Legal marijuana in Montclair? Ascend dispensary says local procedure is holding it up
Update, April 14: New Jersey regulators have cleared the way for recreational marijuana sales to begin at several medical marijuana dispensaries starting April 21 — including Ascend New Jersey's Rochelle Park location. Its Montclair location still awaits potential approval from local officials, as described in the article below, originally published on April 4.
Montclair’s only medical marijuana dispensary, Ascend, has applied to state regulators to expand its operations to include recreational marijuana. But the application is being held up as Ascend awaits municipal approval, Caitlin Fleishman, Ascend’s director of public affairs, said.
Montclair was the first municipality in the state to host a medical marijuana facility, with Greenleaf Compassion Center on Bloomfield Avenue opening in December 2012. The location formally reopened as Ascend under new owners in early 2021.
Following an overwhelming approval by New Jersey voters in November 2020 to legalize recreational marijuana, in August 2021 Montclair council members voted to allow several kinds of cannabis businesses in town. Montclair will allow two recreational marijuana retailers and five other cannabis-related businesses — one of each for a cannabis delivery service, cannabis wholesaler, cannabis distributor, cannabis manufacturer and cannabis cultivator.
Ascend, which has dispensaries in Rochelle Park and Montclair and a cultivation plant in Franklin, has applied for licenses to expand to recreational use for all three facilities.
The required conditions of the state application include municipal approval — along with proof of sufficient supply to continue to meet patient needs after expansion, plans to ensure patient access and plans to address social equity and safety, Jeff Brown, executive director of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, said at a recent state hearing.
Rochelle Park passed a resolution in January and Franklin passed a resolution in February allowing Ascend to expand its operations, bypassing local application processes. But Montclair is asking that Ascend and other interested businesses go through a local application procedure — even though the township hasn’t yet come up with an application businesses can submit.
“It was a speedy process,” Fleishman said of the governing body approvals in Rochelle Park and Franklin.
Montclair’s ordinance allowing for two retail licenses says that it shouldn’t be “construed to prevent the conversion of an alternative treatment center to a cannabis establishment, distributor or delivery service” so long as the center gets written approval from the township, and needed state and municipal licenses. An alternative treatment center is a business that has a state license to provide medical marijuana.
“[That section of the ordinance] is interesting as it states the ordinance is not to prevent the conversion, but we must receive approval of the State of New Jersey, but we cannot do that until we get the [local] resolution,” Fleishman said.
Interim Township Attorney Paul Burr said Montclair is still working on the application process for cannabis licenses, to fit with Montclair’s cannabis ordinance.
“Information will be communicated to the public when the application process is formalized. Ascend’s request for a resolution of support is currently being reviewed for consideration. A license for the retail sale of cannabis is required from the municipality pursuant to state and local law,” Burr said in an email to Montclair Local.
He said that Montclair’s ordinance does not set a time frame for approval of applications.
On March 24, the state delayed approval of conditional licenses for eight alternative treatment companies that have applied for expansions to recreational use — Ascend; Acreage CCF New Jersey in Egg Harbor Township; Columbia Care in Vineland; Curaleaf in Bellmawr; GSD NJ in Woodbridge Township, Union and Eatontown; GTI New Jersey in Woodbridge; Terrascend in Lodi, Phillipsburg and Maplewood; and Verano in Branchburg. Officials said they were concerned New Jersey’s current overall “canopy” — the spaces used by cultivators to grow marijuana — could not handle the market for both medical and recreational sales yet.
At a public hearing, Brown said state projections are that the market is short about 100,000 pounds to meet the combined demand of medical and recreational consumers. He said his first priority would be making sure medical marijuana patients have uninterrupted access.
In his presentation, he said that over the last six months, however, the overall canopy increased by 80,000 square feet, and that supply is increasing every month, while prices are decreasing.
Brown said that the state wants to see if the applicants demonstrate that patients will be put first with special hours, separate lines, online ordering with curbside pickup and home delivery service for patients.
As of March 22, the state had received 675 applications for recreational marijuana licenses, Brown said at the hearing. By April 1, that number was up to 743, according to the commission.
Although the commission delayed its vote on letting medical marijuana businesses expand to recreational uses at the March 24 meeting, the commission did approve 50 conditional cultivator licenses and 18 manufacturer licenses.
On March 29, Senate President Nick Scutari, the lead sponsor of legislation that ultimately brought about the legalization of cannabis in New Jersey, issued a statement saying the “delays are totally unacceptable” and that he would form a special legislative committee to review the delays.
Montclair voters supported legalization of recreational marijuana by a 5-1 margin in last year’s statewide referendum on the matter, Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who championed Montclair’s laws last year, has said.
Ascend will be back at a state hearing scheduled for April 11 in which its Rochelle Park and Franklin applications, now complete with municipal approvals, may be approved, Fleishman said.
The Rochelle Park location could be selling recreational cannabis a month after state approval, making history as the first running recreational dispensary in the state — and also passing 2% of the recreational sales proceeds to the municipality, she said. Meanwhile, Montclair’s facility expansion is in limbo after first meeting with Burr in January, she said.
Yacobellis said that when Montclair was developing its cannabis law, the intention was to have Ascend go through the application process, “understanding that with their medical cannabis history and strong reputation, that they would have a strong chance within that process.
“At the time, we did not know that we could issue them a license distinct from an application process. I'm certainly open to the more flexible approach here, given that it would be in line with state law and because they're a reputable and established entity in Montclair already.
“I've spoken with our interim township attorney and plan to engage my colleagues in a discussion to see if there is an appetite to do this collectively.”
He said that he believes the application will be ready within 30 days.
Mayor Sean Spiller said the township wants to take the time to ensure it allows for the “very best selections” for Montclair.
“I continue to have conversations with all my colleagues and we will examine all options regarding pathways forward for any potential retailer. Our commitment remains to get this right for Montclair. Our thorough efforts will help ensure that is the case,” Spiller said.
Members of the council other than Yacobellis hadn’t returned messages sent April 1.
Planner Janice Talley at a March Planning Board meeting said that there may be a battle for Montclair’s licenses.
“People are holding a lot of interest in retail and dispensaries, and cultivators,” Talley said.
Fleishman said expanding medical marijuana facilities is the quickest way to get recreational sales up and running in New Jersey.
They don’t have to find locations, get zoning approvals, build facilities and hire workers, she said. Ascend’s having a cultivation facility will also aid in being able to meet the needs of both its recreational and medical customers, she said.
“For New Jersey’s 2020 statewide referendum, Montclair voters showed their strong support for the legalization of adult use cannabis and were heard by their township representatives in August of 2021, when an ordinance to allow adult use sales passed,” Fleishman said.
“We are eager for the imminent adult use market to begin in New Jersey and hope to have our Montclair location be a part of this historic juncture. Adult use cannabis sales will bring more jobs to the community and a new source of tax revenue for the township.”
Ascend’s workers in February entered into their first union contract, organizing under the Cannabis Engineers Extractors and Distributors Local 420. Brown said the state is investigating whether all unionized shops are with bona fide labor organizations.
Montclair licenses will be granted for three years, with an application fee of $5,000 and annual renewals of $2,500 for delivery businesses and retailers. All other cannabis business applications would cost $10,000, with $5,000 renewals.
In the case of multiple applicants vying for licenses, the Township Council would evaluate applicants considering factors including each 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, according to the ordinance.