Bodegas and social clubs doubling as dispensaries are threatening a beloved NYC institution. Here's how vendors are coping.
Not all heroes wear capes. Some of them wear bicycle helmets, huge backpacks, and cool pants. I’m talking about weed couriers, a mainstay faction of New York City’s illicit cannabis market since at least the 80s. Back then, customers would get in touch via pager and payphone; these days, you shoot over a text or a Signal message, receive a menu, and wait for your courier to arrive so you can place your order. The funky professionalism of weed delivery services—who offer customized menus with colorful graphics, are sourced by users through a dense network of referrals and code words, then come to your door with those chunky metal or plastic hard cases full of product—have made them a discreet and easy option, as far as drug deals go.
Things changed when New York state finally legalized recreational cannabis in March 2021. New, highly visible merchants entered an already crowded weed market, even though the state has yet to issue a single license to cultivate or sell cannabis—and ordering from them is often as easy as walking through the door. Now, New York City weed couriers find themselves at a crossroads.
That’s because New Yorkers know that the only thing easier than ordering delivery is going to the deli. Enter the weed bodega, those flashy, omnipresent storefronts that have been popping up since New York state legalized recreational cannabis in March 2021. In a report for Curbed, Bridget Read described weed bodegas as “part smoke shop, part convenience store, part dispensary, all packaged in the aesthetic of a Monster Energy drink.” Meanwhile, other vendors who peddle product out of brick and mortar storefronts do so through legal loopholes, like “gifting” cannabis with the purchase of a different legal item (like a T-shirt, a hat, or an NFT) or offering access to cannabis through membership in a social club.
“I talked to a lawyer [about those loopholes] and he was like, ‘That's stupid. You could just sell it,’” said Kyle, the proprietor behind weed courier service Good Fortune, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. Sitting in the backyard of a Williamsburg coffee shop, wearing a Yankees hat and armed with notes he typed out on his phone to prepare for our interview, he recounted his two decades in the weed business in New York City, the last 12 years of which were spent running his own delivery service.
Kyle has watched weed prices drop as other states legalized cannabis. He’s dealt with “copycats” who ape his menus and duplicate his deals, and he adjusted when competition ramped up as Brooklyn gentrified, resulting in further dives in price of product. “The delivery services were always a Manhattan thing,” he said. “The price of a pound of Sour Diesel in 2010 was $5,200. Now, it's like $2,300.” But the latest chapter in his city’s cannabis market is new, even for him. “I wish I had anticipated this,” he said. “I thought it would just be like, Oh, yeah, they're gonna open dispensaries, and we're gonna have better prices regardless. But it didn't happen that way.”
One of the things that surprised Kyle the most is how blatantly these gray-market storefronts operate. In some parts of the city, it’s now commonplace to see huge, inflatable joints decorating storefronts with names like “The Marijuana Weed Dispensary” or “ZaZa Loud Bud” once every few blocks—a far cry from the days where dealers needed to hide from New York City’s historically subjective cannabis enforcement. In a 2008 interview with the Observer, a white bike courier said that after he was arrested with his stash in his backpack, an NYPD vice cop told him: “I’m gonna tell you, straight up, I don’t give a shit about weed.” That same year, the NYPD arrested 13,406 Latinos and 21,954 Black people for misdemeanor cannabis possession—33 and 54 percent of all arrests, respectively—and 3,959 white people, 10 percent of all arrests.
Racial disparities in cannabis arrests persisted through and beyond the era of stop-and-frisk policing, and the New York Times found massive gaps in arrest rates for Black and Latino individuals as recently as 2018. But arrests have slowed down across the board in the wake of last March’s legalization news, and NYPD enforcement of remaining cannabis laws (like the fact that it’s illegal to sell recreational weed without a license) has reportedly trickled to a near standstill since the beginning of 2022. In an interview with Curbed that described the situation as a “détente,” Black weed vendors who’ve taken up residence at folding tables in Washington Square Park described a newly minted attitude of “eh, whatever,” from cops today.
At the same time, more people in New York City are smoking weed, now that it’s legal to consume and smokeable in most public places. According to Joseph Palamar, an associate professor of population health at New York University, 68 percent of nightclub/festival-attending New Yorkers have used marijuana in the past year and 53 percent have used it in the last month. “National and state-level data on use are severely lagged,” he said. “This is twice as high as national estimates of use among young adults in the U.S.” Palamar did not have any data about where these hip, new, rave-going smokers are sourcing their weed from, with the unprecedented amount of options at their disposal.
I spoke with two other people running New York-based weed courier services, each with extensive illicit market experience, both of whom wanted their companies to remain anonymous—one due to ongoing legal action and the other, like Kyle, due to fear of legal retaliation. Both of their companies have active Instagram accounts and loyal customer bases, and each person had his own perspective on what’s going on with the weed market right now—but they agree that at this moment, any business that wants to survive must adapt accordingly.
“Traditional NYC delivery has definitely departed the golden era,” Tony, a public relations worker for a courier service, told me over Signal. His avatar was a recent selfie of Madonna, pouting at the camera with her eyebrows bleached, red wig topped off with a tilted Yankees fitted. “I did not expect the bodega/smoke shop/(pet shops even) craze to get so lawless,” he said. “But it's NY, so I'm not surprised. With more convenient competition, it's basically turned the weed courier into a modest gig.”
Although he wouldn’t give me an exact figure, Tony said brick and mortar vendors have chipped away at his customer base for the past year and a half. “The frequency of clients returning has gone down, because there are many options on the street when you're walking now,” Tony said. “The amount of new clients has gone down as well. If you just moved to NYC, you don't have to ask where you can get bud from. You can simply walk outside, and there it is.”
Reed, the founder and CEO of an illicit market cannabis company, saw these new businesses differently. For his brand, weed bodegas and other brick and mortar operations served an entirely different customer. “If [courier businesses] feel like they are actively competing with accessibility from bodegas, then they are creating a brand that resonates with the same market demographic that feels comfortable purchasing illicit products from bodegas,” he said, with a hint of ice in his voice at the premise. “I think that says more about their brand than it does about the rights of bodegas to sell cannabis.” In his case, that means catering to a luxury market—for example, through high-end, pop-up dining experiences in neighborhoods like Chelsea and Tribeca. Since 2017, he said the company has served dishes like infused beef tartare, scallop and apple crudo, and slow-cooked pork shoulder to more than 2,000 guests.
And just like you can’t buy scallops at a bodega (imagine!), delivery services like Kyle’s and brands like Reed’s feel confident about one thing: For all the convenience, the bodega weed sucks. In the bodegas, “You're never gonna see Green Crack, real Sour Diesel, Super Silver Haze, Chemdawg—all these classic strains,” Kyle said. “The real weed heads, the real hippie guys, they're not gonna give this shit up!” Kyle told me he believes that bodegas in particular are sourcing cannabis from illegal grows for as cheap as possible while going for the best look possible, which means flowers pumped full of plant growth regulators and pesticides—not exactly what you want in your lungs.
Still, he understands the pull of physical retail, especially after decades of prohibition. “I have some customers that tell me, ‘Yeah man, when I come home from the bar at midnight and I want to smoke a joint, I'll pop in and I'll buy some garbage for $30,’” he said. “I get it—when you wanna smoke, you wanna smoke, and these guys are open 24 hours. Shit, I copped a joint off of them once, straight up! And it was trash.”
In Reed’s eyes, the biggest threat to NYC weed businesses, illicit or not, is the way that recreational legalization is playing out in the state. “As a delivery service, our competition isn't with bodegas, it's with Uber Eats. It's with Amazon. In Toronto, Uber Eats just partnered with three different dispensaries to do deliveries.” he said. He sees the state’s focus on distributing as many licenses as possible, starting with social equity candidates, as misguided—he worries a market flooded with licensed vendors would hamper any one business’s ability to compete with national cannabis retailers like MedMen that already have outposts in NYC. “The whole thing is: Bodegas sell fruit, but Whole Foods doesn't complain that bodegas sell fruit,” he said. “But to be Whole Foods, you need to have access to industrial capital.” Until something about that changes, the incentive for brands like his to enter the legal cannabis market isn’t there.
The truth is, the incentive to go legal might not be there for customers, either. I’ve watched my friends in Chicago roll their eyes at dispensary lines and $80 eighths and go back to texting their delivery services instead, and it’s easy to see the same thing playing out here, for me, too. As we finished our cups of coffee, Kyle and I laughed a little about how expensive legal weed can be. “Detroit had the same thing for a little bit,” he said, in reference to the Michigan city’s ongoing issues with illegal dispensaries. “My friend quit growing, and now he's like ‘Yo, I should have just stuck with it because eventually the black market came back because we're able to supply everyone cheaper.’ Lotta factors, it's crazy. It's like politics, bro, and I'm just trying to sell weed.”
Katie Way is a senior staff writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.