For several years, Ray Riga, positioned with an MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business, found a good living doing software and data engineering. At the same time, he was restless, his mind hard-wired, he said, to think creatively and take risks.
Then, on Election Day 2020, New Jersey voters overwhelmingly approved the legalized sale of marijuana for recreational use, a landmark moment for the state and a personal turning point for Riga. He saw an outlet for his aspirations.
“I reached a point,” he said, “when I was looking for work and saw what was happening with cannabis, and it got me thinking back to my entrepreneurial dreams.”
He set himself on a Byzantine course of application fees, zoning regulations and legal requirements. He quickly became an expert on security and odor control, at ease with municipal ordinances no less arcane than a software grid. At 44, Riga has had small side businesses that did not present nearly the same sorts of complexities, he said.
“This is a totally different animal,” he said. “The number of hoops you have to jump through are daunting, more than any other industry I’ve looked at.”
His diligence was rewarded when the Montclair Township Council granted him a resolution of support at its March 14 meeting, a milestone for Riga and one more significant step for the township into the rising cannabis industry. It was the first approval the council has given to any cannabis operation since last August, when it approved a license for Ascend to sell marijuana for recreational use at its store on Bloomfield Avenue.
With the action by the council at its March 14 meeting, Riga cleared perhaps the most critical obstacle on his way to becoming the first licensed cannabis manufacturer in Montclair. The requirements remaining in front of him are receiving a conditional use permit from the Planning Board and a license from the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission.
Seven retail companies are competing for two additional licenses to sell recreational (or adult use) cannabis. Two companies are vying for a single license to grow cannabis.
Generally, in the screening process, a company gets green-lighted by the Planning Board before the council decides between competitors. But because Riga has no competition, the council decided to address his application first, Councilor-at-Large Peter Yacobellis said.
Riga’s company – TLEHL Inc. – comes with a bit of an awkward name that acknowledges a new day in the cannabis industry. It stands for “The Legal Eagle Has Landed.”
The sale of recreational cannabis has been legalized in 21 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and more states are expected to do likewise over the next few years.
Riga is prepared. His vision will take shape in a roughly 2,000-square-foot space in a red-brick warehouse at 154 Pine St. As a manufacturer, he will take the natural plant and transform it into tinctures, topicals and pre-rolled joints. He said he will place an emphasis on solventless concentrates, a purer form that is chemical-free.
He is technically applying for a microbusiness license, and wants to model the enterprise on microbreweries.
“I want to be providing high-quality products that are locally sourced,” he said. “If you’re the type of person that wants to buy everything you consume from within a 250-mile radius, I want you to be my customer. I see myself more as a Dogfish Head, making a craft product, more so than chasing scale.”
If Riga receives all the necessary certificates, he could end up co-tenants in the Pine Street building with another Montclair resident, Andrew Marshall, whose company, Genuine Grow, is trying to win a cultivation license. That would ease many of the logistics not only for the two companies but for the surrounding area, which is a mixed-use zone. Fewer vans and trucks would be needed to convey the products.
Like all the cannabis applicants, Riga had to pay $15,000 to the township. At first, he anticipates, he will have a staff of three employees before growing to as many as 10 (a limit imposed on a micro-cannabis business).
His team, he said, will work in a large, open room, using hand craftsmanship before the cannabis is placed into machines that do the final work.
There are secrets of the trade, Riga intimated, and when asked what kind of machines he would use, he demurred.
“Some things are proprietary,” he said in a good-natured voice.
Most of his family worked in civil service. He is the father of a boy and girl, both toddlers.
When Riga was hunting for a location in Montclair, he was mindful of the zoning restrictions – and was particularly careful to find a spot that was more than 250 feet from a school or day care center. There were obstacles he anticipated and some he did not. One real estate agent, upon realizing what kind of business Riga was looking to open, refused to help him.
“She said, ‘Oh, no way, I would rather leave it vacant,’” Riga said. The broker, he said, represented another time, before cannabis was widely accepted as an industry, and seemed to be taking a moral stand.
“She kind of wished things would stay the way they were for a little bit longer,” he said.
A more significant hurdle arose when a few landlords resisted renting to a cannabis business, only because they in turn had hit a wall with their mortgage lenders. Some lenders, the landlords told Riga, view the cannabis industry through a federal lens and were wary of legal repercussions. At the national level, cannabis is still unlawful.
Part entrepreneur, part branding wizard, Riga, in talking about his new venture, sounded like an evolutionist as well. It has been shown, he said, that people have endocannabinoid receptors that cannabis binds to. It’s one reason, he said, that cannabis provides benefits, from recreational to medicinal use.
“Cannabis is a plant that has grown symbiotically with humanity over the course of thousands of years,” he said. “You can think of cannabis as a plant, sort of like a dog. The dog started out as a wolf. And then the wolf started hanging out with humans. Eventually the wolf turned into dogs.
“I think cannabis is the plant version of that. People kept doing things to the plant, and it got better for people to use. And now what we have today, the plant could probably be called in the plant kingdom, man’s best friend.”