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In late January 2020, Grow America Builders started construction on a new medical cannabis dispensary in Elizabeth, New Jersey, just across the river from Manhattan. It was scheduled to be a 12-week project. And then COVID-19 happened.

Every construction project has its own challenges and problems, but we never had to complete a project under those conditions.

Covid & Deadlines in NJ

The coronavirus pandemic hit the area fast and furious. Cases doubled by the day, stay-at-home mandates were put into effect, and there we were, in the middle of construction of a dispensary with a strict state-imposed deadline.

Most cannabis companies are given a state-imposed deadline to complete their dispensary or risk losing the license. As the chaos surrounding the virus was intensifying, the state of New Jersey was silent on whether or not there would be a time extension. We had no choice but to push ahead.

ZL Before Walls

Hurdles, Speed Bumps, and Roadblocks

The first hurdle we faced was abiding by the new regulations. The two primary directives were…

  • all workers must wear masks
  • all entrances had to have a washing station with hot water or hand sanitizer

Every construction contractor has masks, but the second part was more of a challenge. As everyone remembers, hand sanitizer was a rare commodity in those first few weeks of covid-19. If you had a jug of hand sanitizer you may as well have had a jug of gold bullion.

Our project manager used the first of many favors, and begged our plumber to come out on a Sunday to plumb a temporary sink so that we’d be operational by Monday morning.

Workers On Site

The next problem was getting workers to the job site. Immediately, there was confusion as to who was allowed to work and who wasn’t. Some cities allowed essential work to continue, but others shut everything down except for medical personnel.

Our guys were getting pulled over by law enforcement, and told that unless they were working at a hospital they would have to turn back. It was very confusing; even though construction was allowed in Elizabeth, it might not have been allowed in a neighboring town.

Construction of displays in dispensary

We lost subcontractors left and right. We assured our guys that construction was allowed on our project, but they didn’t want to risk getting continually pulled over. And then there were those who understandably didn’t want to endanger their health.

The situation forced us to make modifications on the fly. We plowed ahead, finding alternate contractors and paying extra just to get bodies to the job.

The Glass Wall

It was about a month out from our deadline when we hit the biggest speed bump. One of the more critical elements of the project was a wall of interior glass separating the reception area from the sales counter. We wouldn’t get the occupancy permit without it.

As soon as we were ready for the glass wall, we were told that eight members of the installation crew were out with covid-19. They had been working on another job at which they were exposed to a bricklayer who had the disease. Regardless, the glass wasn’t even ready because the shop had closed down.

Glass wall after installation

“The Email”

In late March, as we were frantically dealing with the glass crisis, we received an email from the city that stated all construction was to immediately cease and the building department was closed indefinitely. Internally, at Grow America Builders, this was henceforth known as “The Email.”

We had no indication that this was coming, despite the fact we had just had an inspection. The inspector probably didn’t know himself.

Impacts

We had about three weeks of construction remaining and roughly three weeks until the deadline. This left us with no room for error. We couldn’t afford a stoppage. We were spinning our wheels; how could we convince the city to let us finish our project when they’d shut down all other construction?

It wasn’t long before the state released a list of “essential businesses” that could remain open. We scoured that list until we found what we were looking for: “medicinal cannabis dispensary.”

Is Cannabis Construction Essential?

In a recent article on Marketwatch.com, Randal Meyer, executive director of the Global Alliance for Cannabis Commerce, called dispensary construction essential.

In the same article, it was reported that California Gov. Gavin Newsom “decided that dispensaries should be treated something like to pharmacies.” Every governor in a medically legal state followed suit.

There is a good reason for cannabis [retailers] to be treated like pharmacies. The basis is medical.

Randal Meyer

As long-time advocates of cannabis, we were always on the side of “legalize it.” But since working in the cannabis industry, we’ve seen the cancer patients, the veterans suffering with PTSD and the epileptics who literally depend on cannabis on a daily basis.

It wasn’t news to us that medicinal cannabis would be deemed essential. It was good to know that this now seemed to be the consensus.

We started making calls to the building department and arguing to anyone who would listen that if a medical cannabis dispensary is considered essential, then the construction of one should be as well. The sooner we could get the dispensary built; the sooner people could have access to their medicine.

Finish Line

About 48 hours later, we received verbal approval to continue working, and about a week after that the building department opened back up with limited hours.

At this point we had a good routine established; we kept the electricians away from the plumbers, the plumbers away from the millworkers and the painters only worked nights and weekends. Glass was finally being fabricated and our final inspection was scheduled. We were ready.

Inspection

On the morning of final inspections, our one item of concern was that the inspector wouldn’t be happy about walking around the glass installers who were still finishing up.

The issue became moot because the inspector never showed up. He had fallen ill the night before our final inspection, and since he was apparently the only inspector who could pass us for occupancy, we had to wait until he could return to work.

Nobody knew when that would be. What we did know was that the state inspector was scheduled for the following day. This was new territory; we never had a state inspector come out for their inspection before receiving city inspections.

To our relief, the state inspector still did their inspection and the dispensary received state approval prior to receiving occupancy from the city. About 10 days later, the building inspector came out and approved us for occupancy.

Days later, the dispensary was open for business.

Conclusion

There were a million little things that we usually take for granted that were made that much more challenging under the shadow of COVID-19.

It gives us great pride to know that we built that medical dispensary amidst the pandemic in the hardest hit part of the country, and that patients are finding it easier to gain relief in Elizabeth, NJ.

Featured on the National Cannabis Industry Association Website.

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A cannabis dispensary has many unique qualities that differentiate it from a typical retail store. A dispensary building incorporates the features of a retailer, a bank, and a pharmacy. But the most important aspect is security.

Between the cash transactions and cannabis product on site, a dispensary has always been a target for criminals. In this current environment, where rioting and looting is becoming more prevalent, that target has increased ten-fold. 

New Security Challenges

All dispensaries have full surveillance coverage, both inside and out, as well as top of the line security systems. Unfortunately cameras aren’t always enough; a mob of looters in masks don’t care if their image gets caught on tape. Tensions are high and penalties are low. Our main priority has shifted towards protecting our client’s business, their employees, and their product. 

Grow America Builders have built dispensaries all over the country, and recently one of our dispensaries was in the middle of televised riots. A mob of looters attempted to get in twice in the same night. We can proudly say, the damage was minimal and the criminals didn’t get anything except frustration and some bloody hands.

But it was a wake-up call that these types of incidents can occur more and more frequently, so we created an updated strategy for securing the dispensaries that we build. 

Security Above & Beyond

The following are some security reinforcements that we recommend when building or renovating a cannabis facility.

Workroom Reinforcements: Bullet Proof!

The workroom is one of the most important parts of a dispensary. It’s typically adjacent to the vault, and during work hours the dispensary workroom is where the product is put together for orders and passed through to the point of sale area. There are many times throughout the day where the workroom could be housing significant amounts of cannabis.

Cannabis workroom with mesh barrier
One of our workrooms reinforced with a mesh barrier.

At Grow America Builders, we came up with a solution years ago that ensures protection between the point of sale area and workroom. We recommend building cannabis workrooms with heavy gauge steel and barrier mesh between the drywall. This is an acceptable method for some vaults, and provides excellent security for a cannabis workroom. 

Additionally, many workrooms have pass-through windows where employees hand over the cannabis orders to the salespeople. Think of a bank teller window. We couldn’t find the right sized bank teller window, so we came up with another solution. We sourced a 2’ by 3’ commercial storefront window, glazed with over 1” thick bulletproof glass. 

Between the reinforced walls and bulletproof windows, we more or less created a safe room for the employees who work in the cannabis workroom. In the event looters ever get into the store, they aren’t getting into the workroom.

Storefront Window Film: Bomb Proof!

Most storefront windows are typical center glazed with ¼” tempered glass. However, in order to achieve full peace of mind, we started applying a reinforced security film over the dispensaries’s exterior windows and glass doors.

  1. First of all, this guarantees that no looters can physically break the through the window.
  2. Secondly, if they come armed with explosives, they’ll be in for a rude awakening because the film is applied with an impact protection adhesive anchoring system, which is rated to be bomb proof.

This film can be applied over almost any typical storefront window and is sourced from some of the most reputable vendors in the industry. 

Vault Door: Bullet Proof! Bomb Proof! Mob Proof!

The vault is always the first item that we scrutinize when provided with a set of plans to build a new dispensary. The vault can be built many ways;

  • masonry construction
  • heavy gauge metal studs with wire mesh
  • prefabricated panels from a security company

All three ways provide satisfactory security, but we always have to be careful because different states have different vault construction parameters. Still, all three methods provide optimal protection. The vault door is the one wild card because not all vault doors are built alike. 

secure cannabis dispensary vault door
One of our recommended vault doors.

At Grow America Builders, we highly recommend using a Class 5 V vault door that has guaranteed protection of 20 man-hours of surreptitious entry and radiological break-in techniques. This includes withstanding a prolonged ‘mob attack’.

This door can withstand brutal attacks from a mob for a prolonged period of time, something that we never considered when we started building dispensaries, but in 2020, this has become a necessity.

Additionally, if we have a client who is highly concerned about security, we can upgrade the vault door one step further to provide up to 60 minutes of penetration delay against battering attacks, intense and concentrated hand tool attacks, as well as being able to withstand multiple shots of both 7.62 mm and 5.56 mm ballistic attacks. 

Miscellaneous Reinforcements

There are many other tweaks and adjustments that we now do to reinforce a dispensary during construction. When looters attacked one of our recently completed dispensaries, it gave us a real world glimpse as to how our security was able to stand up to the criminal element. We were able to identify potential weak points and make easy adjustments.

For example, we were able to identify that the looters tried to remove door hinge pins in an attempt to remove doors to enter the workroom. They never got in, but it showed us a potential weak point.

Now, we only install pinless hinges, whether specified on the architectural drawings or not. There were many more ideas we garnered throughout those weeks, many of which we now implement as standard construction means and methods in the construction of a dispensary.   

Conclusion

When a dispensary gets looted and vandalized, it does more than physical damage, especially when the dispensary is medicinal. There are patients who depend on their daily cannabis. We’ve seen first hand the panic in the eyes of an epilepsy patient who came to the dispensary looking for his usual order but couldn’t get it because of looting the prior night. This is one of the real life, unfortunate impacts of looting a cannabis dispensary. 

We will continue to secure the dispensaries we build, not only for the safety of the client and employees, but also to thwart the attempts of the criminals targeting cannabis facilities.


Our Dispensaries In the Press

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Cannabis Dispensary in El Dorado, Ark.

El Dorado, Arkansas— October 19, 2020 — PRESS RELEASE — Grow America Builders has announced the completion of a cannabis dispensary in El Dorado, Ark.The 4,500-square-foot dispensary, built amid the challenges presented by Covid-19 and hurricane Laura, has passed its final inspection and is expected to open soon.

The project presented some unique challenges. said David Fettner, managing partner at Grow America Builders, LLC. “A week after we broke ground, Covid-19 entered the equation. Then, just as we were hitting our stride, navigating through the pandemic, Hurricane Laura made landfall and created a new set of challenges. But we got through it all and we and the client are proud of how the dispensary turned out. Now comes the important part; helping patients and the local community access medical cannabis in a legal and responsible way.”

Community Impact

This Zen Leaf cannabis dispensary located in Union County, Ark. is owned by Noah’s Ark LLC and will be the third dispensary to open in Arkansas’ Zone 8, which encompasses  Union, Pike, Howard, Server, Clark, Little River, Miller, Lafayette, Columbia, Calhoun, Ouachita, Dallas, Nevada and Hempstead Counties. The dispensary built by Grow America Builders will provide medical marijuana access to El Dorado and the surrounding areas. Those in need of a medical marijuana dispensary have had to travel roughly eighty miles to the nearest dispensary. Arkansas law provides for 20 licenses per zone, so watch for further development.

Arkansas approves the use of medical marijuana in the treatment of; Alzheimer’s Disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Cancer, Crohn’s Disease, Fibromyalgia, Glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C,  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Tourette’s Syndrome, Severe Arthritis and Ulcerative Colitis.