For generations, entrepreneurs and dreamers have moved to New York City to strike it big. Now they’re coming to sell a lot of cannabis.
Credit…Illustration by Jess Ebsworth
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S. was 30 and C. was 22 when they first met — at a focus group for public transportation in Tampa, Fla., in 2012. The age difference between them was a problem for her at first. “I was like, immediately, ‘No,’” S. says. She had already spent a decade trying to figure out her life. There were years spent working on behalf of tomato-farm laborers in Florida, followed by a stint as a union rep for janitors and security guards at Harvard, in Massachusetts, then jobs as a pastry chef in Boston and in Austin, Texas. By 2016, she was back in Tampa, her hometown, working in kitchens, still making pastries. She was, in C.’s words, “this beautiful, smart woman who’s about this community life.” A few months after the focus group — where, as it happened, they were the only two participants who actually used public transportation — she messaged him on Facebook: “Hey, question, you know anyone I could cop some weed from?”
She wanted to make some edibles; he seemed like someone who might be able to provide the key ingredient. Though he was abstaining at the time, worried about the drug testing at his job at a mental health organization, he had used and dealt cannabis since high school. He had some connections. “Luckily, where I was hanging out at, my neighbor was an old head, like, 70 years or 75 years old,” C. says. “He was selling hella weed.”
A few weeks later, he sampled one of S.’s first batches of edibles: green-tea madeleines. They were the perfect balance of sweet and earthy, spongy in texture. “They did a number on me,” C. says. S. made more desserts, like gummies and dulce de leche cookies. By now, he was no longer worrying about the drug testing at work; he was focused on supplying her cannabis. “I’m trying to hang out with her,” he says. “So, I started selling them to people in my neighborhood and really putting some effort in.”
A partnership — in romance, in business — took shape. They sold their goods at the kitchens where she worked and at barbershops too. “We’d bring Rice Krispies treats, but more gourmet — they were shaped in a doughnut with white-chocolate drizzle, just next-level stuff. Sometimes it’d be, like, flan or tres leches. We’d have drinks like guanabana, or soursop, and, like, passion fruit,” he says, describing some of their cannabis-infused products. “It’s Tampa, so there are a lot of people from the islands or the Caribbean.”
Business flourished. By 2020, they had eight employees and hundreds of customers; they organized cannabis events where they sold edibles, CBD products and “flower” (the smokable parts of the plant). When the pandemic hit, they remained committed to their deliveries: Some of their customers were elderly, in pain and looking for alternative therapies. “We were like Uber Eats, sliding around the streets after the curfews,” he says. They considered themselves — and their customers considered them — essential workers. But despite the fact that there was a nearly 50 percent increase in the demand for legal cannabis nationwide during the first year of the pandemic, they were not, legally speaking, essential workers. And in Florida, though medical cannabis was legal, recreational was not. Their ventures in the gray areas of the recreational weed industry are why they are only willing to be identified by their middle initials, C. and S., and do not want the name of their business to be made public.
Just as they were getting into a pandemic rhythm of deliveries and drop-offs, the George Floyd protests took over Tampa’s streets. Every time C. and S. were driving after curfew, they felt as if they might be targeted by police, who were out in greater numbers. During one cannabis delivery, C. noticed a car following him, and he worried it was driven by undercover police officers — either that or counterprotesters; he couldn’t tell. After the unmarked car was joined by five marked police vehicles, he told S., who was in the passenger seat with their delivery of edibles and flower, to throw everything out the window, call their lawyer, call their neighbor. The neighbor told him there were vehicles that looked like unmarked police cars in front of their house.
Concerned about raids and arrests, they decided they had to leave town. For nearly a month, they stayed with friends, afraid to go home, and debated where they might go next. He wanted to move to the West Coast, someplace where the green rush was flush and legal. He had Los Angeles in mind. But she lobbied hard for New York. They both had relatives there, and a cannabis market was emerging in the city. When S. lived in Boston, she used to take the Chinatown bus on the weekends to visit cousins or friends in New York. “I can be entertained by walking most of my day, having a coffee and just hanging out in a park,” she says. “Those are the things that I really enjoy doing, and this is a city that’s great for that.” By July 2020, the couple arrived in New York, after finding an Airbnb in, as C. puts it, “this awesome Islands neighborhood.” Everybody was barbecuing outside, listening to music, having the best time. New York was, he says, “a breath of fresh air.”
Though cannabis is illegal at the federal level, it is legal for recreational use in 18 states (and Washington, D.C.) and for medical use in 37 states. New York made recreational cannabis legal in March 2021, less than a year after C. and S. moved to the city. From that point on, people 21 and older have been allowed to possess up to three ounces of cannabis for personal use (and to keep up to five pounds of cannabis in their homes). Smoking cannabis is permitted almost anywhere you might smoke a cigarette, and police officers are no longer able to stop and search pedestrians only on the basis of smelling it on them.
Legal sales from stores have had to wait, though. Recreational dispensaries are not yet operating legally; that will most likely begin happening by the end of this year. Still, spend two minutes in Washington Square Park, where passers-by are offered memberships to cannabis clubs, and it’s clear that the promised green rush is not on the horizon: It’s here. Elsewhere around the city, entrepreneurs provide a “gift” of cannabis after a customer buys a work of art, say, or a T-shirt. A $365 prix fixe cannabis experience in SoHo was advertised for Mother’s Day on Tock, a restaurant website, as an “8-course finely infused menu, grand cru and premier cru beverage pairings, German sparkling water.” The defunct street-art magazine Animal plans to start back up in June with cannabis distribution as part of its business model: If a city resident buys a weed-themed piece of art from the magazine, it will also deliver an ounce of free cannabis. Puff, Pass and Paint gives B.Y.O.C. classes where you can smoke while learning to paint. The business website Quartz has reported that legal cannabis sales in the United States are forecast to grow 14 percent a year on average and exceed $57 billion annually by 2030 — and that is in only the states where such sales are already permitted. When you include the additional states poised to legalize cannabis, the national forecast exceeds $72 billion in sales. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has proposed that the city invest $4.8 million next year in the local cannabis industry, which is expected to generate nearly $1.3 billion in the first year of legal sales.
C. and S. arrived at just the right time, in other words. Chris Alexander, the executive director of the Office of Cannabis Management for New York State, says that based on the experience of other states that have legalized recreational cannabis, New York can expect an influx of travelers and workers to take advantage of a booming industry. “Our internal estimates are that there will be 60,000 jobs in the state,” he says. “We’ll see a wave on two sides, looking at sales and cultivation. We already have our small farmers growing. We have folks coming in to help with expertise.”
The reason it has taken so long for the dispensaries to open for recreational sales may in part be because the scandal that led to Andrew Cuomo’s resignation as New York’s governor last summer delayed Alexander’s appointment, which in turn stalled the distribution of licenses for dispensaries and for clubs and lounges, where people will be able to gather and smoke indoors. The process has also been affected by New York State’s efforts to take equity into account — that is, to give priority to New Yorkers with past cannabis convictions when it assigns licenses. As The Times noted in 2018, Hispanic people across New York City had been arrested on low-level cannabis charges at five times the rates of white, non-Hispanic people over the previous three years; in Manhattan, Black people had been arrested at 15 times the rate of white people, even though surveys indicated that the rates of cannabis use were similar for both groups. The state now wants to try to make up for those disparities. It also seeks to remove as many barriers as possible for small business owners like C. and S., who, as newcomers, “won’t get priority as a New York community member,” Alexander says. “But maybe they will get priority because they’re a minority-owned business.”
When C. and S. landed in the city, they didn’t have a solid plan for selling cannabis in New York. They also didn’t know if they could keep things going in Tampa from afar. They worried about their legal risks there and for a time paused most of their Florida operations. They considered taking regular jobs: He spent a day answering phones at a crisis-center hotline; she wanted to be a food blogger or recipe developer. But nothing really clicked, and they soon decided to stick with their original idea — figuring out how to keep their brand afloat in Tampa while establishing a foothold in Brooklyn.
One of the first tests the couple faced was the city’s familiar hazing ritual: finding a place to live. “We didn’t have pay stubs and all these formal documents and papers that you typically need if you’re going to get an apartment here,” S. says. But they had just enough cash, coming in from Tampa, where they had friends making deliveries to their remaining customers, to rent an apartment in a largely Ecuadorean neighborhood in Brooklyn. “My dad’s Ecuadorean,” C. says. “My family’s Ecuadorean. In Miami, there’s not that many Ecuadoreans, so it was nice to be in a neighborhood where things that people talk about or say or the news that might be going on, I can kind of relate to.”
Once settled, they spent their life savings — thousands of dollars — to buy a package of cannabis from Colorado, hoping that would enable them to establish their New York business. It didn’t. “I’ve been selling marijuana since I was like a teenager in Miami,” C. says. “Every now and then I would do a rookie mistake.” This deal was one of them. They had planned to both sell the cannabis and use some of it for giveaways — which they thought would help them gain a following in Brooklyn — but it was lost in transport. They had to get cannabis on credit in order to have something to sell.
During their first winter, C. sold cannabis for a friend and then used his cut of the profits to buy more to sell on his own. “I’d meet people up in the park,” he says. “I would serve up the taco workers.” The couple were getting used to the new city, walking their dogs, eating at the same taco shop every day, letting the borough’s rhythms dictate theirs. One of C.’s favorite aspects of city life was sharing tacos and a smoke with neighbors at the end of a day.
When legalization became official last year, they felt that their gamble had paid off. Less than a month later, they were ready to plan a 4/20 celebration, an event like the ones they used to put on in Tampa. They had become close with the owner of a taco truck, and together they organized something like a block-party happy hour. Because that 4/20 — observed as a cannabis “holiday” — fell on a Tuesday, they hit upon a Taco Tuesday twist: free infusions as taco toppings. It was their Brooklyn debut.
The success of the event, and their growing love of Brooklyn, increased their desire to give up selling at festivals and on corners. They wanted the heart of their business to be a brick-and-mortar store. After they found a small place, C. explained to the landlord during negotiations that their company was a holistic lifestyle brand. The landlord seemed to like what he heard about the couple’s desire to use cannabis to help people and be a part of the community. S. was nervous about the financial commitment to the space, but they signed a six-month lease anyway. Even if it stayed open for only a month, C. says, they thought that would be worth it. They could get their name out there, get involved with their block, “build community with a few people in the neighborhood.”
In the last year, S. and C. have become firmly entrenched in New York’s underground cannabis culture. A few months after the opening of their store, they hosted a local fashion designer’s pop-up show there. This January, they held a grow clinic over Zoom that 35 people attended. Some of C.’s favorite events are what he calls stash-n-dash competitions, or scavenger hunts, for which he emails clues to club members, who, on a specified night, “dash” through the city searching for free, hidden cannabis. These are not the only handouts. Sometimes they put out word that a free ounce is available outside the store; the first person to show up gets to keep it. “It’s kind of cool to see somebody get blessed with some deliciousness,” C. says.
When I stopped by their store earlier this year, C. was holding a joint. He apologized for the smoke, fanning it away, but this was their 4/20 celebration, and he had a store to run, a party with a D.J. out front, a block in Brooklyn to get high. “Today’s mad crazy,” he said. A Coach baseball cap worn backward kept his shoulder-length hair out of his face, and a neck tattoo peeked above the collar of his sweatshirt. He and S. were passing out free pre-rolls, or already-made joints, and half-hugging neighbors and strangers alike. Pickup orders that were called in earlier were being handed out to customers over the counter in brown paper bags. S. was giving directions to their three employees and calmly navigating the festivities — there were a dozen or so people in line, more than one of them dancing to the music from outside.
S., wearing a cardigan draped over a T-shirt that clearly stated in Spanish her progressive feelings about immigration, showed off the store to me. It resembled a neighborhood wine shop or a boutique that sells locally sourced goods. One brick wall was painted white, with a couple of wooden shelves displaying CBD dog treats, paintings, tinctures. (Their CBD oils were going for anywhere from $45 to $220, depending on strength and ingredients.) Another wall was reserved for community art: framed drawings, a mural, porcelain faces that serve as planters for cascading vines. All the money from the art sales goes directly to the artist, S. told me. She pointed out T-shirts, hemp clothing, paintings, weavings, grow lights and, finally, the elaborate communal rig, a glass apparatus that traps smoke from a THC concentrate called dab. Members, she explained, can stop by anytime for a hit from the rig. They get one free hit a day; membership is also free, through an email sign-up. The store has almost 1,600 members.
“Did you just burn through the last of the Papaya?” she asked an employee working the counter, referring to a cannabis strain for sale. Its sweet aroma was wafting through the store. The employee nodded. “Dang, I was supposed to save it for — ” She mumbled the customer’s name, aware of my presence and the legal gray area they were still operating in.
One evening, about a month later, I met C. in Midtown at a residential four-floor walk-up built in 1910. There was a free-standing A.T.M. out front and a banner for a members-only cannabis club. The building itself is home to two cannabis businesses — the club on the ground floor, run by a legacy operator who has been selling cannabis illegally for 15 years, and a “grow house” upstairs. The grow house is where C. gets their cannabis. “My main goal is to have nothing but the New York product,” he said; he wants to support the local industry, from seed to smoke, with cultivators, pickers and rollers from the city, in part because he doesn’t think that users elsewhere around the country appreciate the history of black-market grows in New York. The Sour Diesel strain, for example, is thought to have originated in New York. When it reached Miami, when C. was a teenager, it was the only kind of cannabis he smoked. “I have huge respect for New York growers and huge respect for the game out here. And it’s really an honor to be a part of all this.” Though he wasn’t sure how many places like the Midtown grow house existed in the city, he guessed the number could be in the hundreds. “Just in Chinatown alone, that’s where most of the country gets the old-school Bubba,” he said. “The black market and the underground stretches beyond anybody’s imagination.”
This particular grow house occupied the living rooms of two one-bedroom apartments. Danny (who goes by Danny Lyfe) set up the operation two years ago. He showed me the 26 plants in the back apartment, which he expected to produce 12 pounds of cannabis every 10 weeks. Each plant, about three feet tall, had its own pot, with a masking-tape label that identified its strain — Cherry Lime Runt or Joker’s Candy, for instance — and phenotype. Danny was reluctant to show me the plants in the front apartment because they weren’t doing that well: The employee who had been tending them mistakenly pruned them back too far. While C. and Danny shared a pre-roll, they were deep in conversation about the benefits of each strain and the preferred temperature (75 to 80 degrees), relative humidity (high 50s, low 60s, in the flowering stage) and light for the plants, the last two variables of which Danny controls remotely on his phone.
The grow house is only one part of Danny’s business. He owns a farm in Oregon, where he is licensed to grow medicinal cannabis, and a streetwear shop in Staten Island, where he lives. When I asked Danny and C. how they met, they both laughed. They couldn’t remember at first but then traced their connection back to a cannabis connoisseur who posted about Danny’s events on Instagram.
Danny told me his latest goal is to address a countrywide void: quality pre-rolls. “Pre-rolls are tainted in the nationwide market because most people use their garbage material — their endings, their trim,” he said. He wanted to produce 1,400 pre-rolls a day to sell wholesale for $5 each. He had just spent an entire shift that day, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., working with his employees to, as he put it, “roll cannolis.” The plants, all female, would eventually be trimmed and harvested in July.
As Danny locked up the apartment, he whispered to the plants, “See you later, love you girls.” Because he is deeply invested in weed — he is 33 but has spent 18 years in the industry so far — he is eager for everything to be officially legal. “I can’t wait for my outpost to open, that’s going to be lit,” he said. Danny doesn’t mind talking about his business publicly. He is already involved in several groups applying for licenses to grow and sell cannabis, and he is confident about his prospects. One project will be headquartered in a former bank in White Plains, a nearby suburb. At one point he found himself with the White Plains mayor. “I’m Puerto Rican from New York City sitting at the mayor’s office, and I’m pushing weed,” Danny told me, describing their meeting. The mayor asked Danny what his role was in the company. Danny said he told him about his industry expertise and added, “I’m the one who checks off every box as far as social equity.”
S. and C. hope to get their own license next year, but the process has been slow (and will probably be expensive, they worry). “We’re trying to build a membership and really just go about it the best way we can without stepping on anybody’s toes,” C. says. It’s a delicate balance, he notes, trying to respect the work of the activists who helped pass New York’s cannabis legislation while also taking advantage of the market it is creating. The issue of equity matters to them. “Cannabis has a deep, dark history,” he says, referring to the racial disparities in arrests for possession of cannabis in urban areas. He has seen it firsthand. “I come from Miami, so I get it. I want to make sure we do this a certain way.”
After Danny left, C. told me that he and S. were just getting by with what they were making from their New York venture. All the giveaways, the events, the rent, the employees, taxes — it adds up. Gross sales were high, but so were the costs of expanding their business. While their 4/20 party was a celebratory occasion, they had also just paid an extraordinary amount to the government. Their business may be operating in a legal gray area, but they are still subject to state and federal taxes, and they can’t claim any write-offs.
C. was hoping that in two years, maybe five, whenever that license comes through, things might change. Then they would be able to make money in Tampa and in New York. With a license, they could expand their offerings, open more stores; S. could be the chef serving prix fixe tasting menus. If they made enough, C. thinks, maybe he will share some of what he’s learned about the cannabis industry with his relatives who still live in Ecuador and Colombia. And maybe his role will become more managerial and less hands-on. At the moment, it feels like he and S. “wear all the hats,” he says. “Once we get a license, and we’re able to really do what we want without any limitations, then things will be different. We’re just waiting for that moment.”
Jaime Lowe is a frequent contributor to the magazine and the author of “Breathing Fire: Female Inmate Firefighters on the Front Lines of California’s Wildfires.”
For generations, entrepreneurs and dreamers have moved to New York City to strike it big. Now they’re coming to sell a lot of cannabis.