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Queens lawmakers back new law that cracks down on illegal smoke shops by fining property owners

Aug. 15, 2023 By Bill Parry

While it remains difficult to pinpoint the exact number of illegal smoke shops and unlicensed cannabis dispensaries that have proliferated across Queens, it is estimated that more than 8,000 are operating citywide. On Monday a new law was enacted that gives the authorities the power to fine landlords for knowingly renting to unlicensed sellers of marijuana or tobacco products up to $10,000 for violations.

Councilwoman Lynn Schulman introduced the legislation that will crack down on the illegal operations that undermine licensed sellers while depriving New Yorkers of the tax revenues and community reinvestment funds guaranteed by the 13% tax on legal recreational marijuana sales.

Councilwoman Lynn Schulman sponsored the legislation that will curb illegal smoke shops and cannabis dispensaries.Photo courtesy of City Council

“This is a game-changer in shutting down illegal cannabis shops that are proliferating in New York City and threatening our communities,” Schulman said. “These illegal shops sell to kids. The cannabis they sell has been found to be adulterated. Until now, measures at the state and local levels have targeted actual businesses. My legislation targets the commercial landlords who knowingly rent to these illegal operations. This will send the message to landlords that will make them either begin eviction proceedings against current tenants or provide a chilling effect to keep them from renting to them at all.”

Councilwoman Joann Ariola signed on as a sponsor of the legislation.

“It’s time that we hold landlords and property owners accountable for knowingly providing storefronts to businesses that have a negative impact on their communities,” Ariola said. “Unlicensed smoke shops put their communities at risk by peddling unlicensed products and damage the quality of life in the neighborhoods around them. In the interests of public safety, and to ensure that all New Yorkers can enjoy the quality of life that they deserve, those who knowingly support these smoke shops must be penalized.”

File photo by Lloyd Mitchell

Civic leaders in her district applauded the new law that makes the property owner liable for civil penalties.

“Slapping landlords with fines when their tenants are selling unlicensed cannabis and tobacco sends a strong message: keep your place clean or pay the price,” said Barbara McNamara, co-president of the Howard Beach Lindenwood Civic Association. “A lot of people, sadly, only understand dollar signs at the end of the day. So hitting them in their pockets like this can guarantee that they run a tight ship and don’t rent to people who might harm the community.”

Belle Harbor Property Owners Association president Paul King voiced his consternation over the proliferation of illegal smoke shops since the state legalized the recreational use of cannabis last year.

“The entire rollout of legal cannabis in New York has been an incompetent mess,” King said. “It has spawned more illegal activities right in our neighborhood shopping districts. This is a step towards getting things under control.”

Community Board 6 Chairwoman Heather Beers-Dimitriadis applauded the creative approach by Schulman and her City Council colleagues.

“Illegal smoke and cannabis shops have been an ongoing challenge in our communities,” she said. “It is important to protect our community from businesses selling adulterated cannabis, to protect our city from the theft of tax dollars, and to protect future regulated cannabis shops that continue to open throughout our borough.”

Under the new Local Law 107 of 2023, agencies that conduct inspections for unlicensed marijuana or tobacco sales and find such activity may provide written notice to the property owner requiring they ensure such unlicensed activity is ceased, serving as the basis of the violation. Any subsequent inspection that finds continued violation would make the landlord subject to a $5,000 civil penalty at first, and a $10,000 penalty for each subsequent violation.

“Smoke shops operating illegally pose significant public safety and health risks to our communities, and they destabilize a legitimate, emerging business interest,” NYPD Commissioner Edward Caban said. “The NYPD will continue to use every resource available to protect New Yorkers, and to ensure that the safe sale and distribution of legal cannabis in New York City occurs within the parameters of a licensed, regulated, and standardized industry.”

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