On Saturday, after getting his second COVID-19 booster, Montclair resident Harry Haines headed over to RISE marijuana dispensary in Bloomfield to legally buy pot for the first time.

Two days earlier, on Thursday, April 21, 12 medical marijuana dispensaries in New Jersey began selling cannabis for adult recreational use, nearly a year and a half after voters approved recreational pot in a statewide referendum.

Haines, 77, said he was without a doubt the oldest person in line. 

“Young people don’t understand how our age group is experiencing this. It’s a celebration,” he said. “We come from an age where we remember stories of pot being planted by people they wanted to arrest. We remember the stigma.”

Although Montclair was the first municipality in New Jersey to host a medical dispensary in 2012 — the then-Greenleaf Compassion Center, which reopened under new ownership as Ascend in 2021 — recreational sales have yet to start here. The Township Council by a series of 5-2 votes last summer agreed to let recreational marijuana businesses operate in Montclair, but the township hasn’t yet come up with an application businesses can submit. 

Customers wait their turn to enter the dispensary. (LYNISE OLIVACCE/THE MONTCLARION)
Customers wait their turn to enter the dispensary. (LYNISE OLIVACCE/THE MONTCLARION)

Ascend representatives have been hoping the council will pass a resolution authorizing the company to start selling recreational pot, bypassing the need for an application, as some other communities have already done.

Ascend opened its dispensary in Rochelle Park to recreational purchases April 21, but Haines headed to RISE, as it was closer.

On Saturday, the wait to get into RISE had died down — dispensaries throughout the state saw lines around their facilities and down their streets when sales opened to recreational purchasers two days earlier. 

Haines said there was a line nonetheless, but it was celebratory, and gave time for people to connect over stories of smoking marijuana during its prohibition, and to talk about the stigma associated with it over the years.

Haines began smoking in Vietnam, serving as broadcaster and then at a medical unit in the Army on the South China Sea. 

“It was some of the finest marijuana available. There was quite the culture there,” he recalled.

Returning home and joining corporate America in the 1970s, he switched weed for martinis, he said.

“During the prohibition era, I would have never used or talked about it. There was such a stigma,” he said. 

But over the years, while visiting his veteran friends out west, Haines headed to dispensaries in Washington and California, and purchased edibles, which he prefers over smoking at this point in his life.

He spent an hour and half with the budtenders at RISE, who answered questions about what to purchase for different needs such as anxiety, pain relief, sleep aid or mind stimulation, and what to expect from the formulas of vapes and extracts and flowers.  

“It was very well-organized. They were lovely and congenial young people with a celebratory approach to helping customers. I never imagined that I would be able to legally purchase marijuana in my native state at the age of 77,” Haines said.

On opening day, Shane Paul Neil, a reporter and photographer working with Montclair Local, headed to RISE and said the lines wrapped around the store. Still, most people were served within an hour. There was a large police presence, with at least three or four vehicles and a dozen officers on site. RISE did run out of pre-rolls, he said.

"Because their license got approved at the very last minute, RISE did not have its full inventory available," Neil said. "Several customers asked why there were no pre-rolls and were informed that they would be arriving soon."

Haines came for the edibles, but RISE had sold out of those, too, he said. Haines instead bought some flower buds that he said will last him “probably the year.”

While RISE didn’t offer appointments or prepurchasing online, Ascend in Rochelle Park required it for adult-use customers. 

“We opened with 1,500 appointments for April 21 and booked every slot. We are thrilled to be serving so many excited customers. The Ascend team has been preparing for this day for months and it has shown,” Caitlin Fleishman, the company’s director of public affairs, said that day.

Montclair Center BID Executive Director Jason Gleason visited RISE on Sunday, April 24, curious as to how it could work when Montclair eventually allows for a dispensary. He said the lines were long and parking was at a premium, but that RISE seemed well-organized.

“It was a great experience and one that is clearly wanted in Montclair,” Gleason said. “It’s disappointing that Montclair missed the boat on being one of the first to open to recreational users. It’s really a missed opportunity for the township when they had the opportunity with Ascend here already and the time to do it.”  

He said parking won’t be a problem in Montclair, noting the Crescent and Seymour decks typically have at least 100 open spaces at any time, and that the Midtown deck located directly behind Ascend is due to open any day. 

He is concerned that Montclair could be losing future customers to Bloomfield. Customers could also shop and dine in Montclair after visiting Ascend, he said. The township is also losing out on a 2% tax collection on recreational sales, he said.

“Customers build habits, loyalty is built early on,” Gleason said. 

The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission in a April 27 press release reported that on opening day last Thursday, the 12 participating dispensaries sold cannabis and cannabis products to 12,438 recreational customers and grossed nearly $1.9 million in sales in just one day.

Montclair interim Township Attorney Paul Burr said in late March that Ascend’s request for a resolution of support was being reviewed for consideration, but that he was still drawing up the application. According to township Communications Director Katya Wowk, as of this week, the legal department is still working on the application. 

Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who helped pen Montclair’s recreational marijuana ordinance, said the council’s economic development committee — consisting of himself, Mayor Sean Spiller and Councilwoman Robin Schlager — will meet with the law department Thursday, April 28, to consider options and come up with an approach to recommend to the entire council.

Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams said she would support a resolution for Ascend, if Montclair would allow three retail licenses — instead of the two in its current ordinance — to give more businesses an opportunity to apply. She’d also require Ascend to meet requirements laid out in Montclair’s ordinance, including providing “societal benefits for the community.” Price Abrams said she wanted to maintain “fairness for all applicants.”

Yacobellis said he supports passing a resolution as other municipalities already have “to honor the will of the voters to have this marketplace up and running in town as soon as possible.” He said he, too, would want to expand the township’s ordinance to allow three retail licenses.

Councilman Bob Russo said “it's only logical to expand the existing Ascend facility to adult use.” “Let’s get it done,” he said.

Spiller and other council members have not yet responded to an April 26 email requesting comment on the possibility of creating a resolution. 

As of Tuesday, April 26, Ascend was still requiring recreational purchases to be booked online. 

State regulations limit purchases to one ounce of dried flower or up to five grams of concentrates, resins or oils, or 10 100-mg packages of ingestible items in a single transaction.

Upon the announcement of the approval of the 13 licenses (Curaleaf in Edgewater Park got a state approval with the other 12, but hasn’t yet started recreational sales), Cannabis Regulatory Commission Chair Dianna Houenou said that patient access had to remain the top priority for medical dispensaries, also called alternative treatment centers. 

“These approvals were given based on commitments from the ATCs that we would not see adverse effects with expansion,” she said. “Expansion into the adult-use market — with a substantial advantageous start ahead of new applicants — is a privilege that must not be taken lightly. … The [commission] will be holding these businesses accountable to the commitments that led to their approvals. It is now on these expanded ATCs to keep up with demand — both medicinal and recreational.”

RISE limits purchases to a little under a half-ounce for flower buds, and three units for vape cartridges and one syringe or 350 milligrams of concentrates. Ascend’s recreational purchases limits are set at one ounce for flowers, one vape cartridge and one single pre-roll or one five pack pre-roll. 

Last week Cannabis Regulatory Commission Executive Director Jeff Brown encouraged buying from licensed dispensaries only, and advised customers to “start low and go slow – especially those who are new to cannabis or who haven’t consumed cannabis in a long time.” 

Haines said that the cannabis now available in New Jersey is “light years of what we had in Vietnam” in potency. 

Brown noted that DUI laws apply to marijuana, and said purchasers from neighboring states should remember it is illegal to transport cannabis across state lines.

Fleishman said she hopes that a resolution of approval of Ascend’s expansion will be attached to the May 3 Montclair Township Council agenda. That would allow enough time for the Cannabis Regulatory Commission to review the application and place it on its agenda for approval of expansion at its May 26 meeting. 

Haines said that he will continue to tell the stories of his youth to educate the young about what his generation went through when they wanted to smoke marijuana: “The stigma needs to go away.”

As for getting his edibles, he was a little upset with New Jersey’s law that bans edibles that resemble food like brownies, cookies or chocolate so that children wouldn’t confuse an edible for a sweet.

“The chocolates are my favorite,” said Haines, who will only have the choice of syrup, tablets or gummies.

Photos used courtesy of The Montclarion. See its original coverage of the first day of recreational sales here.

Map courtesy of NJ Spotlight News. See its original post here.