On the first day of legal recreational cannabis sales in New Jersey, some buyers did a happy dance as they left the store while others held their purchases high with a joyful air.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Qwazi Robinson, 25, of Vineland, declared Thursday with a flourish as he exited the Botanist in Egg Harbor Township about 11:30 a.m., with an ounce of assorted cannabis strains that cost a total of $420.
Robinson could have bought the same amount on the street for $100, but he wanted to come on the first day of legal weed “just for the nostalgia of it,” he said.
“I want to say I bought pot the first day it was legal in New Jersey,” Robinson said outside the store, which sold out of Sour Banana Sherbet, a cannabis strain that is popular for its high potency.
» READ MORE: Find your closest legal weed shop.
A dozen stores opened on New Jersey’s first day of legal weed sales, and customers waited in lines 100 to 150 people deep, young and old, for their first legal purchases of high-priced recreational marijuana.
Indeed, Robinson, like many regular customers of the traditional pot market, said he’d keep buying from his regular sources — possibly restraining the nascent industry’s growth.
Still, there was a palpable sense of relief among shoppers — including some who said they smoke cannabis for medical reasons, but couldn’t afford a medical card. Many marveled at the novelty of buying cannabis in the open with police officers directing traffic around them, instead of making arrests. That is long overdue, they said.
The path to Thursday’s opening day started 17 months ago, when New Jersey voters opted to make recreational weed legal. Then, in February 2021, the state passed laws calling for the expungement of cannabis convictions and establishing a legal cannabis market. Some hoped that New Jersey would become a model for bringing people into the industry who were hurt by prohibition and who hailed from neighborhoods undermined by its enforcement.
It remains to be seen whether that will happen. The first companies out of the gate Thursday were large, multi-state cannabis companies that have already spent tens of millions of dollars building infrastructure to supply what they hope will be a $2 billion annual market in New Jersey. It’s expected to be many months before independent, so-called social-equity businesses get off the ground.
The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which came under political pressure to open the market, described the state’s first day of recreational sales as “robust” and “trouble free.” Thirteen stores were supposed to open but only 12 did after Curaleaf’s Edgewater Park location was held up by a local zoning issue.
A joyful day, but will prices keep people away?
As Andrew Sanford walked out of the Botanist in Williamstown, he raised a canister of his newly purchased marijuana and shouted out to the still-growing line of customers: “God’s green herb!”
Dave Adams, 65, propped a milk crate in front of Cannabist in Deptford at 11 a.m. for the chance to snag some grass — what he likes to call marijuana — and go “street legal.”
“With the black market, you don’t know what you’re getting,” he explained. “It’s good, but you don’t know the percentage strain or nothing like that. So I want to see what they have.”
Adams, now retired, said he used to smoke in the 1970s, but then stopped, and recently started again as a way to “chill.” Cannabist was his first dispensary visit.
Dionne Finley and Joseph Gaeta were eager to try out the Bonkers and Sophora marijuana flower that they had purchased from the Botanist, packing a bowl and rolling a joint near the store.
Finley and Gaeta said they are avid smokers and also thought the prices at the Botanist were “outrageous,” saying they have been able to acquire the same amount of marijuana flower for less than half the nearly $60 price tag.
Donna Baker, of Monroeville, who described herself as a longtime cannabis smoker, agreed that prices were high, but also expressed optimism that they would come down as the market expanded.
More important to her was the fact that legal sales were actually happening.
“This is just unbelievable. I didn’t expect this in my lifetime,” the 56-year-old said, adding a note of caution. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea. Do we really want all these people walking around stoned?”
Recreational cannabis for medical ailments
Opening day for legal recreational marijuana sales in New Jersey began promptly at 12:01 a.m. Thursday for Justin Dugary.
That’s when the Barrington resident lined up at Curaleaf’s Bellmawr location — making him the first person in line at that site, and likely the first person to purchase legal recreational cannabis in the state.
“My friends got here at about 4:30 a.m., so it was quiet, cold and lonely,” Dugary told The Inquirer. “But I wanted to be the first person in New Jersey to purchase legal recreational cannabis.”
Dugary said he has been using cannabis for 20 years due to a “severe case of Crohn’s disease” that he has struggled with over the last two decades.
At the Botanist in Williamstown, Richard Jester was so excited that he queued up at 5:30 a.m. to be the first in line. Jester, who has spinal stenosis and uses a wheelchair, lives with chronic pain but was unable to obtain a medical marijuana card because it was too expensive.
“It’s $300 just to even try. To even see a doctor about a medicinal card. I’m disabled and I’m on a fixed income and $300 is 85% of my check. I can’t live on that,” he said.
The Williamstown resident, who planned to buy a pack of pre-rolled marijuana joints dubbed Mob Boss, said marijuana helped ease much of his pain but also made him relax.
“If I get to stand for 10 minutes, that’s a blessing. I’ve done an Olympic run,” Jester said. “Weed helps. You want to feel calm. Not a bundle of nerves.”
Big day for business
At about 10 a.m. Thursday, 8 of 34 cars in one of Curaleaf’s Bellmawr parking lots had Pennsylvania license plates, illustrating the draw legal cannabis will have on people who live on the western side of the Delaware River — where only medical marijuana is legal. (It’s not legal to bring marijuana into Pennsylvania, but Keystone State residents can consume legally in the Garden State.)
A Republican state senator from Central Pennsylvania, Mike Regan, is among those pushing for cannabis legalization, holding three hearings this year to gather information, mostly from the industry, to help write a bill. But those efforts face stiff resistance from Pennsylvania House Republicans and many GOP senators, calling it a gateway drug for wider abuse.
Recreational cannabis, meanwhile, has been legalized in New York. Maryland residents are expected to vote on legalization this fall, while a recreational cannabis legalization bill recently cleared a committee vote in Delaware. Marijuana use remains illegal under federal law.
In New Jersey, Curaleaf CEO Joe Bayern liked the lines he saw at his company’s store in Bellmawr, which started recreational sales at 8 a.m. That was 90 minutes earlier than planned because company officials wanted to be sure to have enough time to get everyone through before closing at 8 p.m.
The Massachusetts company expected to serve 2,500 customers on opening day, according to Bayern. He was hoping the average purchase would be about $100, which is less than the average medical customer buys at at a time.
Curaleaf runs two other stores close to Philadelphia that were not open for recreational sales Thursday. The store in Edgewater Park was expected to open but was held up by what Bayern called a “a small zoning technicality” that he said would be resolved Thursday evening. Curaleaf’s Bordentown store has a longer road to zoning approval, but could be open for recreational sales in a couple weeks, Bayern said.
Bayern blamed New Jersey’s relatively high prices — $104 for a quarter-ounce of a high-potency here versus $65 for a similar product in Maine — on higher taxes, a limited supply, and robust demand. Maine has many more small producers, which help keep prices in check.
Some shoppers weren’t bothered by the prices. They were thrilled to have easy access.
Natalia John, 43, was practically dancing as she left the Curaleaf store in Bellmawr with her purchases, including an eighth of Cakepop flower for $50.
Asked when she would smoke it, the resident of Beachwood, Ocean County, said: “as soon as I get in the house.”
Staff writers Nick Vadala and Ximena Conde contributed to this article.