The customers began lining up before dawn at Rise Paterson, a marijuana dispensary in New Jersey that was welcoming customers with free doughnuts and reggaeton blaring from loudspeakers.
As New Jersey kicked off legalized sales of recreational marijuana on Thursday, Rise, along with roughly a dozen other medical marijuana dispensaries across the state, opened its doors for its first customers, ages 21 and older.
“I’m just excited that everything is opening up legally,” said Daniel Garcia, 23, of Union City, N.J., who was first in line at 3:30 a.m.
After enjoying a front-row view to the dispensary’s ribbon-cutting, Mr. Garcia, who previously bought his marijuana from a dealer, stepped up to a customer kiosk in Rise’s gleaming new space and selected a brand called Animal Face and a potent strain called Banana Cream, which he then picked up from uniformed staff members.
“I’m very picky when it comes to my weed,” he said, “and sometimes I ask my guy, ‘Which one is good?’ and it’s not always accurate. I like coming to dispensaries because I know for sure that what they’re telling me is accurate.”
Rise Paterson is a 20-minute drive from New York City and the sales there were among the first such sales in the New York City region.
At least 18 states have legalized recreational marijuana, but New Jersey is one of the few on the East Coast to do so. New York legalized recreational marijuana in 2021 and is set to begin sales later this year.
Under New Jersey’s new laws, recreational cannabis customers can legally buy up to an ounce of marijuana per sale for smoking; or up to five grams of concentrates, resins or oils; or 10 packages of 100 milligrams of edible items.
Jeff Brown, executive director of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, which oversees licensing, growing, testing and sales of cannabis in New Jersey, cautioned buyers to expect long lines at first, and to “start low and go slow” with their purchases and consumption.
It is illegal under state law to possess more than six ounces at any time, and illegal to drive while high on marijuana. Also, because federal law still bans marijuana possession, buyers in New Jersey cannot legally transport it outside the state.
Some marijuana advocates were eager for sales to begin a day earlier, on April 20, an unofficial cannabis holiday.
But there were concerns that with only 13 fully approved locations to serve thousands of customers across the entire state, “selecting 4/20 for opening day would have presented unmanageable logistical challenges,” Toni-Anne Blake, a spokeswoman for the commission, said.
Instead, 4/21 was the culmination of a yearslong effort to legalize marijuana in the state.
In November 2020, state voters approved a referendum legalizing marijuana, and the State Legislature legalized it in 2021. That was followed by months of creating industry regulations and licensing applicants to open dispensaries.
The first approvals for recreational sales were issued to medical marijuana dispensaries, which have been permitted for years to sell to buyers with medical permission and are often owned by large cannabis corporations.
Scores of smaller cultivators and manufacturers have received state-issued conditional licenses in the past month, but have yet to set up shops and get approvals from local municipalities.
One early-rising customer on Thursday, Greg DeLucia, a media executive, said he used to buy his weed in sketchier settings.
“My dealer,” he said, “was a guy with four teeth named Bubbles.”
Now he was waiting outside the Rise dispensary in Bloomfield, N.J., across the street from a chiropractor and a hair salon.
It was a far cry from Bubbles the dealer. Greeters handed out pastries from a blue food truck in the parking lot run by Glazed & Confused, a dessert company. Cheerful dispensary workers wearing laminated company badges welcomed customers entering under a balloon archway while a steel drummer played pop hits.
Another customer in Bloomfield, Christian Pastuisaca, consulted the offerings and placed his orders on a touch-screen kiosk. He walked out with a white paper bag containing an eighth of an ounce of indoor-grown marijuana in a small black jar, costing just over $60.
Its THC content was “really high,” he said, perfect for the “euphoric” smoking experience he likes.
Supporters of legalizing recreational marijuana lauded the new jobs and tax revenue it would bring to the state. There was a social justice premium as well: fewer marijuana arrests disproportionately affecting people of color.
Much of the cannabis sales taxes and fees will go toward Black and Latino neighborhoods historically affected by marijuana-related arrests.
Gov. Philip Murphy has estimated $30 million in tax revenue for the 2022 fiscal year and $121 million for 2023.
Appearing at the Zen Leaf dispensary in Elizabeth on Thursday morning, Mr. Murphy said recreational sales would help create many jobs and help generate more than $2 billion in sales over the next four years.
Recreational sales, he said, would also help the state “stand as a model for other states in the nation, not just in ensuring racial, social and economic equity and justice, but in ensuring a viable long-term framework for the industry at large.”
Nearby, customers entered the dispensary, a cannabis nirvana with murals of various strains, glass cases and a wide range of Zen-centric products.
The first customer of the day there, Charles Pfeiffer, of Scotch Plains, N.J., yelped for joy as he exited and hoisted aloft his shopping bag containing $140 worth of indica bud, edibles and oil extracts.
“This is a big day for N.J. and the marijuana community,” he said.
But opponents of legal marijuana have expressed concerns about the possible dangers of legalizing recreational marijuana.
Nick DeMauro, a former police detective in Bergen County, N.J., said the legalization of recreational marijuana could be “sending a mixed message to young people saying, ‘If adults can do it, why can’t we?’”
Another concern is the difficulty in policing dangerous driving by marijuana users because “it’s hard to measure if someone is under the influence,” said Mr. DeMauro, who runs Law Enforcement Against Drugs & Violence, a group that assists police departments in educating people about the dangers of marijuana use.
“We need to look at this with extreme caution,” he said. “You’re legalizing a psychoactive substance with major issues and we need to keep our communities safe.”
In Phillipsburg, at an Apothecarium dispensary inside an old stone building that formerly held a bank, customers were arriving from Pennsylvania and New York as well as New Jersey, an official said.
Gary Dorestan, 22, a student from Philadelphia, said it was a relief to no longer have to buy from random pot dealers.
Another customer, Hannah Wydro, of Washington, N.J., said she had always discussed her marijuana accessory business discreetly because “you don’t know if you’re going to be banned for things.”
But the legalization of recreational marijuana in her state is changing that.
“Now I feel free and excited,” she said.
At another Apothecarium dispensary, in Maplewood, N.J., customers stopped at a table with various brands of marijuana bud displayed in clear plastic canisters with holes in the top for sniffing.
Nick Damelio, 27, a cultivation manager, fielded questions from customers waiting outside.
Mr. Damelio, who wore a long gold chain bearing a large marijuana bud pendant, told customers that sativa-type strains would provide an energetic high, while indica was more relaxing.
As a suggestion, he said the dispensary’s strain called Gorilla Glue was so named because “it makes you stick when you sit down on the couch.”
A third Apothecarium dispensary is set to open in Lodi, N.J., later this year, with a drive-through window.
Corey Kilgannon reported from Maplewood, N.J.; Justin Morris reported from Paterson and Elizabeth, N.J.; and Sean Piccoli reported from Bloomfield and Phillipsburg, N.J.