SOMEWHERE NEAR TRENTON — The only barriers separating the black market from the outside world is a thick dark curtain and a glass door, clouded by a room full of marijuana smoke.
Outside, it's quiet in a sleepy Trenton suburb. The faint sound of hip-hop within is drowned out by the honking horns on a nearby highway and planes landing at the small airport a few miles away.
But inside? Business is booming on this Saturday night.
Tables overflow with marijuana products in every form imaginable. Huge jars are half-filled with dried marijuana flowers. Eighth-ounces of pot are sold in vacuum-sealed, professionally packaged, odor-proof bags.
“People want legalization until they get here and see what the black market has to offer," said David, doubling as dealer and DJ, playing hip-hop songs from a YouTube playlist. He spoke to the Press on the condition of anonymity due to the illicit activities.
“They see that what we have is cheaper than legalized weed, that it’s much better," David said. "You can change their mind."
He briefly paused our conversation to verify a $100 mobile payment from a customer, who held up her iPhone to show the confirmation page on Cash app.
At this black market bazaar — which you can learn more about in the video above —customers are smelling weed from a dealer who's ready with a hand-held ultraviolet light to illuminate the individual nuggets, shining a light on their tiny nooks and crannies. They're offered free samples of cannabis candy and take complimentary hits at a dabbing station, inhaling doses of highly concentrated marijuana extracts.
"I had a shot of that last night, and I slept through noon," someone says of cannabis-infused liquor. For $7, a dealer will pour a shot in a plastic cup.
If New Jersey legalizes weed — and experts believe it's closer than ever — the cannabis economy wouldn't start from scratch. Legalizing weed would just make it a formality — a heavily regulated, heavily taxed formality that experts believe will require millions in capital for new businesses to ensure success.
"I would love to quit my 9-to-5 and open a cannabis bakery full-time. That’s my dream,” said D.C., a short-haired woman in her 30s, flanked by two mountains of her homemade pot brownies, individually plastic-wrapped and sealed with smiley face stickers, as if they belonged at a PTA bake sale.
"But they make it so hard. You have to take out loans, and have certain qualifications to even think about it," she said, ruminating about how the money required to get a license would likely disqualify her from entering the New Jersey legal weed industry.
"Why are we adding greed to the equation?" she asked. "That’s when it becomes evil.”
D.C. began selling pot around North Jersey a few years ago. While she moves all kinds of marijuana, the edibles are her passion. What started as a party favor for her friends quickly became a lucrative side-gig when she clocks out of her day job.
She bakes nearly 300 brownies per month. At this event, she was selling them for $10 each.
As D.C. sees it, she'll always have customers. They already know that her brownies pack a powerful marijuana-infused punch. And after a few years, she expects the newbies to ditch the legal weed dispensaries for the black market, where the marijuana is cheaper and regarded as higher quality by both dealers and marijuana legalization opponents.
“The state has no idea what they're doing. They have no idea what the people want," she told me. "The underground will always stay in business, whether they legalize, decriminalize or not.”
In this, D.C. and marijuana legalization opponents are in agreement. Opponents have criticized the legal weed process as being simply a multimillion-dollar money-grab, and an ill-fated one at that: By taxing marijuana at $42 an ounce, it will keep the tax-free black market in business, Sayreville Police Chief John Zebrowski said.
"Clearly, there's always going to be a demand — and some of that demand is going to be satisfied by the black market, where there's a reduced price and higher potency," Zebrowski said.
"And it'll be very hard for the state to compete with the black market when, obviously, part of what they're trying to do here is create an income base through taxes."
In other legal weed states, police are increasingly arresting people for illegally selling pot. According to the Colorado Department of Public Safety, 108 adults over 21 years old were arrested for marijuana sales in 2017, compared to just 10 in 2012.
And conspiracy to sell marijuana arrests have nearly doubled since 2012, and arrests for possession with the intent to distribute marijuana have increased by more than 47 percent, the department reported.
That should have New Jersey officials and law enforcement officers in towns near the borders extra-vigilant, he said.
"If I'm a border town near a state that doesn't have legalized marijuana? That's a huge concern," Zebrowksi said.
Zebrowski, a vice president of the state police chiefs' association, works with New Jersey Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy, the largest marijuana legalization opposition group in the state. He spoke to me a few days after the black market pop-up, which he obviously did not attend.
He'd never heard of such a concept, Zebrowski said. But he wasn't surprised given the black market's ability to evolve.
“The black market has adapted and become more customer-friendly,” Zebrowski said. “They’ll always have different ways to survive.”
I've been to the "above-ground" marijuana events and panels, where crowds of largely white businessmen — wearing expensive suits and fancy shoes — try to figure out the easiest way to make millions on what could become a billion-dollar industry in New Jersey. It would be the first state in the Northeast to legalize weed, meaning 40 million adults in nearby states would be within driving distance of legal marijuana.
The black market pop-up was almost a fun-house mirror reflection of that event. In the few hours I spent there, I saw a steady stream of customers, about 15 or so at any given time. They were mostly in their 20s and 30s. Most were black, though a few white customers made the rounds as well.
The men wore pristine white basketball sneakers. The women carried handbags or simply let an iPhone dangle from their wrist.
A few carried their own odor-proof bags, which they filled with their various purchases as they visited the tables.
Dealers would describe marijuana strains like fine wines — a particularly rare export from Northern California, a brand of pot that's been making its way north from Washington, D.C., where the drug has been decriminalized and residents can legally grow up to six cannabis plants at home.
"The black market is growing, too. These kinds of products weren't here five years ago," said Ed Forchion, the longtime legal weed advocate usually known as NJ Weedman. "But with legalization, people are getting stuff from everywhere and bringing it here.
"We want to be a part of the market, too. But if they won't let us in? We're doing to do it our own way."
It's an attitude that Forchion has shared publicly, telling it to customers who stop to pose for a photo with him, sharing a joint and exhaling billowing clouds of smoke.
And he told it to legislators during a joint judiciary committee hearing in November, confident that, if he was arrested, he'd be able to convince a jury that he, a black man, wasn't breaking the law: "I'm just selling weed, just like the white guys" that will apply for licenses to operate legal weed dispensaries.
That confidence was clearly shared at this event. It was publicly advertised on social media and attendees could buy a $40 online ticket through Eventbrite, a popular ticketing service used by legitimate concert venues and expo centers.
Customers could buy a ticket and receive the address via email. Nobody bothered to vet the guest list to see if a police officer was masquerading as a customer.
"If the cops wanted to stop these from happening, they would have by now," Forchion said.
They wouldn't have to travel far: This tiny town's police station was a half-block away. There was all of 600 feet between a parking lot of police cruisers and pounds of marijuana.
I mentioned this to Forchion, who simply laughed and pointed to a banner in the back of the room. It was black, with a large green pot leaf emblazoned on it and big red letters daring the outside world to try and stop them:
"Only the strong survive."