Texas marijuana

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, August 22nd. Thanks for listening today.  

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: growing medical marijuana in Texas.

In our series on the marijuana green rush, we’ve talked about states legalizing medical and recreational cannabis. But not every state is in a hurry to jump on the marijuana bandwagon. Texas is one of the states taking baby steps.

REICHARD: In 2015 the Texas legislature passed the Compassionate Use Act. It legalized marijuana for one specific medical diagnosis—intractable epilepsy. The law allows only three companies to produce it, and the dose has to be low in THC. That’s the substance in marijuana that makes you high.

WORLD Radio’s Susan Olasky recently visited one of these businesses and brings us this report.

SUSAN OLASKY, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Compassionate Cultivation occupies a steel industrial building about 45 minutes south of Austin—where suburbs meet farmland.

AUDIO: Everything you see in this warehouse was built out in a couple of months.

That’s Director of Cultivation Taylor Kirk. He studied soil and crop science at Texas A&M—and now he’s putting that expertise to work growing pot.

But it’s not just any pot. Traditionally marijuana users have wanted pot that’s high in THC. That’s the substance that makes people high. But this facility by law must grow pot that’s low in THC. It’s for patients with epilepsy. Those whose seizures don’t respond to traditional medicine and have the consent of two neurologists to try medical marijuana.

At present, about 200 patients buy their medical cannabis from Compassionate Cultivation.

AUDIO: For our business, it’s going to be hard for us to sustain ourselves on this market. It’s too small and too much cost involved with this operation.

My first impression is a modern doctor’s office—well, except for the strong cannabis odor. Two women in scrubs sit behind a counter. They fill prescriptions for patients who choose to pick up their medicine rather than receive delivery.

AUDIO: All our finished product is kept in a safe within a vault. It’s highly secure. Whenever a patient comes to our facility to pick up their medicine, it’s been physician-prescribed. We pull that prescription from the database that the doctor has access to, we have access to, and DPS has access to.

DPS is the Texas Department of Public Safety. That’s the state law enforcement agency. By law, DPS—and not the health department— regulates the three marijuana businesses. DPS agents inspect the facility to make sure it complies with state law.

AUDIO: We’re working with the legislation, with DPS to show our ability… operate within the bounds of the law, be extraordinarily diligent in our compliance efforts.

That’s owner Morris Denton. He knows his company is under a spotlight. It has to prove it can comply with the law—or the legislature will refuse to expand the program. And all this investment will go up in smoke.

That proof starts with security. As Taylor Kirk shows me around, he swipes ID to access different rooms.

AUDIO: [Beep. Air change. Fan.]

Kirk has a scientific explanation for the funky, skunky, sweet earthy smell that permeates this facility.

AUDIO: Each plant is going to have a slightly different smell to it. That’s attributed to the terpene profile, certain chemical compounds that the plants create and have a smell they give off.

It’s dark inside the vegetation room. The plants in here are on a strict schedule—18 hours of daylight. Six hours of dark. Kirk flicks on some green lights that won’t stress the plants so I can get a better view. Tables hold rows of potted cannabis.

AUDIO: This room houses mother plants and young plants that are growing up for production. The mother plant isn’t going to be flowered. Its whole purpose for us is just to provide new plants. So we take cuttings off those.

Flowering plants are in another room, which is off-limits.  

AUDIO: [Beep] When we harvest the plants, we bring them into this drying room … This is where the plant material comes after harvest to—dry. [Stripping sound]

Two cultivation technicians strip the large leaves from stalks. They hang the bare stalks with flowers attached until they dry.

Since Texas only allows one form of medical cannabis—an oil-based tincture—the rest of the facility resembles a chemistry lab more than a greenhouse.  

AUDIO: You’re now in our extraction lab.

Here they extract oils from the dried plant material. They call the result crude oil.

AUDIO: Very dense viscous material that has to be refined. And so what you’re looking at right now is part of that refining process.

A beaker spins in hot water to separate lipids, waxes, and chlorophyll from what Kirk calls the “actual medicine.”

Manufacturing is underway in another room. Though Compassionate Cultivation owns the facility and all the equipment, another company tests and manufactures on site.

AUDIO: Jason Hamilton is our analyzing specialist. He’s also involved in manufacturing… Before he manufactures a new batch he does a full room sterilization. Wears personal protective equipment to prevent contamination of those bottles he’s producing. Peek into testing lab. This is our secure vault. This is our testing lab. There’s a hum, a white noise.

Here, expensive machines measure potency.

AUDIO: By law we are required to test for potency and to prove the potency of our product. So we use this HPLC—the machine that is able to test for the different cannabinoids, different levels of cannabinoids.

And test for contaminants.

AUDIO: Most cannabis programs – different states – require pesticide testing, molds, fungus, potency, and heavy metals. And so we’ve decided to go ahead and test for all those things.

For the business to earn a profit, Texas will have to allow cannabis use for more conditions—perhaps Autism, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and PTSD. Owner Morris Denton is betting that will happen—eventually.

AUDIO: The reality is, that of the other 29 states that have preceded Texas down this road… Not a single one has started small and stayed small or started small and gone away. They’ve all started small and then grown.

The go-slow approach in Texas may frustrate marijuana advocates, but it gives the state a chance to learn from the experience of others. Amid all the excitement, warning signs are also flashing. In Oregon recreational pot is crowding out medical cannabis, even before rigorous medical testing confirms health claims.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Susan Olasky, reporting from Austin, Texas.

(Photo/Susan Olasky)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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