Medical Marijuana: Cultivating a business

Facility license hopefuls consider safety

Medical marijuana cultivating a business

LAURIE, Mo. - Tracey Smith's niece approached him last year about preparing a cultivation facility in Missouri, ahead of the November vote to legalize medical marijuana.

She runs a cultivation facility and dispensary in Oklahoma and hoped Smith could get things started in Missouri. If they're approved, she and Smith's wife would run the business here.

He's now the landlord of an expensive idea, one they may never come to fruition.

"We’re competing for a license, no guarantees we’ll get it," he said. "I was willing to risk it for my family."

The family now has more than $1 million sunk into a potential cultivation and infused manufacturing facility in a town called Laurie, located in the heart of the Lake of the Ozarks area.

He said they've got the support of the community, with even the police department writing them a recommendation letter for their application.

The location was a perfect find, Smith said. The facility is located at the end of a dead-end street, with very few neighbors who would be bothered by the smell the plants would give off. 

"It's quite peaceful and not open to the public," he said.

The majority of the facility will be used for indoor marijuana cultivation.

“Once they grow and they’ve flowered, they’re brought out, processed, packaged, and out they go," Smith said. "Either (they go) to dispensaries or they would go to outside manufacturing, or they’d be shipped back here to this infusion.”

There will also be a smaller section devoted to infused manufacturing. A separate company would contract out the space.

"It’s two separate entities that complement each other," said Smith. "One provides a product, one uses it, one consumes and pays."

Medical marijuana manufacturing can be dangerous. Dr. Chris Riley owns and operates a consulting firm that provides services for the pharmaceutical industry in chemistry, manufacturing and quality control. 

"Medical marijuana has a lot of similarities between the way in which it is manufactured and tested as we use in the pharmaceutical industry," he said.

Extracting the buds from marijuana plants and then concentrating them down to pure oil is a chemical process, he said. The best way to extract them is by using a solvent.

"Some of the solvents that can be used are flammable or explosive if not handled correctly," Riley said.

Smith said infused manufacturing processes aren't necessarily stricter, but there are controls that need to be followed. The area they're preparing for the manufacturing component is like a "big, kitchen white room," he said.

"You have security, steel frames, steel doors," he pointed out.

Professionals such as chemists would need to be hired for that job, but cultivation is a lot like basic horticulture. Smith said they could bring in their folks from Oklahoma to "train the trainers" in the proper ways to handle the marijuana plant.

They'll also make sure they follow workplace safety rules.

"There's always things you have to think about safety, like OSHA," he said. "We have policies and procedures and handbooks. We have to, we have to address it."

There will be background checks done on potential employees, Smith said. 

"It'll be pretty rigorous," he said.

But he mentioned they plan to pull from Laurie's labor pool to find employees.

In the workplace, Riley said it's important to keep quality control and assurance top of mind as well. He said there's a saying in the pharmaceutical industry that you can't test the quality of the project. It has to be built in.

"You have to first manufacture it in a consistent, reproducible fashion. The second part is it's tested in the laboratory. That's the quality control part," he said. "If you find that the product isn't what it's supposed to be, that's too late. It should have been built into the product by the manufacturer. 

There will only be two testing facilities approved in Missouri, but Smith expects the state will make sure things are controlled.

"They will have their fingers in it, making sure no one is put at risk, making sure the products are good," he said. "I think that's a very responsible approach to it, and we want to show that we can do it."

With the many advantages of the facility, and the experience of his family, Smith hopes they will rise to the top on the applications. But he knows the competition is fierce. 

The Department of Health and Senior Services reports that there have been 153 prefiled application fees for cultivation facilities, 277 for dispensaries, and 80 prefiled fees received for manufacturing.

Here is a link to see the latest numbers, as well as a list of questions that will likely be asked on the applications. They will be available in early June. The department will begin accepting them on Aug. 4.

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