Power, politics and pot.
Wanda James, a dispensary owner and pioneering figure in the cannabis industry, opened NJ Cannabis Insider’s all-day networking conference Thursday with a keynote speech that explored those three points.
The conference drew about 200 eager insiders to an upscale venue in Newark, offering them the opportunity to mix, mingle and get an exclusive scoop on what’s to come for New Jersey’s budding legal weed market.
“There is nothing more exciting to me than to see all of these different faces around here,” James said. “All the different races and all of the women who have now been involved in cannabis”
“I could not be more excited to see the explosion that’s happening here in New Jersey. So congratulations, New Jersey, we’re real close,” she added.
If you’re not in politics, you’re not in cannabis, James told attendees, as she discussed how she and her husband made history in 2010 when they opened Simply Pure — the first legally licensed Black-owned dispensary in the country.
The Denver-based brand is set to make its debut in Ewing Township later this year under the name Simply Pure Trenton and ownership of Tahir Johnson, a Trenton-native. This was the first Black-owned social equity firm to be granted a retailer license by the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission.
While James and close to 30 other industry leaders conducted information and networking sessions, attendees also browsed some 45 vendor tables hosted by a variety of cannabis businesses, resource centers, dispensaries and growers. The exhibit area also featured discovery areas for businesses owned by women and social equity-designated operators, sponsored by Holistic Solutions, the first Black-owned company to open a dispensary in New Jersey.
Dozens of people, including Thomas Ginefra and Giordan Acuna, co-founders of Terp Taxi — a social equity legal weed delivery service business planning to operate in Union and Essex Counties — had the opportunity to make connections during a speed-networking session hosted by consulting firm Tenax Strategies. The pair, who’s brand is applying for a state license to deliver product, said they attended the conference to establish relationships with cannabis retailers.
“We met a couple of retailers, exchanged some business cards and it was great because Terp Taxi you know, the foundation is not just serving customers, but also simultaneously serving the retailer,” Ginefra said.
A buzzing topic among aspiring cannabis business owners revolved around the challenges of securing municipal approval, a crucial step required before applying for an annual state license to open their dispensary. In fact, some have resorted to legal action, filing lawsuits against municipalities and alleging unfair practices at the local level.
The state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission Chairwoman, Dianna Houenou, addressed this issue and advised individuals seeking municipal approval to ensure their “voices are heard on the legislative level” and continue to advocate for the industry.
“Ingrain yourself into the community you want to be in,” Ellie Siegel, CEO and founder of cannabis consulting firm Longview Strategic said during a session. “Don’t just show up to the council meetings when your application is up.”
Jersey City’s Council President Joyce Watterman, the first African American woman elected to this position, provided a perspective on this topic from her role as a member of a city planning board.
She was joined by Plainfield City Mayor Adrian Mapp in a session moderated by municipal attorney Ron Mondello and called “Talk to The Mayor and Council President: Insights on Municipal Approval.”
License applicants should take on the role of educating towns about legal weed and destigmatizing the plant if they want to persuade local officials who have chosen to opt out of allowing cannabis businesses in their community, Watterman said.
“Because the history of cannabis is so negative…we have to put time in educating people,” Watterman said. “If we start doing it, then other municipalities would change their mind because it’s just fear.”
Another hot topic touched on that could impact the future of the market in New Jersey was a recent recommendation made by the Department of Health and Human Service to change the legal status of cannabis to a less restrictive drug category — from Schedule I to Schedule III under the Controlled Substances Act.
If the recommendation were to be approved, this could open doors for more research on cannabis that could and influence investors to get into the market, said Michael Correia, a D.C. lobbyist with the National Cannabis Industry Association, in a session called “Local and Federal Policy: What’s Next for NJ’s Cannabis Marketplace.”
For insiders involved in every aspect of the journey toward becoming legal weed business owners, numerous state officials conducted sessions to offer information about available resources and upcoming deadlines.
The state Cannabis Regulatory Commission made sure to remind potential candidates that they have began accepting social equity applications for wholesaler, distributor and delivery services licenses. Applications from “diversely-owned businesses” will open Dec. 27 and all other applicants will be able to apply March 27, officials said.
Also, the state’s Economic Development Authority is planning to launch a new round of cannabis business grant funding tentatively in November, officials said. This $8 million seed equity grant program is available to conditional and annual New Jersey adult-use cannabis license holders. A total of 48 social equity applicants will receive $150,000 to support startup costs.
“Sometimes people get into this and then they realize that they’re out of money,” said Genna Jones, program manager at the Economic Development Authority. “The goal of seed equity is to help educate people, help get them started with their businesses and make sure that they have all the right resources.”
Tauhid Chappell, the newly appointed executive director of the NJBAC Cannabis Training Academy, announced a forthcoming program offering more than 60 online courses for those interested in obtaining an adult-use cannabis license. This free program will launch by April 2024 and aims to equip eligible students — social equity, legacy, impact zone, diverse-owned or microbusiness applicants and legacy operators — with insights from industry experts, he said.
“We want to empower y’all with the instructors, the experts and mentors that we’re bringing to the table so that you know what you’re getting yourself into to make the right business decisions,” Chappell said.
The event was capped off with an official afterparty in Newark, produced by education company Canademix, which not only celebrated cannabis culture but paid homage to Hispanic Heritage Month by featuring several New Jersey’s Latino heavy hitters who made brief remarks.
NJ Cannabis Insider is a weekly subscriber-based online trade newsletter and events group produced by NJ Advance Media, which also publishes NJ.com, The Star-Ledger and other affiliated papers.
Nyah Marshall may be reached at Nmarshall@njadvancemedia.com.
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