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A Guide to Legal Weed in NYC
With legal weed finally landing in NYC, we toured the city's first licensed recreational dispensaries to see what, if anything, distinguishes them from one another.
Not that you'd be able to tell from the sudden ubiquity of “exotics” signage across the city, but legal weed in NYC is still very much in utero. Eight months since the doors opened at the city’s first recreational cannabis dispensary and there have only been six other shops to follow in the five boroughs. Four of them are in the blocks surrounding Manhattan’s Union Square, two are temporarily closed for renovations, and none are in Brooklyn or Staten Island.
For a city that claimed the plodding pace of their cannabis retail launch was to ensure licenses went to applicants in communities hit hardest by prohibition, the concentration of dispensaries at or below 14th Street does not ring equitable or restorative so far. Not suggesting we should rush the process for the sake of representation. But it’s pretty clear the city has missed the mark on offering those communities the priority consideration they deserve.
That said, legal weed, in at least a limited capacity, has landed. And it's been met with a demand amplified by anticipation, and a notorious regional culture surrounding the plant and its stealthy distribution. Unfortunately, the painfully slow rollout of the city’s commercial growing and vending licenses has kneecapped its own earnings projections, losing millions in tax revenue to those gray market shops camouflaged as boutique bodegas on every other block.
For those applicants who did manage to get approved and set up their brick and mortars, compliance has been the main focus. And for those on the other side of the counter, there isn’t a whole lot to distinguish the city’s stable of legal weed spots from one another. In this introductory phase, the experience in any of the city's six licensed recreational dispensaries is pretty uniform. A strict adherence to regulations means shops exclusively source their products from approved commercial growers, who have been getting fleeced by the bottleneck the state’s painfully slow licensing process has created.
With all of this in mind, I set out to explore the weird and wild world of taxable cannabis in the nation's most smoke-friendly city, if only to see how the first leg of the retail race has played out and who the frontrunners are in its current state. Stopping at each of the licensed recreational dispensaries in the city officially open for business (one of the city’s seven was indefinitely closed for renovation and another went into rehab mode just days after my visit), I found budtenders patiently coaching customers through their respective menus and glass product displays pulled from jewelry store suppliers, showcasing a range of flowers, edibles, concentrates, and accessories. Despite the constraints of compliance, some have managed to set themselves apart. But others are still struggling to forge a unique identity.
Here’s our guide to buying legal weed in NYC, along with staff picks and crowd favorites at each of the city’s dispensaries.
Counter service at Housing Works Cannabis, NYC's first recreational weed dispensary.
Photo by Michael Eric Gonik
I believe it was Peter Parker’s late uncle who once said, “With great weed comes great responsibility.” And there is only one dispensary in the five boroughs with that sentiment driving the broader company mission. Housing Works, the 30-plus-years-strong non-profit investing the proceeds from a city-wide network of thrift shops into housing, healthcare, and job training programs for those living with HIV and AIDS, is now flipping loud packs alongside ornate armoires and secondhand clothing. The company puts their retail activism to work at a location just south of Union Square, where the lines move quick and the staff is ready to coach potency-hunters and novice smokers with equal care, guiding them through hundreds of items from a miles-deep menu featuring exclusives from LGBTQ and POC-owned companies. It's probably too early to call it but for your dollar, Housing Works might just be the city's most comprehensive and community-minded dispensary experience in the city. And the whole non-profit thing should lay any lingering ethical concerns to rest.
Staff Picks: Electraleaf’s “Slapz” and “Banana Acai Mints” 1/8th’s, and Lobo’s infused “Papa Smurf” pre-rolls.
Crowd Favorites: Electraleaf’s “Super Lemon Diesel” 1/8th’s and Zizzle’s “Sour Diesel” 1/8th’s.
A display case at Union Square Travel Agency.
Source: Union Square Travel Agency
62 E 13th St.
Though the layout and general organization of this bustling 15x15 box with purple walls and blindingly white ceilings could induce a claustrophobic fit in the wrong state of mind (think: Apple Store with twice as many products and a fraction of the square footage), those seeking out the city’s longest menu need not look any further. Union Square Travel Agency has assembled a catalog of edibles, topicals, flowers, and pre-rolls so wildly wide you could buy a different item every day of a full calendar year and never cop the same thing twice. The vastness of their selection also has a solid upside — affordability. On top of the range, USTA offers some of the best price points you’ll find anywhere in the city, which almost offsets the only slightly contained chaos of actually visiting the store. (Highly recommend the “pick-up” option here.)
Staff Picks: Nanticoke’s “Lemon Grab” pre-rolls, Flower House’s “Blueberry Danish” 1/8th’s, and Florist Farms’ “Peach” gummies.
Crowd Favorites: Nanticoke’s “Mac Nilla” 1/8th’s, Hudson Cannabis’ “Dosidos” Oz’s, and Dank’s “Velvet Vampire” 1/8th’s.
Showroom at Gotham NYC
Photo by Michael Eric Gonik
3 E 3rd St.
Lapping the boroughs on this mission, I discovered most of the city’s dispensaries (even its very first) classify their opening as a “pop-up” phase on paper, a temporary schematic meant to last only as long as it takes to figure out the needs and styles of their clientele (which is fine for now). But in practice, this equates to a fairly stock store design — generic white walls, maybe a couch, and an Instagramable neon sign for flair) — entirely devoid of personality. But I’m not sure you could mistake the coziness of this posh Bowery brick-and-mortar for an incomplete concept. Instead of an empty pale cavern with repurposed department store displays, Gotham approaches cannabis retail as a lifestyle brand, filling the entrance of their storefront with towering plants and bookshelves brimming with clothing, housewares, and various accessories including Saipua soaps, a range of specialty magazines, and items from Seth Rogen’s Houseplant line. As for the main attraction, don’t expect to be inundated with options here (especially for flower). Gotham’s menu is indeed well-curated, but also far more slender than other dispensaries in the city, opting for carefully selected products from regional cultivars over the “everything we can get our hands on” approach. And, frankly, after enduring some unnervingly long diner menus at other dispensaries, being presented only a dozen or so solid strains to pair with the issue of Broccoli tucked under my arm was kind of a relief.
Staff Picks: Flower House’s “Lemon Cherry Gelato” 1/8th’s and “Jealousy Kush Mintz” pre-rolls, Ayrloom’s 2:1 “Blueberry Lavender” Pillow Talk gummies.Crowd Favorites: Off Hours’ “Maui Wowie” carts and Offline “Grape Punch” gummies.
Inside of Dazed's Union Square location
Photo by Michael Eric Gonik
33 Union Square West
I managed to slip into Dazed seemingly moments before the Union Square dispensary shut its doors for renovation. So, no words here are meant to describe what the owners intend to do with space or its stock, and only how they’d designed the opening layout, which was pretty much a verbatim lift of what I’d seen in most of the city’s shops. However, what it lacks in aesthetic attention is made up tenfold by a sizable selection of products from local heavy-hitters like MFNY, Zizzle, and Hudson Cannabis Co. There’s no clear specialty or focus outside of being impossibly well positioned directly across the street from the park. But if you need to grab a pack on your way out of the farmer’s market (where you may soon be able to shop directly from local cannabis growers) or looking for a quick fix on the run, Dazed is a perfectly adequate, no frills stop while bouncing around town.
Staff Picks: Flower House’s “Italian Ice” 1/8th’s, Hudson Cannabis Co.’s “Sour Glue” 1/8th’s, and Rize’s “Girl Scout Cookies” mini pre-rolls.Crowd Favorites: Ayrloom’s 1:1 “Island Time” gummies.
The counters at Good Grades in Jamaica, Queens.
Source: Good Grades NYC
162-03 Jamaica Ave.
Of all the shops in the city still tinkering with their respective designs and layouts, Good Grades might have the most potential. Situated on a busy stretch of Jamaica Ave., the floorplan of Queens’ first retail cannabis entry dwarfs (by several orders of magnitude) any other in NYC. This nondescript and dressed-down recreational dispensary has a lot of room to fill in its warehouse-scaled facility. And it will surely take some time to properly stock those hallowed shelves and cases. Until then, the Good Grades menu, albeit cleverly tiered to reflect quality, is too limited and expensive to be a real contender for the crown in a city that will shortly ramp up the competition in neighboring boroughs. That said, management seems to have an ambitious scheme for building out the space with a broader range of products and a dedicated area for events that could very well turn the tide. So, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if we refer to these days as humble beginnings a year or so down the line.
Staff Picks: Zizzle’s “Silver Haze” 1/8th’s, Tarot Toke’s “Lilac Diesel” 1/8th’s, and Smokiez’s “Watermelon” gummies.
Crowd Favorites: Rolling Green’s “East Coast Sour Diesel” and “Strawberry Lemonade” 1/8th’s, and Zizzle’s “Purple Daddy” 1/8th’s.
Branded baggies at Statis Cannabis Co. in the Bronx.
Source: Statis Cannabis Co.
817 E Tremont Ave.
Finally, the latest addition to NYC’s stable of legal weed shops is also the city’s first Latino and woman-owned outfit. Just a few weeks into their tenure, Statis Cannabis is already running as well-rounded of an operation as you’ll see in any of the boroughs. Glamorous it is not, but it’s also far from sterile. The standard of smoke is commendable and appropriately priced, and the menu is sizable but not overwhelming. Add an accessible staff that understands there are no dumb questions when it comes to finding the right mildly hallucinogenic substance, as well as a location that’s equidistant from two of the Bronx’s best public outdoor spaces (Crotona Park and the Bronx Zoo are a few block north and south from the shop), and you’ve got a damn-good plug for any level of connoisseur.
Staff Picks: Aeterna’s “Blueberry Muffin” 1/8th’s, Packwoods’ “Swagyu” 1/8th’s, and Florist Farms’ “Gush Mintz” .5g pre-rolls.Crowd Favorites: Aeterna’s “Apple Fritter” 1/8th’s, Ayrloom’s 1:1 “Watermelon” gummies, and Hudson Cannabis Co.’s “King Kong” 1/4's.