The state Office of Cannabis Control has not demonstrated any capacity to control illegal pot distribution — more than 8,000 unlicensed “dispensaries” are thought to be operating in the city.
The state has at least signaled a small step in a better direction: authorizing existing medical-marijuana outlets, whose products are more likely to be clean and safe, to begin to sell “recreational” weed this coming Wednesday.
But much more must be done to crack down on the illegals, which are enabling the ubiquitous pot smoke that suffused the US Open and signals to tourists the city is out of control.
There is a good way to put them out of business — if we heed the lesson of former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and the “squeegee men” who once plagued city motorists.
Shortly after he became commissioner in 1994, Bratton issued the memo “Police Strategy No. 5: Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York.”
Police would target everything from reckless biking to the notorious squeegee men who harassed drivers at intersections.
“Much of this antisocial behavior is illegal,” said the memo, “but for many years police managers have not taken aggressive action to restore order to public places.”
Thus was put into practice “broken-windows policing.”
The plague of unlicensed cannabis dispensaries has similar implications for public order as the matters Bratton highlighted.
The very fact some 8,000 illegal weed outlets have been allowed to operate with minimal law-enforcement pushback not only makes a dangerous drug more easily available to the underaged but sends a powerful message that the authorities aren’t in control.
That illegal pot may be adulterated makes matters even worse.
It’s a problem that demands not just law enforcement but imaginative versions of it.
One of the key methods Bratton employed offers an approach: what economists call the “signaling effect,” the high-profile use of the bully pulpit and punishment.
Public officials’ signaling is based on the understanding actions not only target individual violators but (reinforced by publicity) influence others.
Famously, the work requirement of 1996’s welfare reform motivated those on public assistance to find jobs even before the law took effect.
I saw a similar result through research I did in Hong Kong when the British still governed it.
A profusion of “unauthorized building works” — exterior balconies added to apartments to increase their sleeping area — were too often collapsing on sidewalks below, injuring pedestrians.
The government cracked down by raiding and padlocking select violators — and making sure the public knew.
It’s notable how little leverage Bratton actually had to control those he called “squeegee pests.”
Their violation was a minor misdemeanor, like a parking ticket.
Some would be held overnight.
But by signaling their behavior should not be tolerated — and harassing violators at high-profile intersections — the squeegee guys gradually disappeared.
The NYPD today has a much stronger hand to play in bringing order to the cannabis market — which the state has mismanaged so far in virtually every way possible.
Weed was declared legal before retail licenses were issued.
The state gave licensing priority to convicted drug dealers — in violation, as the courts have found, of the legalization law itself, which prioritizes other groups as well.
But more recently, both the state and city have woken up to the need to crack down on the likes of bodegas selling under- (or even over)-the-counter pot.
New York City Local Law 107 of 2023, passed in August, prohibits commercial landlords from knowingly leasing retail space to smoke shops selling unlicensed marijuana, cigarette or tobacco products.
Once warned by police that such activity is taking place, building owners can be fined up to $10,000.
It’s a smart approach — but one looks in vain for high-profile raids like those police love to stage for TV cameras when they arrest gang members.
We need perp walks for owners, both of buildings and bodegas, and padlocks on the businesses — just as happens to liquor stores that sell to the underaged.
Some of us still believe legalizing “recreational” marijuana was a great mistake, especially as more research makes clear the damage the drug can do, especially to the brains of young adults.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has never found it to provide demonstrated medical benefits.
And the agency notes some will develop “marijuana use disorder” — which we might call addiction, with resulting life disruption.
State promotion of its use — to realize sales-tax revenue — is morally corrupt.
Legalization should come with prominent public-health warnings, beyond the state’s ads saying pot is for adult use only.
All that said, authorities must create order from the cannabis-market chaos.
Signaling offers a way to do it.
Howard Husock is an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow.