Extra! Extra! Weed all about it!

Growing New Mexico’s medical marijuana

Posted

Bud, joints, brownies and balms – and that’s not all.

Medical cannabis patients in New Mexico certainly have options when it comes to consuming their medicine. Those options may not be limitless, but they are numerous. Unlike pharmaceuticals, the state’s medical marijuana is all produced “in-house” — grown in the Land of Enchantment.

The medical cannabis scene in New Mexico centers around a network of nonprofit producers and storefront pharmacies overseen by a state bureaucracy that is trying to keep up with the recent growth of the medical cannabis program, created by law a decade ago. Yet the legal cannabis industry has struggled to keep pace with demand. More than 30,000 patients are enrolled in the program; more than half of them joined in the last year and a half. In the third quarter of 2016, there were more than 76,000 purchases at dispensaries with an average of 11.42 units (or grams) bought each time. That’s a lot of medicine.

Patients have two (legal) options for getting weed: grow it themselves or buy it from a storefront pharmacy, like the one operated by New Mexicann Natural Medicine in Taos’ Martinez Plaza.

New Mexicann, one of the original nonprofits licensed by the state, expanded from its first store in Santa Fe to four, including one in Española and another in Las Vegas. But all of New Mexicann’s cannabis is still grown within the city of Santa Fe.

As Carlos Gonzales, director of New Mexicann, explained, dispensaries are more than a place to buy marijuana. Education is key. Most doctors who recommend cannabis (it isn’t prescribed) aren’t that versed in the plant. Patients go to dispensaries for in-person advice about varieties, dosages and uses. Dispensaries also help patients navigate the state bureaucracy to get their card and renew it. And many people go to dispensaries for relationships, much like some people go to a bar or a coffee shop for relationships.

“Your bud tender can sort of be like your bartender,” said Gonzales, noting that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the leading medical condition for cannabis patients in New Mexico.

But the storefront is just part of what cannabis producers — the growers and farmers, if you like — have going on. In a more unregulated market, there would be more specialization among companies. Yet in New Mexico’s cannabis industry, each company has to do almost everything through each stage of production, marketing and distribution.

The Taos News went to Santa Fe to check out the operation behind New Mexicann Natural Medicine to get a handle on what it takes to actually grow New Mexico’s medical marijuana.

How it’s done

Cured bud — the smokable, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)-laden flowers of the pot plant — is probably the most recognizable form of cannabis. But at least six months of detailed planning and laborious growing go into the plants before the product ever makes it to shelves.

Though New Mexicann has a trio of outdoor hoop houses and an elaborate greenhouse that is not yet built, the bulk of its growing happens in a separate indoor setup.

Each plant starts as either a seed or a clone. Gonzales said clones, cuttings from a “mother plant,” are generally the more popular strains of cannabis. At the moment, the team at the grow facility is cultivating about 25 different strains of cannabis — a mix of sativa, indica and cannabidiol (CBD)-heavy plants.

Those cuttings spend somewhere between two and three weeks in a covered tray before graduating up to larger and larger pots for a total of about four months — all called the “vegetation stage.” Though New Mexicann is permitted to grow up to 450 plants at a time (along with about half of producers in New Mexico), it hasn’t yet reached that threshold. Still, all of its cannabis plants in vegetation use about 120 gallons of water a day, Gonzales said, and it all comes from the condensation in the air conditioning, creating a closed-loop system.

The “botany team” makes sure the rows of indoor lights are in tune with what the plants would experience in nature, starting off their life cycle with softer bluish lights before moving on to harsher red-spectrum light that simulates fall. The timing of light is also critically important in the cultivation of cannabis. When growers switch the plants’ light diet from about 20 hours a day to half light and half dark, it triggers the plants to go into the next stage of production, “flowering.”

Cannabis spends about two months in flowering, when the bud develops its signature sticky, sweet-smelling THC.

New Mexicann has six rooms (and the outdoor space) dedicated to flowering cannabis, meaning that in total, the nonprofit can keep between 70 and 120 plants (of many of those two dozen varieties) flowering at any one time. The rooms are practically hermetically sealed — the hallways just outside are kept cool and dark. Any stray light can stress the plants.

According to Gonzales, the botany team can trim (meticulously clean the bud of leaves) about four or five full-grown plants a day. Once all the plants in a room are processed, it takes still another day “taking down” each flower room. The team washes the lights and walls to eliminate contamination from devastating diseases, like powdery mildew. The bud is laid out on hanging mesh racks to dry for five days and then moved to glass jars to finish curing for about a month.

‘Constant development’

To finish creating the array of smokable and non-smokable forms of cannabis seen at the pharmacies, bud has to make its way to the full-fledged commercial kitchen and Rachel Zell, production manager.

As Zell explained, New Mexicann has to make products “for everyone’s tolerance” and method of ingestion.

“We have 150 things besides bud, and we have three versions of everything,” Zell said, because for every product, New Mexicann makes a predominantly sativa, indica and CBD type. That includes concentrated oils and herbal balms (“using herbs besides cannabis, like arnica and calendula,” she said). It also includes a whole bakery with more traditional sweets, like brownies and candies, each exactly weighed and measured for its THC content.

Like any bakery, it sells old favorites, like a line of products swirled with Nutella. But when it comes to trying out new ideas, “It’s constant product development,” said grow master Jennifer Gonzales.

And it doesn’t stop at edibles. Jennifer Gonzales is especially excited to experiment with luxurious bath salts for aching bones. “The sky’s the limit,” she said.

Setback

During the summer of 2015, a butane explosion at the kitchen facility injured two people and set the businesses back substantially.

“It dropped us to our knees,” said Carlos Gonzales.

New Mexicann just bought an upgraded license to grow more plants and had started building its advanced greenhouse. Everything was put on hold after the accident.

The explosion — and subsequent investigation, rebuilding and recertifying of the facility — took the commercial kitchen out of production for more than a year. When local law enforcement asked the Drug Enforcement Administration for help in the investigating, the federal agency (acting under federal law, where weed is still considered illegal) took out the rest of the crop.

Hard as it was, the accident proved the resiliency of the community of producers. New Mexicann received a barrage of donated clones and seeds from the other companies. The other producers also kept a steady stock of product flowing to New Mexicann’s shelves. At the start of the year, the kitchen was back up and running and the flower rooms were full of cannabis.

Even as New Mexicann gets back on its feet and even as more producers are coming online, there’s simply not enough cannabis for New Mexico’s patients. Bud sells out at each store every single week.

As Zell put it, “We need more of everything.”

Though the medical cannabis system isn’t perfect, plenty of people have their sights set on statewide legalization of recreational marijuana.

State legislators make the case for recreational pot by citing Colorado and the millions of dollars in taxable revenue weed has been shown to generate. That’s money that could pay teachers, pave roads and keep the state’s coffers healthy through the ups and downs of the oil and gas market.

Of course, there are debates to be had and questions to answer. If cannabis is such a boom, what about the bust? Some people in Colorado rightly question how much more their state’s cannabis industry can grow if New Mexico and other states legalize. Considering the majority of legal pot is grown indoors, what of the strain on the electrical grid? And especially relevant in the Southwest is the use of water, though marijuana uses less water than alfalfa.

In other states, the medical cannabis pharmacies have led the charge while the recreational market gets off the ground.

Whatever happens with New Mexico’s cannabis industry, nonprofit producers like New Mexicann Natural Medicine are sure to play a big part.

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment