Medical marijuana grows in Illinois under strict conditions as industry expands
By ROBERT MCCOPPIN | Chicago Tribune | Published: August 11, 2016
JOLIET, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — In a warehouse in Joliet, hundreds of marijuana plants sway under high-intensity lights, taking in carbon dioxide-rich air, sucking up a constant feed of nutrients and bristling with buds.
Like Olympic athletes, the plants are rigorously trained and intensively pampered. Tiny predator bugs patrol the surface of the vegetation, hunting down any pests. Workers prune stems and leaves to put all the plants' energy into buds that produce the drug's euphoric and medicinal effects. The process churns out 200 pounds of high-grade pot every month.
The grow house at Cresco Labs is one of 19 cultivation centers in Illinois authorized by the state to produce medical cannabis. The facilities generally had been closed to the media until Wednesday, when reporters were allowed an unprecedented tour of the growing operation.
The look inside the state's secretive program comes as the struggling medical marijuana industry in Illinois is poised to grow. Last month, for the first time, the state added two new medical conditions — post-traumatic stress disorder and terminal illness — to the list of about 40 that qualify patients to buy the drug.
To address doctors' concerns that federal law still prohibits the distribution of marijuana, lawmakers also changed the statute to allow physicians to certify patients as having a qualifying medical condition without having to risk their licenses by vouching for the drug's medical benefits.
And in court, recent rulings are forcing state officials to reconsider adding other new conditions such as migraine headaches and chronic post-operative pain.
Though Illinois has one of the most restrictive programs in the nation with only 9,000 patients, they spent about $3 million on the drug last month.
Industry leaders are hopeful that expanded access will translate into more patients and a more sustainable program.
Charles Bachtell, founder and CEO of Cresco Labs, said a consultant estimates there will be more than 100,000 patients in Illinois, comparable to Colorado's medical cannabis population, by year three of the pilot program that began when the first licensed dispensaries opened in November.
"The program is seeing significant growth month to month," Bachtell said. "It's changed patients' lives. There's a great energy out there."
The legalization of marijuana — be it medical or recreational — has progressed steadily in recent years. Half the states in the union have authorized medical marijuana. Four allow sales to all adults and five more may have ballot initiatives this year. In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner recently signed a law decriminalizing possession of small amounts of the drug.
But organizations such as the American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association and American Academy of Pediatrics remain skeptical of medical marijuana, preferring that it be studied more and go through the same federal regulatory process as other legalized drugs.
So the tour, authorized by Jack Campbell, a former police officer who is the new director of the state medical cannabis program, was meant to take the lid off the pilot program in Illinois and let the public see how the drug is produced and monitored.
Campbell said there have been no major criminal incidents associated with the program, such as theft of medical marijuana or sales to people who aren't certified.
Because of the state's harsh winters and the law's security requirements, almost all the medical marijuana grown in Illinois comes from warehouses. Besides Joliet, Cresco owns growing facilities in Kankakee and Lincoln. The facility in Lincoln is a hybrid greenhouse with solid walls but a translucent roof.
The Joliet facility has 144 security cameras monitoring its 40,000 square feet, with a feed to Illinois State Police. Every plant is tagged with an identification number to track it from seedling to sale.
All the plants begin in the so-called Mother Room, where about three dozen strains are chosen for their potency and growing ability. Stems are cut from the female plants to propagate clones.
As the small seedlings grow, they are moved into different rooms to provide optimal conditions for each stage of life. At first they are vegetative, growing like a bush, but eventually they begin to flower, growing thick clusters of buds. The stems and leaves have relatively few active components and are chopped up and thrown away.
The buds are cut off, dried for a couple of weeks, then processed into either dry flower used for smoking, or distilled into an oil, which can be vaporized in electronic pens or infused into chocolates, tinctures, lotions and solid wax.
The warehouse is filled with aromas from the plants that range from licorice to fresh-cut grass, and chocolate from the in-house bakery.
Thirty-five people work at the warehouse, tending the plants, processing them and baking them into deserts designed by acclaimed chef Mindy Segal.
A bank-style vault holds the finished products until they are released for sale under names for strains such as DJ Flo and Kandy Kush. Monitors keep the grow rooms about 75 degrees with 50 percent humidity.
The whole process takes about six months. Every two weeks, workers start the procedure all over.
Drivers deliver the products in locked boxes to any of 40 state-authorized dispensaries. Each time, workers at the retail stores must call Cresco to get a special code to open each box.
Marijuana is generally divided into two main subspecies: sativa, which is considered more stimulating, and indica, said to be more relaxing and sedating. Hybrids combine qualities of both.
Potency is generally measured in terms of the percentage of THC, the component that gets users high, and CBD, which studies have shown may help reduce seizures and muscle spasticity. Cresco's flower products range in THC from 17 to 30 percent, and extracts run from 65 to 90 percent. Edibles are dosed with specified amounts of THC, generally 10 to 25 milligrams per serving.
By state law, independent labs must test samples of all marijuana sold in the state to verify potency and freedom from pesticides, molds or other contaminants.
The man directing cultivation for Cresco is 35-year-old Jason Nelson, who has degrees in horticulture and agronomy. He has worked in the industry in Colorado and Washington.
Despite the risk of working in a federally illicit industry, Nelson said it's satisfying hearing from patients with serious illnesses who've been helped to relieve pain or other symptoms.
"That's more than enough of an inspiration for me," he said. "It's very satisfying."