Company gears up first legal marijuana harvest in Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida's first legal harvest of marijuana is stored in multiple vacuum-packed, 441-gram bags in a freezer on the outskirts of Tallahassee.
Each is the result of months of careful growing, monitoring, coaxing and cultivating scores of plants in a hidden farm overseen by horticulturalists and protected by armed guards.
This is one of two production facilities operated by Surterra Therapeutics, the first of six companies to win state approval to grow and harvest medical marijuana for the seriously ill and dying.
It is part pharmaceutical production facility, part grow house. Its operators say it is just the start of new business they hope will bring high-quality, and formerly unavailable, medicine to patients who need it the most.
"This is a mindset transformation in the treatment of patients, probably tens of thousands of patients whose symptoms are not completely relieved right now," said Dr. Joseph Dorn, Surterra's medical director.
Florida law allows two types of medical marijuana: noneuphoric strains, such as "Charlotte's Web" that is thought to help control seizures, and full-strength marijuana to alleviate pain, nausea and other symptoms for terminally ill patients.
Since Surterra won approval to harvest last month, Florida has allowed four other companies to do the same.
Such businesses are poised to expand considerably if the required 60 percent of voters in November cast "yes" ballots for Amendment 2, which would legalize full-strength marijuana for an estimated 450,000 Floridians with debilitating illnesses.
The Atlanta-based Surterra operates a 6,000-square-foot facility in rural Tallahassee to grow the noneuphoric strain; another slightly smaller facility outside Tampa grows the full-strength variety. Each is expected to supply medicine for 2,000 to 4,000 patients per month.
"Surterra's key thing is producing a consistent, high-quality, safe product," said Susan Driscoll, the company's president. "It's for people who are sick."
Surterra's Tallahassee grow operation is housed in a windowless structure in a sparsely populated, rural area. The building is under 24/7 video surveillance and is surrounded by a chain-link fence with barbed wire.
The facility can't be seen from the main road, and no signs announce its presence.
Each plant, and anything harvested or discarded, is weighed and tracked by individual bar code.
"Nobody can slide away with it," Driscoll said. He motioned to the pockets in the protective jumpsuit workers are required to wear: "In fact, these are sewn together."
It's a lot of expense and effort for marijuana that would be useless to most would-be recreational smokers.
This high-cannabidiol, low-tetrahydrocannabinol cannabis does not produce the high typical of recreational marijuana.
"You'd probably just get a headache," Driscoll said.
Matthew Hunter, a 33-year-old Jacksonville man with stage 4 esophageal cancer, wants to be among the first to benefit from the newly available strains.
Hunter started his third round of chemotherapy last week and hopes marijuana can help alleviate the resulting nausea and pain. Other drugs have not helped, he said.
"My understanding is that it has some benefits during the chemotherapy process, which is pretty rough," Hunter said. "If it's something that can be regulated and administered by a doctor, I just don't see why that wouldn't be the best route to go."
Four physicians in Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties have received approval to order marijuana for patients.
Dr. Paul Arnold, a Cape Coral physician, said he has no patients who would qualify. But he said he regularly fields calls from interested patients.
"It's coming down the path of things available to a physician to treat pain, uncontrollable seizures," he said. "And apparently it's effective. So I wanted to be able to do it, of course."
Each of the plants must go through differing, highly controlled stages of growth to properly bloom the flowers that are the main source of marijuana's potency.
They are all born from "mother plants," whose clippings take root over the course of two weeks in small pots.
Young, newly rooted plants are moved to progressively larger pots and left to grow for about a month in a room that is brightly lit for 18 hours a day to encourage growth.
They then move to one of two "flower rooms," each housing about 200 plants, for the next two months. Here, the smell of fresh marijuana is overwhelming. They are exposed to a yellow-hued light and more darkness (about 12 hours), meant to mimic the changing seasons. This is what encourages the flowers to develop.
"You're kind of artificially messing with their grow cycles a bit," said Wes Conner, cultivation manager at the facility.
Harvested product is taken to another room, where it is dried and ground. Workers then vacuum seal it and stick it in a freezer.
Smoking marijuana for any reason remains illegal in Florida. So all of this harvest will eventually be processed into cannabis oils, sprays, balms and capsules that are expected to be ready to ship next month.
Though marijuana remains illegal under federal law, 25 states, the District of Columbia and Guam allow comprehensive marijuana use for medical purposes, and several others are considering it this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Another 17, including Florida, allow for more limited medical marijuana use.
Recreational marijuana use is allowed in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia.
With such a regulatory patchwork, running a marijuana production and distribution operation in Florida comes with some unique logistical challenges, Surterra officials say.
Simple things for most businesses, such as insuring vehicles used to transport the product, cost 10 times what they normally would, Driscoll said.
Employee background checks require extra scrutiny. And Surterra is still meeting with several banks to make sure they won't have difficulty in depositing earnings, a problem some marijuana businesses have had in states like Colorado.
Driscoll praised Florida's approach to medical marijuana.
"This is a state that we thought was taking the medical part of it very seriously," she said. "Whereas a lot of the states are 'wink-wink' medical or recreational. And that was something that we were not interested in. We wanted to go where we could really focus on the medical parts about it."
--Written for Naples Daily News by Frank Gluck