CAMDEN — Bell Pharmacy has been serving Camden’s Parkside neighborhood since 1931, the city’s oldest continually operating independent pharmacy.
When Bell’s doors first opened at the corner of Kaighn and Haddon avenues, Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble were researchers at California Institute of Technology; Bela Lugosi was starring in the first Dracula movie; construction of the Empire State Building had just ended and had just begun on Rockefeller Center; “The Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted as the U.S. national anthem; and marijuana had yet to be federally banned, so pharmacies like Bell sold cannabis products.
Bell will soon begin selling marijuana and cannabis products again: Once it receives state approval, Anthony Minniti and his sister and Bell co-owner Marian Morton will begin offering medicinal marijuana through the pharmacy’s existing storefront; in a renovated two-story building adjacent to the pharmacy, Camden Apothecary will sell cannabis and marijuana products meant for recreational users.
It is, said Minniti, the first time a recreational dispensary will be connected to a pharmacy in the U.S., though they will operate as two separate businesses.
“We took this on based on our customers’ feedback,” he explained. Older people began asking Minniti, a pharmacist, about medical marijuana to help with aches, pains and chronic conditions, seeking more natural alternatives to powerful pain medications.
“The closest dispensary is in Bellmawr,” he added, a challenge for people who may not be able to drive or have access to a car. “People with (medicinal marijuana) cards would ask if they can get it here.”
The pharmacy received municipal approval for a dispensary, and is awaiting state approval before it can begin operations. There are other unknowns, Minniti admitted, as New Jersey’s newly-legalized marijuana industry evolves.
Nichelle Pace, vice president of the Camden Business Association and part of the ad hoc committee that advised the city on cannabis dispensaries, said it was important to have “home-grown businesses, people who are vested here, who live here or work here and are good stewards of the community” as the city’s first purveyors.
“Bell’s been here for 90 years, and they certainly fit that mold,” added Pace, whose firm, Brand Enchanted Media, helped Camden Apothecary with branding.
Pace was among an outspoken coalition of residents and business owners who urged the city to allow dispensaries in Camden, and to do so in a deliberate way, one that rights some of the wrongs of pot prohibition.
“It happened in 1937 and it’s still a modern problem our generation has had to reckon with,” said Pace, a Camden native. “The prison industrial complex, mass incarceration, the pharmaceutical industry, plastic waste … If (marijuana and hemp prohibition) hadn’t happened, we might not have these problems. We’re trying now to right these wrongs, breaking the stigma with this plant and trying to change perceptions.”
Others in the city have also gained approval, including at least two operators slated to open up shop on Mount Ephraim Avenue, pending state approval.
The city’s existing regulations allow dispensaries only in specific areas, away from schools and churches, but also on commercial corridors like Mount Ephraim Avenue. Pace agreed dispensaries have to be placed away from schools and churches, but said “we have more work to do” to expand access into other areas, including commercial corridors like Federal Street, Market Street, the Admiral Wilson Boulevard and elsewhere on Haddon Avenue.
“The zoning is still problematic,” she said, comparing the exclusion zones to redlining. “It was not done by committee’s recommendations, and I understand the city is trying to be cautious for residents. But 80 percent (of those the committee surveyed) said they were fine with it in their neighborhood.”
Bell, Minniti pointed out, will be the only one with pharmacists available onsite to help people with things like dosage, interactions with other drugs (particularly important for elderly and patients with chronic illnesses) and any potential side effects.
“There’s a level of trust,” he said, built over years in the city as Bell provided not only prescriptions but also HIV-related care, medication assisted treatment in partnership with Camden Area Health Education Center and COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. The testing and vaccinations showed the Haddon Avenue location can handle foot and vehicle traffic with minimal neighborhood disruption, Minniti noted. They’re also planning to offer delivery and online ordering services.
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Separating the medical users from recreational ones will allow the former to get their medications more quickly and discreetly and consult with pharmacists, he added, while recreational users can linger at the two-story building next door, choosing their preferred strains with the help of “budtenders.”
Pace said she doesn’t expect any of Camden’s dispensaries to open before June, given the deliberate way the state has been granting approvals.
But she’s supportive of Bell Pharmacy and other small business owners looking to make money off what had long been an illicit trade in the City of Camden and elsewhere.
“(Minniti) is not the only one opening up shop, but he’s someone who’s always given back to Camden financially and with jobs, and those are the people we want doing this.”