Maryland has licensed 15 companies to grow medical marijuana since the General Assembly legalized it more than four years ago. WYPR takes us inside one of those companies’ growing facilities on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Down Route 50, behind the Cambridge Police Station, a company is growing marijuana in a white warehouse. But it’s all legal, folks. This is Culta’s licensed 20,000 square foot medical marijuana cultivation center.
As you drive up, the aroma of cannabis hangs thick in the air.
There are at least three security cameras visible. A visitor must pass through two sets of automatically locking doors and a 24-hour guard, and put on a white jump suit.
“You put on a suit because in Maryland we can’t use pesticides,” says Mackie Barch, president of Culta. “So it is really important that we don’t bring any pathogens from outside, into the building and get our plants sick. So it’s really just a precaution for the most part.”
Barch is leading the tour of a place that looks like a pharmaceutical plant: pure white plastered walls, employees walking around in hospital scrubs and hair nets, and each room requiring key access to enter.
“Everything it what is called aseptic,” says Barch. “We clean everything so it is a washable, scrub-able facility. So cleanliness is really important.”
“This isn’t some shady underground business anymore, this is legitimate,” says Luke Batten, the head cultivator.
Batten says he hopes this new, squeaky clean, state-of-the-art facility should help change the image of the marijuana industry.
The first stop on our tour is the fertilization room. Running water trickles as the sound of pistons from the fertilizer pump turns on.
“What’s happening is our water comes in here and then we’re filtering through reverse osmosis all the bleach and calcium and magnesium and all the stuff we don’t want and storing it in these tanks here,” say Batten explaining the process.
This is the heart of the operation. Like an average farmer with any plants, Batten adds a special combination of fertilizer to the water being stored in the tanks. Through a computer program, that water and fertilizer mixture will then be pumped into the plants throughout the building. The technology is precise. Batten determines how much fertilizer goes into each plant, what time of day they are watered, and how many times a day.
“Bringing this kind of stuff to cannabis is really exciting to get this plant on par with all the rest of modern agriculture and all these crops they’ve been growing for decades and centuries even,” says Batten.
From there we head to the genetics room, where the original plants are stored. Barch and Batten use these plants to create new ones of the various strains of cannabis.
“From this step what we do is cut cloves and what a clove is basically we are cutting a leaf off one of the plants, putting it into root hormone, and then we are sticking it into what is called a started pot or Rockwell, and from there it actually grows an entire plant,” says Barch.
All the rooms where plants are growing are bright with the intense light of LED lamps, substitutes for the sunlight that all plants need to grow.
Barch compares all these efforts at quality control to the operations of micro brewers.
“The way I see the industry shaking out there are going to be national companies that are going to produce this Budweiser type, mass produced cannabis, and then regional you’re going to have those micro-breweries-type cannabis companies that are going to be entirely focused on craft,” says Barch.
Next is the veg room. Where you can guess, the baby plants are potted, veg out, and have time to grow.
“We re-pot them in a soil-less medium,” says Batten. “The medium they’re in are actually in is coco and pearlite.”
That’s a mixture of the parts of the coconut that are unusable and light white flakes that help air out of the soil, Batten explains. And a few days later these plants will be ready for the flowering room.
In here, fans pump heat to provide the perfect climate for the cannabis flowers to bloom.
Culta employees dressed in scrubs and wearing hats, are pruning each plant of dead leaves. As the plants grow toward the light, the buds and leaves at the top create a canopy.
“So this plant material at the bottom of the plant because it just doesn’t get enough sunlight to help,” says Batten.
Barch says it takes about four months from cloning a plant in the genetics room to harvesting it.
“So this is called a perpetual harvest cycle, we’re harvesting every three weeks,” says Barch. “So what you’re going to see are different stages of the life cycle of the plant.”
The harvested plants are hung upside down to dry in the harvesting room where another set of employees wearing scrubs and face masks remove the buds by hand from the excess plant material. In the final step, the dried out plants are stored in a vault, waiting to be shipped to dispensaries. Culta has a dispensary on Key Highway in Baltimore.
Batten says cannabis may only be for medicinal purposes for now, but it won’t be long before Maryland legalizes recreational marijuana.
“Taxing it creating the jobs, and taking the money away from the black market. And we can regulate it, it’s working,” says Batten. “You know, look at states like Colorado.”
Colorado legalized recreational cannabis in 2012 and poured $506 million into state coffers through taxes and fees, according to VS Strategies, a pro-legalization research company in Denver.