Unlicensed cannabis retailers in New York City are selling products contaminated by E. coli, salmonella and lead, among other things, according to a new report commissioned by an organization representing the state’s existing medical operators.
“We have the legal industry that is getting turned on in New York as we speak, with licenses awarded just 10 days ago,” said Ngiste Abebe, the president of New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYMCIA). “Consumers need to understand and know how to identify local dispensaries and how to identify safe, tested, regulated products.”
According to the report, which was commissioned by NYMCIA and supported by cannabis industry trade groups from New Jersey and Connecticut, harmful contaminants including E. coli, pesticides, heavy metals and salmonella were found in 40 percent of products purchased from unlicensed dispensaries.
“Beyond these serious health concerns, the negative experience of ingesting these products may exacerbate the harmful stigmas and hesitations that already exist and burden the legal cannabis industry,” ithe report states.
Many products did not contain the advertised quantities of THC. Most tested well under the labeled potency, but one product, Noise NYC’s Flav Sour Belt Gummies, contained more than 200 mg of THC per piece. The label said it contained 100 mg.
Noise NYC did not respond to Cheddar News’ requests for comment.
Abebe, who is also vice president of public policy with Columbia Care, a multistate cannabis operator registered in New York to sell medical cannabis, stated that it's not just the potency and contamination that matters. According to the report, 11 out of 20 locations did not ask for identification to verify whether a customer is over 21 upon entrance to the facility or purchase of product.
Furthermore, many of the retailers claimed to be licensed or legal at the very least. In New York, the first adult use retail license winners were announced on Nov. 21, and none of those locations have opened yet. Any company currently selling adult use cannabis in New York state is doing so outside of the law.
Unlicensed New York City shops like the famous Weed World in Times Square, Empire Cannabis Clubs, Convenience Smoke Shop, Granny Za’s and Lamb’s Bread Cafe were among the shops implicated in the report, which claimed a “100 percent failure rate.”
The report stated that Weed World’s unbranded flower contained only 0.7 percent THC, and also E. coli and salmonella. 
“This is crazy. This [is] a lawsuit,” the owner, who goes by Dr. Dro, said of the report.
Granny Za’s manager Bill Wallis said the shop doesn’t sell the Peanut Butter Breath or Big Chief Kush Mints Liquid Diamond Vape referenced in the report. The report claims the former was contaminated with E. coli and salmonella and the latter with nickel.
“We vet our sources very thoroughly and there's no middle-manning. We get our products straight from the actual sources that manufacture them,” he said, adding that it's “unfortunate that we were listed with false information about our business, but that doesn't surprise me. There are a lot of people saying a lot of bad things about the cannabis industry.”
The report states that three products purchased at Empire Cannabis Clubs' various locations were tainted. An Apple Fritter Balanced Hybrid was found to contain E. coli, salmonella and a fungicide called myclobutanil. Another product, Sour Berry Sour Mango Sour Limeade, contained E. coli and salmonella, and a Stiiizy brand vape cart was found to contain several pesticides. 
Representatives for Stiiizy did not immediately reply to requests for comment. Representatives for Convenience Smoke Shop and Lamb’s Bread Cafe also did not respond to requests for comment.
“Empire’s products are safe, reliable and tested according to the industry's highest standards. Empire invites any reporter in New York to enter any of its clubs, take any product off the shelf, and have it tested. Empire, in fact, will pay the bill,” Steve Zissou, an attorney for Empire Cannabis Clubs, wrote in a text message.
Zissou also threw barbs at the study’s backers, including pot producer Curaleaf, suggesting the study’s funding and commission by the NYMCIA undermines the report because major operators have "the most to lose from democratization of the industry." 
A Curaleaf spokesperson said all NYMCIA members voted on and funded the study.
“While Curaleaf has invested millions in the New York medical market, social equity programs and community impact, illegal operators have done nothing to ‘democratize’ the industry. In addition to the public health and safety concerns presented, illegal operators contribute zero tax dollars to the state of New York and are not held to any standards for workplace conditions or employment practices,” the spokesperson said.
When cannabis was legalized in New York, advocates sounded the alarm over provisions in the bill that offered advantages to existing medical cannabis operators, which in New York include some of the largest cannabis companies in the country.
Existing operators, which are represented by NYMCIA, include Columbia Care, Cresco Labs, Curaleaf, Green Thumb Industries, and Acreage NY. New York has taken steps to prevent these major companies from monopolizing the industry, and regulators have proposed regulations that include a number of restrictions on those companies including a three year moratorium on sales. The NYMCIA said in a statement at a time those regulations were released that they present a number of “serious concerns.”
“These issues persist, regardless of the status for [registered operators] and adult use. The reality is, there's an overabundance of untested, unregulated, untaxed product that's being sold and we're not going to be the first retailers to market in New York,” Abebe said. “And so we're not gonna be the ones who are first hurt by this unregulated, unlicensed competition in the marketplace.”
Regulators have taken steps to pave the way for “legacy” operators — or those operating in the market prior to legalization — to be included in the legal industry. One of these ways is through Conditional Adult Use Retail Dispensary (CAURD) licenses, the first of which were announced in late November. CAURD licenses prioritized certain applicants including individuals who personally had a cannabis-related conviction in the state of New York prior to the passage of the legalization bill or had an immediate family member who did.
But they’ve also made it clear they do not approve of unlicensed operators that have popped up in New York City in the aftermath of legalization.
New York's Office of Cannabis Management announced in early July that it had sent cease and desist letters to 52 businesses across the state, including Empire Cannabis Clubs. If they continue to operate, Tremaine Wright, chair of New York's Office of Cannabis Management, said at the time that they could face "substantial fines and possible criminal penalties" or even reduce their odds of obtaining a license in the legal market.
Correction in the 22nd graf:  The first quote was fixed to read "first retailers to market."