Pubdate: Thu, 18 Aug 2016
Source: Phoenix New Times (AZ)
Copyright: 2016 New Times, Inc.
Authors: Nate Nichols and Corbin Shouse


You would be forgiven for not recognizing the nondescript brick 
warehouse in Phoenix's Grand Avenue industrial district as the site 
of a high-tech agricultural facility.

But as soon as you step inside, the smell of hundreds of marijuana 
plants is overwhelming. As you make your way through the small rooms 
that line the main hallway, you can hear the whoosh of ventilation 
fans and the gentle hum of huge artificial lights suspended above a 
lush green canopy of leaves. Reggae, old-school hip-hop, and pop-punk 
blare from a portable speaker as a crew of 30 or so workers trim, 
water, and inspect the all-female crop of cannabis plants casually 
known as "the ladies."

A relaxed grower, originally from Colorado, gleefully announces, "The 
plants respond to the type of music you play them."

The plants also respond to all the energy it takes to power an indoor 
grow facility like this one. That results in some pretty hefty 
electricity bills.

So why grow pot indoors, particularly legal pot? Why not stick it in 
a field and rely on the strong Arizona sun? Arizona's medical 
marijuana law and local ordinances stress the importance of security 
and discretion, making indoor growing an easy sell to regulators 
worried about public perception. But there's another option: the 
greenhouse, a cross between indoor and outdoor growing that relies in 
large part on the sun.

The energy savings associated with growing cannabis in greenhouses 
are undeniable, says Mark Steinmetz of Nature's AZ Medicines. His 
company operates both indoor and greenhouse facilities.

Steinmetz estimates that he can power his 14,000-square-foot indoor 
complex for $25,000 a month in the summer - the same amount it takes 
to power his two greenhouses, which cover more than 100,000 square feet.

But in the cannabis cultivation business, "greenhouse" is a dirty 
word. Not only are there environmental factors to take into account, 
greenhouses have long produced inferior marijuana in a world where 
boutique cannabis is practically a given.

"I even hate to say the word greenhouse. I kind of cringe a little 
bit every time I say it," Steinmetz admits.

He and others are out to change that.

The national legal marijuana market reached nearly $5.5 billion in 
revenue in 2015, and is expected to grow to $21.8 billion by 2020, 
according to a report by ArcView Market Research, a national cannabis 
investment group.

But just how are these gardens of cannabis grown? Hard to say. 
National statistics on marijuana cultivation are largely unavailable. 
The DEA and FBI track plant destruction and seizures related to 
illegal cultivation as well as arrests for possession, manufacturing, 
and distribution of marijuana. But that sheds little light on legal 
marijuana markets.

In 2015, Arizona dispensaries grew and sold more than 19 tons of 
medical marijuana, according to the Arizona Department of Health 
Services. Arizona officials track weight, not price, but New Times 
estimates that in 2015, Arizona dispensaries were responsible for 
more than $215 million in revenue. Anecdotally, we know that the vast 
majority of this valuable crop is grown in energy-intensive indoor 
facilities like the Grand Avenue warehouse.

And making that happen burns a lot of fuel.

A landmark study in 2012 provides some of the best data on energy use 
in marijuana cultivation. Evan Mills, a senior scientist at the 
University of California, estimates that each marijuana cigarette or 
"joint" that reaches the hands of a consumer is equivalent to using a 
100-watt lightbulb for 25 hours or driving almost 23 miles in a hybrid car.

Even more startling, according to Mills: "The indoor cultivation of 
marijuana uses $6 billion worth of electricity every year, which 
amounts to 1 percent of overall U.S. electricity."

That was four years ago. Energy use stands to increase as states 
across the country move to legalize marijuana. Arizona will consider 
legalizing recreational use in November.

If the medical marijuana cultivation industry in Arizona is any 
indication, indoor growing certainly dominates.

According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, there are 
currently 99 state licensed dispensaries, 79 of which have approved 
cultivation permits. Tom Salow, a branch chief in the Division of 
Public Health Licensing Services with AZDHS, says his office doesn't 
track such things - but he's pretty sure that only three of Arizona's 
sanctioned growers use greenhouses.

Although marijuana has now been legal for medical purposes in Arizona 
for the last four years, you would be hard-pressed to notice much 
innovation in the industry. In buildings that more closely resemble 
fortresses than farms, master growers operate increasingly large 
facilities. Some are home to only a few plants, while others have 
thousands. Facilities can range in size from a few thousand square 
feet to 100 times that size.

And around here, bigger is definitely better for dispensary owners. 
Unlike many other states with medical or recreational marijuana, 
Arizona has no limits on the number of plants a dispensary can cultivate.

As cultivation facilities increase in size, so too can the headaches 
caused by poor practices. Most growers are using the same practices 
that made them successful years ago with their first closet-, 
garage-, or basement-grown harvest.

One of the biggest inefficiencies, currently, is the fact that these 
growers are forced to re-create the power of the sun using artificial lighting.

But the greenhouse method is not without its challenges. Even the 
growers at Mark Steinmetz's Nature's AZ Medicines admit that it's 
often easier to grow marijuana indoors.

Because greenhouses are more open to the outdoors than traditional 
indoor cultivation facilities, they face unique problems. Constantly 
exchanging air by pushing out stale air and drawing in fresh air from 
the outdoors leaves greenhouses more susceptible to problems that 
don't affect indoor facilities as often, including the ability of 
pests to enter, bringing in molds and mildews that are prevalent in 
nature; the inability to control the indoor climate; lack of interior 
rooms to contain infestations; and potentially inadequate lighting, 
depending on the location.

For these reasons, Jennifer Gote, a Phoenix-based marijuana 
cultivation consultant who works with dispensaries across the state, 
is still partial to indoor cultivation.

"Indoor cultivation offers a lot more control," she says. Gote 
believes that the ability to precisely control the environment can 
result in a better quality medicine.

"There is absolutely a quality difference between indoor and 
greenhouse marijuana. Indoor is much higher quality."

She doesn't dispute the energy savings - just the quality.

"Greenhouse will always come in lower cost. But will the quality be there?"

In the beginning, of course, all the pot grew outside.

Cannabis is believed to have first been cultivated many thousands of 
years ago in the area north of the Himalayas. It has been prized by 
civilizations around the globe and used for medicine, textiles, 
nutrition, and religious ceremonies. After two millennia of human 
use, cannabis was an accepted part of many societies' pharmacopeia.

When the colonists arrived in North America, they brought their love 
of cannabis with them.

By the 1800s, plantations had sprung up throughout the American 
colonies, dedicated to the growing of hemp for industrial purposes. 
Preparations of the plant could be found at many drug stores, and 
were an accepted product for medical use, even in children.

A drastic change in public opinion surrounding the plant took place 
in the early 1900s. Increasingly, the plant was called by its Spanish 
name, marijuana, thereby associating it with the large influx of 
Mexican immigrants that arrived in the U.S. in the early years of the 
20th century.

Many people accuse William Randolph Hearst, the wealthy newspaper 
publisher, and the DuPont family of purposefully attacking marijuana 
for the benefit of their industrial interests.

Cannabis fields began to disappear as it began to be perceived as a 
menace to public health, and around the world, the use of cannabis 
for nonmedical purposes began to be outlawed.

In 1936, the famous propaganda film Reefer Madness was released. By 
1937, the U.S. Congress fully outlawed cannabis cultivation via the 
Marijuana Tax Act, which created a cultivation license that was 
nearly impossible to attain.

Officials with the American Medical Association testified before 
Congress that the AMA was unaware of any proof to support the notion 
that cannabis was a dangerous drug. Still, four years later, in 1941, 
the cannabis plant was officially removed from the U.S. Pharmacopeia.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, the counterculture movement became 
notably associated with the use of marijuana.

In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was passed by Congress 
as an effort to criminalize drug use and distribution, and by the 
1980s, the War on Drugs was in full force under President Ronald 
Reagan. DEA eradication teams used planes and helicopters to patrol 
areas known to be centers of outdoor marijuana cultivation. In order 
to protect their crops, cultivators began to move indoors.

Throughout the '80s and '90s, increasingly harsh penalties for the 
use and distribution of the drug were introduced, and the number of 
incarcerations related to cannabis skyrocketed, a trend that continues today.

FBI crime statistics show that more than 11 million arrests for 
marijuana possession were made during the period between 1996 and 2012.

The movement to re-legalize cannabis began in earnest with the 
passage of California's Compassionate Use Act in 1996, making 
California the first state in the U.S. to legalize the use of 
cannabis. Doctors and patients were allowed to use marijuana for 
medial reasons; however, cultivation rules were not addressed.

This law immediately brought the state and federal laws into 
conflict. The federal government still prohibits the use of the drug 
for any purpose.

Cultivation and retail systems for medical marijuana in California 
evolved without strict regulation. This allowed for the rise of a 
shadowy "gray market" that had many of the same qualities as the 
black market that it was intended to replace.

Operators of cannabis businesses had to be willing to operate in an 
environment with considerable legal and financial risks. Most had 
years of experience producing cannabis illegally, and brought their 
practices with them from the black market. Their chief concern was 
discretion and security, not efficiency.

Since 1996, 23 more states (including Arizona) have implemented 
medical marijuana programs, with four also legalizing recreational or 
adult use.

In many states, applications for dispensary licenses are merit-based, 
meaning that prospective operators are required to show that they 
possess both the traditional business skill and cannabis knowledge to 
be successful. Arizona's Department of Health Services does not 
consider these types of factors, instead allowing any person with a 
minimum amount of assets to enter into a lottery to win a license.

The first medical marijuana dispensary in Arizona opened in late 
2012, and since then, 99 dispensaries around the state have received 
licenses, making it nearly impossible for patients to satisfy the 
requirement that they live 25 miles away from the nearest dispensary 
in order to grow their own cannabis.

Almost 5,000 pounds of marijuana and infused products were sold in 
April 2016 alone in an industry that employs thousands of people in 
businesses directly related to the production and sale of cannabis 
and related businesses, including laboratory testing, consulting, and 
the sale of marijuana-related paraphernalia.

Dispensary licenses are awarded by lottery to those who submit 
complete applications to the Arizona Department of Health Services. 
Any completed application, including a $5,000 nonrefundable 
application fee, was eligible to be entered into a lottery, 
regardless of the experience or qualifications of the applicant.

And then there's the matter of just how these dispensaries get a hold 
of pot to sell.

Some dispensaries choose to stock their shelves with product from 
their own cultivation facilities, while the 20 dispensaries in 
Arizona that haven't applied for cultivation rights have opted to 
purchase all their medicine from other dispensaries on the wholesale market.

A dispensary can have one cultivation license for every operating 
permit that it obtains. In order to be approved to cultivate cannabis 
at a particular location, a dispensary operator is required to meet 
local zoning requirements as well as a set of standards that attempt 
to ensure that cultivation locations are secure, discreet, and 
sanitary. There is no mention in the regulations of efficiency of 
operation as it relates to environmental or economic concerns.

As the marijuana business spreads quickly across Arizona, some 
municipalities are enacting new zoning regulations to prevent retail 
and cultivation facilities. Tempe has imposed a ban on new dispensary 
use permits. Scottsdale and Phoenix have also imposed setback 
restrictions that are more stringent than those required by state law.

There are no requirements to test medical marijuana for potency or 
purity before it's sold to patients. Many dispensaries undertake 
voluntary testing, but without clear standards in place, there is no 
way to guarantee that products are not contaminated with pesticides, 
fungicides, growth regulators, fungus, mold, or bacteria, problems 
that can plague many large grows.

One of the benefits of Arizona's strict-but-general medical marijuana 
laws is that any cultivation method is allowable. Arizona growers 
have been slow to come around to greenhouses, but it's beginning to happen.

And one of the most high-profile would-be growers is a group 
including Fife Symington IV, son of the former Arizona governor. With 
a background in produce businesses - including growing vegetables in 
greenhouses - Symington reportedly set out earlier this year to 
cultivate marijuana, as he told the Silver Creek Herald, a 
publication based in Holbrook.

Symington could not be reached for comment.

Symington's father famously fought against medical marijuana during 
his tenure as Arizona's governor. The fact that his son is now 
apparently looking at it as an appealing business opportunity is 
definitely a sign of the times - and the potential to make a lot of money.

In the wild, cannabis is an annual plant with a life cycle that 
begins in the long, warm, spring days and ends in fall as 
temperatures get cooler and days get shorter.

Grow it for commercial use, and you've got to imitate all that, using 
environmental controls such as temperature, artificial lighting, 
humidity control, nutrients, and carbon dioxide to influence plant 
growth and mimic the changes of the seasons.

Cannabis plants begin their lives as seeds or clones. Clones are 
genetically identical clippings taken from a large mother plant. Most 
commercial cultivators favor this method, as the genetically 
identical clones grow to the same heights and respond to the grow 
room environment in a similar manner, leading to a more consistent end product.

Once the sprouted seeds or clones have strong root systems and have 
reached a minimum height, they are transplanted into the plastic 
containers that will be their home over the next several months. This 
stage is known as vegetative growth. Plant leaves, stems, and root 
systems continue to grow and expand in size as the plant grows taller 
and stockier. This growth makes it easier for the plants to transport 
and use water and nutrients to grow larger, more quickly, in the 
subsequent stages of growth. During this "spring" period, plants need 
18 to 24 hours of sunlight a day. After a month or two in the 
vegetative state, it is time to move the plants into the flowering stage.

The most important factor in this transition is light. In order to 
trigger flowering, plants must be moved to a cycle of 12 hours of 
light and 12 hours of darkness. Once this change occurs, it signals 
to the cannabis plant that the end of the growing season, and 
therefore its life, is fast approaching. The plants begin to focus 
all their growth on making seeds to propagate the next generation of 
cannabis plants. On male plants, small nodes full of pollen begin to 
swell and eventually pop open, releasing pollen as far as the air 
will carry it. Because consumers only want marijuana flowers, the 
dried and unpollinated calyxes of the female plant, males are removed 
from flowering rooms and sometimes the whole cultivation facility.

When left unpollinated, the calyxes of the female cannabis plant 
swell and become coated in sticky resin. In the wild, this resin is 
how pollen is captured to start the process of germinating new seeds. 
However, it is also rich in the active ingredients responsible for 
the medical benefits and "high" of marijuana. Delta 9 
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), other cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, 
and even steroids, are all found in this resin in varying concentrations.

After plants spend six to 10 weeks in the flowering stage, it's time 
to harvest. After being cut down, the largest leaves are removed, and 
plants are hung by their stalks for approximately a week. Once the 
flowers have reached the right moisture content, the individual 
flowers or "buds" are removed from the stalk and put into special 
containers to cure. During this stage, moisture levels are carefully 
monitored to ensure that plants don't dry too quickly and lose their 
active ingredients. Generally speaking, the quality, fragrance, and 
potency will all benefit the longer and more slowly cannabis is cured.

All parts of this life cycle are identical whether the plants are 
indoors or in a greenhouse. The only difference has to do with 
lighting. While indoor growers can move plants through a whole life 
cycle in one room by turning artificial lights on and off, greenhouse 
growers must work with the sun to achieve the same lighting cycle. 
Instead of small, compartmentalized rooms (as one might expect in an 
indoor facility), in a greenhouse, plants are grown in several large 
open rooms many thousands of square feet each. A combination of 
natural sunlight and artificial light is used to ensure plants get 
the necessary light period, even if the sun isn't shining.

Ironically, one of the toughest parts of getting a greenhouse to work 
isn't ensuring there's enough sunlight; it's figuring out how to get 
enough darkness. One of the more recent innovations in greenhouse 
growing is the light deprivation curtain.

Mark Steinmetz's greenhouse facility in Southern Arizona butts up 
against a picturesque mountain range on the high desert plains. As 
you approach the buildings, the smell of wafting terpenes (naturally 
occurring molecules that help give cannabis its taste and smell) 
gives the clue of the presence of the thousands of marijuana plants.

This is not your grandma's greenhouse.

"Most people think of these hoop houses, or old-time dirt floors," 
Steinmetz says. "They're not envisioning the structures we have with 
concrete floors and brick walls. This is more of a hybrid; it's more 
like indoor growing using natural light. I think that's probably why 
we're getting better results than a lot of traditional greenhouses."

Security is high - there's fencing, cameras, and 24-hour monitoring 
by armed guards. The sprawling compound includes three sets of large 
brick buildings that wouldn't look out of place on a military base. 
The only feature that makes these buildings distinguishable as 
greenhouses from the outside is the rooftop opaque polycarbonate 
plastic paneling. This specially designed plastic allows for sunlight 
to pass through while limiting the flow of UV rays.

At first, a remote facility deep in the desert may seem like a 
less-than-ideal location for one of Arizona's largest medical 
marijuana cultivation facilities. But favorable local zoning rules, 
as well as high elevation, low humidity, and cooler temperatures 
(relatively speaking) actually make this location ideal. Between the 
two greenhouses currently operating here, there are more than 110,000 
square feet, approximately the size of two football fields, all 
devoted to the cultivation, processing, and packaging of medical 
cannabis. If all goes right, Steinmetz will soon expand to 165,000 square feet.

Plants are arranged in long, narrow trays that span the width of the 
structure; there's just barely enough space for one person to walk 
down each row to water, feed, and inspect each plant. An array of 
metal wires simultaneously constrains plants - "training" them to 
grow in an ideal shape - while supporting the weight of the plump 
calyxes covered in trichromes, glands containing cannabis resin, 
which glitter as the sunlight washes over them.

Along one side of the facility, there is a drip wall, similar in 
design to a giant swamp cooler. Large fans on the opposite wall pull 
air across the grow facility, drawing warmer outdoor air across the 
honeycomb like material being soaked in reverse-osmosis water. As the 
outdoor air travels through the drip wall, it is purified, cooled, 
and humidified, helping the conditions inside the greenhouse mimic 
cannabis' natural habitat. This drip wall is just one of the many 
technological innovations that helps make greenhouse growing energy-efficient.

Sunlight plays an integral role in the whole process from seed to 
finished product. "We know consumers of cannabis products are 
environmentally conscious and like organically grown products, so 
sunlight just made a lot of sense to us," says Steinmetz, adding, 
"The product loves natural sunlight! It loves the full light spectrum 
of the sun."

Because natural sunlight offers a different spectrum of light 
frequencies than indoor lighting, employees at Nature's AZ Medicines 
say they are finding strains that fare better in the greenhouse than 
they do indoors.

But it's true that some strains are more at home indoors, and have 
been disappointing producers when grown under natural light. Nature's 
AZ Medicines' greenhouse manager Gerry Wilson points out that with 
each and every cycle, strains will react a little differently to life 
in the greenhouse. "As we lock down the strains that do well in our 
environment, they really take to it. You start seeing the higher THC 
values, you see the terpene concentrations going up."

Steinmetz and his crew admit that growing indoors is still likely an 
easier cultivation method. But technology - in the form of automated 
environmental controls like the blackout cloths - is doing its part 
to close the gap.

He adds that they are looking into methods that will allow them to 
better prepare for weather, "so that we can anticipate the climate 
change that takes place from the morning to the evening with regard 
to humidity differences. It changes hourly, and every month is 
different. You go from the dry summer months into the monsoon summer, 
then into the fall, and later the cold winter nights. Each season is 
just incredibly different."

One could say the same about the political seasons, in particular the 
current one. If it brings more acceptance of cannabis, that could 
affect attitudes toward growing.

"Nationally, as marijuana becomes mainstream, people will realize 
it's just a plant," says Ryan Hurley, a partner of the Rose Law Group 
in Scottsdale, who represents a number of Arizona cannabis-related 
businesses. "As that stigma drops off, other considerations such as 
environmental impact and carbon footprint will become more important."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom