When Brett D’Alessandro returned from a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2014, he had a hard time reintegrating into society.
From the Veterans Administration he got a deluge of pills to treat his new anxiety and depression. But those came with troubling side effects and D’Alessandro found them hard to quit.
Everything changed when a friend recommended that he try using medical marijuana.
“It really helped me and gave me this clarity,” D’Alessandro said. “My stomach issues went away, my anxiety lessened, I was able to sleep, just amazing benefits.”
Now D’Alessandro, a Jersey City resident since 2017, hopes to pass on the love he found for cannabis to consumers in Jersey City as potentially one of the city’s first recreational cannabis sellers. The Jersey City Planning Board will hear his application for permission to run a cannabis retail business, as well as the applications of 11 other would-be retailers, at a special session on March 28.
“This was something that I wanted to pursue as a career, not just as a job, and some place that I can help individuals heal,” said D’Alessandro, also the founder of Backpacks For Life, a nonprofit that supports homeless veterans.
New Jersey is closing in on the arrival of a recreational cannabis industry, long delayed since 2018 when then-newly elected Gov. Phil Murphy pledged to legalize cannabis within his first 100 days.
In Jersey City, the future of the cannabis industry is being hashed out in meetings in the coming weeks. Any businesses approved by the city must still receive approval from the state.
Geographically, nearly one-third of the cannabis businesses with applications in to the planning board so far are located Downtown in the blocks northeast of the Grove Street PATH stop, at 171 Newark Ave., 284 First St., 190 Newark Ave., 155 Newark Ave., and 141 Newark Ave.
There’s another proposed cluster in the Heights, at 404 Central Ave., 391 Central Ave., 365 Central Ave., and 746-748 Tonnelle Ave.
A pair of sites are proposed for Journal Square at 655 Newark Ave. and 638 Newark Ave.
The rest of the proposed businesses are dispersed across the city, at 394 Communipaw Ave. near Bergen-Lafayette, 759A Bergen Ave. in McGinley Square, and 552-554 West Side Ave. on the West Side.
The Jersey City City Council was scheduled to vote on a resolution on March 23 to support 25 cannabis businesses. Some of those businesses are the ones the planning board will vote on March 28; others appear not have finalized street addresses yet.
Throughout the city, businesses owners say they are motivated by several different factors. For one potential retailer, Venus Smith, the ability to impact the community is at the core of her mission.
Smith, a Jersey City resident since 2005 and a self-described “Blacktivist,” said she hopes that if the cannabis business gets off the ground, the funds it brings in will filter down through her community. She is worried about displacement, residents getting pushed out by rising prices from the Greenville neighborhood, where she lives, or Bergen-Lafayette where the co-owns the store Strictly CBD.
Strong businesses might be enough to anchor the community in place. Smith is looking forward to working with groups like the Triangle Park Alliance, Deliverance Children Ministry, and Kismet of Kings as part of her proposed store’s social impact. (Jersey City’s cannabis applications requires businesses to include information on community outreach they’re going to do.)
Smith is no stranger to activism herself. She was at the center of a petition campaign in 2021 protesting a city program for low-income homeowners that she said was depriving minority homeowners of the chance to cash in on decades worth of equity when they sold their homes.
Branching out into selling cannabis, she said, is in a sense a continuation of her other work.
But cannabis is still a business and comes with risks — even if the hype around it has given the public the impression that it can’t fail, according to Niraj Pandey, who owns Artistic Smoke Shop with his wife, Huma.
There are lots of potential problems with running a cannabis dispensary: regulatory compliance, taxes, competition from the boom of other stores, sunk costs from hiring lawyers to prepare your application. That’s not to mention security concerns, which Smith also brought up, and the possibility that supply might be tight when retailers first open, limiting options for customers and raising prices.
Pandey knows the risks. But the opportunity is worth a try, he says.
They’ve lived in Jersey City for about two and a half years and before that lived in Secaucus. They’ve run Artistic Smoke Shop for about two years.
Pandey said he and his wife were encouraged to apply by measures in New Jersey’s cannabis laws that give preference to applicants who are racial minorities, disabled veterans, or who have lived in economically disadvantaged areas in the recent past.
“We feel there’s a good shot,” Pandey said. “Typically, as lower- or middle-class people, you don’t see yourself getting a shot at this kind of business.”
Jersey City still isn’t at the finish line in terms of having operating businesses selling cannabis; D’Alessandro, for instance, said his businesses was still 12-18 months out from opening.
But for those who are willing to take a risk on opening the first of Jersey City’s cannabis retail stores, the vision of how the industry might look will soon be a reality.