Photo Credit: Thomas E. Franklin
Aaron Epstein sits behind a nondescript desk, in a nondescript office on the second floor of the former 6th Avenue Electronics on Route 1 in Woodbridge.
There’s a MacBook open on his desk, filing cabinets and a flat screen TV displaying a checkerboard of images from security cameras set throughout the 25,000 square-foot facility.
Epstein, 35, is describing his journey from Livingston High School to general manager of Garden State Dispensary, one of six licensed medical marijuana facilities in New Jersey, known in regulation parlance as Alternative Treatment Centers.
He’s the first to admit it’s not the typical path for someone in this industry. There is no history of a family member or friend whose suffering was eased by marijuana or was exacerbated by lack of access to cannabis. For Epstein, it began with a desire to try something new and a fortuitous newspaper story.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Illinois, Epstein worked at homeless shelters in Newark for five years before launching a vocation training program at a recycling center for ex-offenders in Kearny.
An urge to change career paths and put his degree to use on Wall Street was scuttled by the recession of 2009. Epstein entered Seton Hall Law School, clerked for an Essex County Family Court judge, worked for a firm and then opened his own practice – handling landlord-tenant and divorce cases.
By 2015, the grind of “divorcing people and kicking people out of their homes” had Epstein looking for something new. He read an article about the burgeoning marijuana industry.
“I said to my wife. This new industry is going to need attorneys and I’m going to try and position myself as an expert,” Epstein says.
The road he took to running the second largest dispensary in the state can serve as a model for those interested in entering this potential $1 billion industry.
“I needed to build a resume and befriend people in the know. Step 1 was to read everything.”
For Epstein, that included an article about a packaging company that wanted to be a national player. Every state that had legal medical marijuana required some form on child-proof packaging. Epstein reached out to them and said, “I know you must have a team of attorneys” but each state has its own regulations and there’s no one-size fits all.
WOODBRIDGE, NJ 05-25-18 GARDEN STATE DISPENSARY / LEGAL MARIJUANA: Garden State Dispensary in Woodbridge is one of only five dispensaries are currently open in New Jersey with a sixth set to open soon, the facility produces and dispenses medical marijuana -all grown indoors at the facility. Tour of the facility provided by Aaron J. Epstein, General Manager and General Counsel.
by Thomas E. Franklin
They didn’t have a single attorney, let alone a team – the company was only in the design phase at the time – and a new career path was born. He did some pro bono work to establish his bona fides and became an expert on regulations.
By August 2015, he was asked to oversee compliance for Garden State Dispensary and was installed as its general manager.
His responsibilities include overseeing all aspects of the business located under one roof. From growing to cultivation to production as well as dispensing. In 2017, 4038 patients were served, 27,735 transactions completed, and 982.9 pounds of product dispensed during its 358 days of operation, according to the New Jersey Department of Health.
With the State expanding the medical marijuana program to include more qualifying conditions, Epstein’s role will expand. Garden State Dispensary has been granted a permit to open a satellite location; Epstein is seeking Union Township approval for a storefront on Route 22 and is also looking to open a 100,000 square-foot grow-only facility.
Epstein’s advice for anyone considering entering the industry – the growth area will be in ancillary businesses.
“Become an expert in New Jersey on the subject,” he says. “Spend time in California and or Colorado learning from the experts there.”
“If you’re an accountant, become the New Jersey marijuana accountant.” Start a blog, write frequently and be the person that shows up first when someone Googles “NJ marijuana accounting.”
Or consider HVAC.
Cannabis growing facilities require temperature and humidity control that’s complicated when you have high-intensity LED lights on 12-hour on-off cycles. Develop a team of engineers that know how to handle the high-stress climate control issues that growing marijuana requires and be prepared with a PDF/pamphlet when a grow facility calls.
“Two years ago, when I told people I was going into this business, they told me I was crazy,” Epstein says, “Today, I get five to 10 calls a day. How do I get involved?
“It sounds cool, but when you get into it, it’s a job and a pretty stressful one.”