Is legal weed really better than legacy?

buying legal weed

Cannabis is an incredibly unique industry. Mature consumers are invited to “buy legal” after years of shopping underground. Weed newbies often feel more comfortable trying cannabis once it’s legal. With the underground and the regulated industries coexisting, the canna-curious are often confounded by where to start. Sometimes, consumers may not even know if they’re in a legitimate dispensary. According to a recent survey, nearly half of California cannabis consumers can’t tell the difference between a legal dispensary and an illegal one.

In New York, legal operators are feeling the competition. Illicit dispensaries and bodegas far outnumber regulated retailers, frustrating license holders. State regulators have promised to take action, but so far, little has been done. Even when an illegal shop is raided, it’s back to business as usual days later. A recent analysis found that only one percent of the $25 million in fines levied against illicit operators has been collected.

This inattention has made regulators seem apathetic to the struggles of licensed operators. And so, attention is shifting toward the consumer. Stakeholders are working to raise awareness about why buying legal matters and educating cannabis fans about the differences between illicit and legal dispensaries, including how to tell them apart. 

The choice to buy weed from the regulated or illicit (nee traditional) market is the consumer’s alone. With arguments on each side, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons to facilitate an informed decision.

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Following the law

When cannabis is legalized, part of the deal is that consumers are expected to obtain licensed products from approved retailers. Some states do permit home growing or caregiver programs for medical patients, but the majority of folks are funneled to regulated dispensaries.

Prohibitionists argue that legalizing marijuana only emboldens the illicit market. In their defense, consumers eschewing the legal dispensaries in favor of their dealer feeds this theory. By reminding people they vote with their dollars, operators and advocates alike believe consumers will recognize their role in helping legal weed succeed. 

It’s not always an easy sell: illegal shops far outnumber regulated stores in places like New York, and many folks can’t even tell them apart. Other states may not have the same issue, but competition from the traditional market does come into play.

For New York’s licensed operators, it’s hoped that as more licensed dispensaries open and action is taken against illicit pot shops, consumers will find it easier to navigate the Wild, Wild East of Weed. Legislators have called on companies like Google and Meta for help, asking them to remove illegal retailers from their platforms. Operators have mulled lawsuits, while representatives of Google have promised to investigate further.

The community factor

That’s not to say that buying from the traditional market is all bad. Many people feel more comfortable staying within their circle; like traditional farmer’s markets, patrons can develop relationships with growers and producers who may not be able or interested in getting a legal license. If folks were suddenly told one day they could no longer buy organic tomatoes from their CSA and had to go to a highly regulated, highly taxed store, it would likely cause a stir.

In fact, some argue that regulated cannabis does a disservice to consumers who previously relied on their community. These tight-knit networks have seen unexpected shakeups as legislators urge people to visit a regulated dispensary instead of a friend or family member’s home, reminding them they’re engaging in illegal behavior when shopping on the traditional market. And since many legacy operators can’t break into the legal space, legalization only sets them back even further.

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Accessibility and costs can be a barrier

Buying legal weed is not as easy as it sounds for folks in dry towns. Despite 79 percent of Americans living in a county with at least one cannabis dispensary, many consumers are unable to visit due to a lack of transportation, medical issues, or other roadblocks. Cannabis delivery helps in some spots, but it’s not widely accessible in every market.

There’s also the price factor. Unregulated sources don’t pay taxes, meaning cheaper products for the end user. It’s a gamble many consumers are willing to take, especially those already conditioned to buying weed in a nondescript baggie from a neighborhood dealer. 

On the other hand, licensed products are thoroughly vetted and undergo a battery of tests to ensure they’re free from pesticides and harmful pathogens. In many states, the testing data is right on the child-safe package. However, the cost of regulation and compliance is passed on to the customers. But many are happy to pay extra for the peace of mind knowing their products are safe for consumption, though some still opt into the legacy trade.

Legal weed vs. traditional: making an informed decision

As cannabis continues to move from the underground to the mainstream, consumers face a steep learning curve. From spotting illicit dispensaries to taking the plunge with legal retail, it’s overwhelming, to say the least. 

The legal cannabis market isn’t perfect, and many states have seemingly driven a wedge in the culture. But at the end of the stay, everyone should have the right to make an informed decision about where to get their weed—and shop confidently regardless of their choice.


Rachelle Gordon

Rachelle Gordon is a cannabis journalist and Editor of She began her weed writing journey in 2015 and has been featured in High Times, CannabisNow, Beard Bros, MG, Skunk, Cannabis and Tech Today, and many others. Rachelle currently splits her time between Minneapolis and Oakland; her favorite cannabis cultivars include Silver Haze and Tangie. Follow Rachelle on Instagram @rachellethewriter