Medical cannabis is expanding in NJ, and that could speed up the start date for legal weed sales

EDITOR’S NOTE: NJ Cannabis Insider is hosting a two-day business and networking conference March 9-10, featuring some of the state’s most prominent industry leaders. Tickets are limited.

With the passage of legalization, New Jersey’s medical marijuana dispensaries are eagerly eying ways to join the pending legal weed market.

Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday signed a massive bill into law that outlines the rules and regulations for a legal marijuana market. But it didn’t immediately flip a switch for legal sales to begin. A commission must still adopt rules and begin licensing new dispensaries, and the existing medical marijuana companies will likely get the first shot at selling to the public.

But first, they must certify they can produce enough marijuana for the state’s medical weed patients and a surplus for those 21 and older.

“Now that it’s in place, all the [alternative treatment centers] are actively working on the expansion,” said Shaya Brodchandel, chair of the New Jersey Cannabis Trade Association, an organization that includes the currently licensed medical marijuana businesses. “That’s the first thing and the most important thing that needs to happen.”

It’s expected to take months to ramp up the medical supply. Growing new marijuana from seed to harvest can take three to four months.

Despite delays in getting the legalization law signed, the medical operators say they did not stop preparing.

“We were moving forward, full steam ahead no matter what,” said Patrik Jonsson, regional president for northeast operations of Curaleaf, the state’s largest medical cannabis provider based in Bellmawr.

Curaleaf recently got approval for its second cultivation site in Winslow Township and put plants in the building. A harvest is expected mid-year along with two other dispensaries. The new cultivation site will increase their capacity by 200%, Jonsson said.

“We will easily be able to serve the medical community and continue to be a wholesale provider to other operators,” he said, noting the increase also sets Curaleaf up to sell adult use.

When the Department of Health issues its first non-vertically integrated licenses (for companies that sell but do not grow and manufacture weed), wholesaling will be crucial. Those hoping to open just dispensaries can get off the ground quicker if there’s sufficient supply.

And those licenses may come sooner than the legal marijuana dispensaries. A court ruled just last week the health department could resume its review of 147 paused applications. They are vying for 24 licenses.

Patients have long complained of long lines and supply shortages. The number of medical marijuana cardholders has grown by tens of thousands since Murphy took office, but the state has seen only seven new dispensaries open in that same time.

But 2021 will likely see the floodgates have opened. Several medical companies have plans to add satellite dispensaries (they are allowed two each).

And there’s already evidence of the program expanding in the northern part of the state. On Tuesday, Ascend held its grand re-opening in Montclair after taking over Greenleaf Compassion Center in the fall.

Ascend grand opening

Mike Conway, the regional retail manager for Ascend, speaks to officials attending a tour of the remodeled dispensary in Montclair on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021.

Ascend, a company with dispensaries in several states, has already added 20 employees and more hours to the Montclair storefront. They’ve knocked down a wall, created a sleek interior and doubled the number of registers to serve patients, who can order online and use QR codes to streamline pickups.

But the alternative treatment center isn’t talking openly about a pivot to adult use yet.

“We don’t really know what that’s going to look like,” Mike Conway, the regional retail manager, said during the grand opening. “Our main focus right now is to make sure we don’t get distracted by that.”

Greenleaf was one of the original dispensaries to receive a license in the state — and one of the only to be locally owned and operated. It had limited offerings and did not expand to open additional satellite dispensaries. That’s something Ascend plans to do.

Ascend sells not only flower, but tinctures, vapes, shake, lozenges and topicals. They never stopped serving patients during construction, Conway said.

Brodchandel said supply in the market has increased during the past two months already. But expansion gets easier with legalization, because certain investor commitments to the companies hinged on legalization becoming law.

The association will soon begin working with the Cannabis Regulatory Commission on regulations, which became fully seated Thursday. Brodchandel reiterated the association’s commitment to protecting patient access, and said expansion allows for dispensaries to both better serve them and new customers.

“The [alternative treatment centers] right now are hyper-focused on bringing product to market beyond the existing medical program,” he said. “We’re working as an association to best work through the regulations and the specific details. Just as a general industry group, we’re extremely excited that this has passed.”

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Amanda Hoover may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @amandahoovernj.

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