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Cops crack down on cannabis vending in Washington Square Park; Pot peddlers try to pose as artists

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | It looks like the open-air weed bazaar in Washington Square Park is going up in smoke.

As The Village Sun recently reported, umbrella-festooned vendors’ tables recently have disappeared from most of the plaza ringing the fountain in Washington Square Park. The vendors — many of them selling weed — have cluttered the plaza, to varying degrees, since at least the fall of 2021. Recreational pot was legalized in New York earlier that year.

Captain Jason Zeikel, the commanding officer of Greenwich Village’s 6th Precinct, confirmed that police are now enforcing the “50-foot rule” in the park — meaning vendors have to set up at least 50 feet away from major monuments, like the Washington Square Park fountain. But he also said the plaza is looking so clear lately simply because police have ramped up their enforcement against selling drugs in the park.

“I think the reason it looks so clear is we’ve been targeting a lot of the drug dealers,” he told The Village Sun. “There’s been an effort between N.Y.P.D. and PEP [Parks Enforcement Patrol] to enforce some of the park rules — including the 50-feet-from-the-fountain rule.

“I think there’s a lot less marijuana and drug vendors in the park now. I think they got the hint and a lot of them left. We are trying to keep the fountain [plaza] relatively clear.

“I think there’s more things to come in the future to create a happy medium for expressive-matter vending,” he said, declining to provide details.

Asked if the “more things to come” might include a medallion system for vendors, as is used in Central Park, Battery Park, Union Square Park and on the High Line, Zeikel said, “I can’t comment on that right now because we’re working on it.”

Under the medallion system, artists compete for a limited number of authorized vending spots, which are marked by medallions on the ground.

Even though this jewelry is handmade, it is not considered “expressive matter,” according to an artist vendor activist who is knowledgable of the rules. Police now appear to agree with him. (Photo by The Village Sun)

“Expressive-matter” vending refers to people selling literature or artists selling their work, for example.

Zeikel admitted that vending handmade jewelry in the park is a nuanced category. Basically, the jewelry — even if it is handmade — must express some kind of message. For example, religious jewelry, like a crucifix or a chai Hebrew letter, would be protected. So would a peace sign, since it conveys an idea.

“Jewelry in general isn’t allowed,” the C.O. stated. “But a lot of the jewelry is religious jewelry.”

Previously, Zeikel had said the understanding of police was that it was legal to vend any kind of handmade jewelry in the park. But longtime artist-vendor activist Robert Lederman, the president of A.R.T.I.S.T. (Artists’ Response to Illegal State Tactics), disagrees, saying that, under the law, the jewelry must have a message. In addition, at least one other community activist has been lobbying the 6th Precinct — and sending them a copy of the park rules on vending — saying the officers must properly enforce the regulations.

However, Zeikel said the precinct’s main focus right now is on the drug vendors and getting them out of the park, including from the fountain plaza, plus trying to keep a handle on “hard drugs,” as seen in the park’s northwest corner.

“We’re trying to make a balance with expressive-matter vending and trying as best we can to rid the park of marijuana and mushroom vendors,” he stated.

Meanwhile, activist Lederman contends that, based on Parks Department rules, there really is no spot in Washington Square Park where it’s legal to vend anything, which must be done from a table — unless the vendor is simply standing there, without a table, and holding literature or artwork. Vendors are not allowed to sell on the grass lawns, within 5 feet of benches or trees or to set up a table on the park’s pathways, which are too narrow to accommodate them under the rules.

However, Zeikel disagreed, stating, “There’s limited legal spots in the park for where you can do it.”

Recently, some vendors — including some pot sellers posing as artists — could be seen with their tables set up along the outer rim of the fountain plaza. One of them said police recently told them to stay 50 feet away from the fountain but also 5 feet away from the black granite benches that ring the plaza’s outer edge.

A pot vendor’s table was set up in the middle of the fountain plaza last month. Following a recent police crackdown, this vendor was recently set up farther away from the fountain, 5 feet from the black granite benches that ring the space. (Photo by The Village Sun)

As for hard drugs in the park’s northwest corner, Zeikel said if police see open drug use — people smoking crack or shooting up heroin — they can and will make a collar.

“If I saw that in the park, there’d be an arrest being made,” he assured.

Whether the Manhattan district attorney chooses to prosecute those arrests, on the other hand, is another matter, but that won’t stop police from making arrests, Zeikel said. However, due to a legislative change in Albany, police can no longer legally arrest someone found in possession of a syringe containing heroin residue. The D.A., in turn, has applied that same standard to possession of a crack pipe containing crack residue, so police no longer make arrests for that, either.

Getting back to the pot vendors, some cannabis vendors are blurring things by hiding their stash under their tables while purporting to be selling art.

“We have drug dealers that are trying to be expressive-matter vendors,” Zeikel said. “They are trying to pull a fast one. We’re aware of them. They’re posing as expressive-matter vendors. They’re taking away space from legal expressive-matter vendors.”

On Sat., Aug. 12, the 6th Precinct posted on its X page a photo of a table confiscated in the park that was covered with stickers claiming the vendor was an artist but who was allegedly really selling pre-rolled joints and THC edibles.

The Village Sun spoke with a number of vendors in the park early last month. They were set up in the middle of the plaza — before the recent crackdown that has pushed them to its outer fringe.

Eddy Perez, a handmade jewelry vendor from Venezuela, said police officers might sometimes question her a bit, but basically let her sell her stuff from her small table.

“I explain him, it’s handmade,” she said.

Hannibal Bracey displayed one of the coffee mugs he was selling in the park for $35. (Photo by The Village Sun)

From a table display next to her, Hannibal Bracey, a coffee fan and budding entrepreneur, was selling mugs for $35. It was his first day vending in the park. His mugs weren’t handmade — though he said an artist did create their logo for him. As for how he set his price, he said it’s what an eighth of weed goes for in the park.

“They smoke that,” he scoffed. “You can contribute [instead] to a good cause.”

Some young female Italian students on a tour of the Village stopped to snap photos of a pot vendors’ wares — including clear jars of loose pot bud and what looked like ’shrooms — apparently fascinated it was being sold out in the open so conspicuously. One of their adult chaperones said pot is legal in Italy — though apparently not sold as brazenly there as in New York City.

An Italian student, left, touring the Village had to get a shot of loose marijuana flower — and also possibly hallucinogenic mushrooms — openly for sale on a table in the park. (Photo by The Village Sun)

As for local community members, Zeikel said they generally approve of the crackdown on pot and ’shroom sales in the small, heavily used, landmark park.

“The community appreciates that,” he said.

To those who want to buy reefer, he advised, it’s best to go to a state-regulated store, for safety reasons, among other things.

“Use the licensed dispensary,” he said. “Would you buy homemade alcohol in 2023 — or would you go to a liquor store?”

Meanwhile, though Lederman and some of the park art vendors say the artists have been feeling the heat from the police, Zeikel tells a different story.

“No one has screamed for the artists to leave the park,” he countered. “I just have my guys focused on the drugs. Can they enforce on other things? Yes.”

One female artist vendor was reportedly recently arrested by police when she struggled with them over her large beach umbrella.

Zeikel said, though, it’s usually the Parks Department PEP officers that will do enforcement against general vending in the park — such as for non-expressive matter items.

He noted that the Parks Department’s rules on unlawful vending are clearly posted on its Web site, and urged people to read them. Rules on expressive-matter vending are also posted.

The captain said he also has specifically asked the PEPs to focus on enforcing against skateboarding in the park.

“I wish there was a skate park, really, somewhere in the vicinity,” he said.

Many seniors loathe the skateboarding, saying it makes it unsafe for them to enjoy the park. However, an older artist named Guy, who had just left the nearby Center on the Square day center on Washington Square North, said the skateboarding doesn’t bother him. What he objects to is the pot selling — specifically, that young children are exposed to it.

“There’s kids in the park,” he said. “Families go to the park.”


  1. Stephen DiLauro Stephen DiLauro August 14, 2023

    When the cops stop all ebikes and bicycles whizzing through the park, I’ll be impressed. Two days ago I saw a couple ride two ebikes into the kids area just north of the chess tables.
    Then again, it doesn’t take any extra physical exertion to harass poor people trying to make a living in an economy that favors banksters and tech creeps.
    This guy Ezekiel apparently likes the press attention and he targets low-hanging fruit to get it. Typical.

    • Stephen DiLauro Stephen DiLauro August 14, 2023

      I did spell Zeikel properly but autocorrect got me. Sentiment remains the same.

  2. Ali Ali August 13, 2023

    Not to mention that some pot stores are now selling some food items so they can put up cafe/restaurant shacks in the street – more free sales space.

  3. John Penley John Penley August 13, 2023

    On a related subject….I am seeing multiple reports on Social media that Tompkins Square Park is being flooded with Meth and since it is cheap and available [it already has been sold in most parts of the country ] many are now getting strung out on it. Perhaps you could do a report on this since meth is a hell of a lot more destructive , addictive and dangerous than some harmless pot sales in Washington Square Park.

    • aron kay aron kay August 16, 2023


  4. Robert Lederman Robert Lederman August 13, 2023

    The NYPD, the PEP officers and some W Sq Park protestors seem to think the park rules for expressive matter vendors are a secret, and that I am the one revealing them to the world. This is nonsense.

    The reality is that the rules are available on the Park Department’s website and on the NYPD 6th Precinct website. The PEP officers have handed out thousands of copies of the rules to artists and vendors in parks since 2010. The Park Conservancies, community boards and the BIDs all have the rules and cite them in news articles. And, there have been scores of news articles and extensive TV news coverage about the rules since 2010.

    The NYPD has repeatedly circulated internal memos describing in detail that jewelry and clothing cannot be legally vended in parks unless they have a political or religious message. The PEP has issued their own internal memos specifically describing what is and is not allowed to be sold under the First Amendment, noting that jewelry and clothing are not exempt from a park permit. The artists protesting in WSP were given those internal NYPD and PEP documents but chose to “strategically” ignore them.

    The reason I describe the extreme restrictions in the rules rather than pretending they don’t exist is that there’s no way to build a consensus on changing rules if no one is willing to admit how extreme they are or the park privatization agenda that is behind them. To protest against the police and PEP, who are just following orders, while giving the WSP Conservancy, the Washington Sq Association and the Parks Department a free ride is very poor strategy and has accomplished nothing but noise and confusion.

    To try to shoehorn jewelry, clothing and craft vendors into a street artist protest is even worse strategy. These vendors lost their chance for an exemption from the park permit or vending license in 2006. They are not going to be included in whatever outcome develops in WSP, where the conservancy wants far less rather than far more vendors. Personally, I think crafts are every bit as expressive as a painting, but it’s for judges, not street artists, to decide the legal framework of vending. This is settled law.

    Visual artists selling paintings, prints, photographs or sculptures, in the opinion of the 2nd circuit Federal Appeals Court, are always fully protected by the First Amendment, while other types of art “may” be protected.

    “The district court seems to have equated the visual expression involved in these cases with the crafts of the jeweler, the potter and the silversmith who seek to sell their work. Bery, 906 F. Supp. at 167. While these objects may at times have expressive content, paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures, such as those appellants seek to display and sell in public areas of the City, always communicate some idea or concept to those who view it, and as such are entitled to full First Amendment protection.”

    The 2006 Federal Appeals Court ruling in Mastrovincenzo v city of NY went further and stated that even if some craft vendors are creating items that express ideas, that the city can still require a vending license or park permit from them.

    This is the legal framework within which the artists, the Conservancies, the NYPD and the Parks Department must deal. Pretending otherwise is useless and deceptive.

  5. John S John S August 13, 2023

    Honestly, I don’t care if we were to outlaw the selling of anything including artwork inside the park. Limit any vending to outside the park and set a strict schedule. The park is for the people to relax – not for people trying to sell stuff.

    I’ve observed the NW corner drug dealing operation. It’s not hard to locate the dealers. I’ve even given the police vehicle and license plate information on the dealers. Get rid of the dealers and the opiate and crack addicts will go away.

    • Jane Doe Jane Doe August 14, 2023

      Well put, John S! Our city is full of spaces dedicated to capitalism—can we please reserve one small square of it where we are not selling things: art, pot, jewelry, even music?! The rules around free expression were created so that controversial ideas had a place to live and be heard, not for them to be sold. The “artists” should be allowed to use the park to perform or show their art, but without being allowed to collect money to do so. This would make it more like a free museum than an art gallery.

  6. Eric Cook Eric Cook August 12, 2023

    wow. another article that ignores 21 days of WSP Artists Actions against this illegal harassment of artists. when the artists are finally eliminated we can add the Village Sun to the list of the enemies of wsp artists. prove me wrong.

    • True New Yorker True New Yorker August 14, 2023

      How self-centered can Eric and the so-called “artists” be? The entire park has gotten completely out of control and you failed artists (aka hustlers for community money) have picked your lane to join forces with the drug dealers, addicts, anarchists AND against the actual community, who demand some sense of civility and safety in a neighborhood park (too much to ask?). We are families, rich and poor and of all colors and nationalities trying to simply live and enjoy the park. You are welcome, too. But it’s a park. Not a gallery, not a retail store, not a music hall or dance club, it’s a park. And yes there is “programing” for music, art, etc. Obviously, the real problem is the hardcore addicts and dealing in the park’s northwest corner. But in order to address that, we need law and order and enforcement of the existing rules. We have put up with 3-plus years of protests, filth, prostitution, open-air hardcore drugs, crime — enough is enough. We, the community who actually live here, have demanded action from the NYPD and PEP park police officers. Once the park is in order, we can talk about limited commercial use. Honestly, the audacity of you and the “artists” making this about yourselves is unbelievable. (“Prove me wrong”!). Your sense of entitlement knows no bounds.

      • Robert Lederman Robert Lederman August 14, 2023
        “The sale of protected materials is also protected. See Lakewood v. Plain Dealer Pub. Co., 486 U.S. 750, 756 n.5 768 (1988). “It is well settled that a speaker’s rights are not lost merely because compensation is received; a speaker is no less a speaker because he or she is paid to speak.” Riley v. Nat’l Fed’n of Blind of North Carolina, 487 U.S. 781, 801 (1988). In United States v. Nat’l Treasury Employees Union, ___ U.S., 115 S.Ct. 1003 (1995), the United States Supreme Court found that a ban on honoraria for government employees “imposes the kind of burden that abridges speech under the First Amendment,” in part because “the denial of compensation for lower-paid, nonpolicymaking employees will inevitably diminish their expressive output” and will “impose a significant burden on the public’s right to read and hear what the employees would otherwise have written and said.” Id. at 1014-15. As in the present case, without the money, the plaintiffs would not have engaged in the protected expressive activity.

        “Furthermore, the street marketing is in fact a part of the message of appellants’ art. As they note in their submissions to the court, they believe that art should be available to the public. Anyone, not just the wealthy, should be able to view it and to buy it. Artists are part of the “real” world; they struggle to make a living and interact with their environments. The sale of art in public places conveys these messages.”

  7. Robert Lederman Robert Lederman August 12, 2023

    Adding a few medallions to the least-desirable locations in Washington Sq. Park would be a serious blow to artists and everyone else’s freedom of speech. Will you, the local residents and parkgoers, accept a limit of two or three “spots” where a person can legally hand out a leaflet or make a speech atop a soapbox? One can be sure that the WSP Conservancy has a say in whether this happens or not. What say you, WSP Conservancy? How about a public statement in support of FULL artists rights in WSP.

    • Steven G Hill Steven G Hill August 14, 2023

      Stop WSQ Park from becoming a Flea Market of Drugs and ETC

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