MD: Room To Grow – Grassroots Brings Cannabis And Jobs To Taneytown

Photo Credit: Reuters

It’s a fairly nondescript building along a stretch of Taneytown Pike on the north side of Taneytown, with no obvious signs that anything special lies inside.

Look closer, however, and you might notice the 18 heavy-duty HVAC units along the outside of the building.

And while there was nary a whiff of anything odd on a cold day at the end of January, those who work there say in warmer weather it doesn’t take a particularly keen nose to sniff out what’s up inside.

What’s inside?

“Northern Lights, Triangle Kush, Ghost Rider,” says Andy Cohen, looking at the labels of small green plants in black plastic trays. “Chem D and Tangie is another one people may have heard of.”

Cohen is one of the partners in Grassroots Cannabis, one of just 15 companies holding a license to grow medical cannabis in Maryland, and it’s growing a lot of it, right here in Taneytown. Cohen is running through the names of the different strains of cannabis the facility has growing in the “genetics” room. Cannabis strains are all clones with identical genetics and desirable traits from their aroma to their color to the specific blend of cannabis compounds that produce the plant’s psychoactive and medical effects.

Over a few months, those tiny clones will grow to large, bushy shrubs bearing aromatic, resinous flower buds, like those Cohen shows off in one of three rooms filled with flowering cannabis.

“This is bud right here. This is what it’s all about. The cola,” he says, taking a stem between thumb and forefinger to smell a sticky cannabis flower bud, hence the term — “cola” refers to the large, dense cluster of buds that forms at the tops of mature cannabis plants.

“It just smells so good,” Cohen says.

The humid air is filled with a somewhat sweet, somewhat sour, somewhat herbal aroma. It’s moist and fresh and somehow feels very warm and close — like living flesh.

That could be due to the transpiration of the 450 cannabis plants in the room. They will be producing about 175 pounds of cannabis, Cohen says, as will two other such grow rooms, staged three weeks apart, to ensure a steady stream of harvested bud to feed Maryland’s network of 30 medical cannabis dispensaries operating as of Jan. 30 — as many as 102 are expected eventually.

“There’s 175 pounds of weed in here,” he says. “Not a lot of people are ever in a room with 175 pounds of weed. No one could consume this in an entire lifetime.”

But a lot of Marylanders have been waiting for years to try.

Maryland history of an herbal remedy

Medical marijuana was first approved by the Maryland General Assembly in 2013, but a series of disputes, lengthy deliberations and follow-up legislation — notably changing the official term to medical cannabis to distinguish it from black market marijuana — delayed the day patients could begin purchasing the herb until late 2017.

The Natalie M. LaPrade Medical Cannabis Commission, which regulates the industry, began accepting applications for growing, processing and dispensary licenses in 2015, with prospective ventures paying up to $6,000 for the privilege of applying. Only 15 growing licenses would be issued, while dispensaries are limited to two per senatorial district, with annual licensing fees for those approved ranging from $80,000 for dispensaries, to $125,000 for growing facilities.

In August 2016, Maryland Compassionate Care and Wellness LLC, later rebranded as Grassroots Cannabis, won preliminary approval for a grower’s license, processor’s license, and a license to operate a dispensary on a separate premises outside Carroll County.

The company, Cohen says, is a multistate operator, involved in the medical cannabis business in one form or another in Illinois, Ohio, Nevada, California and Pennsylvania in addition to Maryland. Growing and distributing cannabis in Illinois since at least 2015 through the related Windy City Cannabis Club, Cohen says Grassroots Cannabis is bringing experience and expertise to its Maryland operation.

“Our grower and some of our people have been growing it for up to 20 years,” he says. “It’s a lot more complex than most people realize.”

Construction on the 54,000-square-foot Grassroots facility in Taneytown began in April 2017, Cohen says, a rapid renovation that was nearly complete by August.

“We had plants in the ground in September,” he says.

Getting cannabis in the hands of patients

Today, prospective patients may register with the Maryland Cannabis Commission and then see a registered physician who can write them recommendation for cannabis, say, a physician like Westminster’s Dr. John Wah. Wah or another physician can recommend cannabis to treat a wide range of conditions, from chronic pain to PTSD to “any condition that is severe, for which other medical treatments have been ineffective, and if the symptoms ‘reasonably can be expected to be relieved’ by the medical use of Cannabis,” per the cannabis commission website.

The patient can then take that recommendation to a dispensary to purchase cannabis or cannabis-derived products, such as oils that can be consumed through a vape pen.

There are no dispensaries operating in Carroll County yet, though there are two with a license to do so. One, DLD Enterprises LLC, has been working through the City of Westminster Zoning appeals process for a proposed site at 700 Corporate Center Court.

The other license holder, MyBond LLC, is planning on a facility in the 140 Village Shopping Center in Westminster, partner Ron Bond told the Times in a LinkedIn message in late October. There is no sign that MyBond has begun the necessary zoning process however, and Ron Bond has not responded to further inquires.

Grassroots Cannabis will be supplying cannabis to its own dispensary, of course, but also to any other dispensaries that want it. This could be hundreds of pounds of cannabis per month just to start — the Taneytown facility has a vast back warehouse space with roughed-in utilities waiting to be converted to grow space.

“We can quadruple our capacity,” Cohen says during a tour of the facility. “We are ready to go as soon as we think the market can absorb more product. Plus we have another couple of acres of land out back.”

Growing cannabis

As Cohen says, contemporary cannabis cultivation is a bit more complicated than simply throwing a seed in a ground. At the Taneytown facility, where specially measured nutrients are mixed with water in 5,000-gallon tanks and pumped throughout the building to feed and irrigate hundreds of plants, it’s downright industrial.

Here is how it works:

Grassroots Cannabis will eventually grow about 100 different strains of cannabis, each with its own characteristics, in Taneytown. To maintain those characteristics, Cohen says, each new cannabis plant begins its life as a clone, a cutting taken from a “mother plant,” a large exemplar of the strain kept for just that purpose.

Those little cuttings stay in the genetics room, where Cohen read off the names of different strains, until they form roots in a soil-less growing medium composed of coconut husks. At 4 inches in height, after about 10 to 14 days, they are transplanted to a “veg” room, Cohen says, “where they will stay for as much as a month. They will get as much as 18 to 24 hours of [light].”

The purpose is to force the plants to grow the stems and leaves and simply become large enough to support the production of large amounts of the resinous flower product. As soon as they are 8 inches tall, each plant is given a radio frequency identification tag that will follow it until its end, either in harvest and sale or in a waste pile should it fail to thrive. It’s a requirement of the cannabis commission, according to Cohen.

“We keep track of all the waste, weigh it every day, report it,” he says. “The commission comes in and makes surprise visits to make sure we are following the regulations.”

After a month of vegetative growth, the plants, now large green shrubs, are moved to a flowering room, where the light cycle is shifted in order to simulate the shorter days of fall, telling the plant to begin bloom, according to Cohen.

“You’re going from 18 to 24 hours of light down to just 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness,” he says.

It takes another eight to 10 weeks before the plants can be cut down and harvested, the buds on their stems hanging upside down in the curing and drying room for another surprisingly complex step in the process.

“You have as much as three weeks of harvesting and curing, getting the moisture out, adding it back in,” Cohen says. “A very scientific process to get the plant just right.”

A grassy, tea-like aroma fills that room, far more mundane than the sweet, sour, fruit-skunk of the flowering cannabis.

But by the time it reaches the next phase in the process, the cannabis begins to take on its characteristic skunk-berry aromas yet again.

Cannabis processing, which some facilities are licensed to pursue without growing it, begins with trimming — using scissors to remove cannabis leaves from around the flower buds. From there it is either packed for sale as cannabis bud, or further processed into cannabis oil, or other extracts with names like “wax” or “shatter.”

In a steel vault, plastic bags full of cannabis — turkey baking bags, Cohen notes — share shelf space with buckets and trimmed buds, also known as nuggets.

“We are about to start delivering within a couple of weeks,” he says.

Stigma and skepticism

Medical cannabis may now be legal in Maryland, but it is not without its detractors and apparent problems.

In addition to the stigma still attached to the plant, it remains illegal under federal law for any reason and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has indicated a willingness, if not an intention, to prosecute federal marijuana crimes even in states with liberalized laws.

There have also been issues with the permitting process in the industry itself.

Two pending lawsuits allege racial or other discrimination in how the cannabis commission decided who won grower’s licenses. Meanwhile Maryland Del. Dan Morhaim, D-District 11, a longtime advocate for medical cannabis in the legislature, was formally reprimanded by the Maryland House of Delegates after he failed to disclose he was acting as a paid consultant to a company pursuing a growers license in Dorchester County, Doctors Orders.

The Grassroots Cannabis approach to handling negative connotations has been to make transparency a company value, according to Cohen.

“We realize it could be a lightning rod type of a product and it can be controversial, so we have opened our doors to anybody and everybody who is a key stakeholder,” Cohen says, noting he has given tours to Taneytown, county and even state officials, including law enforcement. “All of them have been pleasantly surprised and sort of shocked at the level of sophistication, at the level of security, at just the technology and the growing protocols that we have put in place.”

Taneytown City Manager Henry Heine was certainly impressed with his tour a few months ago. In addition to security measures such as a special sally port for all deliveries, Grassroots has proven unobtrusive as operations began, he says.

“I have not heard any negative about it,” Heine says. “They want to keep this really low-key and I think they are doing a really great job.”

“Does Fort Knox come to mind? Because honestly, that’s how I looked at it after that tour,” says Carroll County Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, who represents Taneytown.

Wantz says his views have evolved on the medicinal benefits of cannabis, but he remains resolutely opposed to recreational marijuana use. He says his concerns that Grassroots could be some sort of cannabis diversion hub have been answered tenfold.

“Whether you like it or not, it’s a part of our world now. So let’s make sure these facilities are fitting in and doing things the right way,” Wantz says. “I can tell you, the folks up there? They have it together.”

It’s about growth

There’s another argument in favor of Grassroots Cannabis that Cohen likes to bring up, and that is that it is now a legal business like any other, bringing economic benefits to the area. The building renovation was an $8 million investment, he says, and the company is hiring locally.

“We have a whole host of Carroll County and especially Taneytown folks here, including a bunch of young folks in their early 20s all eager to find a position, find something they love to do,” Cohen says. “We have a staff of 20 now, which is going to grow to as many as 100 within 12 months.”

On Jan. 28, the Carroll County Business & Employment Resource Center, or BERC, held a job fair for Grassroots Cannabis, giving interested people a chance to interview for positions as trimmers, packagers, drivers, in security or laboratory and maintenance staff. As Denise Beaver, deputy director of Carroll County Economic Development told the Times then, “We look at it as it’s a manufacturing enterprise and so obviously a legitimate business, and so we are here to help any of the Carroll-based businesses find qualified workers.”

A qualified worker in this case must be 21 years old and have a criminal record free of felony convictions, at a minimum. A passion for cannabis may not be a requirement, but it is certainly apparent among many of the young people at the Grassroots facility.

“I’ve always been really drawn to cannabis. I was going to pursue a career in a different state, and then an opportunity presented itself here so I chose to stay here and give it a shot here,” says Austin Birdsall. “It paid off.”

The 21-year-old Birdsall says he had gone away to school, but came back to Taneytown to work construction and cooking jobs before joining Grassroots Cannabis around the end of November. Now he’s the assistant trimming manager.

“If you’re looking to get into the business, it’s great,” he says. “Since it’s new, everyone is really excited.”

Kathleen Bell is another Taneytown native who has been on the job two weeks as she sits trimming the leaves from a cannabis bud.

“It’s nice to commute 2.2 miles to work after I was going into Baltimore forever,” she says. “It’s amazing. I just smile the whole way.”

Devona Austin is from Frederick, but Grassroots Cannabis is her first job after graduating from college — she was a business major and wrote her thesis on the challenges facing the cannabis industry. She says it’s no secret why young people are drawn to the industry, and it’s not just about a love of cannabis.

“There are so many opportunities, it’s great for people like me who are just getting out of college,” she says.

The tech industry is overcrowded, in Austin’s judgment, but young people starting today have a chance to become the “Steve Jobs of cannabis,” as she puts it.

She may not be on the level of Apple’s co-founder just yet, but less than a year in the industry and Austin is on the verge of becoming a household name — at least among medical cannabis patients.

“I have a strain named after me, Sweet D,” she says. “It is Sour Diesel, Putty Tang and Tangy.”

Austin was the first Grassroots employee, starting at the end of July, and was quickly promoted to cloning manager after she showed an appetite for learning how to grow cannabis. Sweet D actually started as a new cross of other plants in the form of a seed. Austin raised it, and then took a bunch of cuttings to create the first crop.

“We named it after Devona because she would swear it did so well because of the loving care she gave it,” Cohen says.

“I would come in on the weekend and spray them down, talk to them, make sure they grew,” Austin says. “They kind of started here with me. It was a couple weeks after I started that we planted those seeds and now they have been harvested.”

Putting aside the often intense feelings surrounding the product, Grassroots is providing real opportunities for people right in Carroll County, and that, Wantz says, to put it bluntly, is kind of crazy.

“Who would ever think, five years ago, that you and I would be talking about a legal growing and processing cannabis facility in Taneytown?” he says during an interview.

And it’s not just the jobs, Wantz adds, but the opportunities for further growth that impress him.

“There is a chance in these operations for folks to be able to promote through the operation and in many cases, they are really good paying jobs, especially when you get to the scientific parts of the process,” he says. “That’s part of that economic growth cycle that we so desperately need here.”

It’s that kind of opportunity, Austin says, that drew her to Grassroots Cannabis, and that she believes will draw other young people to the cannabis industry as a career.

“There is so much room to fail and to grow — there’s nothing wrong with that,” she says. “We’re ready for it to be universal. We are ready for everyone to be on board with cannabis.”