When it comes to legal weed, the waiting always has been the hardest part.
There were the hours spent in line, through a cold night that turned cool but pleasant after the sun came up — just for the chance to be one of the first customers.
“I thought maybe I got here too early,” said Daniel Garcia, the first in line at the RISE Dispensary in Paterson at 3:30 a.m.
There were the 14 months of waiting for the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission to finally give the green light (pun fully intended), and the months before that while legislators bickered over the nuances of the legal weed laws demanded by more than two-thirds of New Jersey voters.
There were three years of “will they or won’t they” even before that, not to mention the years spent in courtrooms, jails and prisons fighting charges of marijuana possession and distribution.
April 21, 2022, was a long time coming.
As one 72-year-old man said yesterday, walking into the Ascend dispensary in Rochelle Park:
“I’ve waited 50 f—ing years for this.”
On Thursday, New Jersey officially began selling licensed and legalized marijuana to anyone over 21 years old. It is only the 15th state where marijuana is legal for any adult over 21 years old, not just those registered as medical marijuana patents.
Bright and early for first legal weed sales in NJ
The first sales occurred before sunrise in Paterson and Bloomfield, where two RISE Dispensaries opened at 6 a.m.
Tony Marrero from Garfield was the third person in line. He said he had come to Paterson many times to buy weed, but this was the first time he was doing it legally, without fear of being arrested by the police officers stationed at the parking lot entrance.
“I’m excited, I feel like a kid in a candy store,” Marrero said. “Give me some of that, and some of that and a little of this.”
More marijuana dispensaries open up
By midmorning, 10 dispensaries across the state — from Bergen County to Atlantic County to Camden County — were open for recreational business, and the New Jersey cannabis industry was officially underway.
Two additional Columbia Care dispensaries in South Jersey were set to open for a few hours at 5 p.m., a new “happy hour” for a new era.
“The first sale of legal, adult-use cannabis today marks a historic moment for New Jersey, as we leave behind the indefensible practices that led to the incarceration of countless people of color and embrace the opportunities of a fair, regulated adult-use market,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement. “It is a moment that required long hours of work to make sure we got it right the first time.”
The line at the Curaleaf dispensary wrapped around the building, with most customers estimating they’d been waiting two hours.
“Why didn’t they do it on 4/20,” asked Jahsani Walters, 24, with a laugh. The first day of legal weed sales came after April 20, the unofficial marijuana “holiday” with a history dating back nearly 50 years.
“But I was also like, ‘finally.’ It’s been a whole year (since the state voted to legalize weed and Murphy signed then marijuana legalization bills into law), so we’ve been waiting a long time.
“But they should have done it on 4/20.”
Joe Russo, 75, of Rochelle Park, was excited to “get high” after walking out of the Ascend dispensary with a prerolled joint.
South Orange resident Bryal Williams was excited to celebrate with an eighth-ounce of Grease Monkey, a strain of marijuana, he purchased at The Apothecarium in Maplewood.
“It’s an herb. It’s a flower,” Williams said. “Liquor gets you drunk and, sometimes, you can’t control it. But weed? It’s just chill vibes, man. Chill vibes.”
The dispensary experience
The modern, legal weed dispensary often gets compared to an Apple Store. It’s an easy comparison, given the number of iPad-powered cash registers and employees with matching T-shirt uniforms.
At the Apothecarium in Maplewood, two tables featured “demo” strains for their customers in jars labeled “smell the flowers” — a small piece of plastic could be removed so one could take in the unmistakable smell of cannabis and note the differences between strains.
Along the walls, shelves featured specifically chosen bags of tinctures or topical ointments.
But most of the products are behind closed doors.
Here’s a refresher on rules: What’s still illegal under NJ marijuana legalization laws?
Cherry Hill resident Michael Nichols, 42, compared the Curaleaf dispensary in Bellmawr to a Starbucks. He and his wife have purchased legal weed before in Colorado and Nevada, but admitted “it’s cool to do it in Jersey.
“We’ve been waiting patiently, and now the public gets a chance to experience this,” Nichols said.
How to actually buy legal weed is on a dispensary-by-dispensary basis, at least during this initial rush.
At the Apothecarium, recreational customers checked in and were asked to wait in their cars in an empty parking lot across the street until they received a text telling them to get on line, which had 15 to 20 people at any given time.
“I can just get up in the morning, go to the store, get my Taylor ham egg and cheese and my eighth and call it a day,” said Rafael M., an Apothecarium customer who declined to give his last name.
Like buying wine: NJ marijuana dispensary explains the different product options
At Ascend, more than 1,500 recreational customers made online orders and pick-up appointments as of 9:30 a.m., with only another 500 slots open. Customers checked in with a QR code on their phone and waited while their order was prepared.
On their way out, customers took selfies and documented the experience on their phones. Most left with smiles on their faces and congratulated staff members as they walked away, saying “this is awesome.”
If the first day was any indication, legal weed in New Jersey is going to be expensive. At the Apothecarium, an eighth-ounce of marijuana flower cost $65. A 500 milligram vape cartridge was $65, or $125 for a 1 gram cartridge.
Eli Bosnick, of Belleville, spent $127 for two 500-milligram vape cartridges at RISE Dispensary in Bloomfield — almost double what he’d usually spend on the black market.
“But honestly, it felt worth it to me,” he said.
Knowing the products were vetted and safe gave him peace of mind, and he was glad to pay taxes because of New Jersey’s cannabis tax model, which earmarks most of the money for communities most affected by decades of racist drug laws.
In New Jersey, Black people have historically been 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar usage rates.
“As a white guy, pot’s kind of always been legal for me. It never destroyed my life. I wasn’t getting stopped and frisked,” Bosnick said. “And if I can spend that privilege even a tiny bit to do good by paying more for my legal weed, I’m up for it.”
More to come
Only 12 medical marijuana dispensaries are currently open for recreational sales, but that number is expected to increase in the coming weeks and months.
While entrepreneurs hoping to enter the cannabis industry must undergo an entire application process, medical marijuana operators need only prove they have enough supply to handle the influx of recreational customers and local approval to sell legal weed.
Within the last year, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission has issued more than 40 awards for new medical marijuana dispensaries, including 10 vertically integrated alternative treatment centers, which grow, manufacture and sell their own cannabis.
Those license holders must remain medical-only for a year after re-opening before applying for recreational sales.
On March 15, the CRC began taking applications for recreational-only dispensaries. As of March 30, more than 300 legal weed dispensary applications had been submitted.
“As far as I’m concerned, the real industry are (those) licenses,” said Evan Nison, an East Brunswick resident who serves as vice chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the country’s oldest legal weed advocacy group. “What happened today was a stopgap, a Band-Aid to get us to the point where the industry we voted for can get up and running.”
The medical marijuana dispensaries, for example, were not subject to CRC regulations that place “equity” applicants — those who have been arrested for marijuana possession or distribution in the past — at the front of the line for licenses. And there are yet to be any “microbusinesses,” smaller mom-and-pop operations with less than 10 employees.
“That industry will look significantly different. The ownership will look different,” Nison said. “I’m looking forward to supporting more local businesses and equity licensees, but it’s still nice being able to see New Jersey residents go into a store, pay a sales tax and walk out with a bag of legally-defined cannabis.”
But where those new, yet-to-even-be-licensed dispensaries will be located remains to be seen. Less than one in four towns across New Jersey have fully opted into the cannabis industry and will allow recreational marijuana sales.
Maplewood Mayor Dean Dafis said towns opting out without experiencing the benefits of the cannabis industry were making a mistake.
Since opening in May 2021, the Apothecarium has hosted or sponsored community events, including information sessions about expunging criminal records, substance abuse and its link with domestic violence.
“It’s the right thing to do, from a social justice perspective. It’s an economic development opportunity and a community building opportunity,” he said. “You can have that in your community — you should have that in your community, especially in communities that have been harmed for decades by antiquated marijuana prohibition laws. I hope they’ll come here to see that it can be done well, it can be done safely and it can be done inclusively.”
Contributing: Ahmad Austin Jr., Joseph Malinconico and Kristie Cattafi
Mike Davis has spent the last decade covering New Jersey local news, marijuana legalization, transportation and a little bit of everything else. He’s won a few awards that make his parents very proud. Contact him at [email protected] or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: NJ legal weed now for sale at 12 marijuana dispensaries