Tahir Johnson, a third-generation native of Ewing Township, N.J., received a blunt warning from his mother during his coming-of-age years in the late 1990s on the north side of Trenton.
“Be careful driving while Black,” his mom, Carolyn Watson Johnson, used to tell him and his brothers.
What some people take for granted—that they won’t be discriminated against based on the color of their skin or simply where they live—was very much absent from the everyday reality for Johnson and his peers.
“In Trenton, growing up, it was literally like anytime you were outside, or if there was a couple of us in the car doing anything, we’re going to get pulled over,” Johnson says. “Every time they’re going to search our car.”
When Johnson graduated high school in 2001, gangs were robust, the police presence was heavy, and, at times, it felt like a war zone, he says.
“I’ve been surrounded by cops at gunpoint,” he says. “I’ve had them threaten to tear up my car with dogs, all of those types of things. I guess the biggest thing is the impact. When you talk about these communities, you can’t avoid it. So, they would always try to tell us to ‘Watch where you go, be polite, do this, don’t carry anything on you.’”
But cannabis was something Johnson often carried on him. The now 39-year-old, who is on the verge of opening up Simply Pure Trenton, one of New Jersey’s first Black-owned adult-use dispensaries, readily admits that he fell in love with cannabis at a young age.
A three-sport high school athlete, Johnson broke his finger right before his sophomore basketball season. Sidelined by injury and unable to get on the court that winter, it was the first time in his teenage life that he wasn’t super busy, he says. That’s when he discovered cannabis and began smoking it with his friends. He’s loved it ever since.
“My hobbies changed a little bit,” Johnson says with a laugh.
But smoking cannabis while coming of driving age with black skin in New Jersey wasn’t necessarily the best mix to steer clear from trouble. From his adolescence and into adulthood, Johnson says he’s been pulled over more than 100 times.
Between 2010 and 2018 in Mercer County, which encompasses Trenton and Ewing Township, Black people were arrested 4.1 times more than white people per 100,000 population, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Cannabis-related arrests largely contributed to that racial disparity.
Johnson is a living example of that statistic. He’s been arrested three times for cannabis.
“They say white kids and Black kids use cannabis at the same rates,” Johnson says. “We probably all had it in our cars. But if I’ve been pulled over 100 times in my life, the chances that you find something on me are going to be much greater. And the white kids were probably smoking weed and doing everything just as much. That’s the easiest way to explain the dynamic of it all.”
Little did Johnson know that drug war dynamic would one day lead to his social equity status in New Jersey’s adult-use cannabis licensing process.
In addition to arrest rates, New Jersey has the highest racial disparity rate in the U.S. for its prison population, with Black residents incarcerated at a rate 12.5 times that of white people, according to a 2021 report from The Sentencing Project that cites 2019 Bureau of Justice statistics.
Despite all that, Johnson was the first of his brothers to leave town and go to college. He attended Howard University, a historically black research university in Washington, D.C., where he majored in marketing.
After graduating and working more than three years at PNC Financial Services, including his roles as assistant vice president and branch manager, Johnson’s career as a financial adviser took off in 2013, when Morgan Stanley offered him employment in Maryland.
“I already had the cannabis charge then, and somebody took a chance on me,” Johnson says. “And that’s what helped me get here. My manager literally said, ‘You have this on your record; I’m still going to give you a shot. But just know nothing like this can ever happen again.’
“If I didn’t get that [job], so much stuff would never have happened. I don’t know if that speaks to the value of diversity in general across industries, but if he wasn’t willing to still see the potential in me and say, ‘I’m going to give you a chance,’ I wouldn’t be here.”
After 2 1/2 years with Morgan Stanley, Johnson worked as a financial adviser with SunTrust Investment Services Inc. That financial experience directly ties into his current business endeavors as one of the first 11 adult-use retail licensees approved in May 2022 by the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC).
While the state launched commercial adult-use sales the previous month via existing vertically integrated medical operators, the CRC’s focus on equity is still a work in progress with new market entrants—like Johnson—navigating capital raises, local ordinances and other red tape before setting their business plans in motion.
“Statistically, African Americans, women [and] minorities, in general, have less access to capital than other groups,” Johnson says. “So, for me having experience in finance, one, I can have that conversation fluently about finance. But then I also have the network. I think that’s the biggest thing—it builds trust—because people are like, ‘OK, this guy’s managed hundreds of millions of dollars.’”
Confidence is also a huge part of that financial barrier, especially with regard to those most impacted by the drug war and whose ownership footprint remains limited in the space.
For many individuals—with or without previous business experience—asking a potential investor for a million dollars, or more, with a straight face, doesn’t always come naturally. Also, aspiring entrepreneurs must be able to clearly present why that funding is needed, the substance of their business plan, and the vision that goes along with it, Johnson says.
And that’s where his career experience with Morgan Stanley comes into play with his current aspirations in the cannabis space.
“I was a young 20-something-year-old Black guy. I was like, if I can get these wealthy people to trust me with their money, well, I can do anything,” Johnson says. “But also, at the same time, I think part of it is just that elevator pitch, right? When you’re trying to get a client, I’ve done it a million times.”
“Good question,” Johnson says.
The young Black man from Ewing Township had made it. Despite his arrest record, Johnson left his hometown, earned a college degree, and had a financial career that provided a six-figure salary. Still, his history with cannabis came calling.
In 2018, Johnson earned a master’s certificate through Denver-based Cannabis Training University’s online program.
And in early 2019, Johnson started working part-time as a budtender for $15 an hour in Maryland. He loved being a part of the cannabis community so much that, a few months later, he quit his job at the bank and fully committed himself to the industry.
“Everybody was looking at me like I was crazy,” Johnson says about going from financial stability to somewhat of an unknown future. Later that year, he applied for medical cannabis licenses in Maryland and New Jersey but was unsuccessful—that’s when he started getting involved in advocacy.
Joining National Cannabis Industry Association’s team in mid-2019, Johnson took on a role as the trade group’s business development and diversity, equity and inclusion manager. The next year, he launched The Cannabis Diversity Report podcast on the NCIA platform, which propelled his reputation as a thought leader in the industry.
Johnson took on similar directorship roles for the social equity and inclusion programs at Marijuana Policy Project and the U.S. Cannabis Council in 2021.
And, most recently, Johnson was named to the Minority Cannabis Business Association’s 2023 board of directors.
“In cannabis, when I was first getting on the scene, [I was] able to really say my narrative of what I wanted to accomplish, and the what’s in it for me, what other people would get out of this interaction—whether they were investing in me or just interacting,” Johnson says.
A ‘Pure’ Partnership
From his podcast to advocacy work, Johnson’s cannabis network continued to grow throughout the country. One day, Wanda James reached out to him on social media, and he ended up calling her.
For those who might be new to this industry, James opened the first Black-owned dispensary in Colorado—the Apothecary—with her husband in 2009. That was before social equity was a thing. The next year, she opened the Simply Pure Denver dispensary. She’s been a familiar face in the cannabis industry ever since.
“I think we talked for like hours,” Johnson says of that first phone call. “At the time, there was never any plans of opening a cannabis business. It wasn’t like that. It was just friends, kind of like a mentor, because I was doing some advocacy. And of course, her, as the first Black dispensary owner, she was somebody who was on my radar. So, we built that relationship, hung out a couple of times, all this stuff.”
Fast-forward to November 2020, New Jersey voters passed Question 1 with 67.1% in favor of the adult-use cannabis legalization ballot measure—the highest percentage for passage among adult-use states. Furthermore, 71.3% of Mercer County voters gave the thumbs up.
While CRC regulators began laying the groundwork in 2021 for an expanded program in New Jersey, James was busy in Colorado developing a franchise model for Simply Pure. Although, the two were not directly connected.
Part of James’ plan was to partner with social equity licensees to establish firm footholds in the industry and help obtain generational wealth through turnkey business operations.
Before Johnson even applied for a license in New Jersey, the Simply Pure franchise model was on his radar.
“When New Jersey came about, I thought about it as the perfect match,” he says. “I thought, why do I need to start my own brand when there were other great Black brands that could add experience and add value to me? And I wanted to carry on and continue that legacy.”
Winner, Winner, License Dinner
Johnson submitted his adult-use retail application in March 2022. He also helped lifelong friend John Dockery, a fellow social equity applicant, partner with James and Simply Pure in the application process.
Not only were Johnson and Dockery preschool classmates, but Dockery’s aunt was their teacher.
It was supposed to take 90 days for state regulators to review their submissions, but CRC board members approved the first 11 conditional retail licenses at their May meeting. Johnson and Dockery were both on the list, representing two of the first three diversely owned cannabis retail businesses licensed under the state’s expanded adult-use program.
Busy at work, Johnson wasn’t tuned in to the board meeting.
“My phone is blowing up. I’m like, ‘What is going on?’” he says. “Jessica Gonzalez, who’s a well-known cannabis attorney in New Jersey, she was the first person. I answered my phone, she’s like ‘Tahir, you won a license!’ And I’m like, ‘What?’ I didn’t even know.”
Johnson then got on the phone with Dockery.
“And then we looked at the list, and it was like, ‘We both won!’ It was like, ‘Holy shit.’ It was crazy, man,” Johnson says. “I didn’t think about it until after, but I literally set up my competition, because [Dockery’s dispensary is] like five minutes from me.”
While Dockery’s Simply Pure franchise will cater to the foot traffic and daily commuters in downtown Trenton, Johnson says his suburban dispensary is located at the highest-traffic point in Ewing Township, where some-21,000 cars drive by daily in a retail-heavy corridor.
Not only does Johnson have a location and a trusted brand working in his favor, but partnerships are often the difference between success and failure for new market entrants.
And, as a social equity applicant of a diversely owned business in an impact zone, Johnson’s pursuit to reversing certain harms caused by prohibition has a lot riding on it.
“A lot of what makes businesses fail is the mistakes and things you’ve never encountered or seen before,” Johnson says. “And Wanda, knowing her, that this is her brand, and she’s not going to let Simply Pure look bad, I can always pick up the phone, and I’ve got her as a real-life mentor. The value in that, I think I haven’t even seen it yet.”
Beyond the Simply Pure business model, Johnson has something that is key: community support.
In Ewing Township, the municipal process for Simply Pure has been “pretty smooth,” from navigating local ordinances to receiving a resolution of local support and zoning approvals, Johnson says.
“We’re definitely lucky and thankful and blessed to be here,” he says. “The fact that they are really proud and welcoming us, to be people from here, building a business that can be an example … and the fact that there’s so much excitement around it, you wouldn’t expect it. But they’re asking me to stand up in church, and everybody’s proud and clapping. It’s like, ‘Over weed?’”
For Johnson, one of final steps, before he’s able to open his Simple Pure doors, is to receive state approval for an annual license. After submitting his conversion paperwork in December 2022, he’s hopeful the CRC will provide the final nod at the commission’s March 2 meeting.
Following statutory guidelines, 87 of New Jersey’s 565 municipalities (15%) qualify as impact zones for the state’s cannabis program regarding reversing the harms of prohibition. These impact zones have an average unemployment rate 32% higher than the rest of New Jersey’s municipalities, and 77% more cannabis arrests, too, according to CRC.
In particular, Ewing isn’t only a community where Johnson’s parents raised him and his brothers, but it’s also where his grandmother, Sucecila Watson, worked 30-plus years for a General Motors plant. That plant employed more than 2,000 workers before it closed in the 1990s.
“General Motors was like the biggest job creator in our community,” Johnson says. “And they left.”
Now teeing up to operate his own business in one of New Jersey’s impact zones, Johnson says he feels a certain sense of responsibility to do good by his community.
“When I think of it, it’s like, man, coming home and getting to do this is like the best feeling in the world. I’m hiring people from my town,” he says. “I’m starting my budtenders at $18 an hour, like way higher than minimum wage.”
Getting his own start as a budtender, Johnson says part his vision is being able to grow and hire from within. And that vision of growth includes more licenses in multiple states, he says.
“Someday, we will be a Curaleaf, a Columbia Care, an Acreage or whatever,” Johnson says. “And those folks that are now building it from the ground up with us will be the folks that are the executives.”
In addition, Johnson and his Simply Pure team are partnering with the New Jersey Reentry Corp., a nonprofit agency with a social mission to remove all barriers to employment for citizens returning from incarceration.
With that partnership, Johnson has committed to donate a portion of his business proceeds to the nonprofit and agreed to hire a certain percentage of his workers from the organization’s outreach. Simply Pure also plans to host expungement clinics at its New Jersey franchises, Johnson says.
“Again, this idea of being able to take something that’s been a source of pain for my family and community and be something that now we can attempt to create generational wealth—that’s the highlight of it all,” Johnson says, adding that his advocacy work doesn’t stop here. “It’s not like I got mine, now it’s over, like, y’all are on your own. I want to continue being active and helping to contribute, and to get more people in the industry.”