Despite controversy, Maryland medical marijuana grower on brink of starting cultivation

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Since lawmakers approved medical marijuana in Maryland, the nascent industry has been mired in legal and political controversy.

A judge is deciding whether the state improperly awarded licenses to grow and process the plant. Black lawmakers said minorities didn't have a fair chance of getting those licenses. Now the governor has ordered a study.

ForwardGro isn't waiting to see how it all turns out.

The firm in Anne Arundel County has poured more than $10 million into building a state-of-the-art greenhouse in the basin of a reclaimed sand mine.

ForwardGro is one of 23 companies licensed to grow or process marijuana in Maryland for patients suffering from cancer, epilepsy and other conditions. Amid the uncertainty that has slowed the development of the industry, most are forging ahead with costly plans to build elaborate growing operations that could have crops ready as soon as August.

"We're very excited that some of our members are 30 days away from planting their first plants," said Jake Van Wingerden, chairman of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association. "You'll see product in the marketplace by this fall."

Van Wingerden, president of SunMed Growers in Cecil County, said his company expects to finish construction of its facility in July. At a meeting this month of his association's 13 growers, he said, "everybody expressed optimism that they are on schedule."

ForwardGro and its sprawling 2-acre compound in southern Anne Arundel County is poised next week to receive final inspection to secure a license to grow medical marijuana, company executives said.

As early as next month, the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission could allow them to turn on the lights and begin growing the first medical marijuana plants — more than four years after the state made it legal.

On a recent afternoon, the ForwardGro executive team navigated around electricians and painters, chatting with county building inspectors and envisioning what the massive cavern would look like once workers in medical scrubs and hairnets finally begin growing the potent pot for patients.

"I'm going to be a mess when we start growing," Chief Financial Officer Gail Rand said.

Rand spent years lobbying the legislature to legalize medical marijuana to help children like her son, Logan, who has epilepsy. One of the company's first products will be a strain she picked out for him.

"I'm looking to give this to my 7-year-old son," she said. "That's my standard of quality."

The facility will be capable of generating 9,000 pounds of medical marijuana each year, with a retail value of roughly $45 million. ForwardGro and other growers will sell their products wholesale for less than that to a processor who will turn them into oils, tinctures or topical creams. Or they will prepare it to be inhaled from vaporizers or smoked the old-fashioned way.

Up to 94 dispensaries will sell medical marijuana to registered patients who have had the drug recommended by a certified physician. The Arcview Group, a marijuana industry research group, estimates Maryland's market will be worth $129.7 million by 2020.

While ForwardGro is not certain how big the market will be — 4,673 patients have registered in the past three weeks — the company is poised to quickly scale up to meet demand. The company said it can double its greenhouse space, currently 1 acre, without constructing another building.

It also built the shell of a processing center, which company executives said can be an active lab within six weeks of getting the green light from the state.

And the 153-acre property has enough land to accommodate up to 24 acres of greenhouses, which theoretically could grow 216,000 pounds of marijuana a year.

The complex is set off a rural road, below the embankment of the former mine. Its address is marked in spray paint. There are no signs for ForwardGro. A dilapidated trailer at the entrance belies the multimillion-dollar operation being built.

"We don't mind that it's hard to find," Rand said. "We'll never have a lot of people come through here."

By law, the operation is encircled by razor wire and patrolled 24 hours a day by two armed guards.

Inside, each acre cost eight times more to build than a traditional greenhouse.

An elaborate climate-control system detects the intensity of sunlight and the floor temperature, and automatically adjusts to produce the optimum warm, sunny growing conditions favored by pot plants.

Water, kept at a brisk 55 degrees, trickles down a cooling wall at the end of greenhouse. The system is poised to blow moist, cool air across the room if the summer sun heats the room half a degree too hot.

A series of overhead fans simulate a natural breeze to strengthen the plant stems, because stronger plants can support larger marijuana flowers and give a better yield. The floors can radiate heat upward to promote faster root growth.

Water drawn from on-site springs is treated, oxygenated, and filtered in a specialized system, then infiltrated with a mix of fertilizers that is automatically dripped onto the plants. A series of screens can be drawn across the ceiling to adjust the light intensity, and overhead lamps can simulate natural sunlight during the darker winter months.

"Everything in here is controlled," said Austin Insley, ForwardGro's director of cultivation. "We can really manage this on our phones."

Data about the growing conditions are fed into a computer, which is connected to an app on Insley's iPhone. If the humidity unexpectedly dips at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday, for instance, Insley will get an alert.

So much of the greenhouse is automated that when the compound is fully operational, it will employ only about 15 people.

Maryland forbids growers from using pesticides or fungicides, so workers will treat the grow space like an operating room. Only specialized clothing may be worn — no pockets allowed. All clothing and shoes are laundered and kept on site. Workers must pass through a wind tunnel and foot wash to remove even the tiniest mites that live on human bodies. Employees will wear hairnets and beard guards.

"They're using more stuff on food you buy in the supermarket than we're allowed to use on the cannabis," Insley said.

Huge fans recycle the air in the greenhouse every minute. Outside, copper coils ringed with a sponge-like material emit essential oils that dampen the pungent scent of marijuana plants as that air is released.

Other operations are ramping up around the state. Phil Goldberg, chief executive of Green Leaf Medical in Frederick County, said the company will produce 320 pounds of "high-quality" cannabis at its 45,000-square-foot facility each month, plus 60 pounds of lower-grade "trim" to sell to processors.

He said his firm is about eight to 10 weeks from being ready for inspection. He hopes to have medical cannabis products on the market by Oct. 1.

Goldberg said Green Leaf has lined up 31 prospective dispensaries to distribute its products statewide. He said the company would like to be first to the market, but doesn't see that as essential.

"We want to make sure it's done right," he said.

ForwardGro, Green Leaf and the other growers will be required to send off samples for testing at a state-certified lab such as Steep Hill Maryland in Columbia.

"We will be ready for them," said Dr. Andrew Rosenstein, Steep Hill Maryland's CEO.

The company has built out a 2,000-square-foot lab in a business park, Rosenstein said, and will have all its testing equipment delivered next week.

Steep Hill Maryland will test for the presence of eight heavy metals, any pesticides, and an array of solvents used in processing the marijuana.

"It's a very regulated market," Rosenstein said.

The company, which has labs across the country, has a location in Washington that tests medical marijuana for patients and users. Such testing is not required in Washington, but helps companies market their products.

Labs must be inspected and certified by the state. But unlike medical marijuana growers, processors and distributors, they are not required to seek a license.

Rosenstein said the company endured extra expenses and setbacks from a year of uncertainty stemming from legal challenges to the state's licensing process and political debate in Annapolis about over whether to make adjustments.

Two companies that were denied licenses by the state cannabis commission filed lawsuits.

The commission had awarded licenses to two companies that had ranked lower in the state's scoring system. The commission said it awarded those licenses to achieve greater geographic diversity in the industry.

The Legislative Black Caucus has demanded that extra licenses be awarded to create greater minority participation in the industry. No African-American-owned company received a preliminary license to grow cannabis.

The General Assembly ultimately did not pass legislation to change the industry. But the lawsuits are moving forward. Theoretically, a judge could decide the commission needs to start the entire process over again.

"It's been a big stress for the businesses that are trying to get ready," Rosenstein said. "We couldn't exactly be sure when we had to be ready.

"It's probably cost us several hundred thousand in carrying costs and delays while we're waiting. It's been tough to swallow."

ForwardGro executives say they're ready but still uncertain about all the next steps before they can bring in plants and start cultivating.

"We don't know, because no one in the state has done this before," Rand said.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission would not say how many companies have requested final inspections or when the agency would grant final licenses.

The company will not say where the initial batch of plants will come from. It's a felony to transport clones across state lines.

"It's immaculate conception," Rand said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

ecox@baltsun.com

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