(Bloomberg) -- It’s opening day for legalized recreational marijuana in New Jersey. And Larry Feinberg couldn’t be happier.
The 71-year-old stood in the sun, biding his time on the sidewalk outside Zen Leaf in Lawrence Township. About 10:30 a.m., he’d been standing in line for around an hour and there were still some 60 people ahead of him. But for Feinberg, the wait has been decades.
“I’ve been waiting since 1969 to buy legal weed in Jersey -- I’ve been catching a buzz every day for 52 years,” said Feinberg, who drove about an hour from his home in Ocean Township to get to Zen Leaf.
New Jersey and oasis aren’t normally found in the same sentence. But thanks to a decision from the Cannabis Regulatory Commission that went into effect Thursday, the Garden State is now an oasis for legal recreational marijuana on the U.S. East Coast. In the first year of legal weed, the New Jersey cannabis regulatory commission expects 836,000 residents to make purchases, and another 788,000 people to come from out of state.
At Zen Leaf, non-medicinal sales started at 9 a.m. Thursday, with some 200 people in line to get into the store.
Inside the shop, Zack Swan, national retail director for Zen Leaf parent Verano, showed a variety of items including edibles, vaping cartridges and machine-made pre-rolls, more commonly called joints. Even though the line at the store was long, things were moving quickly, he said, because staff outside were displaying QR codes with descriptions and pricing for the various products and helping customers to decide on what they wanted, even before they came in.
“We have product for every type of way to use it,” Swan said.
It was a lengthy process to get here. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy took office in 2018 and had intended to start sales within his first 100 days. But the effort stalled in the legislature, and then finally won voter approval in 2020. A regulatory framework took another 17 months.
Thursday’s opening day kicks off what could be a boon to the local economy, as legalization has been for states like Colorado. New Jersey also has the added allure of being one of the few places on the East Coast with shops selling legal weed, potentially drawing in customers from New York City, Philadelphia and other cities. The drug remains banned on the federal level.
Prior to Thursday, Maine and Massachusetts were the only East Coast states where recreational marijuana sales were legal and retailers were open.
Eighteen U.S. states, including New York, have legalized recreational use, but sales haven’t begun in all of them. By 2025, 42% of U.S. pot demand is projected to be met by legal purchases, up from 24% in 2020, according to cannabis analyst New Frontier Data.
New Jersey’s cannabis commission on April 11 approved retail applications from TerrAscend Corp., Curaleaf Holdings Inc., Green Thumb Industries Inc., Acreage Holdings Inc., Columbia Care Inc., Verano Holdings and Ascend Wellness Holdings. Initially licensed as prescription-only providers, those businesses can now sell to anyone 21 and older for any use.
Customers can purchase up to 1 ounce (28 grams) of dried flower or up to 5 grams of concentrates, resins or oils, or 10 100-milligram packages of ingestibles in a single transaction.
At Zen Leaf, law enforcement and private security directed recreational buyers to park in the rear, with closer spots reserved for those with medical prescriptions.
Inside, medical users were directed to their own line, with two staffers assisting. A condition of retail licensing was a promise of priority service for the 128,000 New Jerseyans with a physician-certified need for medical marijuana.
Matt Cuoco, 35, a construction worker, and Elijah McMillian, 32, a manager for an online retailer, had driven 40 minutes from Hillsborough. They made their choice, a hybrid strain called Modified Grapes, and ordered on their phones. By the time they reached the counter, ready to pay with cash, their pick would be ready in a white shopping bag.
“I’m looking for a high euphoria, more so than a downer, something to make me feel active and more focused,” McMillian said.
Another user, Michael Hilt, a 47-year-old cook from Cream Ridge, was interested in strains called Birthday Cake and Super Glue. He said that buying legally held more appeal than driving to a black-market dealer in Newark.
“It’s closer to my house,” Hilt said. “And you know what you’re getting here.”
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