He was arrested for cannabis possession. Now he's opening N.J.'s first Black-owned recreational dispensary

Tahir Johnson is about to make history in July as he is set to open the doors to New Jersey's first Black-owned recreational adult-use cannabis dispensary.

Tahir Johnson, a cannabis activist, will open the first Black-owned recreational dispensary in Trenton, N.J. (Mark Makela for Yahoo News)
Tahir Johnson, a cannabis activist, will open the first Black-owned recreational dispensary in Trenton, N.J. (Mark Makela for Yahoo News) (Getty Images)

For Tahir Johnson, owning his very own cannabis dispensary, Simply Pure Trenton, in the heart of his New Jersey hometown was a full-circle opportunity to empower a historically oppressed community, minutes from the state’s capital of Trenton, that has been affected by the Reagan-era war on drugs.

“[Cannabis] is a multibillion-dollar industry that we don't have opportunities in. Here, you don’t really see a lot of people that are successful,” Johnson told Yahoo News, as he fought back tears. So, when recreational cannabis was legalized in New Jersey, he seized the chance to bring “a win” for the Black community to his hometown.

Storefront with logo that reads: Simply pure. Trenton
Exterior of Johnson's dispensary, Trenton, N.J. (Mark Makela for Yahoo News) (Getty Images)

The 39-year-old Ewing, N.J., native and his childhood friend, John Dockery, won two of the 11 licenses granted by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission as social equity applicants to open an adult-use dispensary. Dockery’s Simply Pure franchise will be located in downtown Trenton at a later date.

Righting the wrongs of the ‘war on drugs’

As part of state regulations, the commission will reserve 15% of licenses to minority-certified businesses to facilitate pathways into the cannabis industry for people of color, women and disabled veterans. Additionally, 70% of the sales tax will be reinvested back into the communities affected by marijuana-related arrests. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy calls it an effort to “leave behind the indefensible practices that led to the incarceration of countless people of color.”

According to the New Jersey Police Perspective think tank, by 1989, during President Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs” global campaign to combat the illegal drug trade, the state had locked up more people for drug offenses than any other state in the country.

Hands holding prison bars
Getty Images (oneword via Getty Images)

“One of the great examples of what we’re doing here is not only allowing opportunities for people to be in the business and entrepreneurship, but also that same money, like the tax revenue that’s being made from cannabis, is earmarked to go to restoring those same communities that have been harmed by the war on drugs,” Johnson said.

Johnson has had three previous arrests for marijuana possession — at ages 22, 26 and 36 — which made him a priority applicant for the Cannabis Regulatory Commission.

“I checked all the boxes,” Johnson told Decibel Gardens. “And I was especially confident because of my previous arrests.”

The report also stated that New Jersey led the U.S. in racial disparities in incarceration. Black New Jerseyans are more than three times more likely to be arrested for drug-war-era violations than their white counterparts. Prior to New Jersey’s legalization of recreational weed, in 2022, arrests for cannabis possession were almost double the national average in 2017, with police arresting 34,501 people for possessing marijuana and 3,122 people for selling it.

“Almost everybody I know here has been arrested for weed or pulled over or searched,” Johnson said. “That was just a regular part of life. So, the fact that in this same place we now have an opportunity to have a business and be celebrated and not have that pressure is a big difference.”

‘The career of the future’

Johnson said he did not let his charges define him. He left his hometown to attend college at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. After graduation, Johnson worked in finance for years before quitting a lucrative career at Morgan Stanley, leaving a six-figure salary to become a full-time budtender at a Medleaf dispensary in Maryland in 2018.

Johnson has also served as an advocate in the cannabis space for years, working at the National Cannabis Industry Association, as well as leadership roles for the social equity and inclusion programs at Marijuana Policy Project and the U.S. Cannabis Council. This year, he was also named to the Minority Cannabis Business Association’s board of directors.

Tahir Johnson stands in a room under construction.
Tahir Johnson. (Mark Makela for Yahoo News) (Getty Images)

Sales for cannabis in the U.S. have proven that it’s a lucrative business, with revenue expected to add $100 billion to the economy, according to MJBizDaily. In New Jersey alone, more than $328 million in recreational cannabis was sold from April 21, 2022 to Dec. 31, with the state collecting more than $20 million in tax revenue.

Johnson calls having a job in the cannabis industry “the career of the future.”

“It’s implemented in college curriculums. Being able to train and prepare people to work and have jobs in this industry. If we’re talking about empowering minority people, cannabis legalization stops people from getting arrested and being in jail and overwhelmingly those tend to be Black and brown people, [so] thankfully we’ve done that here in New Jersey.”

‘Trenton makes, the world takes’

Johnson calls the decriminalization and legalization of cannabis a civil rights issue that could be used as a tool to restore and repair the Black community.

“You don’t see a lot of people win, and now we’re hiring people from here at every level. Being able to give good jobs that are paying better than a lot of the bigger dispensaries that have been open and to inspire people everywhere is the best feeling, especially for people here from Trenton because we’ve always had this saying, ‘Trenton makes, the world takes,’ but in our lifetime we haven’t really seen an opportunity like that for the Black community,” Johnson said.

Johnson also touted the prime location for his 7,000-square-foot business, surrounded by popular retail chains with high foot-traffic and an estimated 21,000 vehicles driving past every day, and an available 50 parking spaces for patrons. Patients will also experience their very own selfie-taking robot receptionist to greet you before you peruse the various strains of cannabis.

A hand rests near images of interior renderings of a boutique style store.
Johnson shows renderings of the interior of his dispensary. (Mark Makela for Yahoo News) (Getty Images)

And the new owner was really excited to swing the door open for one special local — his 91-year-old grandmother, who used to get her nails done in the same building where Johnson’s dispensary will be located.

“She was just so happy,” Johnson beamed. “I told her ‘I’m gonna be selling weed in here.’ And she said, ‘Oh no, you’re not.’ And I said ‘That’s what the state gave me the license for. And she’s like, ‘No, I just don’t want you to get in no trouble.’ [In] her mind, that’s the main thing she’s thinking about with weed, knowing that she might get a phone call saying, ‘We need help getting out.’ The fact that it’s now a business, that’s what makes the big difference.”

Simply Pure Trenton will open its doors for business in early July.