Manhattan Smoke Shop Robberies Suggest Perils Ahead

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Manhattan smoke shop robberies could point toward a cloudy future for New York’s first licensed retail weed establishments

A recent spate of robberies at Manhattan smoke shops point to the dangers that could lie ahead for stores selling marijuana.

At the end of August, thieves reportedly stole $30,000 worth of property from the newly-opened Exotic Smoke Shop, on Columbus Avenue between West 83rd and 84th streets.

Earlier in the month, the Lincoln Convenience Manhattan smoke shop on Broadway and West 71st Street was robbed twice in three days — with a 29-year-old customer getting shot in the foot during that second robbery, a clerk who was there later told THE CITY. The suspects allegedly made off with cash and cannabis-derived CBD oil, according to the West Side Rag.

In late May, a pair of men held up a Manhattan smoke shop on West 25th Street near 6th Avenue in Chelsea. In February, two men robbed and assaulted a worker at another one on John Street in the Financial District.

While the state Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) has sent a handful of cease-and-desist letters to 14 smoke shops in New York City, there are dozens more openly offering cannabis products, as are sellers in vans, under sidewalk tents, and on foot around the city and in its parks.

New York Police Department officials did not respond to questions from THE CITY about what their approach would be once legal dispensaries opened. Asked for statistics on how many smoke shops have been robbed, a spokesperson for the NYPD said that “data is not broken down to that level of specificity.”

In states with legal marketplaces, “security is top of mind for our members” said Khadijah Tribble, CEO of the US Cannabis Council, a trade association, who noted that “the regulated cannabis industry in the U.S. generated over $20 billion in revenue last year but is forced by federal law” — which still treats cannabis as a Schedule I substance, so that banks have largely cut off licensed sellers — “to rely overwhelmingly on cash transactions, posing a serious risk to public safety.”

While “there is not a national tally of robberies of licensed dispensaries,” said Tribble, “many state associations track dispensary crimes and have noted a surge in incidents.” At the same time, however, “many businesses are hesitant to report crimes out of fear of copycat crimes,” she said.

“As New York State prepares to launch adult-use sales statewide, we are concerned about a potential surge in dispensary robberies and burglaries,” she added.

New York is expected to have its first legal retail dispensaries open for business early next year after OCM started accepting applications in August for an initial batch of 150 licenses statewide — including 22 for Manhattan, 19 for Brooklyn, 16 for Queens, 10 for the Bronx and three for Staten Island.

Those first licenses are only available to prospective owners who have a previous marijuana-related conviction or a family member with one, a scheme intended to ensure that some of the mostly Black and Latino people who were caught up in the drug war are first in line to benefit from legalization.

Why Cash Is Still King
Because licensed stores will have to operate as largely cash businesses, security is important, said OCM Executive Director Chris Alexander. But that shouldn’t make running the business so expensive that it forces smaller operators — including the people with marijuana arrests first in line for licenses — out of the business. “We don’t want security to be cost-prohibitive [and] another massive drain on an already capital-intensive operation,” said Alexander.

That’s a concern for at least one start-up operator in New York who’s hoping to score a license but not waiting on that to get down to business.

Tyler, who didn’t want to give his last name since he has applied for a license from the OCM, opened a new, unlicensed and cash-only storefront dispensary near Herald Square in August. He told THE CITY he isn’t ready to commit just yet to pay for protection.

“We have talked to security,” Tyler said. “If we end up getting that license and finalizing and all that kind of good stuff, we’d definitely be approaching security.” In the meantime, he said, he has remotely activated magnetic locking doors and has talked to security companies about installing cameras.

‘Kind Of A Natural Reason’
While Democrats passed legislation in the U.S. House that would remove cannabis from the list of federally controlled substances, the votes don’t appear to be there in the Senate. In the meantime, the SAFE Banking Act currently pending in the Senate would allow banks to offer their services to legal, cannabis-related businesses without violating federal law.

Meanwhile, security companies that have worked with licensed marijuana businesses in other states have been working to drum up business in New York.

In early July, On the Revel, a group devoted to showcasing diverse backgrounds and faces in the cannabis industry, held a Social Equity Bootcamp in Harlem with Our Academy, a workshop and mentorship program for BIPOC cannabis entrepreneurs. Christopher Eggers, a former Oakland police officer and the founder of California-based CC Security Solutions who presented at the event, said new financial legislation isn’t the only thing that would curtail robberies.

“Some people hope that safe banking is going to help solve this issue,” Eggers told THE CITY during a phone call while visiting a licensed cultivation warehouse in California. “The risks go deeper than that. Offenders are not after cash only. In fact, I would argue that they’re after the product first, the cash second. I can say that because it’s not just retail facilities that are being targeted but also cultivation, distribution, and other businesses,” Eggers added.

“There’s kind of a natural reason for dispensaries particularly to be targeted,” said Dennis Kenney, a law professor at Manhattan’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who previously worked as a police officer in Florida. “Police response should be to treat them the same way they would robberies in any business,” such as jewelry stores.

“What the police should do is track trends and make determinations of the kind of predictive policing of a particular place being targeted and then provide appropriate security,” Kenney said.

“The enterprise is less important than the likelihood of victimization,” Kenney noted. “It’s not the job of the police to pick and choose who they protect.”

One Manhattan smoke shop owner in the West Village has a plan already, he told THE CITY.

“U.S. Supreme Court. Second Amendment,” he said, without sharing his name.

“I’m from Texas,” he added.