Harlem residents, state agencies debate 125th St. dispensary proposal

The exterior of the proposed 125th Street dispensary in Harlem.
The exterior of the proposed 125th Street dispensary in Harlem.
Photo via Google Maps

The state cannabis agency is continuing to push for a Harlem cannabis dispensary that a local business group has rallied against.

A Manhattan Community Board 10 hearing on a proposed cannabis dispensary at 248 West 125th St. on Thursday night provided a forum for members of the state Office of Cannabis Management (OCM) and Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY) to engage with a group of residents and business owners who say that the location on the neighborhood’s thoroughfare is not the right place for its first marijuana shop.

In the forum, members of the 125th Street Business Improvement District and sympathetic residents restated their concerns, which range from practical traffic considerations to worries about how it might affect neighborhood safety. 

In response, OCM spokespeople sought to emphasize the cannabis program’s mission to provide economic benefits to those who were previously convicted of a marijuana-related offense, and objected to the stigma against dispensaries that they pose safety risks. 

“I do look forward to the day we see a legal cannabis dispensary open up in Harlem, owned by someone from Harlem, ideally someone who’s faced setbacks from cannabis prohibition,” said Damian Fagon, chief equity officer for the OCM.

Though the DASNY signed the first lease for a cannabis dispensary at a storefront across from the historic Apollo Theater back in December, the store’s opening has been stalled since then amid the community opposition. That selection was part of a large-scale commercial real estate search that looked at thousands of potential properties and rigorously evaluated their economic suitability, according to DASNY.

OCM spokesperson Aaron Ghitleman said that the agency has not yet found a retailer for the location, but is continuing to move forward with the process. “We are in the process of soliciting interest from licensees, including upcoming outreach to those provisionally licensed just last week,” he said.

OCM and DASNY did not respond for comment about the reasons for the dispensary’s delays or whether they have identified a retailer for the location by the publication deadline.

The 125th Street Business Improvement District came out against the location in a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul that encouraged the state to reconsider the site and circulated an online petition that gathered over 700 signatures. The BID has specified that it’s not against a dispensary in the area of marijuana legalization, but that particular location.

“We do not agree with the selected location that is uniquely placed in an area that can be enticing for our young people. We do not think this facility should be placed in an area that is oversaturated already with drug treatment facilities and addiction programs,” said 125th BID President Barbara Askins during the forum.

Askins, along with other community members, also raised the practical issue that the 125th is already a jammed thoroughfare where they are worried about creating more truck and foot traffic. As an alternative, Askins suggested locating the Harlem State Office building, a nineteen-story high-rise a block away from the proposed site.

In response, Fagon and some members of the community board argued contended with Askins’ suggestion that a dispensary could aggravate other drug addiction issues in the area. 

“There is no relationship with heroin use in legal cannabis industries. There has not been an explosion of heroin use in Oakland where cannabis has been legal for 10 years,” he said.

Fagon also cited a study that showed in some places that have opened legal dispensaries, crime actually decreased.

Some comments from residents were less about how a dispensary might change the neighborhood, and more about how it is now. One speaker who identified herself as Aisha ultimately said she was in favor of the location but still had concerns over the public safety concerns that are already present in the area. Though DASNY has proposed security measures inside the store to keep patrons safe, what happens when they leave the store, she asked. “If I come out with product, I don’t want anything to happen to me with my products in my hand. There’s just so much activity along the subway stops on 125th Street.”

Though throughout the meeting Fagon pushed back on certain systemic issues at stake in the proposal, in his concluding marks he added that the state would consider all of the public feedback as they decided how to move forward with a proposal for a dispensary in the area. 

“I think people are making a lot of good points about location, and our law was always intended to incorporate that feedback from community boards,” Fagon said.

Updated at 1:18 p.m. on Jan. 30, 2023.