Crack Down On Cannabis Vending In Washington Square Park

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Washington Square Park
Photo: WikiCommons

It looks like the open-air weed bazaar in Washington Square Park is going up in smoke.

As The Village Sun recently reported, umbrella-festooned vendors’ tables recently have disappeared from most of the plaza ringing the fountain in Washington Square Park. The vendors — many of them selling weed — have cluttered the plaza, to varying degrees, since at least the fall of 2021. Recreational pot was legalized in New York earlier that year.

Captain Jason Zeikel, the commanding officer of Greenwich Village’s 6th Precinct, confirmed that police are now enforcing the “50-foot rule” in the park — meaning vendors have to set up at least 50 feet away from major monuments, like the Washington Square Park fountain. But he also said the plaza is looking so clear lately simply because police have ramped up their enforcement against selling drugs in the park.

“I think the reason it looks so clear is we’ve been targeting a lot of the drug dealers,” he told The Village Sun. “There’s been an effort between N.Y.P.D. and PEP [Parks Enforcement Patrol] to enforce some of the park rules — including the 50-feet-from-the-fountain rule.

“I think there’s a lot less marijuana and drug vendors in the park now. I think they got the hint and a lot of them left. We are trying to keep the fountain [plaza] relatively clear.

“I think there’s more things to come in the future to create a happy medium for expressive-matter vending,” he said, declining to provide details.

Asked if the “more things to come” might include a medallion system for vendors, as is used in Central Park, Battery Park, Union Square Park and on the High Line, Zeikel said, “I can’t comment on that right now because we’re working on it.”

Under the medallion system, artists compete for a limited number of authorized vending spots, which are marked by medallions on the ground.

Even though this jewelry is handmade, it is not considered “expressive matter,” according to an artist vendor activist who is knowledgable of the rules. Police now appear to agree with him. (Photo by The Village Sun)
“Expressive-matter” vending refers to people selling literature or artists selling their work, for example.

Zeikel admitted that vending handmade jewelry in the park is a nuanced category. Basically, the jewelry — even if it is handmade — must express some kind of message. For example, religious jewelry, like a crucifix or a chai Hebrew letter, would be protected. So would a peace sign, since it conveys an idea.

“Jewelry in general isn’t allowed,” the C.O. stated. “But a lot of the jewelry is religious jewelry.”

Previously, Zeikel had said the understanding of police was that it was legal to vend any kind of handmade jewelry in Washington Square Park. But longtime artist-vendor activist Robert Lederman, the president of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics), disagrees, saying that, under the law, the jewelry must have a message. In addition, at least one other community activist has been lobbying the 6th Precinct — and sending them a copy of the park rules on vending — saying the officers must properly enforce the regulations.

However, Zeikel said the precinct’s main focus right now is on the drug vendors and getting them out of the park, including from the fountain plaza, plus trying to keep a handle on “hard drugs,” as seen in the park’s northwest corner.

“We’re trying to make a balance with expressive-matter vending and trying as best we can to rid the park of marijuana and mushroom vendors,” he stated.

Meanwhile, activist Lederman contends that, based on Parks Department rules, there really is no spot in Washington Square Park where it’s legal to vend anything, which must be done from a table — unless the vendor is simply standing there, without a table, and holding literature or artwork. Vendors are not allowed to sell on the grass lawns, within 5 feet of benches or trees or to set up a table on the park’s pathways, which are too narrow to accommodate them under the rules.

However, Zeikel disagreed, stating, “There’s limited legal spots in the park for where you can do it.”

Recently, some vendors — including some pot sellers posing as artists — could be seen with their tables set up along the outer rim of the fountain plaza. One of them said police recently told them to stay 50 feet away from the fountain but also 5 feet away from the black granite benches that ring the plaza’s outer edge.

As for hard drugs in the park’s northwest corner, Zeikel said if police see open drug use — people smoking crack or shooting up heroin — they can and will make a collar.

“If I saw that in the park, there’d be an arrest being made,” he assured.

Whether the Manhattan district attorney chooses to prosecute those arrests, on the other hand, is another matter, but that won’t stop police from making arrests, Zeikel said. However, police no longer can legally arrest someone found in possession of a syringe containing heroin residue. And the D.A. has applied that same standard to possession of a crack pipe containing crack residue, so police no longer make arrests for that, either.

Getting back to the pot vendors, some cannabis vendors are blurring things by hiding their stash under their tables while purporting to be selling art.

“We have drug dealers that are trying to be expressive-matter vendors,” Zeikel said. “They are trying to pull a fast one. We’re aware of them. They’re posing as expressive-matter vendors. They’re taking away space from legal expressive-matter vendors.”

The Village Sun spoke with a number of vendors in the park early last month. They were set up in the middle of the plaza — before the recent crackdown that has pushed them to its outer fringe.

Eddy Perez, a handmade jewelry vendor from Venezuela, said police officers might sometimes question her a bit, but basically let her sell her stuff from her small table.

“I explain him, it’s handmade,” she said.

From a table display next to her, Hannibal Bracey, a coffee fan and budding entrepreneur, was selling mugs for $35. It was his first day vending in the park. His mugs weren’t handmade — though he said an artist did create their logo for him. As for how he set his price, he said it’s what an eighth of weed goes for in the park.

“They smoke that,” he scoffed. “You can contribute [instead] to a good cause.”

Some young female Italian students on a tour of the Village stopped to snap photos of a pot vendors’ wares — including clear jars of loose pot bud and what looked like ’shrooms — apparently fascinated it was being sold out in the open so conspicuously. One of their adult chaperones said pot is legal in Italy — though apparently not sold as brazenly there as in New York City.

As for local community members, Zeikel said they generally approve of the crackdown on pot and ’shroom sales in the small, heavily used, landmark park.

“The community appreciates that,” he said.

To those who want to buy reefer, he advised, it’s best to go to a state-regulated store, for safety reasons, among other things.

“Use the licensed dispensary,” he said. “Would you buy homemade alcohol in 2023 — or would you go to a liquor store?”

Meanwhile, though Lederman and some of the park art vendors say the artists have been feeling the heat from the police, Zeikel tells a different story.

“No one has screamed for the artists to leave the park,” he countered. “I just have my guys focused on the drugs. Can they enforce on other things? Yes.”

One female artist vendor was reportedly recently arrested by police when she struggled with them over her large beach umbrella.

Zeikel said, though, it’s usually the Parks Department PEP officers that will do enforcement against general vending in the park — such as for non-expressive matter items.

He noted that the Parks Department’s rules on unlawful vending are clearly posted on its Web site, and urged people to read them. Rules on expressive-matter vending are also posted.

The captain said he also has specifically asked the PEPs to focus on enforcing against skateboarding in the park.

“I wish there was a skate park, really, somewhere in the vicinity,” he said.

Many seniors loathe the skateboarding, saying it makes it unsafe for them to enjoy the park. However, an older artist named Guy, who had just left the nearby Center on the Square day center on Washington Square North, said the skateboarding doesn’t bother him. What he objects to is the pot selling — specifically, that young children are exposed to it.