All eyes may have turned to the Nov. 3 ballot question seeking to legalize marijuana for those over 21, but the state’s decade-old medical marijuana program continues to grow and evolve.
Curaleaf, the largest alternative treatment center in the state, quietly added another building to its Bellmawr campus this summer. Last week the company announced plans to open a second dispensary in Bordentown while continuing to whole sell product to other alternative treatment centers around the state.
The cannabis giant has 93 dispensaries in nearly two dozen states. Last week, the four-building South Jersey campus bustled with patients waiting in their cars, packing the parking lot and lining up along the roadside.
While typically busy, the scene was beyond the usual: The dispensary released a new strand each day from Monday to Thursday, said Bridgette Fonseca, the director of dispensary operations at Curaleaf NJ.
“You can see patients get excited when there’s new variety,” she said.
Curaleaf isn’t just the biggest dispensary in New Jersey. It’s also one of the largest multi-state operators in the country. The company closed two acquisitions totaling more than $1 billion in this year of Oregon-based Cura Partners and Illinois-based Grassroots Cannabis. That comes as other big players have taken a step back.
Nestled along a busy road and just steps from the busy Route 42 that connects South Jersey to Philadelphia, the four concrete buildings remain mysterious to most. Inside, a team of cultivators works seven days a week to keep some 60,000 plants alive, controlling a complex irrigation and lighting system and maintaining the proper humidity levels.
If the system malfunctions, it could seriously impact the grow. A marijuana plant takes three to four months to grow from seed to harvest, and scrapping a significant number for mold or mites could have a serious impact on a dispensary’s supply.
The team gets alerts to their phones if something is amiss, and can respond within 15 to 20 minutes any hour of the day, said Alec Mog, the site’s cultivation manager.
While the company has moved to standardize most procedures across its dispensaries, varying state regulations still keep each operation distinct. In New Jersey, the medical marijuana program has strict rules about pesticide use, and Curaleaf only uses gentle remedies, like herbs, to keep bugs at bay.
And the growers who select strains to meet customer demand play a role in that, too. On Tuesday, racks of plants labeled “School Lunch” or “Orange Crush” filled the cultivation rooms. Mog said each room can house between 10 and 15 strains, which they try to keep split equally between sativas, indicas and blends to keep a balance for patients.
But patient demand is never a constant number, and many have reported shortages at dispensaries around the state as the number of patients has ballooned and new dispensary openings lag.
When Fonseca came to dispensary in 2015, the state had just a few thousand patients. But with more than 86,000 now enrolled, the demand on Curaleaf has increased dramatically, she said. In 2018, the company opened a new dispensary building on the property that added more stations and consult areas for patients.
And when Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Act into law last summer, upping monthly purchase limits to 3 ounces rather than the previously capped 2 ounces, Fonseca said buying habits changed, and Curaleaf again had to ramp up its production.
Until this year, Curaleaf served South Jersey with just one other neighbor in Egg Harbor Township (Compassionate Care Foundation). Now, a second Compassionate Care has opened in Atlantic City as well as Columbia Care in Vineland.
Curaleaf opened a fourth building on campus in July, and still provides wholesale to Rise Paterson, Zen Leaf Elizabeth, Harmony in Secaucus, Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge and Union and Columbia Care.
“If other dispensaries were able to meet the demand, I don’t think it would be such a challenge,” Fonseca said. “With the demand, we’re trying to do the best we can to serve patients.”
While Curaleaf NJ provides marijuana flower to other alternative treatment centers, it has a lab and can produce cartridges, lozenges and tinctures, too, something not all dispensaries can do in-house. Even with another location open, the company has no plans to shorten its reach.
By whole selling, they can still supply patients who want Curaleaf products but can’t easily make the two-hour drive from North Jersey. The company has also said it plans to offer home delivery, which became available through the health department earlier this summer, once its plan receives approval.
The burgeoning industry is ever-changing. With New Jersey poised to legalize marijuana on the November ballot, the market could change drastically. Fonseca said it’s too soon to say how that could impact Curaleaf. The company does have adult use dispensaries, including three in its home state of Massachusetts.
“We want to wait to see how the state is going to regulate it,” Fonseca said. “Our biggest focus is on serving the medical community.”
A version of this story first appeared in NJ Cannabis Insider.
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