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Amid cannabis crackdown, NYC Sheriffs stowing seized pot anywhere they can

“It was getting to the point that my clothes were smelling like marijuana. It smelled like I smoked weed all the time. My sweat is starting to smell like marijuana.”

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Members of the New York City Sheriff’s Department and New York State Office of Cannabis Management conduct a raid in Manhattan, New York.

Barry Williams/TNS

By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — City deputy sheriffs have seized so much cannabis from unlicensed pot shops amid a crackdown that the agency’s offices have become a weed wonderland, with pot stowed in every nook and cranny they can find, The New York Daily News has learned.

When the sheriff’s office was tasked with raiding illegal weed shops, the cannabis they removed was initially stored in six 20-foot shipping containers with poor ventilation inside an indoor parking garage at the agency’s Long Island City offices on Starr Ave. But deputies quickly realized that they were collecting more marijuana products than they had space for, union members said.

“We were seizing more than the space we had, so we started putting it in different offices,” Ingrid Simonovic, the president of the New York City Deputy Sheriff’s Association told the Daily News in an exclusive interview.

“Then they started putting them in vehicles.”

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So much weed had been collected that deputy sheriffs responsible for vouchering the evidence from the weed raids were being inundated by the smell — and some even getting sick, union officials said.

The crackdown on unlicensed pot shops across New York has been an effort to stem an explosion following the decriminalization of recreational marijuana for adults in 2021.

With the law’s passage, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo created an Office of Cannabis Management that would license cultivators, sellers and dispensaries.Yet the state’s slow roll out of licensed dispensaries created a gray zone for unlicensed pot sellers, who began opening hundreds of brick-and-mortar stores with reckless abandon.

As a result, there are only 57 licensed marijuana dispensaries in the five boroughs, according to the Office of Cannabis Management website. In comparison, there are roughly 2,900 illegal pot shops.

Questions over the improper storage of the seized cannabis surfaced as early as Dec.1, 2022, about six months after Mayor Eric Adams appointed retired New York Police Department Sergeant Anthony Miranda as the new city Sheriff, according to court documents. Issues over the improper storage of seized cannabis is one of many criticisms the union has against the two-year tenure of Miranda, who Simonovic claims has brought down morale among the rank-and-file with his draconian changes to members hours, duties and responsibilities — all without a new labor contract.

With Miranda’s appointment, deputy sheriffs noticed their duties began to focus more on illegal weed shop inspections.

Beginning that September, the city Sheriff’s X page had begun publicizing the seizures, which included helping the NYPD padlock 10 Weed World trucks that had been selling cannabis in Times Square, to smoke shop inspections in Battery Park where cannabis was found to the seizure of 247.8 pounds of illegal cannabis recovered from a single location in Bay Ridge that November.

With the limited storage they had for seized cannabis filling up, the union complained about “the hazardous manner and unsafe location in which the marijuana and various liquid nicotine products” were being stored, according to an improper practice petition filed with the city’s Office of Collective Bargaining. The union also emailed the Sheriff Office’s leadership about “ventilation issues,” since the smell was starting to have an effect.

“We’re seizing marijuana, but we have no idea where it’s coming from,” a former deputy sheriff who used to process the cannabis and other seized evidence told the Daily News. The former employee wished to remain anonymous. “To be frank, there’s something wrong with this marijuana. This isn’t the marijuana from the old days. It smells different. It’s very strong.”

Deputy sheriffs tasked with vouchering and storing the marijuana were overwhelmed by the smell, the former employee said.

“It was getting to the point that my clothes were smelling like marijuana,” he said. “It smelled like I smoked weed all the time. My sweat is starting to smell like marijuana.”

Requests for better ventilation went ignored. Then the deputy sheriff started getting ill.

Complaints about poor ventilation and health issues were made to the Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau, which conducted an inspection on Dec. 30, 2022, according to court documents. Calls and emails to the bureau for the results of the inspection were not returned.

One deputy said he “started getting these really strong headaches” and even experienced chest pains. The deputy’s health issues and doctor visits were documented in labor complaints, union officials said.

Some of the seized cannabis, vapes and liquid nicotine were ultimately moved to a warehouse in Brooklyn, but workers there began complaining about the smell as well, the former deputy sheriff said.

“There was no ventilation there either,” he said. “By then we were doing these operations seven days a week and we just had no place to put all of this stuff. They finally started putting them in random offices and in administrative areas, so the whole building smelled like weed.

“When they ran out of random offices, they started putting them in vehicles — unlocked marked and unmarked vehicles,” the former deputy said. “It was just being put everywhere.”

On April 19, as pressure grew for the city and state to take tougher action, Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation, allowing the law enforcement to padlock any unlicensed store caught selling cannabis, giving the city more teeth in its fight to shut down the illegal shops.

“New York City will finally be able to use the full force of the law to inspect, enforce, and shut down illegal dispensaries,” Mayor Eric Adams said at the time.

In early May, when the city executed a multi-agency crackdown of illegal cannabis shops nicknamed “Operation Padlock to Protect” the NYPD was put in charge of vouchering and storing the seized cannabis, Simonovic said.

“But there is no policy and procedure on this so it is fluid,” the union head said. “It’s constantly changing week to week, month to month.”

A City Hall spokeswoman said that the Sheriff’s office and the Task Force has “worked to standardize the process of vouchering and storing evidence and made important enhancements, including numerous security upgrades, installation of a new air ventilation system, and other facility improvements.”

“Thanks to Sheriff Miranda’s leadership, the Sheriff’s Task Force has closed over 400 illegal smoke and cannabis shops in a little over a month, protecting New Yorkers’ health and safety,” the spokeswoman said. “The Sheriff’s Office will continue to follow best practices on all of its operations as it works to protect working-class New Yorkers.”

Hearings for the improper practice petition filed by the union began in February and ended in April. The union was awaiting a decision by the Office of Collective Bargaining.

In the first week of the operation, the New York City Sheriff’s Joint Compliance Task Force, which is made up of deputy sheriffs, NYPD officers and members from the city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, illegal cannabis was seized from 75 stores across the five boroughs that were shut down and sealed, city officials said.

On May 21, Gov. Hochul created a state-wide Cannabis Enforcement Task Force, which so far has shut down more than 100 illegal pot and smoke shops across the empire state.

The crackdown in both the city and the state has led to a 27% increase in legal cannabis sales, Hochul said.

“We are committed to building the strongest, most equitable cannabis market in the nation,” Hochul said Tuesday. “In order to advance that goal, we promised to expedite the closure of unlicensed cannabis storefronts, and I’m here today to say: we’re getting it done.”

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