Yesterday marked the start of patient registration for New Jersey’s long-embattled medical marijuana program, arriving more than two and a half years after the state passed its Compassionate Use Act back in early 2010. For Joe Stevens, CEO of the nonprofit Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair, it’s been a long time coming, but the wait and effort has been worth it.
“This is unlike any other business we’ve been involved with—the oversight and regulations are unbelievable. Guiding through those rules is difficult, but they keep everyone honest,” he says. As a former funeral director and X-ray technician, the man knows something about the value of meticulous, heavily enforced medical industry rules.
Since 2010, Stevens and his partner, Greenleaf COO and former police officer Julio Valentin, have been at the forefront of Jersey’s push for medical marijuana. In addition to opening up the Garden State’s first dispensary, the duo was also first in obtaining a permit to grow marijuana legally in the state for the first time since cannabis was outlawed in 1933. The first of six authorized Alternative Treatment Centers, GCC is expected to start selling medicine to patients shortly after Labor Day.
Even after wading through endless legalese and doing battle with Gov. Christie to get business going, one of the hardest aspects of the dispensary trade, says Stevens, has been staffing Greenleaf with knowledgeable, reliable employees. With marijuana illegal for 75 years now, legitimate growers and salesmen are hard to come by. Couple that with the required background checks, fingerprinting and drug tests (yes, drug tests) for dispensary employment, and you can see how applications from pie-in-the-sky stoners might muddy the interview pool slightly. Applicants with “black market” experience, says Stevens, are a definite no-no as well.
“It’s more regimented than a backyard grow,” he says, “Underground growers aren’t capable of handling all the cleaning and documentation and tracking. We’re not going to find someone [off the black market] that is that meticulous.”
To offset the challenge of finding the right employees, Stevens and Valentin have partnered up with West Coast hydroponics consultants weGrow, thereby giving themselves access to growers across the country with up to 40 years of experience in hydroponic production. They’ve interviewed several growers so far, but they’re currently looking closely at a Penn horticulture grad to add to the growing facility’s limited staff.
It’s still somewhat difficult, even with the right staff, to sell a bud named something like Alaskan Thunder Fuck as a remedy to chemo-induced nausea and retain a modicum of medical legitimacy. Going the eponymous route, it would seem, flies a little lower under the countercultural radar.
“We’re trying to stay away from genetic names because of the stigma attached to marijuana. We couldn’t be taken seriously otherwise,” says Stevens. Instead, GCC calls its three authorized cannabis strains “Greenleaf 1” and so on up the line.
Generic names for their cannabis offerings notwithstanding, Greenleaf isn’t just throwing any old dirt weed into a hydroponics system and hoping for the best. They’re working with high-quality genetics inside a system designed to maintain essentially perfect growing conditions: organic nutrients, filtered spring-water, spot-on temperatures, 100-watt high-pressure sodium lights—the perfect combination of environment and pedigree. The state’s Department of Agriculture evidently agrees, having already found Greenleaf’s crop coming up strong without molds or fungi after a recent inspection of the highly secure, 5,000-square-foot growing area, the location of which is kept private for security reasons. The result of all this effort, hopefully, is a high-quality product that, while low in THC content (Jersey caps that compound’s presence at 10 percent), will be able to safely and efficiently provide relief to patients in need.
Jersey has one of the country’s strictest medical marijuana programs. Other states test crops through independent commercial labs, thereby allowing for different percentage results based on marketing. Jersey, however, requires that medical cannabis be tested for THC and other cannabinoids by the Department of Health and Senior Services. Stevens, naturally, takes those tests seriously.
“There’s a value to purchasing from a dispensary because you know exactly what you’re getting,” he says. “If [the cannabis] is unacceptable, it isn’t usable. It’s going to be destroyed—even if it’s not a threat, I wouldn’t be able to sell it.”
Stevens and Valentin have yet to determine pricing for their cannabis, but they would “like to be under street value,” or less than $20 a gram. The pair will serve as GCC’s first in-store salesmen, offering advice on the cannabis best suited to a particular ailment along with recommendations for rolling papers, glass water pipes and vaporizers. But don’t expect anything crazy in that department; GCC will offer only basic smoking accessories. “We’re boring,” jokes Stevens.
Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that Greenleaf is located on Bloomfield Avenue, one of Montclair’s busiest areas. As a business that sells marijuana, any more excitement might have prevented Greenleaf’s incredibly fast assimilation into the local business culture. Town council, the mayor and local residents all lent their support to Stevens and Valentin from their earliest efforts in an unprecedented show of acceptance. The GCC, no doubt, will pay back that kindness in multiples to the surrounding community through attracting new business. Or at least the CEO seems to hope so.
“People might be more inclined to make a day of picking up their medication in Montclair,” says Stevens. “It’s an interesting place.”