Conventional wisdom says that marijuana is easy to grow.
But it’s one thing to grow pot plants in your dorm room. Professionals will tell you it’s a very different matter to grow them by the thousands for the state’s Medical Cannabis program and insure consistency from plant to plant.
“We produce from 200 to 250 pounds of raw material every month,” says Charles Bachtell, CEO of Cresco Labs. “To create a repeatable and consistent product with cannabis, it takes a lot of sophistication, and a lot of experience.”
Cresco gave NBC5 a first-ever peek inside its Will County cultivation center, one of three such facilities it operates in Illinois.
But first the look outside. The facility is next to impossible to find, and once you do, there is no outward evidence you are there. No signs. No plants. Just a big white building, with a fence, and electric gate.
But once you get past that gate, and the guards, and the card-controlled access points inside, you’ll find a veritable forest of marijuana. It’s housed in a variety of growing rooms, each containing hundreds of pot plants in various phases of cultivation. The “mother room” contains the parent plants for some two-dozen strains, and cuttings from those plants form the basis for hundreds more, which are pampered, pruned, and propagated in carefully controlled conditions: just the right light for just the right time, with just the right air mixture and nutrients to keep the plants happy---and thriving.
“There are tricks to it,” says Jason Nelson, Cresco’s manager of cultivation. “Some like to grow tall, some like to grow short, some like warmer temperatures, some like cooler temperatures.”
Some like to grow in Mexico, others in Afghanistan. The trick is to give each strain just the right conditions to make them feel at home in Illinois. After all, each of those strains is theoretically tailor-made for over 40 medical conditions covered under the Illinois law.
“An indica’s very relaxing,” says Nelson. “A sativa can be more uplifting and less sedative.”
(Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you paid your way thru college growing hemp in your closet.)
The secret to marijuana production lies in the flower, the big bud which forms on mature plants. Those contain the potent THC, a cannabis plant’s active ingredient. Thus, the flowering bud becomes the only part of the plant which is actually useful. Stems and those familiar jagged leaves? Those are basically waste, mixed with soil, composted and thrown away.
“The female flowering part is laden with the trichomes and resin glands that have the medical properties patients are looking for,” says Nelson, holding a thumb-sized bud. “There are consumers who want to consume this final flower-product. We also have the option of taking this flower on through processing where we can extract the oils as a wax or a concentrate.”
Those oils are then used for everything from vaping pens, to edible chocolates, medical patches or traditional pharmaceutical-style capsules.
“That’s all post-processing from this initial flower product,” he said.
Indeed, Cresco’s Will County facility might be viewed as one part greenhouse, one part laboratory, one part bakery. Passing from room to room, workers were observed tending plants, extracting oils, injecting capsules, and preparing and wrapping chocolates.
Really, really good chocolates, by the way, crafted by James Beard-award winning chef Mindy Segal.
(This reporter was served inert samples, minus their active ingredient).
Security is tight. Cresco’s facility is watched from every angle by over a hundred cameras. In addition to an on-site security center where those cameras are monitored, each can be dialed up and viewed by the State of Illinois. Workers know that any efforts to pocket product for potential sale on the outside will be recorded from multiple angles.
And those end products? They’re sealed in a bank-style vault, before delivery by Cresco trucks to dispensaries around the state. Each of those dispensaries must then call the cultivation center for a temporary code which opens a lockbox containing products destined only for their location.
(Cultivation centers must operate their own delivery systems because commercial over-the-road carriers are licensed by the Interstate Commerce Commission. And the Federal Government still views marijuana as a schedule 1 drug like heroin or LSD).
Thus federally-registered trucking companies won’t touch it, and many big national banks won’t finance it. But the Federal Government has largely agreed to look the other way for the over two dozen state programs, allowing them to operate under their own local rules. And in Illinois, those rules are viewed as among the tightest in the nation.
“It’s very tough, it’s very tight restrictions,” says Jack Campbell, director of the Illinois Medical Cannabis program. “Now that the program is up and going, and these rules have been implemented, we now know that they work.”
In Illinois, the cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana is a multi-million dollar operation, albeit one which has a very limited customer base. There were about 9,000 patients at last count. And remember, there are currently another 18 cultivation centers just like this one statewide. That’s a lot of businesses, splitting a very finite number of customers.
“We all knew we were starting with patient number one,” says Bachtell. “We’ve seen month over month growth in total participation, signing up new patients. Every month is more than the month before.”
The patient base is tightly controlled. Right now Illinois permits medical cannabis for 41 conditions. The industry believes the newest of those, post-traumatic stress disorder and patients in the last month of terminal illness, could help swell that universe to over 100,000 by 2018.
“It’s important that people see what this program is really like in the State of Illinois,” says Bachtell. “This is commercial agriculture. This is pharmaceutical medicine.”