Ascend of Montclair has received its license from the state to expand to sales of marijuana for recreational use.

On May 3, the Montclair Township Council approved a resolution in favor letting Ascend — whose Bloomfield Avenue alternative treatment center opened in 2012 as the Greenleaf Compassion Center, the first medical marijuana dispensary in the state — expand to recreational sales. Local support is a criterion for state approval. 

Caitlin Fleishman, Ascend’s director of public affairs, confirmed that Ascend’s license had been approved but did not offer a timeline of when she thought recreational sales could begin in the township or how things would work when they do. 

When Ascend first began recreational sales at its facility in Rochelle Park, shoppers were required to make appointments. 

Ascend expanded that facility to recreational sales on April 21 after the township committee there passed a resolution in the winter stating its support, with the state approving Ascend’s license earlier in April. 

On May 17, the Montclair council also approved a resolution granting Ascend a conditional cannabis retail license to operate at the retail location, but subject to the issuance of a state retail license and the submission of an application.

On May 24, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission approved Ascend’s application for its Montclair location. Two other alternative treatment centers also received approval that day to expand, Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge, Union and Eatontown and TerrAscend/Apothecarium in Lodi, for a total of five new locations offering recreational cannabis.

Ascend regional retail manager for New Jersey Mike Conway called into the May 24 hearing to describe how the dispensary in Montclair would provide access plans to their medical patients. Ascend will provide a hotline and immediate access at the door for patients, special medical-only hours, three registers for medical-only patients, ability to place orders two days in advance and curbside pickup for those with mobility issues. 

Now Ascend will have to go through Montclair’s application process as well, interim Township Attorney Paul Burr said. The application is expected to be available to all applicants on June 6, Councilman Peter Yacobellis said.

Burr said once Ascend submits its application to the township clerk, it will have to be reviewed by the zoning, legal, finance and manager departments and then go back to the council. 

On May 17, the council also approved an ordinance that would amend its existing marijuana license law to allow three dispensaries, instead of the two specified when the council first passed the law last August. The amendments would let the council approve applications at its discretion and remove a scoring rubric for applications.

Factors considered by the council and stated in the ordinance include the business’s ties to the community and whether at least one shareholder has lived in or had a business in Montclair for at least five years. 

The council would also consider a business’s commitment to provide benefits to the community, and its demonstrated commitment to diversity in its ownership and hiring practices.

Solar Botanicals Chief Operating Officer Teri Festa, who wants to open a retail dispensary in Montclair, voiced concerns at the May 17 council meeting with the changes to the ordinance. She questioned the removal of the weighted rubric and the change to allow the council's discretion on approval of applications, saying the changes would not be as “transparent or the licensing process not accessible to everybody.”

“By adding the language giving the council sole discretion, you are eliminating the weighted averages, and the process is less transparent and more subjective,” Festa said. “How does this simplify other than to make it easier to appear at least that you are steering it to certain licensees and make it more defendable in court?” 

Mayor Sean Spiller said that the changes to the weighted rubric were a consideration in allowing the township the “greatest legal defensibility.”

Festa also noted that some of the criteria that would be considered in the case of multiple applicants would be impossible to meet as a small business just starting out due to the state’s legalizing recreational sales just last August. 

She pointed specifically to the sections of the ordinance that state preferences would be given to cannabis and pharmaceutical businesses with experience in New Jersey and that had been a union shop for one year.

“Other folks can’t meet that standard either,” Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams said.

But Festa said that other existing alternative treatment center “big businesses” could be applying for Montclair’s two licenses and would have a leg up on businesses just entering the market.

At the May 17 council meeting, Deirdre Birmingham questioned why the council was taking so long to get recreational sales moving in Montclair.

“How could we leave all that money sitting on the table? ... We’ve known about it for so long,” she said. 

Sales at the first 12 retail dispensaries were $5 million a week, Jeff Brown, executive director of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, said on May 24. Montclair would collect 2% of all recreational sales. 

Yacobellis, who penned the ordinance passed last August, reminded the public that the council had an “abrupt exit” of the township attorney in December of last year and then had to hire an interim attorney who had to get up to speed on items such as rent control.

Festa told the council she was hoping the state would approve her application for a conditional license, but the council reminded her that Montclair’s approval was part of the state approval process.  

To date the commission has approved the following licenses: 92 cultivation, 45 manufacturing, four testing labs and 12 retail. 

Along with municipal support, alternative treatment center applicants had to prove to the state that they had sufficient supply to address the needs of both patients and recreational users, plans to ensure patient access and plans to address social equity and safety.