neighborhood news

Weed City

How pot stores colonized the Lower East Side.

Conbud (green) is the only licensed weed dispensary. The rest (yellow) are unlicensed. Illustration: Naomi Otsu

This article is a collaboration between New York Magazine and The City.

On a recent Friday afternoon, a line of people wrapped around a corner of Delancey Street waiting for a turn to get into Conbud, one of the city’s 15 legal weed dispensaries. It’s the kind of scene New York State lawmakers imagined would be commonplace when they legalized cannabis in March 2021: customers neatly queuing up at a limited number of suppliers.

But instead such crowds are a rarity outside Conbud, and this particular one wasn’t even there for the weed. People were there to see Mike Tyson, the boxer, who grinned and flexed with fans inside to promote the New York launch of his cannabis brand.

On line, I met Vinay, 23, who had invited a group of his college buddies to the event. “My roommate sent me the email, and my friends are in town, so why not?” Vinay told me. “We love weed, and Mike Tyson is cool,” one of his friends interjected.

While we chatted, dispensary staff moved through the line with iPads to take orders (a purchase was required to snap a photo with Tyson). Vinay told me he had never been to Conbud before. He said he usually bought weed from one of the smoke shops a couple blocks away on Clinton Street. None of those are licensed to sell cannabis products, though. When I mentioned this, Vinay shrugged.

“I guess if I knew it was illegal, I wouldn’t go, but you don’t realize,” he said.

There are, in fact, only 43 legal retailers across the state, including delivery operations — and they are all run by people impacted by cannabis charges. When lawmakers legalized pot, they intended to give those harmed by prohibition a head start in the market. But a year after the first legal store debuted near Astor Place, the pace of licensed dispensary openings has been painstakingly slow.

Just to open their doors, legal dispensaries had to overcome a gamut of regulatory hurdles that came with a steep price tag. Anthony Crapanzano, who has a dispensary license in Staten Island, said he has racked up about $1.6 million in expenses so far, including $200,000 in legal fees, and is still not open. Coss Marte, the owner of Conbud, said he’s spent more than $1 million getting ready to open.

Once in business, state-approved weed shops can only carry products cultivated by New York farmers and are subject to strict regulations on how they market their goods. Neon colors, bubble letters, and colloquial references to cannabis itself are barred from store advertisements. Everything must be tested — and taxed.

While the cannabis-impacted entrepreneurs waded through Albany’s new marijuana bureaucracy, an estimated thousands of unlicensed smoke shops popped up in New York City. Because there’s little oversight, the exact number remains unclear. Around Conbud alone, rival smoke shops and weed bodegas line the blocks, flouting the rules with their white fluorescent lights and bright signage that make them so instantly recognizable as cannabis stores with names like Zaza City and Smoke Kave. These unlicensed shops can be cheap and easy to set up (some keep just a small amount of product in the store in case they’re raided). And unlike their legal counterparts, the unlicensed stores don’t pay state taxes on cannabis sales, which means their weed is often cheaper. Some of them try to get around the regulations by operating as private membership clubs where pot isn’t sold outright but “gifted” or held onto for a friendly patron. Others are bodegas that dedicate a small amount of shelf space to cannabis products alongside the usual offerings of pints of ice cream and cans of Arizona iced tea.

The rapid rise of unlicensed shops has alarmed lawmakers who are trying a number of solutions to deter them. This past February, the Manhattan DA sent out letters warning more than 400 smoke shops that they could be evicted for unlicensed activity. In June, the Office of Cannabis Management and the Tax Department began the first of hundreds of armed raids of shops around the state, seizing product and posting vibrant warning signs in store windows. The city has filed lawsuits against dozens of shops in Manhattan for allegedly selling cannabis to minors. The New York City sheriff, too, has been inspecting unlicensed shops and seizing their goods. While a few shops have shuttered, the sheer volume of stores is proving to be a difficult test of these efforts.

THE CITY and New York counted at least 33 stores selling cannabis within a few blocks of Conbud on the Lower East Side. We visited five of the stores in the neighborhood to learn more about how the weed market has developed a year after the first legal sale of cannabis in the state.

85 Delancey Street

Conbud, which finally opened in October, is the only licensed dispensary in the neighborhood so far. Owner Coss Marte, who has three felonies for dealing drugs, was awarded a special license back in April. But after a lawsuit challenged the legality of the license program, a court injunction prevented stores from opening for months. Marte’s plans for a summer launch were derailed. Meanwhile, he and other licensees were racking up expenses paying pricey New York rents for idle storefronts.

In the meantime, the delay gave unlicensed stores an opportunity to gain more of a foothold in the neighborhood, Marte acknowledges. “The market has already matured in the Lower East Side specifically. Some of the stores around here have already been open two or more years,” he told me. “Consumers are just thinking that this is what it is, not that the stores are illegal.”

Inside, the shop borrows a lot from Marte’s personal story: There are product displays reminiscent of the milk crates he used to sit on outside a bodega selling drugs. A full-screen television shows a loop of Marte at a local farm tending to cannabis plants that would soon be harvested and sold in the store, an employee told me. On one wall, the text of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, is posted in bold letters. Conbud-brand T-shirts with the law’s text are available for sale, too. The effect is twofold: Marte is selling customers on the store’s cannabis products, like gummies marketed for sleep or energy and locally grown cannabis flower, but more broadly on the idea that legalization can be a form of reparation to those harmed by the war on drugs.

One of the most popular products is an ounce of Hudson Cannabis that’s grown upstate and runs for $185 — the best deal in the store but not as inexpensive as what some of the unlicensed shops offer.

A week before the Tyson event, Conbud threw a party to celebrate the launch of the Dr. Midtown brand, owned by a former legacy operator who goes by Nas. He told me he used to run a 1,200-person delivery route in Manhattan and was arrested in January 2021, right before the law changed. “I grew up in Queens, and it’s just been constant harassment,” he said. To see his brand now in stores, he added, “is exactly what we’ve been fighting for.”  Promotional flyers for the party were printed with both Marte’s and Nas’s old mug shots along with the slogan “From Legacy to Legal.”

Part of the goal in hosting events like the one with Tyson and the launch party for Dr. Midtown is to educate people, Marte said. People living in the neighborhood see the long lines or hear the music and stop by to see what’s going on. That gives Marte an opportunity to explain that Conbud is the only legal cannabis store in the Lower East Side, he said.

“The more events we do, the more the community is aware that, ‘Hey, we’re here and we’re legal.’”

Flame Zone

88a Delancey Street

Shortly after Conbud opened in October, a flashy new smoke shop called Flame Zone Convenience appeared right across Delancey Street. The store employs several of the marketing techniques that legal stores are specifically prohibited from using. Its signage is written in a neon-green rounded bubble font. A sign advertised a grand-opening sale of an eighth of an ounce of weed for $20 (less than half what an eighth of Mike Tyson’s brand costs across the street), while another says the vape shop has the lowest prices around. If there was any doubt the store sold weed, there’s a towering inflatable joint just inside and a second one suspended from the ceiling.

Before Flame Zone opened, the business here was called Gee Vape and Smoke Shop. In February, Gee Vape was one of more than 400 stores the Manhattan DA warned in a letter could be evicted for selling cannabis. The store later closed. Flame Zone, according to the employee at the counter, is a different business from Gee Vape. “This is a new owner. She changed everything,” he told me.

While the shop may have a shiny new exterior, the property owner has been the same since 2007, city records show. Enforcement efforts have started to increasingly target landlords, not just the stores. But so far those measures have done little to deter a landlord from simply leasing the space to a new smoke shop. The volume of shops is simply too high.

In mid-November, shortly after Flame Zone opened, the Office of Cannabis Management and the New York State Tax Department raided the store. The two agencies are one part of the enforcement effort to curb the illegal shops. Last year, the state inspected 350 storefronts and seized more than $50 million worth of product, according to its latest figures. Though a pink slip from the raid is still posted in the door, it’s open for business.

Behind the counter, there are vape cartridges and pre-rolls branded with major California companies like Stiizy and Jungle Boys. House pre-roll joints are three for $20. When I ask the shopkeeper where the weed is from, he says, “Here, it’s in-house.” Only New York–grown weed is permitted in legal shops, and it remains illegal to transport cannabis across state lines. But for years California brands have faced allegations of “backdooring” their product to other states, and a number of websites sell counterfeit packaging from California brands down to a randomized serial number and QR code. That makes it hard for customers to know what they’re really buying.

Despite the bright lights and the low prices, the store still gets little foot traffic on a chilly December evening. In a half-hour or so, I see only one woman go into the store. She popped in while waiting for her order at Wingstop next door, she told me. When I asked what made her choose that particular store, she shrugged. “It’s just the closest one,” she said.

91 Allen Street

Owned by Joe and Jason Coello, two brothers from Queens, MetroBud on Allen Street operates as a private membership club. Blue velvet ropes guide customers to the entrance, and an employee checks IDs before letting anyone inside. The shop differentiates itself by encouraging people to stay awhile. Inside, two televisions loaded with video games are available to rent, and there are a few couches where you can just smoke and chill. MetroBud also hosts events like a weekly yoga class.

Joe Coello started planning to open the store as soon as legalization passed in March 2021, reasoning that a membership model was a way to get started without a state license. “We were trying to operate as above board as we could,” said Coello. “We were operating legally, as far as we were concerned.”

When the cannabis law passed, it included protections for people possessing weed as well as giving it away to their friends. Interpreting the latter to mean that they may legally “gift” weed to patrons or possess weed on behalf of members, cannabis membership clubs like MetroBud began popping up across the city. At one club I visited, customers pay for a photograph — and then are “gifted” cannabis in return.

There are no specific regulations that govern how the clubs operate because the distinction is not sanctioned by the state regulatory agency and there’s no specific license category for the model.

On many days, MetroBud seems to function like any other weed store. Daily membership is effectively free, so anyone with ID can walk in off the street and make a purchase. On a recent Saturday night, there was little foot traffic and just one customer inside fixated on playing Mortal Kombat. The store carries various branded MetroBud strains of weed from New York farmers as well as other brands. Prices are divided by tiers and at the low end can beat prices that legal shops like Conbud offer.

The membership-club interpretation of “gifting” hasn’t been tested in court, but last year, the Office of Cannabis Management sent out letters warning operators that running unlicensed shops could potentially jeopardize their ability to get a license in the future. The letters specifically stated that a membership-club model was not allowed.

Despite the state’s warnings, Coello still hopes to go legal and has applied twice for retail licenses since opening MetroBud. “It would be nice just to not have to look over our shoulder,” he said.

Meanwhile, Coello defends his business model — and the crop of unlicensed shops in the neighborhood. “I believe in a free market,” he said. “As long as they’re putting out products that are safe and don’t have heavy metals, mold, or pesticides in them, I don’t see a problem with it.”

99 Allen Street

Walk down Allen between Delancey and Broome Streets, and you’ll find two more smoke shops near MetroBud: Green Apple Cannabis Club and Allen Convenient Exotic. Red, green, and purple lights from the trio of stores overwhelm passersby. As I stood outside on a recent evening, I watched a couple point to the fluorescent lights. “Why do all these places look so ugly?” one asked.

Cannabis was legalized just one year into the pandemic, as restaurants and retail shops were struggling to stay afloat. Some smoke shops have opened in place of establishments that stopped paying rent in the pandemic. The space occupied by Allen Convenient Exotic had been a smoke shop for years, selling items like vapes and glass pipes and cigarettes. But Green Apple Cannabis Club used to be a clothing store, and MetroBud was previously a pop-up space hosting events from brands including PornHub and Subway.

The three stores are an example of how ineffective state enforcement has been in curbing unlicensed sales. While Green Apple and Metrobud’s owners both say they’ve never had any major issues with state or local law enforcement, Allen Smoke Shop has a poster in the window with loud red letters: ILLICIT CANNABIS SEIZED. The store has been raided at least twice by state officials, according to the posted notices.

To allay any doubt that it still sold cannabis, the shop projects a roving image of the cannabis plant on the sidewalk outside.

Inside, there’s a wall of sodas and chips and even a small shelf of Bounty paper towels as in any other neighborhood bodega. Much more discreetly than in a place like MetroBud, the cannabis products like THC-laced edibles as well as “mushroom extract” gummies are confined to just a small section at the front counter. With a few cannabis-plant signs in the window and a bit of shelf space, the shop is an example of how easy it is for owners to add on a few products.  When I snap a photo with my phone, it immediately catches the attention of the shopkeeper. “Hey, no photos. You can’t take a photo in here.” With the flip of a switch, the clear glass counter turned a frosted white, concealing the contents from view.

105 Stanton Street

I head over from Allen to Stanton Street, which has its own row of unlicensed shops selling cannabis. I pass by a few of them and head into Dubai Smoke, which the city sued in July, to see how it’s currently operating.

The complaint cited three instances in which the shop allegedly sold illegal psilocybin products. Created in the 1970s as a means to shutter undesirable businesses like places of prostitution, the nuisance-abatement law is one more tool the city has to curb illicit cannabis shops. In 2023, it filed at least 35 cases against smoke shops and their landlords for selling cannabis products to minors. Inspections are typically carried out by the NYPD, which documents at least three instances of the unlicensed activity before seeking a court order to close the store for one year. The city settled with Dubai in November on the condition that it would not sell unlicensed cannabis or tobacco products.

But a December visit shows that’s plainly not the case yet. Inside, the shop looks like the color palette of a Jojo Siwa concert. The walls are covered in rainbow graffiti, and under the glass cases there are glass tubes of pre-rolled joints for $20 labeled ZKITTLES. The man at the counter pulls out the tray of ones that come in flavors labeled Cotton Candy, Jungle Juice, and Froot Loops. A row of vape cartridges has options in lilac and teal and fuchsia. There are more California brands, like Stiizy gummies, on display here, too. None of these rainbow offerings would be allowable at the neighborhood’s one legal dispensary, Conbud.

Outside, I spot a group of what appear to be teen boys passing a joint among them. I nod to the joint and introduce myself as a reporter working on a story about cannabis shops in the neighborhood.

One tells me loudly they’re all 21 before laughing.

“Bro, no you’re not, no you’re not,” one of them shouts.

“Okay, yeah, we’re all 16.”

“I’m actually 35,” says a third. (I start to believe they are indeed 16.)

Dubai Smoke Shop wasn’t cited for selling to minors, but at least 34 other shops in Manhattan last year were, according to a review of nuisance-abatement complaints. This has been a rallying cry of lawmakers looking to shut down unlicensed shops with no oversight of its sales.

When I asked the teens where they liked to go for weed, they brushed me off. “I mean wherever they will sell to us, there’s only a few places around here,” one said.

“We’re not gonna tell you which ones.”

Illustrations by Naomi Otsu. On the map: Lower East Side weed dispensaries, listed alphabetically: Allen Convenient Exotic, Blue Cookie, City Exotic, Cl9ud, Clinton’s Exotic Plus, Conbud, Deli and Exotic, Dubai Cannabis Supply, East Side Convenience, Exotic Clouds, Exotic Convenience, Flame Zone, GJazz Smoke Shop, Go Zaza Smoke Shop, Granny Za’s New York Cannabis Store, Green Apple Cannabis Club, Kite Café, La Grand Green House, Legacy, Litty City, Ludlow Café, Majesty, Mamba Smoke Shop, MetroBud, Moz, New York Cannabis Lower East Side, Orchard Tobacco Vape Corp, Puff N Brew, Smoke Kave, Smoke Land, Smokers Only, The Commission, Wholesome Organic Convenience, and Zaza City.

More on legal weed

See All
How Weed Dispensaries Colonized the Lower East Side