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We’re rapidly reaching a point where the popularity of cannabis in the U.S. is becoming something akin to an accepted truth. From a flood of new media coverage devoted to the topic to the slow but steady march of progress that’s seen 18 states (thus far) legalize the recreational use of cannabis, talk and interest in pot is everywhere these days.

Reinforcing this narrative, the latest Gallup poll found an eye-popping 68% of Americans now believe weed should be legal. Topping it all off is the fact that sales of regulated cannabis in the U.S. reached an estimated $25 billion last year. Under this backdrop, it should thus come as no surprise that there’s now fierce competition for the newly approved adult-use market that’s soon to open in New Jersey.

It was back on Dec. 15 when the state’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) began accepting applications for cultivation, manufacturing, and testing lab licenses. During this period, the CRC also considered bids from eight medical marijuana centers looking to expand into recreational sales. But on March 15, the CRC found itself a whole lot busier after opening its portal to “phase two” applicants.

How busy? By 4 p.m. that first day, the CRC had already received 172 applications to open retail cannabis dispensaries in the state, according to NJ.com.

Many of that lot had likely had plenty of time to be ready for this day, given New Jersey voters passed the ballot referendum to legalize adult-use sales back in 2020. Though every state that’s passed similar laws has likewise had to endure incessant legislative nitpicking in the lead-up to allowing sales to commence, New Jersey’s timeline was further delayed by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

State lawmakers haven’t made things easier, with NJ.com noting the CRC has already missed its “self-imposed deadline” of Feb. 22 that would’ve kicked off recreational sales on the one-year anniversary of Gov. Phil Murphy signing three bills related to cannabis legalization into law. That symbolic opportunity may no longer be in the cards, but it hasn’t curbed an onslaught of interest in opening licensed recreational dispensaries in New Jersey.

Along with this buzz, however, comes the downside of nearly 200 applications hitting the inbox of the CRC before dinner time. Namely, how fast can they work through this backlog? That remains to be seen, though one thing those hoping for a retail license will not have to fear is a scarcity of supply.

In contrast to states and local jurisdictions which have instituted caps on the number of licenses available for retail cannabis operators, no such limit exists in New Jersey. Interestingly, the state is capping the number of Class 1 cultivator licenses it will issue to 37, though that limit is itself set to expire by early next year. Meanwhile, without a limited pool number of licenses to battle over, there’s truly no telling how many licensed dispensaries could soon dot the New Jersey landscape.

As the CRC sorts through applications, what is sure to come into play are rules instructing prioritization for “social equity businesses, diversely-owned businesses, microbusinesses, and conditional license applicants,” as NJ.com reports. “These include businesses owned by individuals with past cannabis convictions, those from designated economically disadvantaged areas, and minority-owned, woman-owned, and disabled-veteran owned businesses.”

As the applications continue to mount, ensuring these priorities are honored by the CRC will assuredly be a top focus for state equity advocates and industry watchdogs. In preparation for this task, additional CRC staff are being brought on, while others in the field devote their attention to upcoming regional hearings which will determine how best to use the revenue generated by legal cannabis sales.

With no stated deadline, the CRC intends to accept and review applications on a continual basis. This means that the initial deluge of applications already received will undoubtedly be joined by many more to come. How many licensed retail operators a state like New Jersey can reasonably sustain is a question that will ultimately require a potentially difficult answer, but for now, the mere opportunity to at last file for a license has marked this moment as one of hope.

Nonetheless, such hopes are still on a slight delay as one government official working on the state’s cannabis program estimated to NJ.com that applicants are “at least six to eight months from actually selling cannabis” still. That puts projections for the start of adult-use sales at year’s end or early into 2023.

Either way, for those states still clinging to cannabis prohibition, the prospect of having a new, taxable industry that can generate such massive interest so quickly has to be growing quite compelling. Markets with 172 new operators eager to join (and that’s for but one segment of the supply chain) are not a common site in 2022. With that in mind, perhaps New Jersey’s robust early interest will inspire other states to see the light — and the green.