Columbus Dispatch Video: Ohio’s First Cannabis Crop is Growing

Sunday October 7, 2018
By: JD Malone jmalone@dispatch.com

Read the full article on the Columbus Dispatch website
Ohio’s first legal marijuana growers deal with security, potency and oversight; inside a $20-million Zanesville plant.

Along a wide meander of the Muskingum River southwest of Zanesville where the ruins of an abandoned strip mine scar the landscape, some of the state’s most valuable and sought-after crops have sprouted. Behind a high chain-link fence, past layers of armed security, and always within sight of surveillance cameras, dozens of thin green shoots, each a few inches long and topped by a spray of dark-green leaves, are growing in plastic domes that look like big rotisserie-chicken containers. These precious things are some of first legal cannabis plants ever grown in Ohio.

The first crop of medical marijuana plants being grown at Grow Ohio.

“We are growing marijuana,” said Caroline Henry, vice president of compliance and communications for Grow Ohio, which owns the Muskingum County facility. “Right now they are tiny little babies.”

Those seedlings, and the new market they represent, contain so much promise that Jeff Sidwell, the owner of the property and a partner in Grow Ohio, and his fellow investors poured $20 million into Grow Ohio’s facility. Sidwell, a soft-spoken businessman who also owns an aggregate company just down Route 22 from Grow Ohio, had no experience with the cannabis industry. His partners didn’t, either. They saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a burgeoning industry, and they gave it their best shot, he said.

Jeff Sidwell, Principal Grow Ohio

Grow Ohio scored second, out of 109 applicants, for Ohio’s bigger, level-1 growing licenses. Getting a license was “like catching lightning in a bottle,” Sidwell said. The cultivation facility is nothing like your college roommate’s closet or the grow tents in your cousin’s basement.
The soon-to-be dozens of employees at Grow Ohio will wear full-body Tyvek suits in the stark interior of the building, which features white walls and a lot of stainless steel.

Grow Ohio split its facility into quadrants so that cannabis can be grown at different phases, in slightly different ways and using different strains. The system helps maintain a consistent supply year-round while protecting plants from disease, system failures, and other problems that can be contained to a single quad.

Vegetative rooms, where baby plants grow into adults, are lit by a matrix of blue and yellow lights, air is moved by fans, and two huge HVAC systems control the humidity and temperature. Separate rooms in each quad allow for transitioning plants and flowering plants, plus areas for nutrient mixing tanks, water-filtration systems and other infrastructure.

More than 100 video cameras can see the plants, and later the flower material, throughout the process, and the work can be viewed at any time by employees of Ohio’s Department of Commerce, which oversees medical-marijuana growers and processors.

The state awarded 13 level-1 licenses (up to 25,000 square feet) and 13 level-2 licenses (up to 3,000 square feet), but just 10 of the licensees received the green light to start growing. The state’s first level-1 grower was Buckeye Relief, near Cleveland, which hopes to harvest its first plants in December.

A few small growers plan to have initial harvests next month, according to Mark Hamlin, a senior policy adviser for the commerce department.

“It is important to manage expectations,” Hamlin said during a Thursday hearing of the Ohio Medical Marijuana Advisory Committee. “You’ll see a handful of batches by the end of the year, very small amounts of product that will serve patients numbering in the hundreds, not the thousands.”

Cannabis plants require four to five months to mature, so Grow Ohio sees its first products reaching dispensaries early next year.

Growing cannabis isn’t all that Grow Ohio will do. The company also received a provisional processing license, which will allow it to turn its plants into tinctures, lotions, capsules, vape pen cartridges and more — products that patients with a doctor’s recommendation for medical marijuana can buy in a dispensary.

Although some of the 56 dispensaries are expected to be open when the first products arrive later this year, there has been trouble with locations.

“A number of them are having more zoning issues than anticipated,” said Steven Schierholt, the executive director of the Ohio Board of Pharmacy, which oversees the medical marijuana dispensaries.

In central Ohio, Grandview Heights banned marijuana dispensaries, but its residents will vote next month on a referendum to lift that ban. The state is short on processors, having awarded just 13 of the possible 40 processing licenses. None of the processors will open before mid- to late December, Hamlin said.

Although the target date for medical marijuana to be available in Ohio passed last month with no product available, state officials and grow operations are not panicking.

“We’re still in the planning phase,” said Jeremy Unruh, spokesman for PharmaCann, which grows cannabis in Illinois, New York and Massachusetts. “We will be operational late first quarter in 2019.”

PharmaCann is building a facility in Buckeye Lake, the closest growing operation to Columbus. The company plans to use a greenhouse-style production system, in contrast to the more laboratory-style setting that Grow Ohio built.

Hamlin said Ohio’s rollout is typical of that in other states that have some sort of regulated marijuana market. The state has certified about 300 doctors to give patients recommendations — marijuana cannot be prescribed — but it needs hundreds more to come on board. So, even as small amounts of marijuana come to market, the number of registered patients will be slow to ramp up.

PharmaCann sees a more mature market next year, which aligns with its facility plans. “Our production facility will be comfortably putting out a consistent amount of product in about a year,” Unruh said.

The cannabis grown at these sites isn’t uniform. There are thousands of strains. Some have higher levels of THC, the compound that makes people high. Some flower earlier; some grow taller, or wider.

Grow Ohio has a few dozen strains that it will work through before dialing into a smaller number. Given the clandestine history of marijuana cultivation in the U.S., the names given to strains tend toward the colorful, such as Facewreck Haze, Confidential Cheese and Shark’s Breath. One in Grow Ohio’s facility, Alfred Packer, is named after an infamous 19th century prospector who was convicted of eating five people while trying to traverse Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.

Ohio’s program forced companies to get intensely serious about their operations. The growers have to track every seed to its final sale, and figure out how to do that.

“We’ve had to build this from the ground up,” said Josh Febus, director of sales for Grow Ohio and a graduate of Dublin Coffman High School.

The deeply regulated and ground-up approach has led to better results so far, said Nick Cline, the director of cultivation at Grow Ohio. Cline worked at grow operations in Massachusetts and Colorado before coming to Ohio, and he’s seen some sketchy stuff.

“I’ve been in a lot of grow places,” he said, “this is by far the nicest.”

Grow Ohio’s facility in Zanesville, Ohio.

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