N.J. recreational weed: Phillipsburg Apothecarium sees brisk business for legal marijuana sales

“It’s a good day to be in New Jersey.”

That’s what one patient customer said Thursday morning as a small crowd waited outside The Apothecarium in Phillipsburg to open up its doors for recreational weed sales.

The first-ever legal weed purchase in Warren County was symbolic at the shop nestled along South Main Street near the Easton-Phillipsburg free bridge.

Trish Zita, one of the founding partners with TerrAscend New Jersey, was the first customer before the doors even opened to the public. TerrAscend operates The Apothecarium and Gage marijuana dispensary retail locations, including the one in Phillipsburg.

Zita looked at the menu, pulled out her wallet and had crisp bills to pay for six pre-rolled joints of the “Mendo Cheese” strain.

“It’s still hard to believe that it’s here, finally. It’s been a long time coming,” she said of adult recreational sales.

• MORE: What to know as recreational weed sales begin in New Jersey | Nearest dispensaries? How much can you buy?

In 2018, when Zita was looking for properties, she found the abandoned bank building in Phillipsburg and town officials open to the concept of medical marijuana. TerrAscend made a commitment to employ locals and be a part of the community.

“They were visionary in saying (medical marijuana) could help revitalize Main Street and it was coming, so let’s get ahead of it,” she said.

For Phillipsburg officials, Thursday was a day to pat themselves on the back for their foresight.

Mayor Todd Tersigni was part of a group of officials who visited the store. Tersigni said he wasn’t buying anything during the stop. Asked if he would do so in the future, he said, “We’ll see.”

“We’re really excited here today. They’re a stakeholder in the community, they work well with the police department and we’re glad to have them here,” the mayor said, adding he welcomed the foot traffic and the business it would bring to other town merchants as well.

“This is a long time coming and it’s really exciting,” Warren County Commissioner James Kern III said, as he looked over the sales counter inside. “Phillipsburg was able to get in early on this. The work that they’ve done is really showing off today.”

It was huge step for Warren County, too, Kern said. The map of New Jersey recreational dispensaries showed the Phillipsburg location surrounded by a lot of land in the northwestern corner of the state.

(Can’t see the map? Click here.)

It was not lost on New Jersey officials that Phillipsburg is a border town. While you can see the Delaware River and Easton from the store’s front door, weed is still illegal in Pennsylvania.

Kern said just like with fireworks, recreational marijuana could mean “a lot of cross-collaboration with communities.”

Inside the former Phillipsburg Trust Company building, staffers in black T-shirts with “Grown in the Garden State” stamped in the back were everywhere. They gathered for a group photo behind the counter before the sales day started, with one person urging, “Everyone say weed!”

Music and voices echoed off the high ceilings, and the noise notched louder and louder as more and more people came inside. While media were allowed inside for the first-ever purchase, reporters and cameramen were ushered out before sales began.

Lines were seen across the state as seven dispensaries, formally known as alternative treatment centers, expanded to adult sales. Customers camped out hours before dispensaries opened on the historic day, with one waiting since 3:30 a.m., NJ.com reported.

An hour before the doors opened at 10 a.m. in Phillipsburg, a small crowd of about 25 people quietly waited. At one point, someone called out, “Who’s from Pennsylvania?”

No one took the bait.

• MORE: Legal recreational weed in N.J. draws Pennsylvania residents to Phillipsburg

Customers were given Apothecarium branded totes and T-shirts, as well as water bottles and lanyards. Clipboards with white paper menus were passed out, so orders could be packed up and ready for the first customers at 10 a.m.

A giant blow-up joint and a carnival wheel were set up by a merchandise table for the app Weedmaps, which also brought donuts and coffee for customers.

While people were celebrating, it was all business at the Phillipsburg store.

Small groups made their way from the parking lot to the front of the store and then inside. By 10:12 a.m. one staffer spoke about slowing down the line more because they were at capacity inside.

Anthony Lee was the second person in line, having driven from Somerset at 7 a.m.

“I figured it would be a little less congested here,” he said, after buying some flower and declining to reveal how much he spent.

Lee said the day was bittersweet, and he hoped the revenue generated by the new businesses in New Jersey would make its way to the minority communities impacted by cannabis prohibition.

“I found it remarkable that minorities and blacks are arrested at such a high rate amongst equal use, and now I come here and who’s selling it to me? White people. That’s pretty shocking,” he said. “It’s a shame. I hope that the government can give minorities some kind of justice in return after the prohibition and impact.”

Lee spoke of the stigma and negative mindset attached to marijuana use, and that recreational sales were a step toward dispelling that.

Face masks for the COVID-19 pandemic came in handy Thursday for some customers who wanted to avoid being identified in the media hoopla. A woman, who declined to be identified for this story and didn’t want her picture taken, hustled to the end of the line at 10 a.m.

“I waited a long time for this. I wanted to be the first one here. I’m obviously not the first one,” the Long Valley woman said looking at the line.

The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission has cautioned of “great demand” on recreational supply and that products would run out.

Zita said when the legislation was adopted last summer, they started growing additional products to be read for the first day.

“Looking at other states to see what happened there, we’ve done our best, within the capacity we have, to really stock up and have enough for the patients. There’s no doubt we will have enough for patients and always will. They are our priority,” she said. “We have plenty for adult use as well.”

On Thursday, medical marijuana patients had their own line and could skip the crowd by flashing their state cards. There was also medical patient-only products.

Patient Jessica Leon, who lives in Washington Borough, stocked up the day before to avoid the expected crowds. She said she expected the excitement and jump in business to be around for the first few weeks of recreational sales

“I didn’t want to get caught up in the commotion,” she said.

The Apothecarium has been the 38-year-old’s go-to dispensary since she started taking medical marijuana two years ago for anxiety and depression. Leon said she was not concerned about recreational sales affecting medical marijuana stock in the state.

“It should be available to everybody,” she said. “I think it’s a good thing. Everybody should be able to use it.”

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Sarah Cassi may be reached at scassi@lehighvalleylive.com.

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