FL: Medical Marijuana Facility Reaches Full Flower

Photo Credit: Pierre Ducharme

Darrin Potter, one of the few people in Florida paid to legally cultivate marijuana, paused in the harvest room at the facility he manages inside a former mattress factory.

Bending to inspect a curtain of dried cannabis flowers and leaves hanging upside down from racks, Potter pointed out the “trichomes,” a pattern of crystal-like glaze on the plant’s surface.

“This is one of my favorites,” Potter said, indicating a cluster of a variety known as Grape Stomper. “You see how it’s, like, frosty white? It’s got that whitishness like lime green. That’s good.”

At that moment, Potter sounded like a chef admiring that day’s main entrée in the kitchen. Several years ago, when he worked in the marijuana industry in Colorado, Potter routinely collected awards for his cultivars at such events as the Cannabis Cup.

Potter, vice president of production for GrowHealthy’s Florida operations, is no longer creating fresh hybrids to satisfy recreational smokers. He now uses his expertise to produce cannabis oils to be consumed medicinally.

Nearly four years after investors bought a former Sealy Mattress factory near the Lake Wales Airport, the GrowHealthy facility is producing about 50 pounds of cannabis oil a week. And Potter said that output is likely to at least double by the end of the year amid plans to expand production at the 185,000-square-foot facility.

Following the recent ruling of a Circuit Court judge, who deemed Florida’s restriction of medical marijuana to forms that can’t be smoked unconstitutional, Potter said he is preparing to move into “the flower market.”

In the first media tour since the facility began cultivation, Potter this week showed The Ledger plants in every stage from rootless “clones” to flowering adults.

GrowHealthy, which has not yet opened its first dispensary, is trying to catch up to some of the state’s 12 other holders of licenses to produce medical marijuana. Potter, 39, faces tight deadlines as he leads the facility.

“If you think about the amount of investment that went into this, just to get it going, and the amount of money that still has to go into this to expand it — it’s daunting,” Potter said. “But I love every one of my employees with all my heart. I want to give them a career and the ability to be successful.”

Major investments

Investors founded GrowHealthy when Florida’s medical marijuana program was limited to oils processed to be low in THC — the compound that causes a “high” — and only to treat childhood epilepsy and a few other ailments.

Florida voters narrowly rejected a 2014 constitutional amendment to broaden the program, but two years later a revised ballot measure passed with 71-percent support.

GrowHealthy, collaborating with a Eustis nursery, applied in 2015 for a license issued by the Florida Department of Health to cultivate medical cannabis. The company finished a close second in the central region as the state issued the initial five licenses, and GrowHealthy filed an appeal based on an apparent scoring error.

The company eventually received an administrative hearing, and in December 2016 the Department of Health offered to settle, granting GrowHealthy a license. Other actions have swelled the total of license-holders to 13.

In January, iAnthus Capital Holdings bought GrowHealthy for $17.5 million and stock options. IAnthus also operates in Colorado, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York and Vermont.

The original investors and iAnthus have pumped millions of dollars into the facility. And iAnthus recently announced a pledged investment of $50 million from Gotham Green Partners, which Potter said was the largest amount ever from a single investor into the cannabis industry.

Potter said a large portion of that investment is targeted for GrowHealthy, which now has about 50 employees. Potter said starting pay averages $12 to $13.50 an hour, and he hopes to eventually boost that to $15. Managers make $75,000 to $85,000, he said.

Floridians with a range of debilitating conditions qualify to use medical marijuana through a recommendation from a doctor who has completed a state-mandated training program. The Department of Health issues identification cards to patients.

GrowHealthy began making deliveries to patients a few weeks ago. The company plans to open a dispensary in West Palm Beach this summer, followed by others in Tampa and Orlando. Potter said he is also scouting possible locations in Lakeland and Winter Haven.

Starting small

GrowHealthy maintains tight security on its 33-acre property. Visitors must pass twin fence gates, and a security guard uses a mirror on a pole to inspect the undersides of vehicles. Magnetic locks protect access to every room, and a retina scanner restricts entry to the security room.

Employees wear color-coded scrubs based on job title or work area: black for managers, blue for cultivation, green for laboratory and red for harvest. Most employees asked not to be identified. Despite the legal status of the industry, medical marijuana remains controversial, and Potter said he is regularly harassed on social media.

Visitors who enter rooms containing plants must put on white Tyvek coveralls, hair nets and beard nets if necessary and wear blue shoe covers.

GrowHealthy began cultivation in April, starting with 25 plants, and now has about 6,000 growing, Potter said. The facility now grows 28 of the thousands of varieties of marijuana.

The strains have names created for recreational markets in Colorado and other states, such as Quantum Kush, Queso Perro and Bird of Paradise.

The flowering room is one of the largest spaces at the facility, a tall-ceilinged space covering 38,000 square feet, about the size of a grocery store. Plants only cover about one-fourth of the room, but Potter said he expects the space to be fully occupied by year’s end.

“We’re growing these plants from mother plants to clones to flower to harvest, all of this work to squeeze it down into a tiny little vial of oil, which is the medicine,” Potter said.

The facility’s lighting systems and other processes use a high volume of energy, and Potter said the company has consulted with Duke Energy to increase its electrical supply to make the expansion possible.

GrowHealthy only cultivates female plants. As Potter explains, male plants would cause pollination, which would reduce the THC content of the female plants. That would mean less cannabis oil could be extracted from the plants.

Florida law allows license holders to grow plants containing both THC and CBD, a compound that has medicinal qualities but does not cause a “high.” GrowHealthy creates oils with varying proportions of the two because patients’ responses can differ so much, Potter says.

In the flowering room, plants in individual pots are arranged by age. An array of 1,000-watt Gavita lights hanging from the ceiling cast a yellowish glow, and staffers wear blue-tinted glasses that offset the color-shift.

The cultivation room is kept between 72 and 85 degrees.

Potter shows plants arranged by age, leading to rows of mature specimens in full flower at one end of the room. Fans mounted on columns keep the plants free of spores and help strengthen the stems by moving the leaves.

GrowHealthy uses proprietary nutrients but no pesticides, Potter said. All nutrients are tested for heavy metals, he said, as are the final products.

Mothers and clones

At one end of the cultivation room stand several rows of “mom” plants in 3-gallon pots. These plants, about 3 feet tall with emerald leaves, provide material for “clones,” short stems the staff clips off and cultivates into new plants.

In the clone room, a narrow space beside the flowering room, shelves along the walls hold small containers with clear, domed tops, each filled with plantings. The miniature greenhouses, fed by gentle lighting, create a humid atmosphere ideal for growth.

“We’re just replicating nature, but in a much cleaner way,” Potter said. “A deer’s not going to come along and eat it. A rabbit’s not going to poop on it.”

Jessica Brown, 23, a supervisor in the clone room, said clones are not considered plants until they develop roots. The staff keeps detailed records on every clone, listing the variety, date taken, amount taken, source plant and name of the cloner.

Once a clone has roots, it goes into a 4-inch pot and receives an identifying tag.

Brown has a degree in horticulture from Florida Southern College. After being laid off from a job in conservation, she landed a position with GrowHealthy in August.

Brown had strong, personal motivation for joining the medical marijuana industry. She said she cared for her father in his final months after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Facing a 90-day wait to receive cannabis oil in Florida, Brown said, he considered a trip to Colorado but died before it could be made.

Both of Brown’s grandparents have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and she said they are eligible to use medical marijuana.

“Having someone who’s sick ask you for a medicine that could help them is just life-changing,” Brown said. “I want cannabis to move into a more scientifically viewed industry, providing the best medicine for patients who need it. I do think cannabis is a huge innovation that needs more education and research.”

Plants typically reach the flowering stage after 60 to 78 days. When a plant reaches that stage, the staff marks it with a small yellow flag to indicate the start of the “flushing” period, during which it is given only water and a salt-leaching solution for one to two weeks.

As Potter explained, a female plant that undergoes the stress of being starved produces higher levels of THC and CBD. But too much stress can turn the plant hermaphroditic, causing it to produce seeds, making it a delicate process.

Plants ready for harvest are marked with red flags. The stalks are then cut and taken to the harvest room, where they are soaked and measured and then hung upside down on racks to dry.

The harvest room has gentle, blue-tinted light, as harsh light will degrade the amount of THC in the plants, Potter said. The room is kept at 85 degrees with a relative humidity of 40 percent or less. A set of air purifiers and a dehumidifier help the staff control the conditions.

When the plants have dried, workers cut off the flowers and stems and feed them into a grinding machine. On a recent morning, a female staffer in red scrubs worked a vacuum-seal machine to package ground flowers, which would then be frozen and sent to the laboratory.

Potter said employees weigh harvested material through every stage, part of an attempt to document every production cost and improve efficiency.

Refining into oil

The ground marijuana from the harvest room is turned into oil in the laboratory, a well-lit space with white boards along the walls bearing chemical diagrams along with inspirational phrases.

Three employees working on a recent morning had degrees in chemistry, biology and biomedical science. All asked not to be identified.

Joey Kelley, a lab manager, explained that the active compounds, known as cannabinoids, must be extracted through processes that use temperature and pressure to produce liquids. A carbon-dioxide extraction machine stands against one wall, an imposing device with lime-green legs and arms and rows of metal coils.

Three vacuum ovens are used in a process known as decarboxylation. Heating the oil changes the chemical properties of the plant material so that it will bind to cannabinoid receptors in the body.

The process brings out lipids, which would make the oil too thick to be used in a vaporizing cartridge. Kelley said the lab staff mixes the oil with food-grade ethanol, which breaks down and separates the lipids so that they can be separated out.

The final steps involve distillation for purity. On a recent morning, lab staffers poured oil into flasks and heated it, refining what Kelley called crude oil into a final product that was lighter and less viscous.

At that point, the oil is ready to be packaged for patients to receive.

Thinking of patients

Potter, a Pahokee native with a degree from the University of Central Florida, spent several years working in the cannabis industry in Colorado, where he rose to the upper levels of the business. Recreational use of marijuana has been legal there since 2012.

Potter said he left a secure and lucrative position in Colorado to return to his home state in 2014, taking a position with GrowHealthy on the gamble it would earn a license to produce cannabis oil. When a panel of judges narrowly favored a competitor for a central region license, Potter said he cried and soon went into depression.

When the Department of Health settled GrowHealthy’s challenge and offered a license, Potter said he cried again — out of relief and happiness.

Though he’s on the production side, Potter said he has met patients who benefit from the medicines GrowHealthy makes. He said a cancer patient told him she slept for six straight hours for the first time in a decade after using a tincture.

He also described meeting a man with Parkinson’s disease whose hand trembled violently. Within a few minutes of consuming heated oil from a vaporizer, Potter said, the man was able to hold his hand still.

“All the awards in the world are just bells and whistles,” Potter said. “But when you see that patient and see their relief — I don’t care about awards; that’s everything. That changed that person’s life.”