Crime and Safety

Inside New York City Law Enforcement Efforts to Crack Down on Illegal Marijuana Shops

The officers broke through a seedy smoke shop in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge, packing dozens of large plastic bags of evidence and hauling them into a waiting NYPD van.

The portly worker behind the counter at 181 Convenience begged the cops to let him go, even as they turned the store over, methodically collecting, cataloging, and photographing.

I’ve only been here for a week! he told them. “I’m just doing my job.”

Monday’s dramatic afternoon raid was reminiscent of the “bad old days” of New York. But instead of destroying a heroin factory or exposing a cocaine ring, this special task force is dealing with the Big Apple’s latest scourge: illegal marijuana dealers.

Cannabis has become big business since New York’s decision to legalize recreational weed in 2021. And there has been a boom in store owners illegally selling a variety of marijuana, groceries, vape products and cigarettes — even as the city ramps up efforts to eradicate the black market.

New York Sheriff Anthony Miranda, who invited The Post along with his deputies this week, testified at a January City Council hearing that law enforcement is pursuing more than 1,400 stores on suspicion of illegal activity.

The task force is part of the city’s efforts to crack down on these illegal marijuana shops. But officials, including Mayor Eric Adams, said the state law legalizing the drug undermined their mission.

Now there are only three legal dispensaries in the city. But dubious traders can usually walk away with a subpoena and paltry fines if caught.

“We are entering. We provide enforcement and I think we can only issue a fine of $250,” Adams said last week. “And our police officers cannot take the necessary measures.”

This gave the cops the feeling that no matter how many stores they beat during their twice-weekly raids, it wouldn’t matter much.

“You’ll see, we will destroy them, take away everything they have, and the next day they are open again,” Det said. Veronica Robles, an eight-year veteran of the city’s sheriff’s department, accompanied The Post on Monday.

“They make a lot of money. In fact, we have heard from some owners that they consider us as a cost of doing business.”

One infamous example of this is Jungle Boys, an illegal store that operated across the street from City Hall despite hitting the front page of The Post and was raided several times.

“We don’t worry [about another raid]. If we were worried, we wouldn’t be selling this product,” a store employee told The Post.

On Monday, the store was closed, with a locked door and empty shelves. But the attitude of the worker is spreading among illegal sellers.

Miranda said Monday’s raids focused on places near schools or houses of worship are just the beginning.

“This is just the first stage,” Miranda said. “We’re going to move on … to more extensive investigations, looking into their background, their taxes, where the money goes and who funds these places.”

Miranda’s office is leading a task force that includes officers from the NYPD, the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Welfare, and the New York State Office of Cannabis Management.

They targeted stores in five districts based on complaints about 311, recommendations from elected officials, and internal intelligence reports.

“Everyone who enters this place has special oversight and inspection powers, so we go in and check all the products on the shelves,” Miranda said.

Since its inception in November, the task force has inspected 142 sites and issued more than 285 violations worth more than $500,000 in fines. In addition, more than $8 million worth of illegal goods were seized.

In February alone, the group seized over $262,000 worth of cannabis-related goods and $45,000 worth of tax-free cigarettes.

However, street law enforcement can only go so far.

Robles, the sheriff’s office detective, said the store could be closed if it had three crimes. But stores often find legal loopholes that allow them to reopen.

Earlier this month, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg warned hundreds of illegal haunts that he was ready to begin sending out eviction notices if tenants were found to be selling illegal goods.

“It’s time to put an end to unlicensed cannabis pharmacies,” Bragg said at a press conference. “They’ve been made aware.”

During a raid on 181 Convenience, which is located at 840 West 181st Street, police said they seized about $73,000 worth of tax-free cigarettes, vape products, cannabis flower, and THC food products.

They also issued seven violations, with fines totaling around $13,000.

“He will definitely get a summons,” said Det. Sergeant Erin Markevitch said about the surly store worker. “There is a lot of food, a lot of tasty things, for which he will receive a decent amount of tickets. There are also cigarettes for which he is not licensed. It was all covered up when we got in here – they hid it behind a curtain. This is a different ticket. And also with cannabis, they don’t have a license for that stuff. All those flavored vapes you can’t drink in the city, period.”

Later that day, a raid on the Bavaro Smoke Shop on 181st Street resulted in police obtaining the same item worth about $50,000. They also issued $17,500 in violations.

“That’s what we’re talking about,” Robles said, referring to the endless supply of THC-infused candies and gummies in the store. “A child will come here and take it, thinking it’s candy, but it really isn’t. And then they share it with their friends. That’s what’s causing the public safety issue.”

181 The convenience store was closed on Tuesday. There were bongs and bowls on the display shelves, but the gate was down and the store was dark. The employee outside said he didn’t know when the store would open again.

Meanwhile, Bavaro’s was selling THC products the next day.

“The state is selling, why can’t we sell?” said Jamel Zach, a store employee. “It is what it is.”

Additional report by Tina Moore

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