The Garden State welcomes you and all of your cannabis business aspirations. Credit: Bobby Hidy / Flickr

The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission approved 68 cultivation licenses last week, one of the final steps towards a fully operational adult use program in the state.

The operators are the first business applications to be approved in New Jersey, with 18 licensed for manufacturing and 60 for cultivation facilities.

“We are on our way,” said NJ CRC Executive Director Jeff Brown in a written statement. “The first cohort of recreational cannabis entrepreneurs has been approved and we will be working with them to get them ready for the annual licensing and to begin operations.”

The current license awardees are approved on a conditional basis, with annual licenses expected to follow inside of a four-month period.

“We filed back on December 15th and had everything ready, had all the pieces in place,” said Steve Ernest, a Midwestern investor partnered with an approved group in New Jersey. “We found a property and an incredible social equity partner and pulled it all together in 60 to 90 days.

“It’s still going to be a song and a dance and take millions of dollars [to complete the process].”

As with many applicants navigating these new waters, Ernest is not ready to reveal the location of his group’s operation at this time, due to the sensitivity of the ongoing process.

“We are still looking to negotiate where the property will be right now,” he said. “With this process, there are really more questions than answers. The letter we got from the state we are going over with our attorneys and trying to figure out what rights we have and the timeline. There’s a lot of ambiguity.

“Lawmakers laid out the best framework they could to solve everything. … But there still needs to be clarification. Over time, it starts to figure itself out.”

According to data provided by the CRC, 37 applicants are certified as diversely-owned businesses. Of those, 33 have identified as Black, Latino, or Asian. These are strong social equity statistics for the beginning of a burgeoning market, especially after neighboring state New York had set a precedent with their idea to allow only social equity retail licenses approvals for their first 100 or so dispensaries. In comparison, New Jersey accepted 272 retail applications on their beginning date of March 15, with no social equity numbers on that front expected until approvals begin to roll in.

“We had our meeting with investors [last week],” said Kris Wilson, co-owner of Woolwich Wellness, a South Jersey cultivation applicant. “I know the state issued some microgrow conditional licenses, but we opted to wait.”

Wilson and his partner Steve Vasquez are eyeing a microbusiness cultivation license, allowing for up to 2,500 square feet of canopy space with a height allowance of up to 24 feet.

“We had all of our township approvals done in September,” continued Wilson. “It looks like they’re starting to answer people from the December 15th opening date. My lawyers think 90 to 120 days is a reasonable time for the state to get back to us. 

“I think [state regulators] are pushing pretty hard. They have to get us up and running to supply dispensaries.”   

More conditional licenses will be awarded on a rolling basis. The CRC will meet again on April 11 to provide more information regarding license applications and awardees, with speculation surrounding the date being a possible green-light for current medical outfits in New Jersey to begin serving adult use customers.

“The analogy I often draw for folks to make it simple is that someone just buried a treasure chest with a depreciating resource underneath your house somewhere and threw a couple of shovels on the lawn,” said Ernest. “You may never find it, but ideally you partner with someone who has a backhoe.

“You won the privilege. Now go dig for it.”