New Jersey’s Green Rush: Local entrepreneurs set up to cash in on legal cannabis

TRENTON, N.J. -- Entrepreneur Maurice Hallett has got a vision and the space. He’s just waiting for recreational marijuana to become legal. A vote by lawmakers appears imminent in the new year.

"So back here we’ve got our DJ booth and then we’ve got a stage here for live entertainment," said Hallet, pointing to the back of an empty room. There are exposed wires, duct work and raw wood framing all around us.

"I’ve always wanted to get into the business. It’s almost like being back when prohibition came to fruition," he explained. "To be in the ground stages, the early stages of it."

There are at least 28 more entrepreneurs getting ready to jump into this brand new industry.

Since Governor Phil Murphy took office in November of last year, 28 cannabis companies have formed and registered with the State.

Murphy campaigned on making cannabis legal.

Lawmakers released a 144-page cannabis bill from a joint Senate and Assembly Budget and Appropriations committee last month. Legalization would mean that adults, aged 21 and up, could possess and use small amounts of the drug.

"They need to just vote and make it happen," said Hallett, whose 'Capital City Smoke House' could become the state's first cannabis smoking lounge.

It sits steps from the State House.

Leo Bridgewater, an advocate for cannabis, has already lined up his own 50,000-square-foot space to serve as an extraction and processing facility.

"You're LLC should be registered already," he said. "All of that stuff should be happening as of today."

Bridgewater hosts industry gatherings, as a founder of CannaGather.com. From marijuana spas to CBD chocolatiers, he says entrepreneurs are lining up by the hundreds to network and set up their business ahead of the law.

"What we’re talking about is not just facilitating the cultural shift in how we view this plant, but we’re also talking about facilitating massive transfer of wealth," said Bridgewater, who believes cannabis legalization could right old wrongs.

The ‘war on drugs’ ravaged communities of color.

An ACLU study of FBI data found that blacks are 4 times more likely than whites to get arrested for marijuana, despite studies showing similar usage rates across the races.

"Cannabis brings up some uncomfortable subjects that have to be addressed," said Bridgewater.

The pending law does address minority market share. It says 25 percent of adult-use marijuana business licenses must go to minorities, women or veterans, giving them a piece of a projected $850 million dollar marijuana pie. That's how big experts think annual sales will be by 2022.

But just as entrepreneurs are ramping up, some municipalities are clamping down. Roughly 40 New Jersey towns have moved to block marijuana businesses from operating within their jurisdiction.

And not all business owners are seeing green.

More than 40 percent of New Jersey entrepreneurs polled by the New Jersey Business and Industry Association think the cannabis industry could be bad for New Jersey's economy. Just under a third believe it will give the state a boost, while just over a quarter are unsure.

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