LAWRENCE, N.J. (Reuters) – Well over a year after voters said yes to legal weed, New Jersey is finally about to start getting high on its own supply.
State residents 21 and older can lawfully buy marijuana starting on Thursday, after a decade-long effort by advocates to legalize recreational use and end years of racially unbalanced criminal prosecution.
Dispensaries are expecting big crowds on Thursday, a day after the unofficial marijuana holiday known as 4/20. In Paterson and Bloomfield, dispensaries operated by Green Thumb Industries will open at 6 a.m., Chief Executive Ben Kovler said.
“We see it as the end of Prohibition 2.0,” he said.
The state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission has approved 13 medical dispensaries to sell adult-use marijuana. The locations are owned by Ascend Wellness Holdings Inc, Columbia Care Inc, Acreage Holdings Inc, Green Thumb Industries Inc, Curaleaf Holdings Inc, Terrascend Corp and Verano Holdings Corp.
The sites are located throughout the state, including in the suburbs of New York City and Philadelphia. New York is expected to begin recreational sales sometime in 2023, while Pennsylvania only permits medical use.
Thursday’s debut comes a year and a half after New Jersey voters approved a referendum allowing recreational marijuana use, joining 17 other states and the District of Columbia.
Industry executives and analysts expect the market will exceed $2 billion within years. Governor Phil Murphy’s proposed budget anticipates $121 million in cannabis revenue, mostly from taxes and fees, in fiscal year 2023.
There are currently 130,000 medical marijuana patients in New Jersey, and the commission estimates there are roughly 800,000 potential recreational customers.
“The goal here is to take people away from the black market and bring them into the safe, legal market,” said George Archos, chief executive of Verano.
While medical marijuana dispensaries will initially be the only legal sites, the commission has received hundreds of applications from start-up businesses. Those owned by people with marijuana convictions as well as minorities, women and disabled veterans will receive priority consideration.
The law requires much of the state’s cannabis revenue to be invested in communities most harmed by the “war on drugs.”
In 2018, Black people were arrested more than three times as often as white people for marijuana offenses despite similar usage rates, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
“That’s the whole point here: making sure we’re pursuing equity every step of the way and ending our reliance on a criminal response for something that people consume all over the country,” said Amol Sinha, the group’s executive director.
Frank Perullo, the president of Ascend, said the company’s Rochelle Park location has quadrupled its workforce to 125 and added 50 parking spaces as part of the ramp-up to Thursday.
Cannabis executives hope a successful launch in New Jersey will spur other east coast states to take action, noting that polls show a majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana.
“It’s time for legislators to catch up with the American consumer,” said Joe Bayern, the chief executive of Curaleaf.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Bill Berkrot)
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