More than eight years ago, the business then known as Greenleaf Compassion Center introduced itself to the Montclair community — and introduced medical marijuana dispensaries to New Jersey, as the state’s first. Five more around the state would open in the years following.

This week the center marked a new milestone — formally reopening as Ascend Montclair on the same day Gov. Phil Murphy signed bills making recreational marijuana legal in the state. 

But while existing dispensaries are among those best-positioned to quickly ramp up recreational sales, Ascend chief revenue officer Chris Melillo said his company’s Montclair location is “laser-focused” on the medical experience — at least for now. The facility stayed open during the transition" 

Ascend, which also operates dispensaries in Illinois and Massachusetts, took ownership of the property late last year. It recently completed a month-long renovation. 

Before the overhaul, the dispensary routinely saw lines that stretched out the door. Now, patients make an appointment in advance to shop, and the checkout counter has been expanded from three sales terminals to eight. 

Melillo said the company is keeping an eye on the regulatory changes and the rollout of the law, brokered after months of debate in the New Jersey Legislature over what if any punishment those under 21 caught with marijuana should face. A bill approved by both houses Monday, Feb. 22, creates escalating civil penalties, but not criminal penalties, for minors caught with pot or alcohol. 

It also creates penalties for police who knowingly violate rules prohibiting them from stopping someone because they smell marijuana, and from detaining minors beyond issuing them warnings — restrictions the New Jersey State PBA complained Monday “handcuffed” officers and predicted would lead to underage marijuana users smoking freely anywhere.

It’s still expected to be months before legal sales start anywhere in the state.

Even if the governor hadn’t signed the legislation this week, bills passed earlier that end marijuana arrests and create the structure for legal sales would have become law Monday — the same day Ascend held its grand reopening. 

The dispensary has enjoyed support from Montclair’s leadership. The morning following the reopening, a ribbon-cutting was attended by Mayor Sean Spiller, members of the Township Council, Police Chief Todd Conforti, Deputy Chief Wilhelm Young and County Commissioner Brendan Gill.

Councilman Bob Russo told Ascend staff at the ribbon-cutting he was glad to see a continued emphasis on medical marijuana, “being [that’s] something that helps people, especially old people, people with arthritis, people with all sorts of ailments.”

His own mother died in April of COVID-19, suffering severe pain, he said —  “and it would’ve been good to have more medical cannabis for her.”

Third Ward Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams, in a separate conversation with Montclair Local, said the dispensary had provided an essential service in Montclair, “because specific strains of cannabis have been a great resource to people in finding relief from conditions that [was] previously unavailable to them.”

She said it was a “point of pride” Montclair was open-minded about the benefits of the cannabis plant.

Ascend could soon have competition in Montclair. Another dispensary has submitted an application, in a partnership between Colorado-based company Lightshade and a group of local investors, one of whom is Rohan Marley, son of Bob Marley. A state appellate court last week cleared the way for the New Jersey Department of Health to review about 150 medical dispensary applications that were held up for more than a year because of a lawsuit — including Lightshade’s. 

For now, Lightshade says it’s most focused on that medical marijuana application. But it’s leaving open the door to recreational sales.

“Lightshade is excited around recent events in New Jersey regarding legal cannabis, the first being the court’s decision to start processing medical dispensary applications, and the second being the opening of the adult/recreational marketplace,” Mike Leach, Lightshade’s chief operating officer, told Montclair Local in an email Monday. 

“Lightshade and its partners in New Jersey would welcome the opportunity to service both [medical and recreational] markets, and we look forward [to] hearing potential good news about our medical application.”

Conforti said that since the existing dispensary’s opening as Greenleaf, there have not been any public safety issues.

“From our standpoint, we’ve never had any problems. It’s always been run like any other business. ... The bottom line is we’ve never had any issues here, and we support it and we wish them good luck,” the police chief said. 

Ascend regional retail manager for New Jersey Mike Conway said while the legislation approving recreational marijuana is great news, “we don’t want that to become noise and interference” that gets in the way of taking care of the medical marijuana patients Ascend already serves.

Conway said the business would look to make sure it can serve and expand that base of medical patients, “and then as that kind of unfolds, we’ll work with that as it goes.”

Gill said he hoped the reopened center would be more visible to the public, and provide economic benefits.

“I’m a lifelong Montclair resident. ... I’m hoping that as many of these jobs are made available to the members of our community as possible,” he said.

Gill said in the dispensary’s previous incarnation, it wasn’t particularly visible, but he hoped Ascend’s “rebirth” would contribute to ongoing redevelopment in the area. He said he hoped to see Ascend be a “long-term tenant that helps anchor the economic activity in this region that we’re trying to promote.”

Murphy, at a coronavirus press briefing Monday, said the new bills replace “New Jersey’s broken and indefensible marijuana laws, which permanently stained the records of many residents and short-circuited their futures, and which disproportionately hurt communities of color and failed the meaning of justice at every level, social or otherwise.”

Spiller, in an email to Montclair Local, said legalized recreational marijuana would “bring an end to the draconian enforcement policies that have disproportionately harmed people of color” — and said states with legal pot have seen a positive impact on their business, along with “much-needed tax revenue to fund critical investments in education and infrastructure.”

At the ribbon-cutting, Spiller said he didn’t know whether recreational marijuana was in Ascend’s future, though he was “sure they’ll explore it.”

But the mayor said he’s glad to see New Jersey move on from marijuana policies he said haven’t been effective or fair, “so transitioning to something that allows for recreational use in a safe way, in a controlled way, can’t be a bad thing.”

Price Abrams said there might be “modest revenue implications” for towns with recreational marijuana dispensaries, but the Township Council hadn’t yet discussed the matter. She said it would be a topic to explore “once [the] Cannabis Regulatory Commission has been set up by the state … and a viable entity seeks license to operate – but these are at least a half a year away, as I understand it.”