They were convicted on marijuana charges. Now they're first in line to sell it legally

Key Points
  • As marijuana legalization spreads, states are looking at different ways to ensure those most affected by decades of racially biased anti-drug policies have a leg up.
  • Under a special program, New Jersey prioritizes granting licenses to dispensaries run by people with marijuana convictions on their records.
  • Lawmakers hope that by making equity a cornerstone of their newly legalized markets, those who dealt marijuana in the illegal, or "legacy," market will be persuaded to go legit.
Tahir Johnson said he's on track to be one of the first people with a marijuana related conviction to open a licensed dispensary in New Jersey. "The generational wealth this will create for my family is surreal," he said.
Stefan Sykes for CNBC

TRENTON, N.J. — Tahir Johnson has been arrested on marijuana possession charges three times. Now, for the first time in his life, his conviction on one of those charges won't hurt his employment prospects. It will help.

Johnson, 39, will be one of the first people with a marijuana-related conviction to own and operate a legal dispensary in New Jersey when he opens Simply Pure Trenton in March in his hometown of Ewing, which borders the state's capital city. He was among about a dozen in the state to win a conditional license in 2022 because of his status as a "social equity applicant."

"I checked all the boxes," Johnson said of his qualifications for the application. "And I was especially confident because of my previous arrests." 

New Jersey is prioritizing granting licenses to dispensaries run by minorities, women and disabled veterans; dispensaries located in "impact zones," or communities disproportionately affected by policing and marijuana arrests; and dispensaries run by people with prior marijuana convictions. It's part of a concerted effort to redress decades of racially biased anti-drug policies.

Johnson fit into all three priority categories. Since he won his conditional license, he raised capital, purchased a property and secured approval from municipal authorities. 

Tahir Johnson stands in front of what will soon be "Simply Pure Trenton". The mixed use property is over 6,000 square feet and sits along a high traffic roadway.
Stefan Sykes for CNBC

A conditional license allows awardees to begin operating while they fulfill requirements for an annual license. The New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission, or CRC, issued the first 11 of them in May. Since then, about one-quarter of all licenses have gone to social equity applicants and 16% have gone specifically to applicants with prior marijuana convictions, according to a recent report from the agency.

"It's a full-circle moment," said Johnson, whose past is riddled with run-ins with police, overnight stays in jail, and court battles over small amounts of marijuana recovered during traffic stops. These days, Johnson spends his time hiring staff, meeting with contractors and preparing merchandise. He expects the business will be profitable.

Tahir Johnson interviews a prospective employee ahead of his dispensary's opening next month. His goal is to 45 employees for part time and full time roles.
Stefan Sykes for CNBC

"The generational wealth this will create for my family is surreal," he said. 

In the third quarter of 2022, there was $177 million in marijuana sales across the state, including $116 million in recreational sales alone, according to data from the Cannabis Regulatory Commission.

Emphasizing equity

Lawmakers say efforts that prioritize entrepreneurs such as Johnson are a part of a broader reckoning to right the wrongs of the past and give those most affected by marijuana prohibition a leg up against corporate competitors. Similar initiatives are underway in other states, including New York, which has reserved the first 150 licenses solely for people with marijuana-related offenses or their relatives.

"There are plenty of people that went to jail or prison for marijuana that have more experience than a lot of these corporate entities," said Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora. "We wanted to make sure they were able to get into the doorway themselves and be just as successful as a company coming in here from Colorado."

Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora stands on the balcony of his office in City Hall. It faces a busy commercial strip including storefront "NJWeedman's Joint & Dispensary." 
Stefan Sykes for CNBC

Gusciora, who helped introduce legislation for recreational use, said he's thrilled at the influx of marijuana businesses trying to open in Trenton. He hopes the city can be a model for what a healthy, equitable legal market looks like. But before that can happen, those most affected by the war on drugs need to be included, Gusciora said.

"The whole purpose of legalization was to put drug dealers out of business," said the mayor. "And now unless you allow them to get in legitimately, that defeats the whole purpose of legalization."

John Dockery has been dealing marijuana since he was a teenager in the 1990s. His first charge at 19 for simple possession significantly limited his job prospects and kept him dealing, he said.

John Dockery said he's "so used to stuff feeling like it's not programmed for us" and was surprised to have been awarded a license last year.  
Stefan Sykes for CNBC

"From the beginning of my adulthood, I had to disclose my charge every time I went for a job, and it stopped me from progressing in life," said the Trenton native, who last year was among the first to receive a conditional license.

At first, Dockery was suspicious of New Jersey's legalization efforts. He had racked up six charges over the years but said this was the "norm" for Trenton.

"I don't know many people without at least one marijuana charge," Dockery said. "Whether it's a misdemeanor or a felony, everyone here has at least one."

John Dockery rolls a joint. He's sold marijuana since he was a teenager in the 1990s.
Stefan Sykes for CNBC 

African Americans represent nearly half of Trenton's population. In recent years, the state said it was an "impact zone," or an area where marijuana criminalization contributed to higher concentrations of law enforcement activity, unemployment and poverty. In Mercer County, where Trenton is located, African Americans were more than four times as likely as white residents to be charged with possessing the drug, despite similar rates of usage. 

Dockery said even though he was exactly the kind of applicant the state promised to give priority to while issuing licenses, he was "so used to stuff feeling like it's not programmed for us" that the award came as a surprise.

From 'legacy' to legal

New Jersey lawmakers are hopeful that people such as Dockery, who dealt marijuana in the existing illegal or "legacy" market, will want to join the burgeoning legal market and apply as social equity applicants.

For longtime dealer Ed Forchion, the decision to go legit concludes a decadeslong saga of arrests, raids, court battles and stints in prison. Forchion, 58, has sold marijuana most of his life and gained fame in New Jersey as a staunch advocate for legalization, running for political office in the state through his Legalize Marijuana Party.

Ed Forchion, who also goes by "NJ Weedman," stands outside of Trenton City Hall. Marijuana is decriminalized in New Jersey, and individuals like Forchion have largely had their offenses reversed in recent years.
Stefan Sykes for CNBC

Forchion, who also goes by the moniker "NJ Weedman," began selling weed openly at his Trenton storefront in 2016. His dispensary, NJ Weedman's Joint, sits opposite Trenton's City Hall.

"Who wants the threat of arrest all the time?" he said. "While I was willing to fight, while I was willing to battle, I'd much rather pay taxes and be legal, and be considered an ingenious, smart, intelligent businessman, rather than a conniving, manipulative drug dealer."

Marijuana is decriminalized in the state, and the offenses of people such as Forchion have largely been reversed in recent years.

While he's ready to join the legal market, Forchion sees some shortcomings to the framework proposed by the cannabis commission, such as its ban on dispensaries selling food or drinks of any kind. 

Ed Forchion smokes marijuana in his dispensary located across the street from Trenton City Hall. His decision to go legit concludes a decades-long saga of arrests, raids, court battles and stints in prison.
Stefan Sykes for CNBC 

"I don't see how I can comply," said Forchion, whose dispensary doubles as a restaurant.

Nevertheless, he applauds the agency's efforts at paving a way for people like him. He's also moving toward legitimacy — albeit at his own pace.

"The black market was here first, so the state's going to have to catch up to me and people like me," he said. "But my goal in the end is to hand a thriving, legal business to my kids."