Advanced Grow Labs LLC one of Connecticut’s four medical marijuana growing companies slogged through the process of competing for a state license, securing local zoning approvals, and outfitting a building to state regulations that are as a tough as those at any pharmaceutical manufacturer. Now, managing partner David Lipton knows his West Haven company is getting close: He planted his first marijuana seeds almost three weeks ago.
“I did my own tray, the D.L. tray,” Lipton said last week. “My tray is looking pretty good; they’re about 3 or 4 inches high now. Finally, we’re not just buying stuff, we’re dealing with something that grows.” Nearly two years after the state legalized it, the first medical marijuana is expected to go on sale next month. About 2,000 residents with qualifying chronic illnesses have registered with the state and with one of Connecticut’s six dispensaries.
The four medical marijuana manufacturers are at varying stages of growing pot. It remains unclear which company will be the first to market, turning the raw plant into medicine that is smoked, used in a vaporizer, eaten or rubbed on. Connecticut’s six licensed dispensaries have fielded calls from potential clients for months, and at least one has passed the final state inspection and is consulting with clients to map out treatment plans with pharmacists on its staff.
In South Windsor, Prime Wellness of Connecticut last week met with as many as 50 people suffering with some of the 11 illnesses covered under the law. “There are patients that are really, really in need, and so they have been waiting for two years,” said Tom Nicholas, chief executive of the Prime Wellness dispensary. “We’re almost at the end of the tunnel, but not quite.” The passage of the law in Connecticut did not come without controversy. Opponents raised concerns that once the medicinal marijuana left the dispensary, it could get into hands of those for whom it wasn’t intended.
Pro-medical marijuana groups now say they are thrilled that pot will soon be available for the sick. But they also are worried that the state’s stringent regulations — including on that requires every batch of processed marijuana be tested for purity — will drive up costs and make it unaffordable for some, at least at first. As exciting as it is watching his tray of plants grow, Lipton said he doesn’t have much time to relax. AGL’s manufacturing plant on Frontage Road is still under construction, with the plants growing only in a small, state-approved test area. He knows he won’t be the first supplier to dispensaries but he wants to have his marijuana in all six. He’s coming up against three competitors: Connecticut Pharmaceutical Solutions LLC in Portland, Curaleaf LLC in Simsbury and Theraplant LLC in Watertown. “Until we are out there selling and bringing in revenues,” Lipton said, “we’re not out of the woods.”
Prices To Be Determined
When the state legislature legalized medical marijuana in 2012, it ended a wide-ranging sale ban in Connecticut that dated back more than 80 years. Regulations written by the state Department of Consumer Protection allow a broad array of products — including what can be smoked; tinctures, creams, and oils; and baked goods, such as brownies, bars and cookies. Marijuana-infused beverages and candy are not permitted under the regulations.
Before a patient can register with the state, a doctor must certify that he or she has a qualifying chronic condition with symptoms that could be eased by marijuana The doctor also certifies how much marijuana the patient is allowed a month, with a maximum of 2.5 ounces. Then a plan of treatment is worked out with the pharmacist in a consultation at the dispensary. What isn’t yet known is how much the medical marijuana will cost users, with growers saying it is still too early to predict their pricing to the retail dispensaries. The costs are all out-of-pocket to the patient because medical marijuana is not covered by insurance.
“It really depends on the market and the regulations,” said Chris Walsh, editor of Marijuana Business Daily, based in Rhode Island. “Connecticut is probably going to be higher. It costs a lot more to get started there than in other states.” In Maine, the wholesale cost for a gram of medical marijuana ranges from $6.50 to $8.50 and rises to $12 to $13 when it is sold to patients, Walsh said. The website priceofweed.com, which compiles user-reported entries anonymously for marijuana purchased on the street, gives a current range of $250 to $340 an ounce in Connecticut, depending on quality. Based on 28 grams in an ounce, that would be roughly $9 to $12 a gram.
“We expect once the program is fully operational and all producers and dispensary facilities are up and running, competition within the program will provide medical patients with better medicinal quality products and better pricing than the black market,” said William M. Rubenstein, Connecticut’s commissioner of consumer protection, which oversees the state’s medical marijuana program.
The three manufacturers now growing marijuana — AGL, Curaleaf and Theraplant — declined requests by The Courant to visit the actual areas where plants are growing. The state must approve any outside visitors, but the growers make the ultimate decision on who they allow in. Each company described similar components in the manufacturing process: flowering rooms with dozens of grow lights; a room with “mother” plants used for clippings and breeding new strains; harvesting and drying rooms; a room to store ground-up buds while batches are independently tested; extraction rooms; commercial kitchens; and packaging areas and storage vaults.
Each company has a research and development operation to develop new strains to treat the symptoms of illnesses that one day may qualify for medical marijuana treatment — and perhaps, one suggested, lead to cures for illnesses. The start-up costs were considerable. Each raised $6 million to $10 million from private investors, including $2 million for a state-mandated escrow account intended to ensure companies got up-and-running quickly. Initially, the companies will have between 15 and 30 employees. At Simsbury’s Curaleaf, equipment cost about $2 million, a third of the $6 million raised to start production.
“Extraction equipment is extremely expensive,” April Arrasate, Curaleaf’s founder and chief operating officer, said. “We have an entire extraction department to isolate the desired compounds, and we reformulate them together in rations that make sense for qualifying conditions.” Security also is a major cost, ranging from perimeter fences to back-up monitoring systems. AGL’s Lipton estimates that security measures in the company’s 26,000-square-foot building cost more than $200,000 and accounts for 10 miles of wiring.
State regulations require that employees be licensed, a process that includes a background check. Licensing was intended to address regulator concerns of the potential for employee theft. Employees also must wear pocketless attire, similar to hospital scrubs. Employees will be restricted in moving around the manufacturing buildings. Thomas Schultz, president of Connecticut Pharmaceutical Solutions in Portland, said employees that don’t need to be near the plants will not be given clearance, including himself. “I can’t identify a reason why I should be in a place where marijuana is grown,” Schultz said. “I don’t plan to have any access.”
At Theraplant in Waterford, employees will wear color-coded attire, matched to the areas they have clearance to enter. In addition to security swipe cards, there will be biometric, retinal scanners at the entrance to any room where marijuana is grown or stored, according to Daniel Emmans, Theraplant’s chief operating officer. Theraplant’s building has 130 security cameras, which could increase to nearly 200, if the company expands to eventually occupy its entire 64,000-square-foot building. There will be two around-the-clock security guards, one just monitoring the cameras, Emmans said. “I had a comment from one inspector that it would take Oceans 11 to break in here,” Emmans said. While it is not required by state regulations, Theraplant is hiring an armored car service to transport orders to dispensaries, Emmans said. “Delivery would be weak link,” he said. “That’s where we would be the most vulnerable. We decided to have the experts do it.”
Two weeks ago, Lipton took visitors on a tour of the West Haven plant, with the exception of the area where plants were growing. He apologized for spools of wire, boxes and other construction debris. In one room, workers tinkered with electric wiring on the ceiling, standing on a scissor lift. Production equipment had not yet been installed. Lipton describes growing conditions where the temperature will be kept at 75 to 80 degrees, with humidity levels at 40 percent
Trays of plants will rest on low benches, as in greenhouse, under grow lights and fed with a system of pipes that will drip water and fertilizer. Depending on the type of marijuana, the plants may reach as high as 4 feet. Once the plants have matured, buds — where most of the active ingredients are stored — and leaves are harvested, dried and cured. Once they are ground up, each batch must be tested by an independent outside lab. State regulations aim to ensure that strength does not vary from batch to batch, guaranteeing that the effect of dosages will not vary.
Because all the growing will take place inside the building, air circulation will be vital, Lipton said. “We’re not just clipping plants,” Lipton said. “We’re cultivating plants that have to be free of contaminants. Each room will have its own HVAC system so if there is a mold outbreak, it won’t go from room to room. Think of it like a mini-surgical center, and the plants are little babies.” All employees will be required to take an “air shower” before entering rooms containing plants to remove contaminants from their attire and hair.
Lipton stopped and said, “This will be a flowering room.” Plants will come to this room after they have developed well-established root systems. Initially, Lipton said, young plants require 18 hours of light and 6 hours of darkness, lighting that mimics summertime conditions. As the plants grow older, they will be moved into flowering rooms, with an equal number of hours of light and darkness, more like fall. “You can’t just go in and put on the lights,” Lipton said. “It can harm the plants. You can use a green-colored light to go in. That’s OK.” As Lipton is talking, there is suddenly a rush of air in circulation ducts. He looks up, smiling. “Ah, this is great,” he said. “This is working.”
Head Shops, They’re Not
Both the growers and the dispensaries are counting on an increase in the number of registered patients to fuel revenue growth. One estimate places the potential customer base at 35,000 to 70,000, or between 1 percent and 2 percent of the state’s 3.5 million population. Right now, the state has 11 debilitating medical conditions that can qualify patients to use medical marijuana: cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, damage to nervous tissue in the spinal cord or intractable spasticity, epilepsy, cachexia, wasting syndrome, Crohn’s disease, or post-traumatic stress disorder. That list, too, could grow.
At Prime Wellness’ dispensary in South Windsor, Nicholas, the CEO, and his director of operations, Brett Sicklick, said it will be crucial to change the image that is likely in most people’s minds of dispensaries. “People are expecting beaded curtains and incense,” Nicholas said. “And Jimi Hendrix posters,” Sicklick said. “But when they walk in here, they’re going to see, ‘My god, this place is like my doctor’s office. It’s like the pharmacy, the CVS I walk into.'”
Nicholas said there won’t be smelling jars or any marijuana products on display. All the products will come into the dispensary pre-packaged from the growers. A television screen will display pricing and photos of the plants provided by the growers. In addition to South Windsor, medical marijuana retail outlets will be located in Branford, Bridgeport, Bristol, Hartford and Montville.
This week, Prime Wellness will host a community open house, with tours of the office and purchasing stations. All of the four growers are expected to attend, he said. The dispensary will track client experience with dosages, as part of an effort — supported by the state — to develop more standardized dosages, Sicklick said. “Because this is not exact science, we’ll be asking a lot of questions,” Sicklick said. “How did that work for you? Did it alleviate the problem? Are you sleeping better?”
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Website: Growers Tending Marijuana Crops, Preparing For Sales Starting In September – Courant.com