Clean rooms, scrubs, lab jackets — medical marijuana is a science

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Workers at Green Thumb Industries in Danville must shower — even if they have showered at home before coming to work — dress in scrubs and wear shoes they only wear inside the building before they can enter the marijuana grow room or the lab.

Right before entering their work areas, they pass through an air curtain to blow off any debris they may have picked up in the locker room that could contaminate any of the approximately 1,000 marijuana plants in the grow areas.

“We literally wear scrubs, lab jackets, hairnets and booties,” said Tim Hawkins, GTI’s Pennsylvania market president. “We have shoes we wear just at the facility to limit any pest or bacteria they could bring into the facility.”

Marijuana, previously just a drug of illegal recreation, now has become a science to produce medicine for those with autism, seizure disorders, cancer and more than a dozen other afflictions.

In the Danville growing facility, sealed in sterile conditions and locked down under security so tight outsiders are not allowed in, the pot plants are grown for their oil to sell — legally — as part of Pennsylvania’s newborn medical marijuana industry.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is just getting the state’s Medical Marijuana Program — signed into law on April 17, 2016 — up and running to provide the drug to patients.

More than 32,500 patients are registered and 16,600 are certified to receive medical marijuana in Pennsylvania, according to state Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle.

“Patients have received medical marijuana over 29,100 times, which includes patients making return trips, so each individual trip counts as a dispensation,” Wardle said.

Harvest time

Danville became part of the medical marijuana movement in 2017 when the state Department of Health announced in June the borough would host one of 12 sites selected to grow the crop in Pennsylvania.

GTI set up shop in a refurbished warehouse in the Iron Town Commerce Center at East Market and Railroad streets, the site of the former TRW factory.

The other grower licenses were issued to companies in Berks, Lackawanna, Lawrence, Luzerne, Fulton, Franklin, Clinton, Greene, Allegheny and Jefferson counties.

In December, the state gave GTI the green light to begin growing medical marijuana in Danville.

Earlier this month, GTI was about to take the next big step in getting its medicine to dispensaries.

“We are at the end of our first harvest,” Hawkins said. “We should be processing the first harvest over the next week, then package it the week after that.”

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GTI uses carbon dioxide extraction to remove the precious oil to put in capsules, a tincture, or solution that comes in a dropper bottle, and vaporization cartridges.

“We can make topical ointments and concentrates in those forms,” Hawkins said.

“Right now there are about 20 dispensaries around the state,” he said. “Eventually, they will be giving out licenses for 81.”

GTI will distribute its product to all of them, including its own.

GTI operates five growing centers and has opened or plans to open a dozen retail operations in Illinois, Nevada, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Maryland. It currently has two retail dispensaries open in Pennsylvania — in Erie and Steelton — and plans to open another this summer in DuBois, Clearfield County. The company is looking for an additional site in Hermitage, Mercer County, to open by the end of the year, Hawkins said.

The company also has partnered with W ventures and will assist in operating another three dispensaries by the end of this year.

He said there is no specific number of facilities planned, and the company has no current plans for another growing operation in Pennsylvania.

“We’re building up the facility over time,” Hawkins said. “It’s a 70,000-square-foot facility. We’re using 25,000 square feet right now. We have plans to build out the rest.”

About 20 people currently work at the site in areas such as the growing operation, laboratory, security and packaging and shipping.

When the facility was in the planning stages last year and eventually licensed by the state, GTI Chief Executive Officer Pete Kadens, a Bucknell University graduate, said the site would employ as many as 100 people.

“As we build that out over the next few years, that’s when we’ll get over 100 employment,” Hawkins said.

The facility grows various strains of the cannabis plant. It starts with a mother plant of each strain.

“We take clones from that plant,” Hawkins explained. “We move them throughout various rooms with different lighting, nutrients. It’s about a 15-week process from clone to harvest. The final room is the flowering room. That’s the ending stage where it starts to mature that last stage before it’s harvested.”

Originally, those plants came from seed. Under state regulations, once the grower has the seed, it has a 30-day window to bring it into the state.

“Once that 30-day window closed, you can’t bring any more genetics in,” Hawkins said.

Various strains are developed, he said, and GTI uses strains that are high yield for the oil.

The plants are sensitive and require daily tending to help their growth and check for disease.

“It’s not a thing you throw seed in the ground and give it some water and sunlight,” he said. “This is a science.”

It’s a large investment for the company, and the business is literally in the hands of those growers, he added.

The extraction process

Hawkins said that to extract the oil, the entire plant is harvested and cured.

“We blast it in a CO2 extraction machine,” he explained. “It renders the plant down to a mush. State regulations are very strict about disposal.”

He said the remains of the plant are put into an industrial-size shredder.

“We weigh everything we shred, we weigh it down to the gram,” Hawkins said. “We weigh the trash separately. We contract with one of the haulers. They come in and haul that separately.”

He said he didn’t know where the plant remains were taken.

By: Joy Sylvester, Daily Item

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