The Battle Over Zaza Waza: A Lifelong Liberal Joins New York’s Weed War

The informal walking tour came to a pause on Amsterdam Avenue, outside a brick building where a beloved Upper West Side pizzeria had recently been replaced by yet another rogue weed shop.

The store was called Holiday Candy Convenience. But to the local councilwoman, Gale Brewer, it was simply No. 23 — an entry on an oversize spreadsheet tracking the explosion of unlicensed cannabis stores in her district since New York legalized the drug in 2021.

An aide, Sam Goldsmith, inspected the shelves, stocked with flavored vapes and edibles. “These guys are currently out of compliance with absolutely everything,” he muttered before moving on to the next shop.

At last count, there were 56 within about 200 square blocks, twice as many as a year ago. But to understand how Ms. Brewer, a 72-year-old former Manhattan borough president, came to be a leading combatant in New York’s madcap battle against illegal weed, you need to know about just one: Zaza Waza.

It started almost by accident. The city and state were failing to stop blatant disregard for the law. Ms. Brewer, a tireless tinkerer, believed she could help find a better way. And Zaza Waza, just across Columbus Avenue from her district office, presented the perfect test case.

But the harder she pulled, the more entrenched the problem appeared. The little shop with the neon lights in the window became Ms. Brewer’s bête noire. Her obsession pitted her against a mysterious operator with a shockingly cavalier approach to rules and eventually involved an indifferent Police Department, nearly a dozen other government agencies, trash bags filled with confiscated edibles, a couple of padlocks and what must have been a pretty good saw.

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