Cannabis Countdown: Will legal weed slow the illegal market?

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — If you can buy it legally will there be fewer marijuana dealers on the street? That’s one of many questions New Yorkers have as we move toward an adult-use market.

News10NBC Investigative Reporter Jennifer Lewke traveled to Massachusetts where legal dispensaries opened in late 2018, to see whether there has been a noticeable difference in illegal sales there.

There is no shortage of legal marijuana shops in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The first, NETA, opened in November of 2018 in the Western Massachusetts City of Northampton. Since then, 164 other dispensaries have popped up across the state and for the most part, law enforcers say they haven’t seen too many problems with them.

“It wasn’t as painful as we thought it was going to be,” said Sgt. Joe LaFrance of the West Springfield Police Department.

Springfield, MA Police Captain Brian Keenan agrees.

“With the dispensaries themselves, they haven’t been an issue, the management and the owners have been top shelf, they have adhered to security protocols, the only problem we’ve had around any dispensaries are a couple with traffic issues because they’ve been so busy.”

So, that might lead you to think that since people can buy it legally, that’s the option they’re choosing most often but the legal market in Massachusetts hasn’t exactly slowed down the illicit one.

Capt. Brian Keenan The black market marijuana drives an awful lot of violence in the City of Springfield and throughout the Commonwealth, we estimate that 80% of our homicides are due in some capacity to marijuana and 90% of our home invasions are, wherever there’s marijuana, there’s large amounts of money.

Jennifer Lewke (News10NBC) – I would think that most people assume if you can buy it legally now, maybe the drug dealers are focused on other drugs but that’s not the case?

Capt. Kennan – No, because marijuana is too lucrative. Marijuana on the street, you might pay between $200-$250 an ounce for high-grade marijuana, I believe in the dispensaries it’s between $6-700.

And then of course there’s a MA excise tax of 11%, a state sales tax of 6% and a local tax of 3%—which means there’s still plenty of demand for street dealers and that has led to some other issues.

“When people buy marijuana from a dealer or from the street, they don’t know the product they’re getting and there’s a lot of marijuana out there that is spiked, especially with fentanyl and PCP,” explained Sgt. LaFrance.

Also, you can grow between six and 12 marijuana plants in Massachusetts which is similar to what New York State is planning but recently dealers have been gutting old dilapidated houses and using them to grow far more plants than that.

“We’re seeing hundreds if not thousands of plants being grown, they’re all wired (the houses), terribly dangerous with how they’re wired with all the lighting,” explains Sgt. LaFrance, “the house is purchased for the specific reason of growing marijuana.”

“The problem with grow houses is oftentimes they are conduits for violence, people will get wind that there’s a grow house there and they’ll go raid it and attempt to get the marijuana and the money,” Captain Kennan added.

So, overall is the illicit market better or worse than it was in Massachusetts before there were legal shops to buy.

“There’s no metric to measure it but I would say in my experience and knowledge of the street that it has grown significantly,” Captain Kennan said.

A number of New York State lawmakers tell News10NBC they’re working on policies to try and encourage those working in the underground market to bring their business above ground. One way they’re planning to do that is to initially limit marijuana dispensary licenses to those who’ve previously been convicted of marijuana-related offenses or have had a parent, legal guardian, child, spouse, or dependent who was convicted.

That may not be of interest to all dealers on the illicit market but it’s a start as they look for other ways to incentivize folks to sell on the up and up.

As News10NBC continues its Cannabis Countdown series, on Wednesday we’ll take you inside a legal marijuana dispensary to see how it works, what kind of products are offered and at what price points.

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