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The cannabis “dispensaries” of my youth were in rundown tenement buildings found in a dense economically diverse cities. Up a few flights, the only clue to the operation would be a circular hole in a door where a deadbolt used to be. By placing a $5 bill in the small hole the bill would silently slide into the apartment and be replaced by nickel bag (actually a small manila envelope) of inexpensive commercial – or “mersh” – weed.


Much about dispensaries have changed in 2018, though not as much as one might think. Portland residents Ian Jacob and Clifford Tremblay are the principals and sole employees of Blue Anchor Design, a small design firm that, among other things, specializes in the design of cannabis dispensaries and cultivation centers. They have designed 17 dispensaries and 7 cultivation centers (an industry term) in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Hawaii.


Tranquil colors, soft music, warm & fuzzy furniture — if you have never been to a dispensary, the feel is something akin to a New Age massage or aromatherapy office. The inviting interiors are designed to put the dispensary’s clientele at ease.“The people who go to these are often nervous, old, scared, and sick,” Jacob explains. Many patients may have never copped weed before. “They might think there is a stigma attached to what they are doing.”


But there is more to the design than warm tones and an Enya soundtrack.


“Safe rooms, cameras everywhere, man traps, buzzer systems; everything except one of those height thingys next to the door [that you see at 7-11],” explains Tremblay as he demonstrates command of the security industry nomenclature. Man traps are sets of double doors where one door locks shut before the others can open. Safe rooms are essentially vaults where the medicine (the industry term) is stored. “And some clients want kevlar walls and seismic alarms to call the police if someone decides to break in by driving a car through the building’s walls or window.” (The brand of burglary known as ram-raiding. Pro-tip: use a stolen car).


Deliveries are made by unmarked cars either through a side entrance or through the front door but not during normal business hours. For some, hitting a cannabis dispensary might be the ultimate score. But these security features are, to a great extent, there to assuage the fears of nervous municipal officials some of whom might be more comfortable if the the herb were still illegal (which of course it is on the federal level). In any case, extra security makes permitting easier.


Compared to tenements and storefront (emphasis on “front”)bodegas; modern dispensaries have a gentler ambiance and more sophisticated security (to say nothing of the product). On the other hand the level of secrecy has not really changed. “They are a bit like gay bars of past generations,” says Jacob. “No windows or blacked-out windows, low-profile entrances, things meant to preserve anonymity.”


At least this is the case for now. The new generation of dispensaries popping up in in Seattle and Colorado are meant to appeal to younger sensibilities and contemporary design aesthetics: unpainted concrete floors, raw steel, bold graphics, and reclaimed wood. Unfortunately, Maine is a bit behind other places when it comes to having dispensaries that are more public and, frankly, more fun. For starters, Maine does not have social clubs (another industry term) which are dispensaries where you can actually light-up (or consume) the product on the premises. What’s more, current regulations restrict dispensaries from being in residential neighborhoods (because why would you want to have it be convenient?). But if the industry is in its infancy we have an adolescent neighbor to use as a role model. “Canada is so far ahead of us in every way,” says Tremblay. Yet another reason to defect up north.


But as complex as the dispensaries are, the real design challenge goes into the cultivation centers (yet another industry term). These are located in secret locations (although you can follow your nose to them); require a special irrigation/fertilization system; and need their own transformer because of the amount of energy that they consume. Done right they have concrete walls, sophisticated HVAC systems, elaborate pest controls, as well as laboratory standards for cleanliness and sterile environments.


So next time you get a taste of some exceptional medical, you might ask: “Was this grown in a Blue Anchor building?”

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