprietors: Housing Works, Smacked Village, and Union Square Travel Agency, all of which are located in Manhattan. 

A fancy storefront with a red wall and modern yellow chairs, red braided rope dividers can be seen in the corner, and the storefront name is printed on a clear placard that reads Union Square Travel Agency.

Photographer Rengim Mutevellioglu has been documenting this complicated space and the people within it. Capturing both the licensed retailers and the “legacy” sellers, as formerly illegal weed dealers are called, her work showcases the sense of excitement for the moment and the bureaucratic complexities shaping it. “I’ve seen a lot of attempts by the legal sphere to attempt to integrate the legacy sphere into the fold,” says Mutevellioglu. “I think that most of the legacy field doesn’t seem to be in a rush to be legalized and are enjoying the decriminalization for now.”

A budtender's hand is seen pointing to a display case filled with weed products.

Despite some major differences between the legal and legacy sides of the business—namely, legislative red tape—Mutevellioglu says there’s a shared level of professionalism. “Possibly the only big difference I’ve seen,” she says, “is how both industries talk about the medical benefits of cannabis. The legal sphere feels more clear-cut scientific, whereas the legacy has a more spiritual and Indigenous-forward side to it.”

People line up in front of Housing Works, with an attendant passing out snacks.

But across the board, she says, there is a palpable energy of celebration. “During the Housing Works opening, more than one person mentioned the term ‘prohibition’—the end of prohibition specifically—and that, along with the festive atmosphere of the opening, really made me realize what a pivotal moment of change we’re in,” says Mutevellioglu.  “A lot of people in line at the opening were really there just to be part of history in a very cognizant way.” 


See Mutevellioglu’s photos of New York City’s contemporary cannabis scene below. 

A man holds an unlit joint in his mouth, another man is seen on his phone behind a metal barrier.
A line of budtenders check out customers in a purple walled room.
Customers hold out their their purchases from the dispensary, only their hands and products are seen.
A man with a weed hat and a roach clip attached to it holds a spread out newspaper that reads Flying High with Joe Pipe. An image of the Star Trek Enterprise ship is printed .
A woman with red nails, red scarf, and red purse lights a joint.
People smile at the camera while they wait in line for the dispensary, one man gives a thumbs up.
A man takes a puff of a blunt while a woman with a camera looks behind her shoulder towards him.
Two hands interlock as they pass joints to each other, a water tower is seen in the background.