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If you were anywhere near your computer yesterday, you probably saw the headlines:
“NY works to weed out marijuana merchants illegally selling without licenses”
“NYC ‘illicit cannabis stores’ sent cease and desist letters”
“New York Regulators Finally Name Unlicensed Cannabis Sellers Told to Cease and Desist”
That’s because the Office of Cannabis Management distributed a press release around 12:30 p.m. on Thursday that said the office had publicly identified 52 “illicit retail operations,” and had made available its cease and desist letters, which were much discussed back in February.
The OCM email offered quotes from Tremaine Wright, Chris Alexander and Damian Fagon, who said these shops are breaking the law and, according to Wright, “put lives at risk” by selling untested products.
A link at bottom of the email directed readers to the agency’s website to view all the letters.
I’ll be honest: As soon as this happened, I started a spreadsheet with all the “illicit” business names and addresses, thinking that I would make a searchable database for readers – because I love data.
But then I paused.
If you’ve been doing journalism long enough, you develop a spidey-sense – a tingling when something just doesn’t feel right. This didn’t feel right.
I called one of the businesses listed among the batch of now very public letters, and I asked to speak to the person the OCM had named as the owner/operator. I’ll call him Phil.
Phil told me he had operated a gifting shop until cops visited his store a month ago, followed shortly by the OCM letter. He said he decided to shut down his business rather than risk being permanently barred from receiving a retail license once they become available (as the OCM warned in its communication). “It’s the town’s loss,” Phil said, because they’d stop receiving tax money from his store.
That all checks out, I thought.
Then I called another business owner. I’ll name him Kenji.
Kenji had no idea what I was talking about.
“Yes, I run a gifting shop,” he said, but he had never received a letter. No cops or inspectors had ever visited his store, he said.
In fact, Kenji told me that I could be making all this up – a competitor trying to scare him off – and that he was going to continue operating “until I get a formal letter or someone comes here.”
That does not check out, I thought.
Then I made a third call. A woman, let’s name her Kayla, answered the phone and was exceedingly kind.
Like Kenji, she said she knew nothing about the letters, but took things a step further.
“We have nothing to do with cannabis,” she said. “I don’t know why I would be on a list for that.”
I double-checked with her the business name and address on her letter. It was the same. She was stunned and highly skeptical. I directed her to the OCM’s website where she could see this for herself.
“My business didn’t survive a pandemic to be put through whatever this is,” she said, growing irate. She told me she was going to call the local sheriff’s office and the OCM, but at this point it was past 5 p.m. I asked her to keep me in the loop.
Then I thought — this definitely does not check out.
My next call was to the OCM to ask what actions they took to verify that the recipients of these letters were 100% operating illegally: Did they send out investigators? Were these mainly complaint-driven warnings?
The answer I received was short and vague. “Investigations have determined that the recipients of the letters have been selling illicit cannabis.”
Were these investigations conducted by the OCM or by the NY State Department of Taxation and Finance?
“These are our investigations,” the OCM spokesperson said.
Though annoying, this kind of response is typical when a government agency is investigating anything, and they are allowed to be vague — it’s their job and their policy, just like when DA’s don’t discuss active court cases.
My phone rang. It was Kayla again. She had called the cops, she said, and an officer was standing next to her. She pointed out that the fictitious business name listed on the OCM letter was not hers, and that she and the police thought this was some sort of scam. She said she’d be making quite a few calls on Friday morning.
“Keep me posted,” I said, and then hung up the phone.
I sat back and thought about the situation:
- Each of the three people I spoke with had a very different story regarding these letters: One copped to everything, one said he’d never received a letter or a visit, and one had no idea what I was talking about – and made a very good case that her situation could be an error on the part of the OCM.
- Although the OCM considers gifting illegal, that is not a view unanimously shared by DAs across the state. We reported that back in March when the Erie County DA’s office told NY Cannabis Insider that “the current criminal penal law does not prohibit” this conduct.
- Also, “illegal” is a very strong word in journalism. It’s one we only ever attribute to a law enforcement agency, and that’s not what the OCM is – it is an agency that “works with government partners to enforce the law,” but is not a law enforcement agency. At least not yet.
All of this mixed together to form a very bad, no-good taste in my mouth: There are questions about whether what these folks are doing – gifting – is actually illegal, and there are concerns that at least one of the people listed on the cease and desist letters could be there in error.
To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying the OCM did anything wrong here – every one of these people could be violating the law – but I don’t have enough information to state that fact definitively, which makes this a weird situation.
So, I decided the juice ain’t worth the squeeze, and instead of writing a generic story about these OCM letters, I wrote this.
Stay tuned for whatever happens next with Kayla.
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