Struggling to stop illegal cannabis stores, New York governor asks online sites to hide them

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NEW YORK (AP) — After failing to wipe illegal cannabis dispensaries off the map, New York is asking online sites to hide them.

Since the state legalized marijuana in 2021, unlicensed pot shops have proliferated across New York City, with limited pushback from authorities. On Tuesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul called on online map and social media companies to stop listing them.

“If you type in ‘cannabis dispensaries’ in Google Maps or Yelp, you’ll get a long list of unlicensed illegal vendors,” Hochul, a Democrat, said Tuesday, speaking to reporters alongside some of the owners of licensed, legal weed stores that make up a tiny minority of the cannabis shops in New York City.

In a statement, Yelp said the company believes "consumers have a First Amendment right to read and write about all businesses, even if unlicensed."

“Allowing users to contribute and see information ... about unlicensed businesses serves the public interest and provides a resource for regulators to determine whether any particular business has appropriate licenses," the statement read.

Legal marijuana shops in New York pay a vice tax, purchase from local farms, and submit to quality control testing to ensure their products aren’t laced with other drugs and aren’t stronger or weaker than their label says.

But so far, fewer than 80 cannabis licensed stores have opened around the state, where strict eligibility requirements and lawsuits have contributed to slowing the rollout. Meanwhile, it’s common for a single neighborhood in New York City to have a dozen illegal ones.

Hochul vowed to crack down eight months ago, but has failed to make noticeable progress.

Aiming to avoid an echo of prohibition-era criminalization of drug sales, New York state’s marijuana legalization doesn’t include severe criminal punishment for illegal sales and doesn’t allow most law enforcement agencies to enforce pot laws.

Legislation that Hochul signed last May gave the state powers for inspections, seizures, fines that can reach $20,000 a day and, in some cases, close shops and go after landlords.

But the governor on Wednesday said she has since learned that it wasn't enough. She said the fines aren't high enough to deter people, and noted the appeals process takes many months, allowing shops to continue raking in tax-free profits off unlicensed products that are less expensive because they can be purchased out of state.

New York City itself has tried to stem the tide by going after landlords, but Mayor Eric Adams has been imploring Albany to grant the city more power to respond.

Hochul has asked the Democrat-controlled state Legislature to pass new legislation to grant more enforcement authority to city agencies, increase fines, and give law enforcement permission to shut down illegal stores before the appeals process plays out.

In the meantime, Hochul is asking tech companies “to not be posting the sites that are illegal and ensure that they’re posting the legal shops.”

Local cannabis entrepreneur Osbert Orduña said Google Maps keeps delisting his legal shops, one in New Jersey, and another in Queens, New York. He said he’s never had trouble with his listings on Yelp, though he’d like the site to delist illegal operators as well.

“Four times, Google has taken us down off of their platform for ‘violating their terms of service.’ We’ve done nothing other than have our store hours and our basic business information listed,” he said.

Google didn't immediately respond to a query about Orduña's specific circumstances, but noted in a statement responding to Hochul's comments that it does remove listings for closed venues.

“If we can confirm that a business has closed for any reason – including license issues – we’ll reflect that it’s closed in the listing. We also prohibit cannabis ads in New York and remove them upon detection, often before they ever run," the statement read.

Orduña said he also wants his illegal competitors, some of whom he knows personally, to be closed down. He says they tell him he's playing a “sucker's game." But as a former Marine, he likes to do things by the book and even plans on expanding to open another store in Queens next week.