On a bright and unseasonably warm April 20, 2021 in New York City, you could stand in a blocks-long line and wait for a free joint in Union Square as police watched and did nothing. Or you could dip into a particular rathskeller on Broad Street in the Financial District, within throwing distance of the New York Stock Exchange. Underground, Vladimir Bautista and Ramon Reyes were working the room at their “coming back” party. If nearby, you likely caught a whiff of what they believe the next 4/20, and every other day in the not-so-distant future, will look like in a post-legalization New York.
Two friends from Uptown with Dominican roots who love weed, Bautista and Reyes had a conversion after Reyes visited Amsterdam and its cannabis coffee shops. Already “involved” with cannabis in that familiar gray-area kind of way, they decided to open up an Amsterdam-style coffee shop in New York. But there was a slight problem: this was before March 31, 2021, so cannabis was illegal.
Undaunted, in 2017 the pair launched Happy Munkey, which for tax purposes is a New York City cannabis-inspired lifestyle brand and registered state LLC. For practical purposes, Happy Munkey was one of New York City’s pre-legalization marijuana speakeasies.
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Happy Munkey was essentially an Amsterdam-style cannabis coffee shop, located a short walk from Times Square and the new luxury high-rise apartments at Hudson Yards. To get in, you had to know somebody, or you had to know Happy Munkey existed—which, given the gift of Instagram, wasn’t particularly challenging.
However, an inevitable visit from the police followed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic six months later put Happy Munkey’s cannabis pursuits on pause. In the interim, Happy Munkey endured. Bautista and Reyes sold t-shirts, ashtrays, grinders and rolling trays. They hired a publicist and started a magazine (and they may or may not have entered the delivery service game).
They also participated in the lobbying blitz that preceded Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state lawmakers in Albany passing the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. And almost exactly three weeks after Cuomo signed the bill making public cannabis use absolutely legal in the country’s largest city, the duo threw Tuesday’s 4/20 party in the basement of an old restaurant, just steps away from the physical centers of global capital: Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange.
For the first legal 4/20 in New York City, the setting was fitting. Federal prohibition means cannabis companies still can’t list on American exchanges, but as the world’s most popular illicit drug becomes a legal commodity, there’s certainly an avalanche of investment coming. The trick is to stay involved.
Staking A Claim
It will be at least a year before New York state licenses anyone to grow, process or sell cannabis, but there is no time to waste. One of the harsh lessons of marijuana legalization from the 14 states that legalized before New York, is that being “first”—or getting in “before” the thing is legal—in no way guarantees a stake in the legal game.
On Tuesday, Happy Munkey sent a strong statement with a dual purpose of announcing their “come back” while also staking a claim. In New York, the pre-legalization pioneers will absolutely participate in the post-legalization industry—in some way or another. Just try to stop them.
But in the meantime, there was the still-surreal sight of a cannabis party, ongoing while people openly smoked cannabis in the street, as bored police stood idly by up the block.
“It’s a historic day, it’s a historic location,” a besuited Bautista said Tuesday, as a steady line of partygoers shuffled into the basement-level space, still equipped with an imposing vault door from its days used as a waystation for cash and hard specie a century ago.
A gregarious man with a smooth head, neatly trimmed beard and enormous smile, Bautista wore a blue suit over a luxe v-neck. Full of kinetic energy, he bounced around the room on loafers, pulling away from one hug and handshake to embrace another. Hosting a 4/20 party in the heart of American capitalism wasn’t an intentional move—they could have rented a bigger place, someplace else in New York—but “it all fit together,” Bautista explained. And as metaphor, it was spot on.
“This is what the future is going to be,” Bautista declared. Meaning: legal weed in New York City with brown guys from Uptown deeply involved.
Happy Munkey charged $100 a head, a cover that earned you a poker chip you could exchange for $100 (or more, if you reached back into your wallet) of cannabis flower, edibles, pre-rolls or cartridges at a dispensary table set up in the former restaurant’s old wine room. At the bar, you could order a $25 cocktail infused with 5 milligrams of THC. Past the vault door were the VIP tables, where you could enjoy bottle service for $5,000, as well as a gift-basket’s worth of cannabis treats: branded flower in California-familiar bags, powerful edibles and vaporizer cartridges, to name a few. Since New York’s new legalization law allows one to be “gifted” cannabis, and since guests were paying money simply to be there, the arrangement was technically legal.
In case it wasn’t obvious Happy Munkey had graduated from underground status, floating around the room, rubbing elbows with the mix of investors, entrepreneurs, brand ambassadors, influencers and terpene-scented hangers-on that appear at cannabis fetes the world over, were members of Gov. Cuomo’s staff from Albany. “I know,” Bautista grinned, all brash charm. “I invited them.”
The party’s dress code included masks, which Happy Munkey politely requested guests to wear “when not consuming.” But within a few minutes of entering, noses appeared, masks hung from ears or slipped below chins. Like prohibition, the evil energy of the pandemic seemed to be finally clearing, too. And the next thing is on its way.
World’s Biggest Market?
“It’s going to be California, times ten,” said Ruben Lindo. A former pro football player with an MBA from NYU, Lindo owns a CBD brand in New York and THC flower brands in two legal states—plus 36 acres of land in upstate New York, where he wants to start cultivating, he said. Lindo offered a version of the conventional wisdom regarding New York’s future as a marijuana marketplace, as well as the evening’s general consensus. “This is the biggest consumer market in the world,” he said. And while Happy Munkey grabbed a foothold by being bold and being early, stepping out is not standing out. “Winning” after legalization will take more.
And you do not come to Wall Street to simply be a name in the boroughs, or to have a one-night event on 4/20. You come here for it all. Bautista wants Happy Munkey to be a global chain of branded consumption lounges, with franchises in Barcelona, Los Angeles and Amsterdam. It’s a vision he has just enough time to outline before peeling away to hug someone else. It’s all happening. You can feel it. As big as open cannabis use in New York is, this is very much still just a beginning.