Weed smokers in New York can now exhale without worry. Starting Wednesday, New York State joined the 15 states that have legalized the recreational use of that sticky icky. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that states that if you’re over the age of 21, you can carry up to 3 ounces of cannabis and 24 grams of oil concentrate and grow up to six plants at home.* The bill also expunges the criminal records of tens of thousands of New Yorkers with low-level marijuana-related crimes on their records, predominately benefiting people of color who have been singled out by the NYPD in drastic proportions.
It’s not like you can walk into a bodega and pick up an ounce just yet. Experts have estimated it will take around two years before shops start popping up around the city. While Cuomo said the time was “ripe” to legalize weed, to put it frankly, New Yorkers have already long relied on the city’s thriving black market since marijuana was decriminalized in 1977. To understand what people already involved in this economy think about the change, I talked to a high-level dealer who’s trafficked thousands of pounds of cannabis, a lower-level dealer who makes deliveries on his bike, and a consumer who purchases around an ounce a month. Despite the new era, we’ve granted them anonymity, and these interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
The High-Level Dealer: “The weed used to come in hockey bags.”
Aymann Ismail: Can you tell me how much weed you’ve sold in total so far?
Thousands of pounds. I want to say up to 9,000 pounds. Millions have gone through my hands. I’ve been doing this since high school. I was selling hash with beepers. I used to make the drop-off in the Diamond District. The weed used to come in hockey bags. The reason why was because they were floating in across the lakes in Canada. A lot of people don’t know that all through the ’90s and early 2000s, New York City got its weed from Canada. Once it became legal in California and the West Coast, then things got a little more patriotic, I like to say, and we started keeping it in-house.
The politicians have positioned this law as a push for equity after decades of unequal policing. Have you ever gotten arrested for dealing?
What’s really funny is that I used to be so militant about throwing away phones. I literally threw them away every two weeks, and that’s all phased out. You don’t have to do that anymore. No, I’ve never been arrested. Once I was in Murray Hill. This was in 1998, ’99, I’ll never forget. I came out of the bodega there. And I’m standing on the corner for two minutes. It was raining. I was trying to catch a cab. Finally caught a cab. The cab gets pulled over a half a block away. Two white cops draw their guns and they’re like, “Where’s the heroin? Where’s the heroin?” I said, “Bro, fucking heroin? Do I look like a fucking drug addict? Are you out of your fucking mind? And they’re like, “Oh, we’re so sorry, sir. We thought you were buying drugs, blah, blah, blah.” And left. They didn’t check the backpack. There was two ounces of weed in there.
So you’re happy about weed being legalized in NYC?
It’s great. It’s fantastic for everyone. For people looking to get into the legal space, or drug dealers, and for those who might be able to get their records expunged.
It’s always been pretty out in the open anyways. Anybody who wanted weed could get weed. Do you think this new law will change anything on the ground?
Ironically, maybe this brings opportunity for tourists the most. In the ‘90s, there were plenty of weed stores all over the East Village and Manhattan. I also think it’ll increase the caliber of the product that you’re getting and probably the safety too. It won’t be as high a priority now. They’re still going to bust low-level drug dealers if they see it out in the open, but I don’t think it will be as high on the list. Eventually, once weed goes legal in Washington, from what I heard from smugglers, eventually prosecutors won’t touch anything under a hundred pounds.
New York isn’t exactly one of the first states to legalize. Is there something significant about this move that you think people should pay more attention to?
New York is the 15th state to legalize weed, right? Typically legalization has happened by referendum, so the people voted for it then the politicians go figure it out. In New York’s case, the politicians fucking voted on it. New York state has a Democrat majority, Senate and House. And because of that, it passed—which is ironic, right? Republicans love states’ rights and all that. That’s why, right off the bat, starting Wednesday, you can carry up to three ounces of flower. That’s incredible. This had to happen in a way, because of the NYPD wilding out and illegally enforcing the law. Since 1977, weed has been decriminalized in New York City. A lot of people don’t know that. You’ve been allowed to carry a certain amount of weed as long as it’s not in public view. And then what the NYPD did with stop-and-frisk was, they would force kids to take that private stash out, and the minute they pulled it out of their pockets, now it’s in the open and they would charge them. Because of that abuse of stop-and-frisk, I’d say that’s a major reason why we have cannabis legal right now.
Are you still planning on selling weed illegally?
Oh yeah. Are you kidding me? First of all, you have to think about it like this: You go smoke weed in Amsterdam, you think you’re all free, and what you don’t realize is that there’s a camera in every shop and there’s a camera on every corner. You’re literally surveilled from the minute you walked from Central Station into the Red Light District. So it’s sort of a fake veneer of freedom and liberty. So in that same regard, I think you would have a lot of people who just do not want that dispensary experience. Instead they’re going to expect their drug dealers to be up at dispensary level [quality-wise]. I think you’re just going to have a booming black market for a while, that literally rumbles along with the legal market. I think that’s good for both because everyone can still get a piece of the pie.
What impact do you expect this to have on your business?
On me? I’m going to be able to smoke 25 different kinds of weed now, instead of 10. There’s going to be a flooding of the zone. But being that it’s New York, there’s a tremendous opportunity for services-based services. So for instance, sure everyone has weed, but who has the best weed at all times and can get it to you in a few hours? New Yorkers will pay for that premium. Keep in mind that weed in Amsterdam is expensive. It’s like $20 a gram. Here in New York, right now you get an eighth for $40 bucks, if that. But I think what’s going to happen is you’re going to have probably a big increase in the connoisseur’s market, especially. The people who want the concentrates, who want the high, heavy flowers, who want the 1,000 milligram chocolate bars (which are fucking insane). The thing about pot is it’s a space race between crazy scientists. They’re all trying to outdo each other. Like my friend in Colorado grew the White, that’s the strain, called the White, and he grew it at 33 percent. That’s one of the highest rated THC plants. But these maniacs, these geneticists; these people are literally pushing the plant to the upper brinks. And with that innovation, you’ll get cleaner cannabis, maybe more organic options, and you’ll also get a wider range of options for different elements, so forth. I think it will be a boom because those reasons.
Low-Level Dealer: “It doesn’t matter if it’s illegal or not.”
Aymann Ismail: How happy are you that New York just passed that law?
Well, I think we’ve already been fucking smoking weed the whole time, but it’s cool. I’m about to grow my own strain. Finally, I can do it in my own house now. I love it.
How do you expect New York City to change now that it’s legal to carry three ounces?
The game is different now. It doesn’t matter if it’s illegal or not. This might bring the community together or just make it more violent.
I think it will definitely change in a positive way, because we’ve criminalized it for so long, so this is healing, but we’re dealing with many symptoms at this point. People are out here hungry because of the pandemic. Not a lot of people have money. Even my friends were losing their jobs. I was like, “Dude, this is going to be so bad. Watch crime go higher.” It’s survival of the fittest now. You know what I mean?
I don’t even give a fuck about that weed shit. It’s cool that I’ll get to buy cookies in New York City, but we’re dying. Society is not what it used to be before. The Asian homies are getting it. The Mexican homies are getting it. Everybody’s getting it, you know? It’s like, you guys don’t even know what the fuck is going on. But we want to legalize weed and think that’s the savior of our lives?
I see what you’re saying. Do you expect legal weed to bring money into Black and brown communities like the politicians promised?
During this whole pandemic, I never got stimmies. I never got unemployment because I didn’t even work before, so how the fuck was I ever going to do taxes? I’m over here surviving.
But it would likely change the way you market and sell your product right? Can’t you expect the police to lay off of you more?
You’re still doing a crime. If they see you handing them and exchanging money, bro… They might start looking at technology, everything’s Cash App or Venmo, start looking at other ways to catch you. Let’s say you decided now you’re going to get the weed card, or whatever. Now you’re going to be marked like, “This guy, he’s been waiting for this. He’s doing something bad. He must have a gun in his car.”
So you’re definitely not going to get a license and make your business legit?
No. Hell no. Never. I’ll never want to pay taxes in this country.
Let me ask you one more thing. Are you worried at all about losing customers to legal weed?
Nah. You know why? Because the shit that people are going to start selling is going to be way more expensive. I’m still giving people deals because people don’t have money. Most of my friends, if I didn’t help them out, try to get them supermarket jobs or something like that, I don’t even know. It’s what I’ve always done in my life: surviving. Keeping a good karma level.
Consumer: “I would only go to the dispensary for the novelty.”
Aymann Ismail: Since Wednesday, you’re allowed to carry up to three ounces. What do you make of that?
Honestly, for the average consumer, that won’t really change much—carrying up to two ounces was already decriminalized and for someone like me who buys an ounce a month and would never travel with more than an ounce … but I could see how this changes things for dealers.
How do you get your weed?
It depends on my mood. My dealer is local so I sometimes go to his spot, sometimes he comes to mine. It’s really about what I’m up to do that day.
Are you planning on going to weed dispensaries when they eventually open?
I’m definitely never leaving my plug. He’s a business student that’s selling weed, supporting him makes more sense. I would only go to the dispensary for the novelty, just to feel like I’m in Amsterdam or L.A., or to get a strain that I really want to try, but I wouldn’t do my bulk buying there.
Does having everything out in the open make smoking weed less cool?
It adds to the novelty. I used to smoke weed outside and not worry, not like I ever had a worry, but now it’s like an extra not worry. It feels more socially acceptable, not just for me as a white-passing woman, but for the rest of my community. When I’m walking through Bed-Stuy carrying weed, nobody even looks at me, so that’s why this law hasn’t changed much for me. But I can see how it changes multitudes for other people—even after possession was decriminalized, if you have a certain amount, they’d charge you intent to sell. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I’m really hopeful that this turns out to be actual social justice reform.
How do you expect dispensaries in New York will be different than in other states?
I’ve been to a dispensary in D.C., and another in L.A., they were both very different. I can imagine New York dispensaries being more like the ones in D.C., like a little smoke shop that doesn’t broadcast that they sell bud. The ones in L.A. are like weed emporiums, like a Costco for weed, and I don’t see that happening in New York City.
Are you excited for anything in particular about legal weed coming to New York?
I’m excited for New York to make its mark on the weed scene. Just imagine all the cool New York strains that would better serve New Yorkers. All these strains from California are to help you relax and do nothing. New Yorkers need to destress but keep moving. So I’m excited to see sativa-heavy hybrids as opposed to the indica-heavy hybrids we’ve been getting.
Do you think people who don’t already smoke will start because of this bill?
I think this gives permission to people who have always been curious about it, or need it medically but felt it was too taboo. This puts weed on the same level of alcohol. I’ve already felt this new wave of openness and acceptance that I hope helps people.
Correction, April 8, 2021: This piece originally misstated how much oil concentrate a person can now carry. It is 24 grams, not 24 ounces.
Update, April 2, 2021: A detail in one of the anecdotes has been updated to preserve the anonymity of our sources.