Famous for the fall foliage’s explosive colors and summertime’s cooling seaside breezes, Massachusetts became a popular year-round weekend getaway destination for certain New Yorkers in November 2018, the month legal adult-use cannabis sales began.
Cannabis is legal in New York but the first dispensaries may not open until the end of the year. So, with the launch April 21 of legal sales in nearby New Jersey, there’s reason to believe the next traffic pattern may be towards the Garden State.
But aside from the novelty of buying cannabis in a for-real store—with taxes and everything!—there’s no moral imperative to quit patronizing the “traditional market,” as some marijuana legalization backers (and most for-profit cannabis companies) would have you believe. In fact, in some circumstances, the true “moral choice” may be to continue buying your cannabis from the underground neighborhood plug, according to recent research.
Excoriated by some policymakers and by the legal cannabis industry as an unfair competitor and as a demonstration that legalization isn’t working, the illicit market remains popular with consumers for reasons of price, quality, and product availability.
According to a survey conducted by Vikiana Clement, the executive director of the Cannabis Education Task Force at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College, so-called “illicit” cannabis operators actually performed better than their corporate competition on several key metrics, including the “triple-bottom line” of social and environmental responsibility as well as pure profit.
Instead of cartel-connected drug dealers or irresponsible profiteers, existing New York City cannabis operators—though lawbreakers in the literal sense, as sales of cannabis without a license are unlawful—many legacy-market operators “are actually what should be the models for business development in this industry,” Clement said.
Over the past two years, Clement interviewed more than 80 individuals working in cannabis in New York City: retailers, delivery services, cultivators. Her research is still ongoing and not yet published, but the findings are already clear enough to report.
First, the reality of the “traditional market” is far removed from the trope of a “corner boy” drug dealer. In addition to paying their employees well and providing good customer service, on the whole, traditional-market operators were also “deeply involved in the communities they service,” Clement said, working as youth-sports coaches, mentors, or filling other community-serving roles.
Traditional-market sources scored better on the “three Ps” of the triple-bottom line than some Fortune 500 companies, including the well-capitalized and publicly traded “multi-state operators” that have a major presence and a commanding head start in the New Jersey recreational market.
For consumers, then, choosing to continue to patronize the legacy-market operator means spending dollars locally, with merchants who—generally speaking—are good businss citizens, or at least better than the legal alternative.
“You have not found, at this time yet at least, the 5 or 10 blue-chip cannabis companies continuously doing that,” Clement said. “I very much respect how they operate as a business. People should copy them.”
“And that’s not me talking from the heart,” she added. “This is a data analysis.”
Other New York cannabis business advocates were even more direct when asked if traveling to a legal dispensary was somehow “better” than buying cannabis on the illicit market.
“People should not be driving over the bridge to give MSOs their money,” said Annette Fernandez, a Washington Heights resident and co-founder of the Uptown Cannabis Coalition.
“That’s taking money out of our communities,” she added. “How are you going to have this guy deliver to you for years and years, he comes from the hood, he goes out of his way to make a business and be your supplier, and the minute [business] goes live in New Jersey, you’re going to take your business across the bridge? Leave him high and dry?”
“You’ve got to support your plug in New York until the market opens,” she added. “Cannabis is about community, and this money supports local communities.”
Keeping cash flowing to the traditional market may also be one way to help ensure the legal market does eventually succeed in New York.
Law and policymakers have said that one goal of legalization is to encourage traditional market operators to go legitimate. Current law also requires legacy market operators to demonstrate they’re been engaging in business activity in order to qualify for one of the first 100 licenses New York Gov. Kathy Hochul says will be reserved for small businesses.
That puts them in a conundrum: they need capital, and they need to stay in business, even if—technically speaking—buying from them is against the law.
But since they’re already fulfilling demand from a market that’s projected to grow, keeping them in business is one way to provide the legacy market with the start-up capital necessary to enter the legal market.
“I don’t see why people need to go to New Jersey for legal weed except for the novelty of it,” said David C. Holland, a New York City-based cannabis law and criminal defense attorney and executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws’s Empire State chapter.
On the traditional market, “you’re supporting local growers, for the most part” who have demonstrated responsible growing practices, Holland added. While one of the selling points of legalized marijuana is product safety, there have yet to be any identified public health crises created by tainted cannabis—and that’s over 50 years of cannabis prohibition.
“The weed in New York is just as good if not better, and a lot more accessible,” he added.
Rather than be shamed into hopping into a car and paying a bridge tolls out of a drug-war era moral imperative—the dated idea that all illegal cannabis must fund terrorism or come from the cartel—if they have a good neighborhood plug they know and trust, cannabis consumers in New York and beyond can feel okay about buying it from them until there’s a better legal alternative closer to home.