Crowds flock to New York’s first cannabis dispensary

Opening of Housing Works Cannabis Co, the First Recreational Cannabis Dispensary in New York
Housing Works opened New York State’s first cannabis dispensary late last month.
Gary Gershoff/Wire image

Housing Works, a non-profit fighting homelessness and HIV/AIDS, opened New York State’s first recreational cannabis store, Housing Works Cannabis Co., last month.

Crowds of cannabis shoppers made their way to the dispensary at 750 Broadway on December 29 and stood in a line that wrapped around the block. The new cannabis store opened its doors at 4:20 p.m. — just in time to fulfill the state’s 2022 deadline to begin selling. The store received more than 2,000 customer reservations before opening day and made 500 sales in a little more than three hours. However, 1,500 customers were turned away at closing time December 29, Housing Works executive director Charles King told Gay City News. He said the lines haven’t relented since the dispensary opened.

Opening a cannabis store was a natural fit for Housing Works, King said. Housing Works operates a bookshop and café and thrift stores to support its work helping people living with HIV/AIDS, experiencing homelessness, and substance use. Many clients have been involved in the criminal justice system.

“The common denominators for those people are substance use disorder and experience with homelessness,” King said. “We saw entering the cannabis market as a very direct way to address those issues.”

King said proceeds from the cannabis sales will go directly into the dispensary’s reentry program for people who were formerly incarcerated for drug-related crimes, especially cannabis. People will be trained for careers and entrepreneurship opportunities in the emerging cannabis industry. A small percentage will go toward Housing Works’ cannabis advocacy.

Now the staff just has to keep up with the flood of people clamoring for cannabis products.

Customers wait in line at Housing Works' cannabis dispensary on Sunday, January 8.
Customers wait in line at Housing Works’ cannabis dispensary on Sunday, January 8.Donna Aceto

“I think there’s a real pent-up demand that we’re going to be able to continue to meet even as competitors come online,” King said. “I think we can anticipate that kind of demand at the very least until other legal stores open in the vicinity.”

King added that the strong demand is motivated in part by the high quality of the products as well as accurate labeling and marketing.

Eric Bartley, who has been a client of Housing Works for 17 years and is the organization’s main receptionist, agreed. As a cannabis user himself, he appreciates the fact that cannabis is now regulated, organic, and there is an educational and service component to Housing Works Cannabis Co. dispensary.

“I think is a huge and important factor when one is purchasing cannabis. You’re educated. It’s pure. And you know what exactly is being ingested into your body,” Bartley, a 60-year-old gay man, told Gay City News. He was also excited about how the store was going to help more of Housing Works’ clients.

“Overall, it’s a win-win. I think that’s what excites me the most,” he said.

Currently, the store only offers six brands due to New York regulations for certifying growers’ and producers’ products, King said.

Products on display at Housing Works’ dispensary.Gary Gershoff/Wire image

“We are fully anticipating that at least another two dozen brands are going to be coming onto the market in the next two months,” he continued. When that happens, King said, it will allow the dispensary to diversify and elevate the New York State-based brands it sells and improve customers’ experiences at the store to reach its goals. Housing Works has identified a diverse set of small growers and producers led by women, people of color, and LGBTQ individuals.

King said that the cannabis business owners, the cannabis shop’s 15 employees, and its customers will have the opportunity to get to know each other better at a future event.

Housing Works Cannabis Co. plans to build out the 4,400-square-foot space, built in 1883, known as 1 Astor Place. King said the store will potentially double its staff and expands its hours when it completes its buildout by the end of February.

During the dispensary’s second week, 20% of sales were completed online and filled in-store for customer pickup, King added.

Housing Works Cannabis Co.’s goal is to launch its delivery service in Lower Manhattan by the end of February.

The window of Housing Works' new dispensary.
The window of Housing Works’ new dispensary.Donna Aceto

Critics

People watching New York’s new venture closely point out that the store will face legal and illegal competition, supply chain challenges, and high taxes that could add $1.25 billion to the Empire State’s coffers over the next six years, reported Bloomberg.

Illegal cannabis operators and smoke shops have proliferated in New York City, especially in Washington Square Park near the new cannabis shop. However, since it became legal to buy and sell cannabis, the city and state have been cracking down on illegal shops and sellers, King said.

“I was very appreciative of this. They actually did focus specifically on unlicensed operations that were functioning close to where we are,” King said. “We also understand that the governor will be introducing legislation this next session that will allow penalties against landlords who lease to unlicensed cannabis retail.”

Mayor Eric Adams said his administration believes “the legal cannabis industry is going to balance out the illegal.”

Praise

Adams called the opening of New York’s first cannabis dispensary a “major milestone.”

“The opening of the first legal dispensary in our state right here in New York City is more than just a promising step for this budding industry — it represents a new chapter for those most harmed by the failed policies of the past,” Adams said in a written statement.

At a pre-opening event for the media at the store the morning of December 29, New York State Senator Liz Krueger, who sponsored S854, the bill that legalized the sale and usage of cannabis in the Empire State, called the first legal dispensary “a perfect match with the philosophy and ideology.”

Founded in 1990, Housing Works is a $136 million organization serving about 15,000 clients throughout New York annually, King said. It currently employs 927 staff full-time, 55 staff part-time, and 41 per diem employees, according to a representative of the organization. The funds raised through its retail businesses support a variety of social services: housing, health services, employment opportunities, and legal advocacy.

The long wait

The store was a long time coming. King said Housing Works started working with the New York State in 2019 when recreational use of cannabis was decriminalized. New York legalized cannabis in 2021 and allowed stores to open in 2022.

Housing Works was ready when licensing became available in August 2022, King said. Its dispensary was one of the first to be awarded a CAURD license to operate a cannabis shop in the state of New York, according to the release.

King doesn’t expect Housing Works Cannabis Co. to be the only dispensary in the state for very long. He anticipates Housing Works will open two more stores in Manhattan and train people to open their own dispensaries by the end of 2023.

The Cannabis Control Board approved 36 other CAURD licenses to open dispensaries, eight of which were community-based organizations, including Housing Works. The state is expected to issue 139 more in 2023, reported ABC7 NY.

The store will be open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. People must be 21 years of age or older to enter the store. Only cash payment is accepted.

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