Drugs

New York's Bodega Owners Want to Sell You (Legal) Weed

Recreational marijuana isn't yet legal in New York State, but corner stores are already angling for a piece of the action.

by Alex Norcia
Feb 21 2019, 7:33pm

Left photo by Waring Abbott/Getty. Right photo of medical marijuana in San Francisco by Justin Sullivan/Getty.

It's never too soon to try.

Last Sunday morning in the Bronx, bodega owners gathered together and demanded that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo permit them to sell marijuana if and when recreational cannabis is legalized in the state.

"Rather than drug peddling outside of these bodegas, we want to bring them inside," Fernando Mateo, the spokesperson for the United Bodegas of America, said at a press conference, according to the New York Post. "Allow us to become a wholesaler—in other words, let us cut out the middle man."

This was a preemptive strike in what's sure to be a long battle over the legalization of recreational cannabis. In a December speech, Cuomo promised that the drug would be legalized soon. With Democrats firmly in control of the state government, it seems like that would be easy, but other liberal states have had significant trouble sorting out exactly what legal weed looks like in practice. In neighboring New Jersey, for example, lawmakers have been struggling over the past year to iron out the finer points of their marijuana plan, though this week saw Governor Phil Murphy and Democratic leaders finally—yet tentatively—agreeing on a regulatory committee and a tax rate. (It'll probably be $42 an ounce.)


A Monmouth University poll released on Monday found that six out of ten New Jerseyeans support legal weed, but fewer back the proposal currently on the table. Across the country, states have been dealing with ongoing debates about how to regulate the growing and selling of cannabis, and what to do with people who have criminal records related to weed. The high cost of licenses can prevent people of color from opening cannabis businesses, and communities have opposed the opening of dispensaries and farms. (In New Jersey, Ed Forchion, a marijuana activist who goes by the moniker "NJWeedman," is often the person leading the charge for reform—he has called the people already swooping into his home state's pot market "cannabaggers.") The underlying question is: Who should benefit from cannabis legalization?

"I think the idea that [legal marijuana] should be a money maker is a terrible public policy, in general," said Sam Kamin, a professor of marijuana law and policy at the University of Denver. "Look to cigarettes: The settlements from tobacco litigation made, in some ways, the states dependent on continued smoking. So, you don't want to be the person who has to go to the governor and say, 'Bad news, people are smoking less pot."

Working all this out takes an inordinate amount of time. It wasn't until two years after Massachusetts voters cast ballots approving legal weed—and 11 months after the planned start of the new era—that its first dispensaries opened their doors.

"What I think you're seeing in New Jersey and New York is that the devil is in the details, and it gets really hard to lock down one particular model, even if everybody agrees that they want reform," Douglas Berman, the chair of the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, said. "That kind of sparring—'I want to it look this way,' or 'I want it to look that way'—really makes it easy for the status quo to persevere. Until it gets to the point that the status quo seems worse to everybody than even the worst version that somebody wants."

What the bodega owners do want follows an obvious logic. These convenience stores already sell a variety of basic, everyday items—cigarettes, tall boys, toilet paper—so why shouldn't they be permitted to add cannabis to the inventory? (Some bodegas, of course, already sell drugs illegally, and there's an issue, even in states that have legalized weed, of a competing black market.)

"If you just think about it, if these corner stores, if these bodegas, are able to sell alcohol and tobacco, why shouldn't they be allowed to sell marijuana to adults?" Tom Angell, a longtime weed activist who founded the nonprofit Marijuana Majority and runs the cannabis news site Marijuana Moment, said.

"If activists take seriously what is that frequent talking point, which is that we ought to treat marijuana like alcohol, well obviously—even though we require licenses—we let an awful lot of retailers keep alcohol on their shelves," said Berman. "So it's not foolish for the bodega owners to ask for some of the action, and we take the activists calling for marijuana reform at face value."

"One very interesting thing to consider, though," Berman continued, "is just like we distinguish types of alcohol—this license is, say, for beer and wine, and this one is for the hard stuff—a very smart model to try, but that hasn't really been engineered, is that same thing with marijuana. If you were to say to the public health people, marijuana is going to be sold at a bodega, they'd probably say that's terrible. But if you told them it would be sold at a bodega, but they would only be very low-level THC products, then they could say maybe."

However, "it has to be pretty unlikely," said Kamin. "It's not a model that any state has developed yet, though it's certainly on-brand for New York City."

Weed at bodegas would tap into the Big Apple's corner-store culture—going into a single place to buy your daily essentials, cheaply, with a cashier you're on a first-name basis with, and an old cat purring on a roll of paper towels. Bodegas are New York City; they're like its veins.

But the United Bodegas of America's proposal is also incredibly radical. According to NPR, there are about 13,000 bodegas in New York City alone. For comparison's sake, there are around 500 recreational dispensaries in Colorado, 350 in California, and 220 in Washington State.

"Most states that have adopted adult use have gone to a much more highly regulated, specialized model than that," Kamin said. "What they're proposing is really much more in the post–federal legalization conversation—because it's prohibited federally now, the states have adopted really robust regulations, more more in-depth than, say, they have for alcohol and tobacco."

As legal weed becomes more widespread and accepted, and as states figure out regulatory schemes that work, it's possible that weed could become as normalized as beer, or those sex pills bodegas are always selling. But we're a long ways away from that world.

"I don't think anyone can confidently predict," Berman emphasized, "where we're going to be five, ten, or 20 years from now on this."

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