Op-Ed: Pot dispensaries — another way to green the Garden State

Aaron Fischer | September 28, 2021 | Opinion
Done right, these thriving small businesses offer a user-friendly way to help New Jersey’s economy

I was in Los Angeles recently visiting family in the San Fernando Valley. California legalized recreational pot for adult use in 2016. Now there are dispensaries tucked into shopping centers, across the street from car washes and on the main avenues of suburban towns. I visited two — strictly for research, mind you — to get a preview of the green new world that awaits cannabis connoisseurs in the Garden State.

I’m a child of the ‘60s. Back in the day, scoring weed meant finding a dealer, convincing him you weren’t a narc and listening to lies about the potency of his product. Then you handed over $10 and got a baggie partly filled with something that looked like oregano with lots of seeds.

Not a baggie in sight at the Higher Path in Sherman Oaks, the dispensary I visited with my 25-year-old son, brought along to ensure I didn’t make a fool of myself. And not an illicit character skulking about the entrance, though temperatures in the high 90s likely discouraged even the most determined skulker.

This is definitely a concern in New Jersey, where an eye-opening 400 municipalities — 70% of the state’s full roster of 565 — have banned adult-use cannabis cultivators, manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, delivery companies and dispensaries.

For some towns, the ban is a quality-of-life issue. Ocean City Councilman Jody Levchuk told the Philadelphia Inquirer he was worried about “a smoke-fest” on the beaches and boardwalk.

Lacey Mayor Peter Curatolo was even more outspoken. Town residents “didn’t vote for 17-year-olds to become drug users. They didn’t vote for some overtaxed product so some MS-13 gangbanger can come in here and undercut (legally sold marijuana).”

A growing market sector

Judging from our first stop in Sherman Oaks, Curatolo and others concerned about dispensaries attracting lowlifes and thugs look to be worried about nothing.

We were carded and buzzed into the main salesroom: wall-to-wall carpets, wood shelves displaying a glittering array of products in brightly labeled glass containers — much more a high-end boutique than a den of iniquity.

An electronic kiosk suggested various strains of sativa to match the mood I hoped to achieve — creative, relaxed, sleepy, energized … “Blotto” and “obliterated” were not among the choices.

Our young budtender (yes, that’s what they’re called) offered hands-on help, showing us gummy bears, chocolate bars, cookies and other edibles made with different amounts of THC, the principal and most active ingredient in marijuana. The back end of the marijuana industry is big on quality control and repeatability.

And of course, we saw nuggets of compressed buds in various shades of violet, green and brown.

Best of all, the folks at Higher Path gave my son a T-shirt on our way out.

The Marijuana Factory in Chatsworth is a different vibe, more of a hip clothing shop — brightly painted cement floor and walls, music with lots of bass and a ship’s bell that was rung to commemorate each sale. No kiosk, but large windows let you look into the growing and trimming rooms. This is probably more about show than anything else; the factory could only raise a minute fraction of the pot it sells.

For the record, the Marijuana Factory is located in an industrial park. We visited at night; everything except the dispensary was dark. Again, no thuggish characters milling about.

Both High Path and the Marijuana Factory take online orders and offer a delivery service. Both had security guards in place, and both restrict the number of customers in the salesroom at any time. And California law forbids customers from consuming their purchases on-site. COVID-19 protocols were in effect at both.

But quality of life may not be the chief reason so many municipalities opted out. According to New Jersey’s recreational marijuana law, towns that decide to allow dispensaries to operate are making a five-year commitment. Some municipalities said they were waiting to see the regulations the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission issued. The commission voted to adopt the first set of rules on Aug. 19. The opt-out deadline was Aug. 21. That didn’t give town officials enough time to read and digest the information.

Mayor Shawn Klein of Livingston put it succinctly: “We just don’t know what we’re allowed to do as a town.”

Now that the rules are out there, municipalities that opted out can change their minds and opt in.

My decidedly unscientific conclusions: Dispensaries don’t attract undesirable clientele. Business appears to be booming, good for New Jersey’s battered small businesses and for the state’s tax coffers. And moving marijuana onto Main Street should be good for nearby stores and for residents who want to inhale.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight