Jillian Kramer is a New York City-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the online or print versions of Glamour, Food & Wine, SELF, The Wall Street Journal, and more.
Robert Eddy has 25 years’ experience managing state-of-the-art research greenhouses, growth rooms and growth chambers at Purdue University and Dow AgroSciences. He specializes in developing plant growth methods that are repeatable, reportable and scalable. His e-pubs on optimizing greenhouse production of corn, rice and Arabidopsis have been downloaded more than 50,000 times worldwide. He is currently a consultant with CEA Consultancy, advising vertical farms, hydroponic growers and cannabis operations.
Jolene Hansen is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. A former horticulture professional, she is a frequent contributor to the Horticulture Group publications owned by Cannabis Business Times’ parent company, GIE Media.
Mojave Richmond settled in the Netherlands in the early 1990s and became involved in the country’s newly emerging marijuana industry and breeding cannabis for specific therapeutic properties. Richmond developed the award-winning strain S.A.G.E., which served as a springboard for creating many notable cultivars, including Zeta. As laws began to relax in the U.S., Richmond moved back to California and began working as a cannabis farming consultant, designing custom hydro-organic cultivation facilities. Richmond continues to breed and develop new critically acclaimed varietals that present specific therapeutic attributes without compromising agronomic viability. He currently serves as an advisory board member for a National Institute of Health cannabis study based in Los Angeles. He is a founding member of the international consulting company BioAgronomics Group.
Robert C. Clarke has devoted his entire professional career and much of his personal life to the study of the cannabis plant and human-cannabis relationships. He is the author of “Marijuana Botany” and “HASHISH!,” co-author of “Hemp Diseases and Pests” and “Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany,” as well as several book chapters and numerous peer-reviewed articles, and has participated in many international conferences. He maintains a lengthy working relationship with HortaPharm BV in the Netherlands, specializing in industrial and medicinal cannabis breeding, and continues to serve as project manager for the International Hemp Association. He presently heads BioAgronomics Group Consultants, an international cannabis consultancy specializing in smoothing the transition into a wholly legal and normalized cannabis market.
Kerrie and Kurt Badertscher are co-owners of Otoké Horticulture, LLC and authors of “Cannabis for Capitalists.” They have worked with large-scale cannabis producers for more than six years. Kerrie has been involved with plants her entire lifetime and earned certification as a Professional Horticulturist by the 100-year-old American Society for Horticulture Sciences. Kurt brings his 34 years of corporate experience and operations management skills to bear on the business challenges of cannabis cultivation.
Jennifer Martin is an award-winning cultivator who now serves as an indoor cultivation site designer on the West Coast. She holds expertise in vertical LED flowering, commercial cultivation methods, nutrients, genetics and workflow.
Mark June-Wells is Principal Owner of Sativum Consulting Group, a company that helps clients reduce lag time between laboratory set-up and revenue generation. He was formerly the laboratory director for Connecticut Pharmaceutical Solutions (CPS), one of four licensed medical cannabis producers in the state, where he engineered CPS’ cannabinoid extraction efficiency and tracking programs and created one of the largest production databases in the U.S. Dr. June-Wells holds a Ph.D. in botany/plant ecology from Rutgers University.
Anne-Marie Hardie was born into the third-generation wholesale/retail greenhouse operation Bradford Greenhouses Garden Gallery. After some time working in the family business, she went from growing plants to writing about them. A Toronto-based freelancer, her work has appeared in Ornamental Breeder, Greenhouse Management, GrowerTalks/Green Profit, and Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, among others.
Kenneth Morrow has been writing cannabis-related articles and books for more than 20 years. He owns Trichome Technologies, a cannabis R&D company. He also is an award-winning grower and breeder. He has made contributions to many of today's extraction methodologies and holds multiple patents. He consults on all cannabis-related subjects. Find him on Facebook at: Trichome Technologies or Instagram: TrichomeTechnologies.
Douglas Brown is a longtime journalist who runs Contact High Communications, a public relations firm in Boulder, Colo. Among other things, Brown works closely with BDS Analytics, using the company's GreenEdge market research tool to tell data-rich stories about the blossoming commercial cannabis marketplace.
Christopher Sloper is a self-proclaimed gardening geek both indoors and out. From corn to cannabis, he has grown it all-for decades. His education consists of a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Master of Business Administration. Not only can he grow, but he can market, sell and strategize. He’s the CEO of Technical Gardener Inc., a full-service horticultural consulting firm and the author of "The LED Grow Book," now in its second edition.
By now, you may have heard about the raids and arrests made at Sweet Leaf dispensaries in Denver. Whether you have or haven’t, here’s a quick recap from Cannabis Business Times’ (CBT) coverage of the situation: After a year-long criminal investigation into the alleged illegal distribution of marijuana, all 26 of Sweet Leaf’s Colorado state licenses (including retail and cultivation) were suspended Dec. 14, and eight Sweet Leaf locations were targeted by search and arrest warrants.
Denver Police have arrested 13 budtenders at Sweet Leaf, one of the largest vertically integrated cannabis businesses in Colorado. Nine have been charged with distribution of marijuana of more than 1 ounce, a misdemeanor charge in Colorado. Four were charged with distribution of marijuana of more than 4 ounces—a felony charge. If convicted, these four will face a prison sentence of up to two years and a $100,000 fine.
A former Sweet Leaf employee told CBT that Sweet Leaf had been allowing customers, allegedly referred to by the company as “loopers,” to make multiple 1-ounce purchases a day. At one point during the 12-month investigation, detectives purchased upwards of 15 ounces of cannabis in about a two-hour time frame from the same store, and oftentimes, the same budtender.
While Colorado law limits Colorado residents’ purchase (in a single transaction) to 1 ounce, or 2 ounces for medical patients, Sweet Leaf had issued an internal document, obtained by CBT, stating the company’s policy is that once a customer had purchased his or her limit on rec sales, he or she had to “leave our property before they are allowed to come back.”
The situation has raised questions about the lack of clarity in Colorado’s law. New retail rule changes (in effect Jan. 1) clarify that “a single transaction includes multiple Transfers to the same consumer during the same business day where the Retail Marijuana Store employee knows or reasonably should know that such Transfer would result in that consumer possessing more than one ounce of marijuana.” The new medical rule changes specify the same. (See all changes to existing rules on the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division’s website.)
While Dan Rowland, director of public affairs at Denver’s Department of Excise & Licenses, said this is the first marijuana business to receive a summary suspension from the department, and the law seems to have left room for interpretation, it still reflects extremely poorly on the industry. Selling the ounce-limit to someone 15 times in one day is clearly not what the law intended.
I believe that serving “loopers” is the exception rather than the norm, but for any other vertically integrated businesses that do, the Sweet Leaf case serves as a severe cautionary tale. It’s also a lesson for cultivators to know your retail customers and their policies.
The image of a legal cannabis business, which so many of us are still fighting to legitimize to much of the population, can be tarnished in a heartbeat by bad players. It is not what the newly legalized industry needs.
The design and construction of a cannabis cultivation facility is a complex process that requires thorough consideration and the input from a diverse team including the owners, operators and professional consultants. And if you choose to retrofit, a variety of items should be considered. The following list, while not exhaustive, serves as a good starting point for the evaluation and layout of your building. Thinking about these items as early as possible in the project schedule will result in a process that is faster and less expensive, and yields a higher-quality and more-efficient operation.
Evaluate the Building to Determine Suitability for Cultivation
Existing buildings come in an infinite variety of types and conditions, each with their own unique set of qualities affecting how well they can be converted into a cultivation facility. Items to review include:
1. Structure Condition: Structural repairs are costly and time-consuming. It’s beneficial to have a structural engineer survey the building to confirm that no deficiencies exist. If rooftop mechanical units are planned, the structure must be evaluated to verify that it has the capacity to support the additional load or if it can be reinforced. If the site allows, it’s often preferred to mount the mechanical equipment on the ground around the perimeter of the building so the roof structure is not impacted.
2. Ceiling Height: A minimum clearance of 10 feet is desired under the roof (depending on the type of lighting used), though having more than 14 feet of clearance is even better. This allows enough room for lighting, ductwork and sprinklers, while still allowing plenty of space between plants and lights.
3. Materials and Contaminants: Older buildings frequently have contaminants such as asbestos, lead paint and mold hiding throughout. These items can be abated or encapsulated to provide a clean envelope (the separator between a conditioned and unconditioned environment), but it will require additional time and money. It’s important to be aware of this upfront so that these costs can be factored into the budget. Wood framing in walls and roofs also can be problematic, as it can affect the project’s allowable square footage or trigger a sprinkler requirement.
4. Utility Services and Capacity: Depending on the building’s previous use, the utilities (water, electricity, sanitary and storm sewers) may not be properly sized or located for cultivation use. It’s important to coordinate with the architect, and the civil, electrical and plumbing engineers to determine your facility’s utility needs early on in design, so you are prepared when evaluating sites. Finding a site with adequately sized utilities can save thousands in design, construction and utility district fees. Going a step further to confirm service from the proper utility districts with ‘Will Serve’ letters is the best way to ensure you have the utilities you need.
- Electrical: Cultivation facilities need a considerable amount of power to handle the lighting, dehumidification and cooling requirements. Depending on the lighting and mechanical systems selected, this can range from 25 watts to 35 watts per square foot. In facilities greater than 15,000 square feet, 480V/3-phase power will decrease the electrical distribution system and allow for a more cost-effective installation. If the utility cannot provide the power needed, options for site-generated power exist, but these are generally expensive.
- Water: The size of the domestic water service to the building will most likely need to be increased to handle the additional restrooms, showers and irrigation system. Depending on the age of the building and the local utility, backflow prevention might need to be added. A sprinkler system may also be necessary to satisfy building code requirements, based on the size, configuration and type of construction.
- Sanitary Sewer: The location, routing, size and depth of the sanitary drainage should be determined. If existing drawings of the system are not available, having a video sewer inspection will provide valuable information on the system’s configuration before design proceeds. Contact the local waste water department, as some call for the installation of waste-water-monitoring stations and have specific requirements on how these need to be installed.
Evaluate the Site for the Best Fit
In addition to the types of buildings available, it’s important to review and compare site constraints when selecting a facility location. A great building space can be nullified by poor site access, poor utility infrastructure or site drainage problems.
5. Site Access and Parking: It is important to find a site that fits your facility’s needs, both for staff parking and ease of access for your business partners (clients, customers, distributors and suppliers). Having adequate space for truck access and movement around the site will make deliveries and pickups easier and more efficient.
6. Drainage and Grading Impact: Water pooling or ponding in the winter is a major concern and a common problem for industrial sites due to the large amount of building area (typically with flat roofs), large parking areas and loading docks. Evaluating a site to determine existing storm water drainage is imperative to avoid damage to the roof, foundation, loading dock areas and parking lot. An ideal site drains away from the building and will sheet flow water or have storm water inlets throughout the outdoor paved areas.
Look at a Schematic Space Layout and How It Will Fit in the Structure
The location and layout of the grow rooms will drive the design of the rest of the building. Sketching potential layouts will help to determine if the building is suitable for cultivation.
7. Optimizing for Efficient Operations: An efficient arrangement of spaces and functions is one of the most important aspects of your design. Carefully consider how the plants move through the building over the course of their grow cycles and processing to help ensure that time and employee productivity are not wasted.
8. Existing Structure and Proportions: Existing buildings typically come with their own peculiarities in how they are laid out. The proportions, exits, column grid and plumbing locations are oftentimes not in ideal locations. During design, it’s important to analyze which elements can be easily modified versus what needs to be worked around. There is a tendency to want to reuse existing elements such as restrooms or offices with the intent of saving money during construction. However, it usually makes more sense to start with a clean slate so that all components can be arranged in their ideal locations and constructed to current standards.
Understand the Jurisdiction Processes Beforehand
Many jurisdictions are still sorting out how to regulate cannabis cultivation. In addition to business practices and financial regulations, cannabis facility development will require local jurisdictional planning, engineering and building permitting approvals.
9. Adhering to Zoning Code: Many jurisdictions don’t have a specific cannabis cultivation facility zoning type, and these facilities can fall into several different use types per local zoning code (indoor agricultural, garden and cultivation, commercial processing, etc.). Careful review of existing and proposed zoning code for your potential site, as well as adjacent parcels, to know what is permitted is a must. Often, renovation projects incur a change in use, which will likely require rezoning or conditional approvals from city or county jurisdictions.
10. Engineering Permitting Is Separate from Building Permitting: Improvements to the site engineering, such as changes to the grade and topography, upsizing or creating new utility lines, and adding access points to the site are all engineering improvements separate from the building improvements. As such, these improvements follow a separate review and approval process, and typically need to be approved prior to building permit approval. Jurisdictions differ greatly in which submittals are required for engineering review, so it’s smart to involve an engineer early and meet with the city or county to confirm the process.
New Construction Must Comply with Current Building Codes
Converting an existing building to house cannabis cultivation or processing will typically be considered a “Change of Occupancy” by the building department, which results in the need to upgrade the building to meet current regulations. A long list of items must be considered, but primary issues include:
11. Area and Height of the Building: Code analysis will reveal if the existing area and height of the building is allowed; if not, there are ways to meet requirements by segregating areas with fire separations or installing sprinklers.
12. Exiting: The number and location of exits is one of the first elements to be established. Once these are determined, the rest of the layout will be worked around them.
13. ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act): All restrooms will need to be upgraded to be ADA compliant. An accessible path is required from the parking area leading into and through the building to accessible areas (bathrooms, breakrooms, offices, etc.). At least one building entry will be required to be accessible, which could potentially mean adding a ramp or lift.
14. Ventilation/Odor Control: The facility will be required to meet the local ventilation and odor-control requirements. The amount of outside (or ventilation) air should be kept at a minimum to reduce the amount of air leaving the facility and requiring odor treatment. Reducing outside air will also help reduce the risk of outside contaminants to the grow areas.
Potential Physical Security Upgrades
Many building-conversion projects are in unpopulated industrial areas and warehouse parks. Upgrading the building’s physical security becomes a major part of renovation and can be addressed with a wide range of options. Some worth considering include:
15. Fencing: The addition of full-perimeter fencing is a simple means of securing access to the building and screening visitors. Depending on the jurisdiction, gate access for vehicles or pedestrians may also be regulated.
16. Entryway: All visitors and employees should enter the building at a single access point that has a security desk or check-in window. Any other required exits should be considered “egress only” and alarmed so that security personnel are alerted if they are opened. If a shipping/receiving area is needed, this should be protected by a fenced and gated enclosure so that loading doors are never open to the rest of the site.
Consider Future Expansion
In many markets, especially states that are just now launching medical marijuana programs, demand is insufficient to justify large cultivation operations. In this situation, it can be best to start with a smaller operation that can be scaled up as the market matures.
17. Phasing: A phased build-out will allow for the most efficient use of your available budget by only completing construction on portions of the building that will be immediately useful. As revenue and demand increases, additional grow and processing capacity can be added. When phasing a project, it is essential to design the entire facility as it will be constructed in its fully built-out state, so that all elements are coordinated, and adequate infrastructure is installed (electrical service, water line, restrooms, etc.). From the full design, you can then work backwards to select the areas to initially build.
18. Site: Selecting a location that has additional structures on-site or space to construct new structures will allow for future expansion with minimal interruption to existing operations. Careful consideration should be given to how the original and new spaces interact with each other to minimize inefficiencies.
Byron Ballantyne, PE, senior MEP Engineer with more than 10 years of experience designing data centers, electronic and chemical laboratories, and telecommunication facilities. Douglas Dunkin, PE LEED AP, co-founder of Grow Group and president/CEO for R&R Engineers-Surveyors Inc. Taylor Webb, LEED-AP is the co-founder of Grow Group (303grow.com) and founder/president of Manifold Design and Development.
Creekside Cannabis—like any all-indoor cannabis cultivator—can face a bevy of problems when it comes to producing perfect grows: pests, mold and bad genetics can all play a role in less-than-ideal buds. But one problem this Washington state cultivator doesn’t face, says owner Brandon Caffrey, is one with nutrients. “There’s pest management, of course, and we sometimes battle genetics with a plant that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do,” he says. “But our challenges aren’t super nutrient-[based].”
Inside Creekside Cannabis’ 10,000-square-foot facility, 17 employees use an ebb-and-flow method—with flood tables—to feed nutrients to their plants. Creekside Cannabis grows about 10 strains at any given time: up to seven are customers’ favorites, while three or four are new strains that the cultivator hasn’t grown before—but there’s enough curiosity or customer demand for these strains to give them a try. “You’re always in search of the Holy Grail of strains, right? But you have to run a mixture [of strains and products],” Caffrey says. “It’s a real balancing act.”
What’s more, says Caffrey, “we try to focus on ‘small batch,’ and having a really high-quality flower.” From each strain, Creekside Cannabis sells flower and pre-rolls and, more recently, has begun sending trimmings to be processed into butane hash oil (BHO). “We basically have three products,” Caffrey says, “but BHO has really taken off.”
How did Creekside Cannabis find the nutrient formula that works for them? Here are Creekside’s four tips for finding the best nutrients:
1. Start Strong (Beginning With Your Clones)
Caffrey credits much of Creekside Cannabis’ success to high-quality clones. “It really is about momentum,” he says. “If you have a really good, solid clone with really great roots—if it’s a healthy plant to start out with—then it’s really easy to take it through the process.” That’s why, Caffrey says, Creekside Cannabis’ cloning department “is the most important in our process.” In fact, he notes, the team there spends the most time making “sure that our clones are well-rooted and very healthy. Once [clones] get their start, it’s just rinse and repeat.”
2. Feed Based on Growth Stage and Plants’ Needs
Aside from healthy, quality clones, Creekside Cannabis uses a three-part nutrient system, because a three-part nutrient system gives the cultivator “more control over the entire process,” Caffrey says.
Most, if not all, two-part nutrient systems come premixed—in other words, they don’t allow you to tweak the formula based on your plants’ needs, explains John Best, Creekside Cannabis’ head grower. “When we use a three-part system, we’re mixing every single part individually,” he says. “It gives us more control to adjust the nutrients based on what the plants are telling us that they need.”
The three-part-system that Creekside Cannabis uses provides plants with the nutrients they most need during the different phases of the plant’s life cycle, Best says. And while the plants may receive a dose of all the nutrients at once, this system allows Best to add more of what they need, when they need it. For example, he says, “When your plants are in the vegetative state—when you’re trying to transplant them and get them big enough to flower—you’re giving them everything you would give them in the flower stage, but you’re giving them more grow nutrients than bloom nutrients.”
3. Choose Your Nutrients Based on Results—Not Hype
Caffrey says Creekside Cannabis tried multiple nutrient lines before settling on what works best for the business. Not every nutrient line works as well as another would for your specific growing environment. That’s why Creekside Cannabis screens every nutrient line before it exposes the plants to it. “We really drill down, and we use a lot of tests,” he says, adding that Creekside Cannabis will test a sample plant with the nutrients, looking for yield, and what Caffrey calls “good, stable production all the way through on the commercial scale.” Those tests led Creekside Cannabis to settle on a brand that works best for its plants and the company’s goals. (“We definitely also read the ingredients and see what’s going in,” Caffrey notes.) “We care about the overall frost of the trichomes and the way that the plant looks—and basically, the way that it finishes off. Everybody wants really, really frosty buds,” Caffrey says, satisfied that is what he can give his customers.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Network
Caffrey admits that even as an experienced cultivator or grower, you won’t always have the answer to a problem—or even to a simple question. That’s why his team relies on networking with others in the cannabis industry to discover the best methods for producing top-quality cannabis. Growing the perfect cannabis plant, Caffrey says, “is part trial and error, but the other part is networking. We have definitely networked as much as we can,” adding that the team has reached out to others in Washington as well as “in Denver and other markets.”
By Jillian Kramer, a New York City-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the online or print versions of Glamour, Food & Wine, SELF, The Wall Street Journal, and more.
Cannabis Business Times’ interactive legislative map is another tool to help cultivators quickly navigate state cannabis laws and find news relevant to their markets. View More