BY SCOTT OGLESBY | First off, the following opinion is not journalistic but simply my take as someone familiar with the cannabis business before legalization. As such, I’ve watched with great interest as the complicated rollout of this legal blind turkey flaps about.
Seems that the gray areas of legality, licensing and good ol’ black market enterprise have collided. The result is we have a few legal weed shops shadowed by hundreds of unofficial storefront smoke shops and countless card-table pop-ups. It’s the Wild East out there, baby, and if the authorities were gung ho at enforcing drug laws before legalization, now they’re predictably ambivalent, stuck in post-legal limbo with a ho-hum attitude. The one thing the new law did get right was bumping folks saddled with previous marijuana convictions to the front of the licensee list.
However, it does feel gleefully surreal to walk the streets with the whiff of burning herb on every corner. Having graduated to edibles, I find the scent itself malodorous but I love what the stink represents — freedom from other peoples’ values.
But imagine my surprise on my first visit to a legal shop where bags of flower were priced from $50 to $80 an eighth. Seriously? I asked the guy at the counter. He could only shrug. Add a retail pot tax of 13 percent, plus half a cent on each milligram of THC, and it’s no wonder stores charge double the street price. How do they ever expect to stamp out the black market? Or is the goal to just push weed into a pricey boutique product? Or to make it so trendy that people will line up outside new “boutiques” when they grand open? Evidently so.
The bigger culprits are Manhattan’s usurious commercial rents, which have doomed the chances for scoring sensibly priced legal hooch in a storefront. Real estate capitalism strikes again but it doesn’t stop there. Giving new meaning to seed money, I read in Barron’s that a major Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich, has provided much of the start-up capital for the new cannabis industry. Indeed, he was the founding shareholder of Curaleaf, which has become the country’s largest licensed pot company. From Mexican cartels to Russian oligarchs is hardly a step forward.
America has a long history of factory farming everything from chickens and cows to minks and broccoli, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to see cannabis head in that direction. I also read that the COVID debacle has sparked a lot of new investment in “grows” from folks with time and money on their hands. A glut is on the horizon. Welcome to the legal market, fellas.
Long ago, when I was sole proprietor of my own mom-and-pot, things were simpler — visit my kitchen or invite me to yours by way of an earth-friendly bike trip. (My true-crime-lite life fictionalized, at Ridinghigh.net). My product was locally grown, unadulterated and not cheap, although markup was still less than for a pair of blue jeans. Words from the mouths of friends were the only ads I needed. Eventually, my age and sore legs grandfathered me out of the biz — the exact date aligned with the relevant statute of limitations, ahem. My retirement arrived minus a golden parachute but blessed with a future of Uber-less travel and happy trudges to Trader Joe’s.
So with prices so prohibitive and, in my view, suspicious, what are post-legal pot smokers supposed to do? What began as sharing a countercultural rite has evolved into stores hustling exotic pot strains with cutesy names sold over the counter in glass jars. And for urban dwellers, anyway, growing your own is just an old hippie pipe dream.
Sadly, I’ve become a cranky old fogey Libertarian with no helpful advice to give, except to myself — that maybe I too am over-invested in nostalgia. Hopefully, the new legal scene will stabilize and become more friendly and affordable without official guidance from the government. But, for now, that old adage (the one that always gave me the creeps) still applies — the jury is still out.
Oglesby is a longtime Village resident, an editor at Bellevue Literary Reviewand author of the novel “Riding High.”