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New Jersey Votes to Legalize Recreational Marijuana

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HOBOKEN, N.J. — In the very important, high-stakes fight for tristate area coolness, New Jersey rarely has the upper hand. (The tristate, for those without a Northeast-centric worldview, has traditionally referred to New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.)

But two weeks ago, New Jersey residents voted to amend the state constitution and legalize recreational marijuana, something New York and Connecticut have not done.

The spunky underdog sneaked in a powerful left hook. The amendment kicks in on Jan. 1, 2021.

The full-fledged plan for opening up the New Jersey market and distributing licenses is making its way through the state legislature in the form of a 216-page bill, alongside a more pressing one that will decriminalize possession of marijuana up to six ounces. (New York lawmakers have worked to decriminalize marijuana; possession of up to two ounces is considered a violation, not a crime.)

“New Jersey is definitely the new cool kid on the block,” said Alex Todd, 41, the owner of the California cannabis company Saucey Farms and Extracts and a former celebrity jeweler for celebrities including Jay-Z and Rihanna.

“We’re excited about getting into the New Jersey market,” Mr. Todd said. “It’s going to be gigantic. Possibly the largest in the U.S. besides California.”

Transporting marijuana across state lines is illegal. Nonetheless, many business owners were matter-of-fact about the potential that the New Jersey market would include customers from neighboring states.

“You’re going to have all the states outside, close to New Jersey, all coming in,” Mr. Todd said.

Joe Bayern, 57, the president of Curaleaf, a cannabis company with locations around the country including in New Jersey, said the density of the state’s population, its proximity to metropolitan areas and a high level of disposable income all spell future success for New Jersey’s marijuana industry. Another attracting factor, he said, is that the tax on recreational marijuana being considered by lawmakers may be one of the lowest in the country.

And potential customers are already poking their heads out of the sand.

On a recent Monday morning, Darek Wajda was at the Hoboken location of his CBD store, the Green Room, fielding calls and visits from people wondering if he was already selling the more potent green stuff.

CBD is shorthand for cannabidiol, a molecule derived from the cannabis plant. It may help you sleep, or soothe a variety of medical ills, but it is marketed as non-psychoactive. That means it will not make you feel high the way another compound in cannabis, THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, can. The CBD Mr. Wajda sells comes from hemp, a type of cannabis plant that contains less than 0.3 percent THC.

ImageManhattan is just a PATH ride away from several cities in New Jersey, including Harrison, Hoboken, Jersey City and Newark.
Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Two customers wandered in. “Can I buy weed here?” one asked and inhaled deeply (dried hemp leaves smell like the illegal stuff). Mr. Wajda, 26, said that until the current bill is debated, amended and signed into law, selling recreational marijuana will still be illegal. He offered to explain how different cannabis compounds work in the body. “Oh, I know how they work in the body,” the customer said, laughing.

Mr. Wajda is waiting to see what the regulations will be like before he makes any decisions about applying for a recreational marijuana license, but he thinks New Jersey — especially the part of the state that is directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan — will be quite the hot spot. At least until New York follows New Jersey’s lead.

“We have the PATH, the bridges, the tunnels,” Mr. Wajda said. His store is a five-minute walk from the entrance to the PATH train, which connects Hoboken to the financial district, Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Midtown.

“We’re also very close to Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. It’s like an hour drive,” he said. “Adult-use THC has turned into a different type of buying habit. People don’t come and buy one thing. They come in and drop $500 on product in order to supply themselves for a whole month. People will make the trip.”

Though the bill that establishes a framework for legalization is still being debated, legislators have to come up with something, and soon. After all, the state amendment that legalizes possession, cultivation and retail sale of recreational marijuana will go into effect in less than two months.

State Senator Nicholas Scutari, a Democrat who said he was laughed off the senate floor when he talked about legalization in the early 2000s, wrote the bill and expects his colleagues to move quickly given the voter mandate. Mr. Scutari hopes that existing medical marijuana dispensaries will be able to start selling recreational marijuana as soon as the bill is passed; it will take longer for other stores to open.

His plan includes provisions for “consumption areas.” That means New Jersey could, theoretically, have marijuana cafes.

But will city dwellers journey to New Jersey for a night out?

Jason Ackerman, 53, the chief executive of the cannabinoid company TerrAscend, thinks Manhattanites certainly will. “You live in the city, you get your Uber, go to a smoke lounge in New Jersey,” he said. “You spend the night in the smoke lounge, you have your driver take you back into the city.”

Mr. Scutari also hopes for that. “I wrote it into the statute,” he said. “Anyone over 21 with a valid ID from any other state can come over and purchase.”

That doesn’t mean you will legally be able to bring marijuana back into New York, so Mr. Scutari suggests that New Yorkers stay overnight in a New Jersey hotel.

Or just move here permanently. “The welcome mat is out,” said Gov. Philip D. Murphy in an interview. “We’re happy to have you. But please behave responsibly, and we would rather have you live here.

In writing the bill currently being debated, Mr. Scutari incorporated lessons learned in the 11 other states that have legalized marijuana, as well as Washington, D.C. But his vision went even beyond American borders.

“I’d love to see New Jersey one day be like Amsterdam,” Mr. Scutari said. “They’ve got cafes for usage, they’ve got takeout. It’s infused, literally, into the culture and society there.”

Others are dreaming of the West Coast. “I can see New Jersey modeling its framework on something like what they have in California,” said Ty Griffith, 30, an owner of Brwnbox, a hemp company with a newly opened store in Orange, a city in North Jersey. “In California, they have lounges, dispensaries and edibles companies.”

Mr. Griffith was seated in the store behind a curved counter with bar stools for customers seeking one-on-one consultations about what kind of CBD is right for them. Decorated with hanging lights, plants, and paintings from an artist whose studio is next door, Brwnbox seemed reminiscent of a gallery or a high-end skin care shop.

Besides selling dried hemp flowers, the company makes tinctures, pain-relief cream, honey, gummies and lollipops laced with CBD. Once it is clear how licenses for recreational marijuana dispensaries will be distributed, Mr. Griffith and his partner plan to apply.

Mr. Griffith foresees a growing market. “There’s already an influx of people coming from New York because of high rents and other things, and they tend to flock toward cities that have that public transportation,” Mr. Griffith said. The train from Orange to New York’s Penn Station takes 30 minutes. “With legalization of cannabis, that’s all the more incentive to make that move.”

The New Jersey bill also allows for delivery services, a segment of the market that Mr. Ackerman thinks will thrive. He should know. Before running TerrAscend, he was a founder of FreshDirect and FoodKick.

“Trying to sell fish online was really hard,” Mr. Ackerman said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, how much easier would it be to convince people to get cannabis delivered to them?’”

When Mr. Ackerman started building a business that would sell groceries online in 2000, everybody thought it would be impossible, he said. It took 17 years for the world to catch up. In the cannabis industry, he said, “the rate of change is so much faster than it was with online groceries.”

Right now, many people do not know what a store selling recreational marijuana will look like, he said. “People might think it’s this kind of lowlight vape shop in the back of a warehouse somewhere,” he said. “People don’t have this vision of a beautiful store with trained people and couches and a beautiful shopping experience.”

Mr. Ackerman promised to remedy that. “I’m going to make it so cool,” he said.

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