Extasy and Michael James pose outside of their business in Jamaica, Queens

Behind the counter of her sleek, brightly lit storefront, Extasy James puts final touches on the product display. It’s almost 2 p.m., on Friday, March 31, and Good Grades, New York’s first legal cannabis dispensary to be owned by a woman and the first to appear outside of Manhattan, is about to open its doors. In attendance the who’s who of the state’s cannabis royalty, representing a litany of agencies tasked with directing legal weed money to communities that have been disproportionately affected by prohibition. 

At the pre-opening event, Queens borough president Donovan Richards speaks about the way the war on drugs was weaponized against the Black and Brown communities of Jamaica and Southeastern Queens, but ends on a positive note. “What was once a tool to target communities of color, is now a crucial and legal piece of our economic puzzle that will create jobs, create wealth, create opportunities in the same communities,” he said.  

On its first day of operation, Good Grades welcomed over 100 shoppers

The line on the other side of Good Grade’s frosted glass windows curves well around the corner. A stone’s throw from the shopping and transportation hub of Jamaica Center, this stretch of Jamaica Avenue is a busy commercial corridor lined with fast food restaurants. Across the street, vendors set up folding tables with gold necklaces, remote controlled cars, incense, and nail polish.  

Unlike his fellow street vendors, Marlin, a tall, bearded man with an “I <3 2 teach” pin on his chest, does not openly advertise his product. After all, selling weed on the street is still illegal. “I’ve been busted on this same block at least four times, but no one came to take my picture,” jokes Marlin, slightly bemused by the news crews making a beeline for the legal dispensary. Now, the chances of getting nabbed for selling small amounts are slim, unless the customer turns out to be an undercover cop. Having a license would be nice, concedes Marlin, but says he can’t afford the $2000 application fee.   

      

All cannabis products for sale at Good Grades were grown by licensed cannabis cultivators in New York State

Good Grades was launched with a loan from New York Social Equity Cannabis Fund, which covers the initial licensing and operating costs for those who qualify — people previously convicted of marijuana offenses and members of their immediate families. Extasy James and her cousin, the dispensary’s co-owner Michael James Jr., are reticent when asked about the toll prohibition took on their family. “The priority was to make sure that everybody could survive and buy the necessities,” recalls Ms. James. “It’s good that families are getting a second chance.” She says that legalization was life-changing. 

Mr. James, an attorney who focuses on helping minority business owners, realized his own family fit the state’s requirements while helping clients get a foothold in the cannabis industry. From start to finish, the process of getting a license took seven months, despite the fact that the state’s progressive agenda has been hampered by litigation initiated by big weed producers who felt excluded from the early share of the lucrative weed market. 

John Brown and his friend Devonte are happy that smoking weed in public is no longer illegal

John Brown, the first customer in line outside Good Grades, says he also sells weed. He came to sample the dispensary’s top shelf product, and once inside, spent close to $100 on pre-rolls and edibles. For some in the queue, Good Grades’ outer borough location seals the deal. Karl, 63, walks with a cane and uses marijuana for chronic pain — a reminder of the numerous injuries he sustained during his career in construction. Finding street parking in the bustling 20-block area that houses all three Manhattan dispensaries is a tall order, but in Jamaica, Karl was able to grab a spot on the same block. 

Marlin, 43, stands for a portrait at the corner where he makes his living selling pot

By the end of its first day in operation, Good Grades served more than 100 customers. Marlin says he welcomes the competition from legal marijuana. “If anything, it boosts sales,” he laughs, when we catch up on Sunday, three days after Good Grades’ soft launch. For many in the neighborhood, street prices, unencumbered by the 13% state tax and need to pay storefront rent, will remain a deciding factor. Marlin also relies on his regulars, who talk about their problems before getting their “prescription” for insomnia, depression or restlessness. 

Jessica Naissant is waiting for her own retail cannabis license. She came from Mid-Hudson to show her support

Good Grades’ employees, too, are a wealth of knowledge about the properties of different strains and inner workings of terpenes and cannabinoids that endow marijuana with its taste, smell, and psychoactive qualities. Some are already veterans in the emerging industry: Angela, for instance, was one of the original employees of Smacked!, New York’s first individually owned cannabis dispensary. 

“I know for a fact that their product is good,” Marlin says of the dispensary. One day, he will check it out for himself. But for now, he has a delivery to make. 

Good Grades is located at 162-03 Jamaica Ave., Jamaica, NY 11432. 

It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

The dispensary launched as a pop-up and will continue operating for 40-60 days before temporarily closing to finish construction.

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