From seed to patient, a look inside the business of marijuana cultivation following the passage of State Question 788 legalizing medical cannabis in Oklahoma.
Editors note: This article is part of an ongoing series of informative articles regarding Medical Marijuana legalization in Oklahoma.
MIAMI - Although legalization of medical marijuana was passed by a majority of 57 percent Oklahoma voters, many Oklahomans aren’t familiar or very knowledgeable about the plant and its uses. With the passage of Oklahoma State Question 788 and the implementation of rules and regulation under discussion, Oklahomans will soon have access to medical marijuana.
Jason Elsasser, formerly of Miami, now a cannabis cultivator and leader in the commercial marijuana growing industry in California serving as president of the Coachella Valley Cannabis Alliance Network shared his expertise. Elsasser is looking at business opportunities in Miami and across Oklahoma hoping to expand his operations.
Elsasser explained the marijuana plant’s flowers or buds hold high concentrations of both THC and cannabidiol. THC is a naturally occurring chemical compound that produces a “high,” while cannabidiol has no intoxicating effect. By federal law, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.
Each strain of marijuana grown holds unique cannabinoid properties for different effects. There are two subspecies of marijuana, Sativa, which produces uplifting effects and Indica, which produces a mellowing effect.
“Sativa is a plant that is going to produce, well, the scientific way of describing it is a cerebral effect, it’s going to affect your head. It’s going to give you energy, a lot of people see Sativa as a daytime medicine, and it’s used to treat PTSD, depression, anxiety, and different types of things. An Indica is the opposite. Indica affects your body, it’s more of a body high, more of a nighttime medicine, so it’s used for insomnia, pain, appetite stimulation and other purposes,” Elsasser explained. “Then what they do is hybridize them, what you do is take a Sativa father plant and an Indica mother plant or vice versa and you produce a hybrid, so it will kind of have both effects depending on what it will be used for.”
To maximize higher THC content only female marijuana plants are grown to flower.
“In commercial marijuana cultivation, of course everything comes from a seed, you’ve got a phenotype and a genotype parent to the plant, and that’s where the genetics come from. You hear of all these different strains, Bubba Cush, OG Cush, Girls Scout Cookies, Gorilla Glue, Blue Dream, the list goes on and on and on, it’s because they’re from different genos and phenos,” Elsasser said.
Combining the genetics of certain female and male plants creates a variety of marijuana strains used for different medical and recreational uses, according to Elsasser.
“From one plant you would grow bunches of plants, or clones, which are cuttings off of a certain type of genetic plant. So, if you want to grow Blue Dream and you need 1,000 Blue Dream plants then you have that Blue Dream mother plant that you take cuttings from and these turn into 1,000 mature marijuana plants,” Elsasser said. “The easiest way to explain how a marijuana plant works is, if I were to take a cutting and put it in a room where the light was going to be over 14 to 16 hours of light, and 8 hours of darkness, that plant would continually stay in a vegetative stage, meaning it wouldn’t flower. In commercial marijuana production you grow the clone to the height you want by keeping the light at a certain amount of darkness, and then you pull back your light to 12 hours of darkness and 12 hours of light, and then the plant immediately goes into a flowering stage.”
After the marijuana plant’s flowering response, it is finished in eight weeks time.
“The plant will produce resin and produce crystals, basically what it’s wanting to do is reproduce, it’s looking for male pollen and there’s none to be found, so it just keeps getting bigger and more resiness. When it’s done and completely mature, you cut the plant down and you trim all the leaves off of it, the big outer fan leaves, and those go in the trash,” he said. “The inner leaves that are closest to the flower or the bud, those get trimmed away and those are saved and turned into concentrates or oils, or edibles or that type of thing. Then the process starts over.”
The flowers or buds are cut from the plant and hung upside down to dry.
“You don’t want them to dry too fast, and you don’t want them to dry too slow, so you have to keep it at a certain humidity and room temperature. The stems are thrown away,” he said, “The flower or buds, and what they call sugar leaf or trim, the leaves that are closest to the bud, are all usable parts of the plant”.
Stalks and the larger outer fan leaves are very fibrous and can be used to make other types of products, but are usually waste and are disposed of, according to Elsasser.
Larger warehouse facilities are used for growing plants to allow for a continuous marijuana harvest.
Elsasser said, “What you have in commercial growing, which you’ll see in grow ops in Oklahoma once they get up and going is, you’ll have grow rooms, and these grow rooms never change from 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness, they stay 12 and 12 all the time. When you have a room full of plants that are being harvested, you harvest those plants, you move them out of the room, and then you bring fresh, new plants into that room that have already been in 16 hours of light for a certain amount of time. They are the exact height you need them to be to go into flower. So it’s a perpetual harvest.”
Elsasser stressed it’s an important part of the growing process that medical marijuana plants are tested before the plant is cut down.
“The thing about medical marijuana that’s so important is, if you’re going to smoke marijuana or ingest products that contain marijuana, you want to make sure that you know what is in them,” he said.
In Elsasser’s California operations the testing lab will come to the facility and they will take samples of the product and test those to make sure there are no pesticides, heavy metals, toxins or molds.
“You can’t have a medical marijuana program if you don’t know what’s in it,” he said. “Right now in Oklahoma, they are kind of teetering back and forth about how hard they want the testing requirements. I’m hoping, I’m keeping my fingers crossed they use a less intrusive model than California. There’s a tipping point where if you get a little too complex it gets very, very costly and it can add a lot of unnecessary regulation.”
In California, regulation calls for stringent testing of every five pounds, and batch requirements for marijuana, according to Elsasser.
“For a 20,000 square foot grow you would have $500,000 a month just in expenses,” he said.
“Once a bud is dried, then it’s trimmed, and you have people that actually will have surgeon gloves on and they sit with little scissors and they trim all the little leaves off the bud to make it pretty, because people like pretty pot, they don’t want to smoke the leaf they want to smoke the bud,” Elsasser said.
Once the buds are trimmed they’re packaged and weighed.
“The cultivator will have a transportation license and will transport those flowers to the dispensary, and the dispensary will sell them to the patients,” he said. “The unusable stuff, the trim, or the smaller bud that is too small to trim is taken to the manufacturer and the manufacturer will crush that into an oil by using several different basis of extraction, you can do volatile extractions or non-volatile extractions.”
These processes extract the tiny potent crystals.
“The crystals are where the medicine is in a concentrated form,” Elsasser said.
Marijuana can be ground and rolled into a cigarette or “joint” to smoke or smoked in a variety of pipes. Smoking marijuana produces a faster more immediate intoxication than other processed forms.
Concentrates can be inhaled as vapor through pens and other devices, and oils can be consumed orally or in food.
Edible marijuana products such as brownies, candies, gummies and cookies etc. are infused with THC infused oil or butter. The THC delivered from edible marijuana products poses more of a challenge in dosing and takes longer to induce a high, but is purported to produce a “body high.”
In Oklahoma, once patients obtain a state-issued medical marijuana license through their physician they will be able to purchase products through a dispensary.
Elsasser said in his dispensaries, patients can request and choose a specific product, or the dispensary owners, or trained or knowledgeable attendants called “budtenders” can recommend products based on patient needs.
“You’re going to have people come in who have never smoked it before or have just been smoking whatever is put in front of them. That would be where you might want to do a little experimentation and that’s where the budtender comes in. Somebody may come in and say, ‘Hey, I have back pain and can’t sleep at night,’ then the budtender is going to show you some Indica,” he said.
“Most physicians are not really going to be knowledgeable, they’re just going to provide that recommendation so that patient can get their state license,” Elsasser said. “If they walked into one of my dispensaries and somebody comes in and they don’t know exactly what they need, instead of buying a lot at once, we would want them to try a small amount of different strains, or types of products. Maybe they buy a cookie and cut it up so they aren’t trying too much.”
Purchasing transactions for marijuana products in Oklahoma by law will adhere to federal law and be on a cash-only basis, but Elsasser said most dispensaries in California offer an onsite or nearby ATM machine.
The price of medical marijuana in Oklahoma is expected to cost about $40 or more for an eighth of an ounce of buds, concentrates around $30 or more, and edibles around $10 per 5 to 10 mg. of THC content. In Oklahoma, a 7 percent state excise tax will be included in the price and dispensaries will also collect local sales tax.
Although there are currently few supporting studies, patients with chronic pain, epilepsy, cancer and other ailments report symptom relief from marijuana usage.
“If you have sinus headaches, there’s a certain strain that’s going to help you with your sinus headaches. You have Crohn’s disease, there’s a certain strain that’s going to help you with your Crohn’s and the list goes on and on. Let’s say you have depression really bad and you don’t want to take Zoloft or Paxil, or other pills there are different types of cannabis, Sativa, and Indica. Sativa is like your daytime medication it gives you energy, it makes you happy, it makes you laugh, you smoke a little bit in the morning you might want to clean your house. Indica mellows you out and makes you tired,” Elsasser said.
Elsasser said he works with local law enforcement to ensure the security of his facilities and he believes crime will decrease.
“You’ll have a regulated product that’s taken out of the hand of drug dealers. Drug dealers are criminals; they don’t care who they sell it to,” he said. “For years and years people would bring pot into California from Mexico, now Mexico is bringing pot from California into Mexico because it’s 10 times better. In Desert Hot Springs, California, the very first city in California to issue cultivation licenses, had a pretty high crime rate, crime has dropped 22 and a half percent in the last two and half years and the only thing that has happened in that city in the last two and a half years is they have regulated cannabis. Once 788 is established you’re going to see a drop in crime. First of all, you’re not going to see people get arrested for a small amount of marijuana.”
The cultivator believes the state needs to hold off on legalizing recreational marijuana use.
“Give this medical program a year or two to mature. I’m not against recreational; to me recreational and medical are one in the same,” he said.
Elsasser is livid about the Oklahoma petition drive for recreational marijuana use.
“They over exaggerated and didn’t have near enough signatures to get it put on the ballot…Oklahoma is just getting their feet wet in this and the people that are supposed to be running the show and in the industry are showing that they’re not trustworthy people and it makes the whole industry look bad,” he said.
Elsasser said it is essential for cultivators and other industry leaders in Oklahoma run legally reputable, reliable and transparent operations.
Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority
The Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority has established a call center to answer questions about patient and business application processing and requirements for obtaining medical marijuana licenses.
A new phone number, (405) 522-6662, has been established to get information about the program. The OMMA call center is now available to answer questions from prospective patients, caregivers and businesses. Hours will be Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Staff will be trained to provide information on application instructions and licensure processes and timeframes.
“We have had a number of questions about requirements since the emergency rules were updated earlier this month and we now have staff in place to help interested parties understand the application process,” said OMMA project manager Buffy Heater. “This is another benchmark for establishing a new program and OMMA is pleased to begin providing this service to Oklahomans who are interested in obtaining a medical marijuana license.”
The online application system for licenses will be available on August 25 at 10 a.m. and applications can be submitted at that time for patient, caregiver, and business licenses.
Questions about the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority or the application process can also be directed to OMMA@ok.gov.
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Melinda Stotts is the associate editor of the Miami News-Record. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter @MelindaStotts1.