Grim Reefer

East Side, West Side, all around the town: the weed shops of New York.
Out with the old addiction, in with the new…

New York City, where former Mayor Michael Bloomberg led efforts in the 2000s to pass some of the nation’s strictest clean indoor air laws, highest cigarette taxes, and most stringent limitations on retail signage for tobacco products, has been transformed into a marijuana paradise. The corner candy stores and newsstands of my youth have been replaced by weed shops. Marijuana dispensaries appear to account for much of the increase in storefront occupancy rates that had plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic. One or more of these gaudily-lit shops could be found on virtually every block of 8th and 9th Avenues in Midtown Manhattan, as well as all the other neighborhoods I strolled through during a week-long visit in December 2022, including Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, and Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The above exhibition gallery is made up of cellphone photos of weed shops in these areas. Nor can one walk 50 feet without smelling the acrid stench of marijuana, making the outside as bad as the old inside used to be. And there’s more: cigarette smoking may have been banned on subway cars in the 1970s and on subway platforms in the 1990s, but smoking a joint or using an e-cannabis vape pen is everywhere underground.

This same turn-of-events is occurring in other cities in states that have legalized the sale and promotion of marijuana. Since a public referendum in 1988 to dedicate a portion of cigarette taxes to anti-smoking activities, California has had one of the largest per capita anti-tobacco budgets in the world. In San Francisco tobacco control advocates have all but cleansed the air of tobacco smoke and have succeeded in banning the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, only to see the proliferation of cannabis “dispensaries” and malodorous air. At a lunch during the the National Conference on Tobacco or Health in Minneapolis in August 2019, which heavily focused on the alleged dangers of electronic cigarettes and the targeting of e-cigarette advertising to children and teenagers, a strategist in the effort to ban the sale of e-cigarettes in San Francisco claimed that e-cigarettes posed a greater threat to teenagers than cigarettes. Yet in the midst of this crusade, little concern was expressed by the strategist or conference attendees about San Francisco’s rolling out the red carpet for marijuana.

The reason that it is politically incorrect to question the proliferation of cannabis stores is because of the decades of unjust incarceration of tens of thousands of Black men for possession of marijuana. As a result, states are jumping on the bandwagon to cash in on marijuana and making a show of preferentially offering dispensing licenses to formerly imprisoned marijuana users. In addition, those who now work in the professionalized field of tobacco control policy have become so entrenched in their public health silo that they have been oblivious to the emergence of threats such as marijuana.  Only in 2023 has the Food and Drug Administration announced that it may finally study take a look at this growing problem.

Alan Blum, MD
Director, The Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society

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