An employee puts down an eighth of marijuana after letting a customer smell it outside the Magnolia cannabis lounge in Oakland, California, U.S. April 20, 2018.
An employee puts down an eighth of marijuana after letting a customer smell it outside the Magnolia cannabis lounge in Oakland, California, U.S. April 20, 2018. Reuters / ELIJAH NOUVELAGE

Last year, Xavier Rodriguez got two convictions for marijuana possession expunged from his record, thanks to a new law legalizing the drug in New Jersey.

On Thursday, the 28-year-old was among the initial wave of New Jerseyans waiting in long lines to buy marijuana lawfully, as 13 dispensaries around the state began selling to all residents 21 and older for the first time.

"No more being hassled and having to hide out," said Rodriguez, standing outside the Zen Leaf dispensary in Lawrence, New Jersey, with his 60-year-old mother, Debra, who uses marijuana for pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis.

Thursday's debut marked the culmination of a decade-long effort by advocates in the state to legalize recreational use and end years of racially unbalanced criminal prosecution. New Jersey is one of 18 states and the District of Columbia to have legalized adult marijuana use.

"We see it as the end of Prohibition 2.0," said Ben Kovler, chief executive of Green Thumb Industries, which operates dispensaries in Paterson and Bloomfield.

The 13 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.

Industry executives and analysts expect the market will eventually exceed $2 billion. 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 state's Cannabis Regulatory 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, which owns the Zen Leaf in Lawrence.

More than 100 people stood in a line snaking around Zen Leaf's building on Thursday morning. Employees with tablets offered advice on choosing from a menu of products ranging from Ethos Cookies ("frosty and delicious") to Chemlatto 33 ("earthy and rich") - both hybrid strains of smokable cannabis.

Dean Miller, 39, said he has a medical card for marijuana but chose to wait in the adult-use line to show support for what he called "a big day for New Jersey."

He said he hoped legalization would help educate people on marijuana's therapeutic effects, without the downsides of substances such as alcohol.

"I'm not just looking to get high," said Miller, who relies on daily marijuana to cope with pain from six surgeries.


Only medical marijuana dispensaries can sell to adults for now, but the commission is weighing hundreds of applications from start-up businesses. Those owned by people with marijuana convictions, as well as minorities, women and disabled veterans, receive priority consideration under the law.

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.

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.