Everything You Need to Know About Weed in NYC

ny legal weed
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

New York City is shockingly behind the times with regard to recreational marijuana. Sure, small amounts are decriminalized, and you can catch that sweet, skunky scent on any city block, at any given time, but we’re still trailing Massachusetts, California, Colorado, and a smattering of other locales in terms of cut-and-dried legality.

Still, most folks here are perfectly capable of getting their hands on weed via true medical necessity, a little help from a friendly physician, or good old fashioned street retail. The rules of toking in NYC are still murky, but times are changing and we’re finally poised to remove our finger from the carb of progress and inhale the sweet, pungent air of change.

The Politics of Blazing: The State of Weed in NYC Today

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio both recently pulled near-180s on their respective weed positions, ultimately showing support for legalization. Last year, Cuomo launched a multi-agency study to weigh the pros and cons of permitting recreational weed NYC. The study determined that the benefits would outweigh the potential drawbacks. In August, Cuomo put the legalization wheels in motion by creating a group of public safety and health officials to devise legislative recommendations on the issue. It’s a significant leap for a governor who only recently called marijuana “a gateway drug.”

De Blasio has long cited alcohol and tobacco addiction in his family as the basis for his legalization hesitation (although studies have shown that marijuana is less habit-forming than booze or cigarettes). But he pivoted in December, laying out a plan to permit recreational weed in NYC, with caveats: one would have to be 21 years of age to partake, and smoking in public places would be prohibited. The plan also recommended establishing cannabis business zones, establishing product safety standards, and expunging low-level marijuana convictions.


How illegal is it to smoke one little joint in the park?

As of last September, you’re unlikely to get hauled into jail for smoking weed in public. But think twice before lighting up if you have an open warrant, you’ve been convicted of a violent crime, if your smoking menaces the public, or even if you aren’t carrying ID -- all of which could get you a free ride to the nearest precinct. In most other cases, the worst you’ll face is a ticket and a fine of up to $100 on your first offense. The ticket requires you to go to court, so it’s still a pain, but it won’t end up your record because it’s considered a violation rather than a crime.

Selling marijuana, on the other hand, is riskier. Possession with intent to sell (meaning you’re caught with weed packaged in more than one bag as though for distribution, or you’ve got apparent sales paraphernalia like a digital scale) can earn you a year behind bars and a $1,000 fine. That same penalty applies to anyone caught growing any amount of marijuana.

How do I buy recreational weed in NYC?

Street corner weed dealers still exist. A certain park named after a certain early American president and a certain avenue where people go to buy fake purses are rumoured to have such independent pot peddlers. Because the marijuana market is so saturated, your chances of scoring decent product from someone you don’t know are as good as ever, but not great. Word of mouth is always the best way to find a new hook up. If you’re new in town and don’t know anyone yet, there are some alternatives.

Online communities are often the best bet for somebody with absolutely no connections. The internet is rife with forums, chats and subreddits about marijuana. A few honest posts and comments on a marijuana forum is one way to meet new people in your area who might be able to point you in the right direction. However, don’t go asking for a connection right away because that’s a great way to make everyone think you’re a cop. And be smart: if you do arrange to meet with another weed enthusiast, do it in a safe, public place.

Most recreational weed smokers in NYC have a delivery service they discovered through word of mouth. Many operations use social media and messaging apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat and other self-destructing means of communication. Etiquette typically dictates that you propose a “hang out” with your would be weed purveyor. Then, your new pal will arrive with a small metal suitcase packed with different varieties. The product often comes in jars or small baggies and feature colorful labels that often describe the scent, taste and effects of the product.

Expect to see strains like Sour Diesel (invigorating) Girl Scout Cookies (relaxing) Headband (euphoria inducing)  Super Lemon Haze (energizing) and Gorilla Glue (super relaxing). Recently, dealer packaging has begun including text indicating that it’s compliant with the recreational legalization laws of other states, meaning that a lot of the product making its way into the NYC weed pipeline is just store-bought bud from Colorado or California.
If you’ve called a weed pro over, you should be prepared to purchase a $50-60 eighth of an ounce. Sending a dealer away without buying anything is considered poor form and could get you banned.


Still sounds risky. How do I get medical marijuana?

Medical marijuana became legal in NYC in 2016, and dispensaries have popped up all over the city in the intervening years. But they don’t exactly jump out at you. Since smoking marijuana in NYC is still illegal, even for medical patients, most dispensaries specialize in tinctures, vapes and pills. Buying actual bud (cool people call it “flower” now) is a no-go.

The qualifying conditions to obtain a medical marijuana card in NYC include severe and chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures and severe muscle spasms, as well as life-threatening illnesses like cancer, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s, MS and ALS. New York State recently opened the program up to people with PTSD and opioid use disorder. Recent studies have shown that marijuana has the potential to help opioid-dependent people wean off or limit their use. You’ll notice that anxiety alone -- which some folks will cavalierly claim they feigned to obtain a card -- does not appear on this list.

If you qualify for a medical card, you’ll need to collect your medical records to prove your condition. After that, it takes a short consultation with a physician (which you can now do online) and you’ve got your card. The application process for the card itself costs $50 and consultations tend to range from $99 to $300. Many medical marijuana users in NYC report that medical weed tends to be more expensive than illegal weed. Unfortunately, even if you qualify for medical in New York State, your insurance will not cover it. It will often cover your doctor visit to obtain the card, but because marijuana is not currently FDA regulated, insurers won’t foot the bill.

Where can I use my medical marijuana card?

Ten companies run the five boroughs' dispensaries. Each spent a lot of money to get licensed, each is required by NYC medical marijuana law to have a medical professional on staff, and each is pushing more or less the same product. But a few stand out from the pack.

Curaleaf opened its first NY dispensary in Hudson Valley last year. It’s since spun out new locations on Long Island and in Forest Hills. Its Queens dispensary looks like a vintage Apple store: sleekly designed in a minimalist fashion with a white-on-white color scheme incorporating splashes of green. Curaleaf aims to nurture an atmosphere reminiscent of the American pharmacy of yesterday, according to Mike Conway, head of operations in New York. The so-called “RX aesthetic” has become common in dispensaries throughout the country, shifting the perception of marijuana from vice to a more alchemical or pharmaceutical necessity. Instead of tie-dye and dancing bears, it’s scales, mortars and pestles. Its objective is evident in Curaleaf’s kind, knowledgeable staff. Marijuana is a complex plant and the way it is grown can greatly impact how it affects you. Having access to a keen pharmacist to help you find the right product on site can make all the difference. Dispensaries are legally prohibited from using quirky labels like Gorilla Glue or Girl Scout Cookies for their vapes or tinctures, so you’ll see more subdued names. Curaleaf caries vapes, capsules and sublingual tinctures as well as CBD dog treats. You’ll choose from three different strains: blue indica, blue sativa and a half and half hybrid. Curaleaf recently started selling $25 disposable vapes -- currently the cheapest product available in New York’s medical program.

Columbia Care, which has a location in Union Square and a Brooklyn Heights store set to open, takes a similar approach. Emphasizing ultra-personal data-driven recommendations, it strives to provide a bespoke cannabis experience. This approach can help the customer avoid negative outcomes like paranoia, lethargy and panic attacks. According to Nicholas Vita, Columbia Care’s CEO, its medical professionals look at your age, sex, background, symptoms and desired outcome to match you with the best possible product. A thirty-year-old female suffering from PTSD, for example, may be recommended ClaraCeed, Columbia Care’s high-CBD low-THC strain. Columbia care has vapes and tinctures, as well as tablets, lotions and suppositories. Its products come in three different formulas: high THC (Theraceed), high CBD (Claraceed), or half and half (Eleceed).

MedMen opened on Fifth Avenue in Midtown last year to heaps of fanfare and media coverage due to its primo location and overall presentation. Interest has cooled somewhat, but a trip here is still an experience. MedMen’s clearly shooting for a high end aesthetic, beating the Apple drum louder than anyone, with stark white lights, glass enclosures, and plenty of signature red merchandise (of the apparel variety). A visit here is a little like a trip to the Disney store, but it’s worth a stop to see what all the fuss is about.  

What’s the CBDeal?

If you’ve been in public or on the internet lately, you’ve seen CBD. It’s everywhere. It won’t be too long before Lululemon starts selling CBD yoga mats and the Apple Store launches a CBD-edition iPhone. For a minute it seemed like every cafe, bar and restaurant in NYC was selling CBD lattes, pastries, and cocktails, but the city swooped in to ban such products. You can still buy it in liquid form, you’ll just have to add it to your morning coffee yourself.  

A derivative of the cannabis plant, CBD said to alleviate stress, anxiety, depression, diarrhea, acne -- the list goes on. But it’s unlikely that any effectiveness is from CBD alone: it needs the assistance of other cannabinoids to bind to receptors in your brain. That’s why some CBD oils and tinctures are labeled “Full Spectrum CBD,” meaning it contains trace amounts of THC (such a small amount that it’s legal), which some believe activates the therapeutic nature of Cannabidiol itself.  

What is the future of weed in NYC?

On July 29, Governor Cuomo signed a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Meanwhile, local business owners are already angling for their opportunity to cash in on the green. And the city passed a bill preventing employers from testing potential employees for marijuana. New York City legislators aren’t exactly blazing toward recreational marijuana legalization, but the sparks are there. Even at this middling rate, New Yorkers might just be able to enjoy lawful weed before the conclusion of Game of Thrones.

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Jonathan Reiss is a Brooklyn-based writer. He is the author of Getting Off. His forthcoming non-fiction book about the life of XXXTENTACION publishes in Winter 2019.