This story was originally published on NY City Lens.
By Elizabeth Maline and Liz Brewer
On Thursday morning, the Apothecarium in Maplewood, New Jersey was one of just 12 dispensaries in the state where residents could legally purchase adult-use cannabis for the first time. New Jersey residents first voted “yes” on a legalization referendum in November 2020, and have been waiting for this day ever since.
“It feels good, it’s a long time coming,” said a man who goes by “DJ Millz. “It should have happened decades ago.” He waited for over two hours in line for the shop to open Thursday morning.
New Jersey’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) gave the final approval last week for dispensaries already selling medical cannabis to sell recreational cannabis as well. While all adults 21 and older will now be able to purchase cannabis, the CRC strongly emphasized that these dispensaries should prioritize medical patients.
“Expansion into the adult-use market – with a substantial advantageous start ahead of new applicants – is a privilege that must not be taken lightly,” said CRC Chair Dianna Houenou on April 11, when the CRC awarded licenses to the medical dispensaries. “We expect these ATCs [alternative treatment centers] to uphold their promises to patients and communities; and that recreational customers will be adequately served.”
On Tuesday, Maplewood Mayor Dean Dafis spoke of the importance of medical cannabis in his community.
“New Jersey continues to prioritize medical patients above recreational use, which I think is the right thing to do, because access to health care remains for those who need cannabis who are facing life threatening illnesses,” Dafis said.
At the Apothecarium on Thursday, measures were taken to ensure medical patients could be prioritized.
“This dispensary in particular was built in a way that we can have two separate areas for patients and customers,” Chantelle Elsner, SVP of Retail Operations for TerrAscend, a global cannabis company that owns the Apothecarium, said on Thursday morning, outside of the shop. “We have two separate entrances, we have dedicated registers, we’re prioritizing their line inside as well as outside, and they also get the full menu, and the red carpet rollout just like they’re used to.”
Senate President Nicholas Scutari, who for years led the legislative fight to legalize cannabis in New Jersey, said that it made the most sense to award adult use licenses to dispensaries like the Apothecarium that had already been operating as medicinal dispensaries.
“This was the quickest way possible, which was to allow the medical facilities that are already tested and licensed and have all the appropriate credentials to sell, to be able to sell first,” Scutari said. “We’ve already seen new licenses going out for adult use manufacturing only, but that’s going to take quite a while to get up to speed.”
More than 100 conditional licenses have been approved for applicants who want to grow cannabis and manufacture products, but no conditional retail licenses have yet been approved.
In anticipation of large crowds and high demand Thursday morning, Mayor Dafis worked with Elsner to secure sufficient parking and reserve parking lots for check-in tents. The Apothecarium also set up a waitlist through their app, where customers could reserve a spot in line to avoid unnecessary congestion inside the dispensary. Elsner added that she and her team have long been working closely with the mayor, deputy mayor and chief of police.
“Our community outreach team has a ton of education in each of the communities today, letting them know we’re coming, letting them know what we’re all about, and to provide education on all of the amazing community benefits that come with having a dispensary in your neighborhood, because not everyone feels that way,” Elsner said.
There was palpable excitement surrounding the opening of the dispensary in Maplewood on Thursday. One man in line said it was his 62nd birthday. Another woman said she had been waiting over 50 years for this moment, and was glad to make the 45 minute trek to the Apothecarium, the closest dispensary to her house.
The push to decriminalize and legalize cannabis in New Jersey started about a decade ago, Ami Kachalia, a campaign strategist at the ACLU of New Jersey, said.
“We got together with a number of partners around the state to start a coalition aimed at legalizing marijuana in New Jersey, and this really came out of data that we had seen that showed very clear racial disparities when it came to arrest for marijuana possession,” Kachalia said. “So here in New Jersey, if you’re a black person, you’re three, four or five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person despite similar rates of use.”
Due to the disparities in arrests, Kachalia said, the ACLU in New Jersey took action and began to work on legislation to legalize cannabis. For all of the new cannabis businesses licenses issued by the state, equity applicants will be prioritized.
“It’s always been very important that New Jersey has a cannabis industry that’s truly reflective of the diversity of the state,” Kachalia said about the ACLU’s mission. “And then prioritizes ownership by those who have been most harmed by marijuana criminalization.”
On Thursday afternoon, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy echoed the ACLU’s sentiments and tweeted, “With today’s launch of our adult-use recreational cannabis market, we’ll continue working to grow an industry that reflects the diversity of our state, protects access for medical marijuana patients, prioritizes justice, and promotes equal opportunities for communities of color.”
Earlier in the day, during a press conference outside of Verano, another cannabis shop, Governor Murphy said how proud he was of the state for getting to this moment.
“The overriding need was for us to make sure we got it right the first time,” Murphy said about the delay between the referendum and Thursday’s openings across the state.
Murphy noted that nearly 130,000 New Jersey residents currently utilize medical cannabis.
“Today is the start of an entirely new industry in our state,” Murphy said. “But we all must remember that this is not the end of the journey, but this is just the beginning. We still have a long way to go before this industry fully develops.”
Neighboring states, like New York and Connecticut, are looking to New Jersey as they build their own adult use cannabis industries following legalization.
“For many of those states, New York being one of them, they’ve already legalized cannabis and are poised in a few months to have the largest market of it in this area,” Dafis said. “Everyone’s going to be looking to New Jersey, especially on Thursday, because it’s the first place in the tri-state area where this is happening.”
Elsner offered a piece of advice to states that are currently in the process of setting regulations for their growing industries.
“I think that the partnership with the operators and learning from each other is the most critical thing for any state that’s converting from medical to adult use,” she said. “Setting a book of rules doesn’t work unless everybody’s on the same page.”
DJ Mills hopes that New Jersey will follow Colorado’s lead, referring to the prevalence of dispensaries in that state.
“Colorado has more dispensaries than Starbucks,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll follow the trend of Colorado.”