With the opening of Simply Pure Trenton in his hometown of Ewing, Tahir Johnson will blaze a new trail as he becomes the first entrepreneur with a cannabis-related conviction to own and operate a legal adult-use dispensary in New Jersey.
Construction is set to wrap up by the end of May with a grand opening scheduled for July, and the well-known 39-year-old cannabis advocate couldn’t be more excited for what’s ahead.
Along with providing a high-end retail setting with premium products and offering a positive cannabis experience through education, inclusion and social justice, Johnson ultimately hopes his road from legacy to legit will show others that there is opportunity in the nascent market for underrepresented populations, such as minorities, women and those impacted by the war on drugs.
In May 2022, Johnson and his lifelong friend John Dockery – who have both been arrested for marijuana possession – secured two of the first 11 conditional class 5 retailer licenses in the state, putting the Trenton natives on the path to selling cannabis legally in New Jersey.
After earning a conditional license, Johnson raised capital, acquired property and secured local approvals. And, last month, the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission signed off on Simply Pure Trenton’s application to convert the conditional license to annual.
Dockery’s dispensary, Simply Pure Downtown Trenton, is expected to open this summer, too – pending approval next month from the CRC.
“We’re really proud to be opening and excited to show the community what we’re doing and show that we can compete at a high level,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to just be the best Black-owned dispensary or social equity dispensary. We really want to be the best dispensary here in New Jersey and, I mean, really the best in the country or the world for that matter.
“We’re really trying to do it to send a message to other folks that are out there that it really is possible and we just want to be an example of that and continue to inspire and help others get here as well,” he said.
Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora described Dockery and Johnson as “precisely the success stories we hope to hear.”
“There are plenty of people that went to jail or prison for marijuana that have more experience than a lot of these corporate entities. We wanted to make sure they were able to get into the doorway themselves and be just as successful,” Gusciora stated.
With growing awareness around a lack of both gender and racial diversity in the rapidly developing and expanding cannabis industry, New Jersey regulators say they want to address those gaps. Toward that end, the CRC continues to prioritize granting licenses to dispensaries run by minorities, women and disabled veterans or applicants with prior marijuana convictions, as well as to ventures located in impact zones, which are defined as communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.
Johnson said he believes the CRC “is doing a fantastic job.”
“I actively watch all the meetings and I see their commitment to social equity … It is very encouraging to hear their commitment and dedication to it,” he said. “I know a large number of folks that have those conditional licenses are minority-owned businesses, women-owned businesses and social equity businesses, but where companies are hitting those bottlenecks are things like local approvals, real estate and funding – which are things that the CRC can’t necessarily control.”
In New Jersey, an estimated 80% of the state’s 565 municipalities have opted out of allowing recreational sales, making it a challenge to find a place to set up shop. And, with marijuana still classified as a Schedule I narcotic by the federal government, many banks will not provide loans for businesses related to cannabis, which means capital is hard to come by.
Johnson praised the state’s efforts to try and address those obstacles, such as through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority’s recently launched Cannabis Equity Grant Program, which will provide grants of up to $250,000 to aspiring entrepreneurs.
Up to $10 million in state funding will be made available to assist startups with early-stage expenses, such as regulatory fees, rent, utilities and wages, as well as technical training through the New Jersey Business Action Center.
“I applied for that, too, so I’m waiting to find out if we’ll receive it,” he said. “Twenty percent is set aside for social equity businesses and 5% of those set aside for businesses in the impact zone. They’re going a long way to make sure that there’s funding and that is historic. No other state is doing anything like that.”
Demand for legal recreational cannabis continues to grow in New Jersey. During the fourth quarter of 2022, the CRC recorded $132.48 million in adult use sales, a 13% increase from the revenue generated from July through September.
CRC Executive Director Jeff Brown recently told NJBIZ he believes the sales numbers and tax revenue “are encouraging.”
He also said, “As more local entrepreneurs get into cultivation, manufacturing and retail we expect to see the market benefit from increased competition with wider product variety and lower prices.”
More than two years after Gov. Phil Murphy signed the Cannabis Regulatory, Enforcement Assistance and Marketplace Modernization Act, and a year since adult-use sales launched, the state’s marketplace remains dominated by large, multistate operators.
Johnson is optimistic that’s going to change.
In February, Suzan Nickelson opened the state’s first medical dispensary owned by a Black woman, Holistic Solutions. She received clearance last month from the CRC to expand her Waterford shop’s license to offer recreational products and began adult-use sales May 6.
“Hopefully many other minority and social equity businesses will be behind us,” Johnson said. “But I really am confident that under the framework and the commitment that we have under their [CRC] leadership that we will get there.
“I think New Jersey is already an example for social equity and how minority-owned businesses can thrive in the market. I definitely think a year from now, we’ll have some success stories and we’ll be telling a different story and we hope to be one of them,” Johnson said.
After graduating in 2001 from Ewing High School, Johnson went away to college at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He then settled down in Maryland, starting a family and a career in finance.
As more and more pharmaceutical companies began making money from medicinal cannabis, Johnson realized there could be a future in the industry for him. He was further inspired by Maryland native Hope Wiseman, who, at the age of 25, became the youngest Black woman to own a medical dispensary in the U.S.
Once her dispensary opened in 2018, Wiseman remained committed to ending the stigma associated with cannabis within the Black community, as well as helping minorities find a place within the legalized industry.
“I was working in finance full-time when I started working at a small local dispensary in Maryland so that I could learn the business from the ground up,” Johnson said. “I started working there on weekends, so at that point I was working seven days a week – five days at the bank and two at the dispensary.”
“My favorite aspect of it was working with the patients and really seeing the way that cannabis was changing lives and even seeing the way that people were rediscovering it,” he said.
“I’ve had experiences working with veterans talking about how it helped them with PTSD. People that had all types of medical disorders from chronic pain and sleep disorders, the cannabis really helping them and people just feeling good about being able to have access to it, not being in the shadows or even people that never tried or never thought they would use it, discovering cannabis and how it can change their life and be helpful and breaking down that stigma, all the lies and all of that stuff that everybody had been told. It was really the most beautiful thing,” he said.
His passion for the industry led him to quit his six-figure investment job to become a budtender making $15 an hour. From there, he became involved in advocacy work with organizations such as United States Cannabis Council and the Marijuana Policy Project.
“My goal in that was just really trying to advance social equity and try to create really the type of industry that we have now that we have here in New Jersey,” he said. “As somebody that was advocating for that and also somebody whose even had a previous cannabis charge, I have always wanted to try to be part of doing everything I could to create a more diverse industry.”
“Over the past several years, I had the opportunity to work with different social equity companies, minority-owned companies, providing education and all different types of services, actively lobbying on different social equity issues and policies at the federal level and state levels,” he said.
Johnson’s efforts to become part of the emerging marketplace weren’t always successful. Four years ago, his applications for a vertically integrated license in New Jersey and a cultivation and manufacturing license in Maryland were both rejected.
“The big difference now is social equity and there’s even a priority for minority-owned businesses, women-owned businesses, social equity and impact zones – all of those things that are considerations now. That wasn’t the thing back then in 2019,” he explained.
“Another difference is now it cost me $200 to submit my application versus the application in 2019 which was $20,000,” Johnson said. “Again, you had to have the real estate upfront, too. It was a very different game, also for the opportunities. At that time, you’re competing against the MSOs.”
This time around, Johnson teamed up with industry veteran Wanda James, the founder and chief executive officer of the first Black legally licensed dispensary in the U.S., Simply Pure.
Thanks to licensing agreements with the Colorado-based brand, Johnson received the rights to operate a Simply Pure shop in Ewing, while Dockery will open the location in downtown Trenton at 28 S. Warren St.
Heading into the process, Johnson also leaned into his professional experience, both in finance and social equity work.
“Because my team and I had experience doing competitive applications, I think our strategy was to approach them much earlier on than some other companies did,” he said. “Especially because when you look at the application and the requirements for conditional licenses, people are required to have local approval or to have secured their real estate. So, I think some people waited to get that done on the back end.”
“But, in my case, we had already started the local approval process before we had even started the application process. So, I had secured my real estate and I had my meetings with the cannabis board in February, and that was done before even dispensary applications had come out,” Johnson explained.
In regard to raising the money needed to launch – which can range from $250,000 to $2 million, depending on location and the type of license – Johnson said having “first mover advantage played a part.”
“Myself and John, with both of our Simply Pure locations, we won two of the first 11 conditional licenses for retail that were awarded in the state,” Johnson said. “So, while there’s hundreds of licenses awarded now, at that time we some of the first ones, which allowed us to go out and start fundraising on the market when there were still very limited opportunities.”
“Having a background in finance and investments, I was really confident in our pitch deck, our strategy and our real estate acquisition strategy. And just being able to execute, really understand our numbers and know our strategy I think helped us to be able to raise capital,” he said. “I was thankful to find a really good investor that believed in me early on to help me to be able to execute the vision.”
“I was also the head of social equity at two different national organizations, the United States Cannabis Council and the Marijuana Policy Project, so I had really seen the industry up close,” he said. “I’ve worked closely with some of the largest multistate operators in the country developing social equity program and policy, and I had a number of good relationships in the industry and a lot of visibility and probably really understood the industry and had been around a lot longer than the average person starting from ground zero. So, that certainly gave me an advantage.”
Now on the cusp of opening his own dispensary, Johnson plans on offering “a superior retail experience.”
“When people come and shop here, we want it to feel like that high end customer service experience that you get at a boutique or a Nordstrom or Bloomingdale’s,” he said. “And, from an education standpoint, letting customers know that we’re here to educate them and help them be able to meet whatever needs they have and also having the best product selection, quality products that are tested.
“We’re leading with technology – we have amazing technology systems – and we’re bringing the best of the best,” he added.
One of Johnson’s favorite gadgets is Pepper, a semi-humanoid robot manufactured by SoftBank Robotics for use in customer service settings, such as a receptionists’ desk.
“She can sense emotions, she can communicate with the customers and she’ll be able to interact with customers. She talks to you and she’ll be able to also display things on the screen so she can help educate customers and you’ll also be able to purchase directly from her on the screen or even just something as small as take a selfie with her,” said Johnson.
“I don’t think most of us have ever had the opportunity to interact with a real advanced robot, so we’re hoping that even things like that will elevate the experience here,” he said.
Located at 1531 N. Olden Ave. in Ewing, the 7,000-square-foot property includes a 1,900-square-foot sales floor and an 800-square-foot waiting room, as well as offices and a break area for workers.
Johnson is continuing his mission to promote a positive cannabis culture.
Simply Pure recently hosted a job fair, inviting cannabis companies from across the state and giving candidates an opportunity to meet employers, and expects to host an expungement clinic during its grand opening next month.
“One of the things that I’m most proud of is that we have a partnership with the New Jersey Re-entry Corp. to hire employees from there and to give back a percentage of our profits to them,” he said.
Many of Simply Pure Trenton’s 45 employees call Ewing Township home and the majority of the staff are minorities, according to Johnson.
“We have a good number of women on our team, very diverse team, diverse in age, diverse in sex, diverse in background. It is one of the things that I’m really excited about that I think will also differentiate us because again, I want to give people from our community an opportunity to be here and thrive as well,” he said.
Additionally, the shop has a labor peace agreement with the United Food and Commercial Workers as part of an effort to make sure that “people have good jobs that give good living wages,” said Johnson, adding, “That is important to us.”
“I think education is very important. A big role of what we want to do is educate our community and although we’re not a medical dispensary, we want to let people know the way again, that cannabis can be really helpful,” said Johnson.
Changing the public perception “isn’t going to happen overnight,” but Johnson is confident the shift is slowly happening.
After pointing to the results of New Jersey’s 2020 referendum, in which nearly 70% of voters backed the legalization of marijuana, Johnson said, “I think people in our communities already understand. It’s just getting everybody else to catch up.”
Jessica Gonzalez, a Jersey City attorney who has been at the forefront of fighting for an equitable legalized market, said the opening of Simply Pure Trenton is a testament “to the enormous work Tahir has invested in himself, his community and the industry across the nation for years.”
“As a social equity, minority-owned licensee, Tahir represents all the tremendous work of advocates and the CRC in establishing an equitable industry. I hope Tahir’s story and journey continue to inspire eager entrepreneurs and advocates that despite the challenges, with grit, perseverance and relentless pursuit, it’s possible to achieve your dreams here in the garden state,” said Gonzalez, who was tapped earlier this year by the New Jersey Business Action Center to develop a workforce development program for the cannabis industry.
Providing guidance to aspiring cannabusiness owners remains a priority for Johnson.
“Part of what’s made me successful is that I’ve had the opportunity to work closely in the industry and I’ve had a good amount of mentorship,” he said. “I’m definitely thankful to those who have given me mentorship over the process and helped develop my business model. So, I will always want to pay that forward.”
“I want other people to get here as well … New Jersey’s cannabis industry is making millions of dollars every month. It’s all multistate operators, so I would love to be able to have more of us that are getting there and being part of getting a piece of the pie.”
Johnson said, “I feel like there’s also the responsibility — if I’m not going to do it, who else is going to do it? We have to stick together and try to help make that happen.”
His biggest piece of advice?
“Persistence is important. I think this goes for any entrepreneur – you have to have a tough skin, you have to learn how to fail and learn from it,” he said. “Education is also important. You have to get the experience and do your homework, especially in this industry. You can’t just jump out there. You have to know the regulations, know your business plan and networking is key
“Having a good reputation and work ethic, I think those are keys that made me successful under any business and cannabis is no different. I think if you stick with that, then you win.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:55 p.m. ET May 22, 2023, to note that Simply Pure Trenton is now scheduled to open in July.