NEWTON TOWNSHIP – Rows of thick, bushy marijuana plants stand several feet tall, each individually potted and lined in troughs stretching clear across the large, slightly-cooled room. The temperature, the air flow, the lighting all precisely controlled and carefully monitored.
There are almost a dozen different strains growing in the room, huddled together in different sections of the room. Some plants stand taller than others, some are fuzzier than others, some are darker than others.
“People like that dark purple color,” said Josh Febus, director of sales for Grow Ohio, pointing to a particular batch toward the back of the room. “That has more bag appeal.”
These plants, nearing the end of their 140-day growing cycle, will soon become one of the first batches of medical marijuana products to leave the Muskingum County facility.
After receiving the state’s first certificate of operation for processing medical marijuana, Grow Ohio is ramping up plant production and putting the finishing touches on its plans to convert marijuana buds into a variety of different forms.
“Dispensaries are blowing up my phone,” Febus said about the demand for product. “They want it and they wanted it two months ago.”
Until now, marijuana buds have been the only largely-available product at medical marijuana dispensaries throughout the state of Ohio. While Grow Ohio plans to sell buds as well, its new processing license allows the company to produce medical tinctures, oils, topical creams and edibles, all under its new “Butterfly Effect” brand.
The company has been cultivating marijuana since mid-September 2018, and has since completed a number of harvests.
Ohio Cannabis Company in Coshocton is expecting a shipment from Grow Ohio in the next few days. “We get calls every day from patients who know that tinctures, oils, and edibles are the best products to treat their conditions and they want to know when those items will be available. We are excited to announce that we will have 2-day and 4-day tinctures (from Ohio Grow) available for sale,” said Brian Wingfield, co-founder of Ohio Cannabis.
“We know that the team at Ohio Grow (in Zanesville) has been working hard to bring a high-quality product to the patients and we are thrilled to be among the first to offer these options. I have toured their facility multiple times and can say they have built a state-of-the-art cultivation and processing facility. This is a company that does not cut corners and only does it the right way. I know that they will be making a product I will be proud to give my customers next week,” Wingfield added.
“Everyone tries to be first to market, but I want to be right to market,” Febus said, citing some negative online reviews of early medical marijuana product. “You only get one first impression.”
Behind chain-link fencing, security checkpoints and several locked doors is a tightly-regulated and well-regimented operation, as what started last year as just a handful of plant buds has evolved into thousands of lush and colorful marijuana plants in varying stages of maturity.
In one room, the vegetative room, 60 days sees a seed grow into a broad, leafy plant, followed by another seven days in a transition room in preparation for flowering.
In the vegetative room, plants have a strict 18 hours on, 6 hours off lighting schedule. In the transition room, that is changed to a 12-on, 12-off schedule to trigger an approaching winter.
When the plants are ready to flower, their leaves are trimmed back in a process known as “schwazzing.”
“The leaves have minimal value,” Febus said as a dozen employees clipped off the plant’s foliage. “They’re actually getting crushed up and going over to Quasar (Energy Group next door) for energy in the digestor.”
With the leaves removed, the plants can channel their energy into producing buds, the main vessel for the sought-after terpenes and cannabinoids.
Terpenes are chemical compounds naturally found in plants. Marijuana has nearly 120 active terpenes which, in different combinations and quantities, can produce varying effects and reactions when consumed. This, combined with the differing levels of cannabinoids such as THC in the marijuana, creates the plant’s profile. It is these profiles that cultivators like Grow Ohio are working to identify, perfect and replicate en masse.
Another 60 days in the flowering rooms — Grow Ohio has four so far, with plans for another four in the near future — and the now fully-bloomed plants are transferred down the hall to the drying rooms.
Inside large walk-in coolers, the plants spend over a week strung upside-down as moisture is extracted. The thick, musty smell, similar to that of hops with a tinge of citrus, lingers in the air, as the plants slowly fade from green to brown.
“We’re still playing these rooms by ear and fine-tuning things,” Febus said. “A lot of people are beating up the reviews that the flower they have is just dust because it’s so dry. We want to have good moisture content.”
Once dried, the plants are moved upstairs for processing, where they are weighed and ground up in a large weed-wacker-like blender. A trip through a rotating drum filters out the kief, the plant’s resin glands that contain lots of terpenes and cannabinoids. Grow Ohio cannot sell kief by itself, but is saving it to make stronger dabs, or concentrated marijuana, when the products become approved for market.
Finally, the crushed plant material is cycled through a large extraction machine that uses compressed carbon dioxide to pull out the terpenes and the cannabinoids independently. The terpenes come out in a water-like liquid, while cannabinoids come out in a thick, honey-like oil.
“This system is more of an art than it is a science,” Febus said about operating the machine and ensuring they pull out as much as they can.
After the process, what is left, dry, powdery plant material similar to coffee grounds, is tossed out.
The extracted oils are then packaged, either filling tinctures, oral syringes and roll-on lotion bottles, or cooked into edible gummies.
One marijuana plant at Grow Ohio produces 1.25 pounds of oil, enough for 125 syringes. With each flowering room housing 144 plants, the company is harvesting close to 180 pounds of product every two to three days.
Febus said they expect to produce between 8,000 and 12,000 pounds of product this year, climbing to 18,000 pounds at peak operation two years from now.
The company’s workforce continues to grow, employing approximately 80 people with plans to hire more. But with marijuana still illegal at the federal level, some have faced drawbacks from their employment.
“Because of banking, we’re starting to get our bank accounts shut down,” Febus said, whose own account was deactivated.
Nevertheless, leadership at the company is excited about the rapid growth and the opportunity the future holds.
“We’re still building the spaceship as we’re flying it,” Febus said. “We’re building a workforce, we’re building an industry.”