Recreational pot sales halted at Ascend Montclair after 3 hours
(KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
June 8: This story has been updated to reflect an updated statement from an Ascend spokesperson that the business was concerned Montclair might send code enforcement or police to its location, but not that Montclair had threatened to send code enforcement or police, as the spokesperson had initially said.
A few people were lined up on Bloomfield Avenue outside Ascend on Tuesday, June 7, as the medical marijuana dispensary opened its doors at 10 a.m. to its first recreational customers — without municipal approval.
But by 1:15 p.m., sales stopped.
Caitlin Fleishman, Ascend’s director of public affairs, initially told Montclair Local on Tuesday that the Montclair Township attorney had notified Ascend if it didn’t stop recreational sales, the township would send code enforcement and police. But she later clarified her statement to say that the interim attorney told Ascend it would be in violation due to an incomplete application and because recreational sales would need a pending site plan approval from the planning board, and Ascend's own attorney was concerned that the township could send code enforcement and police. The business wanted to abide by the law, she said.
Ascend had received both state and local approval to expand to recreational sales at its Rochelle Park dispensary in April. But Ascend representatives said they were tired of Montclair “dragging its feet” on its licensing for its location on Bloomfield Avenue, which had operated as a medical dispensary since 2012, previously as the Greenleaf Compassion Center. Ascend took over the business in 2021.
Ascend's attorney had notified the township on March 27 and again on June 6 that the business intended to open for recreational sales this week, representatives of the company said.
On Monday night, Ascend dropped off a check at the Montclair municipal building for fees of $15,000 for retailer registration and $15,000 for annual registration, Fleishman said.
But Montclair’s August 2021 ordinance permitting and regulating the sale of recreational marijuana within the township’s borders also requires a business to complete an application “on a standardized form established by the Township Council and available in the office of the Township Clerk.”
During business hours Monday, no such application had yet been posted to the township’s website, despite Councilman Peter Yacobellis previously telling Montclair Local an application would be made available that day.
The application was still under review by the township manager, Montclair communications director Katya Wowk said in the afternoon. It then had to go to the clerk for posting to the website, she added.
It ultimately didn’t appear on the website until 7:46 p.m., with another delay being caused by “issues with our content management system yesterday afternoon,” Wowk said. The township was unable to post the update until after work hours, once its vendor resolved the issue, Wowk said.
When no application had yet been posted by 7:30 p.m. on Monday for Ascend to fill out, Fleishman said, the facility continued planning to open up to recreational sales at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. Also Monday, Ascend Montclair’s website began taking appointments for recreational orders, beginning Tuesday.
Fleishman said Monday night that the interim township attorney, Paul Burr, told Ascend it would be unlawful for Ascend to open up to recreational sales on Tuesday.
“Without an application that is received, reviewed and deemed complete, Ascend will not have the legal authority to begin selling recreational adult-use cannabis in the Township,” Burr told Montclair Local on Monday night.
Yet “we believe we have completed all that is necessary for our approval,” Fleishman told Montclair Local at the time. As of Tuesday evening, Fleishman said, Ascend's application had been filed with the township.
“As of this evening, Attorney Burr notified us that our application is under review and we will receive a formal response. We look forward to working with the Township to ensure the application is complete and we hope to be open in the very near future,” Fleishman said on Tuesday evening.
On May 17, the Montclair Township Council granted Ascend a conditional license to expand its alternative treatment center — the formal term used for medical marijuana dispensaries — to recreational sales. That followed a May 3 “resolution of support” from the council the dispensary needed to pursue a state approval.
The conditional approval for a Class 5/Category A cannabis retail license was “subject to [state approval] and submission of a completed application and associated fees to the Township of Montclair,” Burr said. The May 17 resolution noted those requirements under Montclair’s law as well.
On May 24, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission issued Ascend of Montclair the expanded license, permitting recreational sales alongside its medical sales at its facility on Bloomfield Avenue. Ascend sent Montclair documentation and a note saying it was putting a check for fees in the mail May 27.
Fleishman said that Ascend “has been waiting for an application since August 2021,” when the township first passed an ordinance regulating the sale of recreational marijuana within Montclair’s borders.
Emails sent to Burr and Mayor Sean Spiller at noon and 3:15 p.m. on Tuesday asking for comment on Ascend’s short-lived expansion to recreational sales have not yet been returned.
Montclair was the first town in New Jersey to host a medical marajuana facility in the state, opening up in 2012 as the Greenleaf Compassion Center. Ascend took over the facility in 2021.
“A decade ago, Montclair was at the forefront of the state’s new medical cannabis industry, but now the township is dragging its feet on adult use — despite residents overwhelmingly voting to legalize recreational cannabis in 2020,” Fleishman told Montclair Local Monday evening. “Montclair is clearly making up their approval ‘process’ as they go, leading to layers of red tape so thick they could suffocate businesses. To date, Ascend has received two resolutions of support from the township, we’ve been approved by state regulators, and we’ve submitted a complete application as required by law. We’ve followed all of the steps laid out by the township, but they keep moving the goalposts.”
Another portion of Montclair’s marijuana ordinance states that as a condition of the township granting a license, the company or facility can not have any violations over the past five years. If Ascend had received a citation on Tuesday, its local license could have been affected, according to the ordinance.
Montclair Local sent township officials a message late Tuesday afternoon asking if any citations had been issued but have not yet received a reply. But Fleishman said Ascend had not been issued any citations or violations.
The May 17 resolution granting Ascend the conditional license states it would be deemed a permanent license once requirements of four sections of the Montclair’s cannabis ordinance are met, and the license is approved by the township manager.
Those sections list several conditions, including that a business submit proof of state approval; have a valid lease on the property; conform with zoning regulations; comply with affirmative action, anti-discrimination and fair employment practice laws; have up to date audits; have no violations over a five-year period; and meet odor control and safety measures.
Kevin Vera was one of Ascend’s early morning recreational customers. He said has been going to Rise in Bloomfield, which opened on April 21, the first day New Jersey allowed for recreational sales. On June 7, he decided to try Ascend in his hometown.
“It’s helping the city because they are getting the taxes,” he said. IDs and appointments were checked at the door by Ascend greeters. Would-be customers who didn’t have appointments were directed to order marijuana products on their phones and book times to be served.
At $60 for 3.5 grams of flowers or five prerolls, Veras said, he didn’t think the prices were too high and that buying at a dispensary meant “you know what you are getting is safer than what’s on the street.”
Once inside, budtenders waited on customers answering questions about the products available. One customer asked about edibles, which are only available in New Jersey as lozenges or as tinctures. Anything resembling food is banned.
Credit cards and cash were taken for payments, but there was a $3 surcharge for using credit.
The township is slated to get 2% of any recreational marijuana sales.
“As a result [of the delays], the township has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax revenue, Montclair residents have had to travel to purchase adult-use cannabis, and we’ve had to halt construction plans [to expand next door to the existing medical sales operation],” Fleishman said. “As Montclair’s only existing cannabis business, we are excited to provide high-quality products for customers in the township and surrounding area — but we need local government to be a partner, not an obstacle.”
In Montclair, medical-only hours at Ascend’s Bloomfield Avenue location are Saturday and Sunday from 8 to 9 a.m., and Monday through Friday from 8 to 10 a.m. However, medical users can also come to the dispensary during any other hours of operation.
Ascend’s busiest times are 12 to 2 p.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., Fleishman said.
Ascend expanded its Rochelle Park facility to recreational sales on April 21. Rochelle Park had passed a resolution in the winter stating its support, which is a requirement of state approval. The state approved Ascend’s Rochelle Park license earlier in April.
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