New York's Black Market in the Wake of Legalization
Welcome, cannabis travellers, to Buffalo!
The second-largest city in New York, famous for its chicken wings and Weck Sammies. I'm in Buff City to explore the cannabis scene in the most recent state to legalize recreational dispensaries! It is no secret that the legalization of cannabis has led to a significant shift in the state's cannabis industry. Yet, despite the new legislation, the black market is still one of the only ways to buy weed.
Legalization in New York State
New York state opened its first official recreational or adult-use dispensary at the end of 2022. Living in Toronto, this was massive news for the cannabis industry in southern Ontario, which has been serving cannabis tourists from New York since 2018. As a Canadian cannabis traveller, I couldn't resist the urge to explore, so I jumped in my car and headed south of the border to see what was happening there and how it might impact Canadian cannabis tourism. One thing that is immediately noticeable is that the black market for cannabis is still very much alive in Buffalo, despite the recent opening of rec shops.
The Legal Shops
First things first, let's talk about dispensaries. Most dispensaries in New York still require a medical card for cannabis shoppers. As of February 2023, New York has handed out 66 recreational cannabis store licenses for the state. Still, only 3 shops have opened for business: Housing Works Cannabis Co, Smacked, and most recently, The Union Square Travel Company, all located around Manhattan. While there have yet to be any legal rec shops outside of New York City proper, about an hour and a half from the Buffalo/Niagara region is a hotspot for native-owned and operated dispensaries.
Seneca Nation Pot Shops
For visitors to western New York, like myself, recreational cannabis can be purchased at the end of a scenic drive towards Salamanca on the indigenous reservations. Located in the Alleghany and Cattaraugus Territory of the sovereign Seneca Nation, these dispensaries are not subject to the same regulations as legal shops, which allows for more flexibility in the sale of cannabis products.
Everyone around here shops at the indigenous-run dispos. They have a great selection, low prices, and quality cannabis. I even heard a rumour some of the local gas stations give out a pre-roll with the purchase of gas. They're holding it down for cannabis consumers and supporting the community with an excellent selection of flowers and edibles.
Buffalo has more than a few medical dispensaries across the city. Unfortunately, entry is a no-go without a medical card. I always find it strange that medical dispensaries won't let you enter without a card. Medical dispensaries led the way to transform the stigmas around cannabis use when legalization was still just a rumour. Not to mention, budtenders are some of the most knowledgeable ambassadors for cannabis and would be able to answer many product questions for people interested in getting their med cards. It seems odd that you can't even look at or talk about the selection in the med shops if you're 21+, especially in New York State, where cannabis is now recreational.
For The Locals
There are a few grey-market shops in Buffalo, but unfortunately for locals only: You need a valid NY ID to buy. As a visiting Canadian, I couldn't purchase cannabis. Still, I wanted to see what the city currently offers, so I checked out one of Buffalo's few but friendly, illicit walk-in rec dispensaries, BMillz. The small one-room shop is jam-packed with smoking apparatuses for use and purchase and has an epic af mural featuring a bunch of buffalos getting high. Welcome to Buff.
To get around the lack of licensing, BMillz gives away cannabis as a "gift" when you purchase one of their cool hippie-themed clothing patches. Basically, they "give away" weed when you buy a clothing patch. But you do need to show your NY State ID. While this may seem like a loophole in the system, it is still illegal and can lead to consequences for both the seller and the buyer. Interestingly, the main deterrent for illicit shops is a ticket of 250$ for operating without a license. Most New Yorkers view it as a failed deterrent, with an estimated 1400 unlicensed shops in the state, just like this one.
BMillz cannabis selection was on point, although limited to 6 types of flower, vape carts, and a few different types of edibles. They were offering the "Real ZaZa", and a mix of Cookie hybrids, Gorilla Glue, ICC, and Sherbert, in a stunning array of bright green to almost black cannabis flowers. I did take a good look at their products while chatting with the budtender. Turns out their high gas strains and vape carts were a hit with local shoppers. Overall, it's a great place to visit for a photo op with the sweet mural and to meet some of the local cannabis community to talk weed.
With so much cannabis in Buffalo but no way to purchase it, I had nowhere else to go but the local dealers. Lucky for me, New York's black market is still there for the OGs. Based on my connections in Buffalo, the cannabis I smoked was sourced from the indigenous-run dispensaries of the Seneca Nation and resold for street value. Overall, the lack of recreational shops and the need for New York IDs to access unlicensed shops has left visitors to Western New York, like myself, with no options to access legal cannabis locally.
Perks of the Legal Industry
What New York has done differently than other states (and Canada) is written into the new legislation intentional actions towards equity.
"Unlike any other state in America, this legislation is intentional about equity," Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, the Democratic majority leader, "Equity is not a second thought, it's the first one, and it needs to be because the people who paid the price for this war on drugs have lost so much." (New York Times)
40% of tax revenue from cannabis will be directed to marginalized communities affected by racial disparities and disproportionate numbers of cannabis arrests. This unprecedented legislation will likely lead cannabis consumers to support the legal shops as they open.
If New York wants to gain control over cannabis consumption, they need to speed up the process and provide cannabis users with options. A major complaint of medical and rec cannabis so far has been the cost. For locals, the high taxes on legal cannabis have led to higher consumer prices, making the black market a consistently attractive option for many cannabis consumers in legalized states, and New York is no exception. Additionally, many cannabis enthusiasts find the selection and quality of the black market to be superior to that of the legal dispensaries. Years of prohibition have resulted in widely available array of high-quality, affordable cannabis products.
For now, the black market is still a significant facet of the cannabis industry in New York, despite the recent opening of rec shops. While legal dispensaries are certainly leading the way in terms of legislation, the black market still offers terrific products and experiences that cannot be found in legal dispensaries, especially for cannabis tourists to areas outside the Big Apple.
Image From: The Smoking Spot Podcast IG
Listen to the Full Smoking Spot Pcast Episode on my trip to Buffalo Burning One in The Buff