New York should begin adult-use cannabis sales this year, according to the Office of Cannabis Management, marking the long-awaited start to what’s expected to become one of the top-selling markets in the country.
While New York stands poised to become a significant player, its flourishing illicit and gray market sales could dampen expectations. The state could generate more than $1.25 billion in legal market sales in just a few short years. However, illicit market sales are likely already doing better than that.
Gauging the size of the illicit market is difficult, with few estimations publically available. In 2021, Global Go Analytics determined that California’s illicit sales generated $8 billion per year. In comparison, California’s legal market sold an estimated $4.9 – $5.7 billion worth of cannabis last year, according to MJBizDaily.
Sloane Barbour is the CEO and founder of Engin Sciences Inc. and a partner at FlowerHire, two New York-based cannabis staffing ventures. Barbour told New York Cannabis Insider that California’s illicit market thrives on cultivation while New York’s centers around retail and delivery.
“There is likely more illicit cannabis sold here than any other major city in the world,” said Barbour.
New York’s gray market retail sales have recently boomed, as numerous storefronts opened using gifting and private membership regulations as loopholes. Regulators claim to be prepared for the outcome, and are supposedly taking action. So far, the OCM has implemented licensing measures and said they’ve taken action against unlicensed shops. Still, no one knows if New York will follow in California’s footsteps, where crippling taxes and a thriving unlicensed market threaten to sink the marketplace.
NY Cannabis Insider spoke to several cannabis businesses and consumers to gauge how likely New Yorkers will be to give up unlicensed sales for the legal market.
Motivating Purchasing Factor: Convenience
As legal cannabis sales inch closer to reality, the state’s battle with the legacy market likely boils down to convenience, cost and product quality.
Shawna Seldon McGregor, founder of Maverick Public Relations, lived in New York City for 14 years before moving out West in 2012.
“I always had ‘my delivery guy,’” she said.
McGregor ran out of gummies and flowers during her last trip to New York earlier this year, and didn’t have her old dealer’s number. Instead of giving up, she turned to her iPhone, typed “marijuana” into her map app and was stunned to see numerous illicit storefronts around her.
Shortly after, she was able to pick up several gummies and prerolls. Rather than pay a traditional fee, shoppers like McGregor pay for items like NFTs that just so happen to come with cannabis as a gift. She didn’t pay much attention to her donation, but McGregor believes she dropped about $35 at the unlicensed dispensary.
Scores of New Yorkers and those visiting are doing the same. What once was a low-key effort is now effortless, with popular map apps highlighting brick-and-mortar locations and mobile trucks set up around the city.
“Convenience can be one of the most appealing aspects of buying from the legacy market,” said Kassia Graham, director of community and strategy for the equitable advocacy focused firm Cannaclusive.
“Some customers have built a great rapport with their weed-man, -woman, or -person over time,” she said, noting the importance of New York’s cannabis delivery services.
Motivating Purchasing Factors: Cost And Quality
Graham and McGregor caution that quality can be inconsistent.
“The edibles were gross but did the job to help with my sleep issues,” said McGregor, calling the flower she purchased “perfect.”
Melissa Vitale, owner of Melissa A. Vitale Public Relations, agreed that convenience is excellent, but product quality can vary in the unlicensed market.
“Currently, if you bought a Blue Dream in a legal dispensary, it will look very different than the one you get from your guy,” said Vitale.
She reported having difficulty tracking where plants were grown on the unlicensed market, with some flower produced in-state and others shipped in from the west coast.
Cost is another critical factor the state will contend with, with licensed products undoubtedly selling at higher prices.
“The legacy market will almost certainly be less expensive, due to many factors, including the price of flower and a lower operating cost,” said Barbour. Depending on the service, New Yorker’s can pay anywhere from $40 to over $100 for an eighth of cannabis. At licensed medical dispensaries like MedMen, flower prices tend to start around $50.
Barbour highlighted limited regulated cultivation at the market’s onset coupled with the illicit market’s ability to operate without taxes, licensing fees or compliance as factors. To combat product dearth, the state has so far issued licenses to 162 existing hemp farmers to begin THC cultivation.
However, according to most sources, the cost of products should not transcend the importance of their quality.
Kym Byrnes, CMO for New York-based CBD and THC brand TribeTokes, agreed that cost would play a prime factor but that product quality matters most. She noted that illicit options have their value, “assuming that you are purchasing from a trusted source in the legacy market who is lab testing, not using pesticides or putting cutting agents in their carts.”
Otherwise, sources say the risk isn’t worth it.
“While plenty of the legacy cannabis in New York is really good … there are no controls over quality in the illicit market,” said Barbour.
“You don’t know which terpenes are present,” said Graham, discussing plant profile quality. She rhetorically asked, “Are you ingesting mold, heavy metals, and other toxins?”
Will New Yorkers Buy From Licensed Shops?
The state has made some efforts to thwart illicit sales, including allegedly sending cease and desist orders to various shops operating in the city in February. However, efforts like these in California have not done much to dent the unlicensed market. Instead, a more impactful solution could come from the state’s Seeding Opportunity Initiative, which aims to provide the first 100 or so retail licenses to individuals with cannabis-related criminal offenses and their family members.
Touted by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office as a “first-of-its-kind approach,” the program aims to correct some adverse impacts created by the drug war. The decision could also compel New Yorkers aiming to support minority-owned businesses if consumer support for minority companies continued.
At this time, it’s unclear if consumer support has waned for such businesses. June 2021 data from Sendinblue and CITE Research found that 31% of US consumers surveyed increased their purchasing habits among minority businesses over the past year. However, 2022 data compiled by Meta found that 51% of Black-owned small businesses reported lower sales than the year prior. Various other factors, headlined by rising inflation, likely also play a part in declining sales. However, will traditional legacy market shoppers support minorities or any legal cannabis business with prices going up?
Cannaclusive’s Graham cited a 2021 Weedmaps poll indicating that 57% of consumers believe the industry benefits from an inclusive marketplace. Still, she cautioned that actually supporting businesses and groups is another story.
“Like many movements centering marginalized groups, talk of supporting cannabis equity is akin to the ubiquitous black square of 2020,” she said.
TribeTokes’ Byrnes said time would tell if New York’s adult-use program produces success. For now, she worries that many legacy operators will be turned off by the licensing process and remain in the illicit market.
She believes New York could see a significant customer switch if enough unlicensed operators go legal. However, she warns that “most off-market operators have little incentive with restraints such as capital, compliance and an overwhelming tax code.”
Overall, sources seem to believe that consumers will visit the legal market at first. Still, long-time consumers may switch back to their legacy retailers due to price and loyalty.
“Consistent consumers will be turned off by taxes for regular supply, but we’ll see these individuals excited for the ability to pop over to their local dispensary to pick up a new vape pen or gummy,” predicts Vitale.
Regardless, New York should still have a deep list of interested consumers. Engin’s Barbour said, “These are a lot of canna-curious types.”
It’s uncertain how many of New York’s legacy consumers will switch to the legal market. However, most sources seem confident that both sides of the market will perform admirably in the future. Even if New York’s legal sales perform well, most see the legacy market sticking around. Those expecting anything else may not know the resilience of the unlicensed market.
“Legacy operators are constantly evolving and becoming far more sophisticated than people who are unfamiliar with the market realize,” said Graham.