New York Governor Kathy Hochul on Wednesday called on social media companies and popular websites including Google and Yelp to stop running listings for unlicensed cannabis retailers. At a press conference, the governor appeared with licensed dispensary owners, who face stiff competition from the multitude of unlicensed weed retailers in New York City, to call attention to the situation.

“If you type in ‘cannabis dispensaries’ in Google Maps or Yelp, you’ll get a long list of unlicensed illegal vendors,” Hochul said at the press conference on Wednesday.

New York legalized recreational marijuana in 2021, with the state’s first licensed adult-use cannabis retailer opening in the waning days of 2022. But the pace of opening licensed pot retailers in New York has been slow, with regulators citing the complexity of the application and approval process and difficulties securing and renovating appropriate storefronts as some of the causes for the delay. To date, less than 70 licensed weed shops have opened statewide.

The pace of opening newly licensed shops was also hindered by several court cases challenging the state’s process for awarding the first licenses for pot retailers, which were reserved for individuals with prior convictions for marijuana-related offenses. Several injunctions have stalled the awarding of new licenses, although recent settlements have resulted in the opening of 50 additional licensed weed retailers since December, including at least 30 new shops this week.

Efforts To Shutter Unlicensed Weed Shops Unsuccessful

Meanwhile, the number of unlicensed retailers in New York, particularly the Big Apple, has exploded. Estimates by city officials place the number of unlicensed pot shops in New York City at at least 1,300, perhaps as many as 2,000. There are more than 400 such retailers in Manhattan alone, according to a report from The New York Times.

At the press conference on Wednesday, Hochul said that unlicensed shops are a public health risk and a threat to the state’s efforts to create opportunities in the regulated cannabis industry for those harmed by decades of marijuana prohibition. The governor also acknowledged that efforts to close down the unlicensed shops with raids and fines have been too limited and so far have been unsuccessful.

“More and more cash keeps going in their doors and not the doors of our legitimate operators — and that’s what needs to change,” Hochul said.

Hochul has a proposal pending before state lawmakers that would make it easier for the state Office of Cannabis Management to obtain orders to padlock unlicensed cannabis businesses. The orders would also be enforceable by local agencies with more personnel available to execute them. 

While the proliferation of unlicensed pot retailers in New York continues, Hochul on Wednesday asked social media and tech companies “to not be posting the sites that are illegal and ensure that they’re posting the legal shops.”

The sheer number of unlicensed cannabis shops appearing on websites and social media makes reaching new customers difficult for licensed operators, who face restrictions on how they can promote their businesses. Osbert Orduña has two licensed cannabis shops, one in the New York City borough of Queens and the other in New Jersey. 

Orduña said that Google Maps has repeatedly removed listings for his shops. He has not run into any trouble with Yelp, although he said he agrees with Hochul and would like to see the website delist unlicensed retailers.

“Four times, Google has taken us down off of their platform for ‘violating their terms of service.’ We’ve done nothing other than have our store hours and our basic business information listed,” he said.

Tech Companies React

In a statement, consumer reviews website Yelp said that “consumers have a First Amendment right to read and write about all businesses, even if unlicensed,” according to a report from the Associated Press.

“Allowing users to contribute and see information … about unlicensed businesses serves the public interest and provides a resource for regulators to determine whether any particular business has appropriate licenses,” the statement read.

Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, has previously said in a statement that its social media sites “prohibit content in both ads and organic pages that promotes the buying and selling of drugs including marijuana,” ABC 7 New York reported on Wednesday.

Google also responded to Hochul’s call to eliminate listings for unlicensed cannabis retailers, saying the company bans weed ads in New York and would remove listings for unlicensed shops once they have been closed by regulators.

“If we can confirm that a business has closed for any reason – including license issues – we’ll reflect that it’s closed in the listing,” the statement reads. “We also prohibit cannabis ads in New York and remove them upon detection, often before they ever run.”

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