Illinois — Sunlight streaming through a glass roof in a rural warehouse will likely soon be feeding one of Illinois’ first legal crops of marijuana seedlings.
The company that owns the warehouse, PharmaCann LLC, is preparing for a final inspection from state regulators Tuesday. Once that is secured, along with IDs for workers who have passed background checks, Illinois’ fledgling medical marijuana industry will finally be able to get down to business — growing pot — nearly two years since a change in state law made it legal and after a series of hiccups in the roll-out that followed.
Since the state began issuing the worker IDs earlier this month, at least six cultivation centers have been approved to receive them, Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Kristi Jones said via email. The cultivation houses must pass a department inspection before receiving written authorization to commence operations but should begin growing “very shortly,” Jones wrote.
In March, the state issued preliminary licenses for 18 cultivation centers, whose owners have since been busy overseeing construction, buying and securing equipment and hiring employees. On Friday, the state announced that it had authorized the first two to begin growing and expected to greenlight more in coming days.
The business with more licenses than any other is Oak Park-based PharmaCann, with cultivation centers in rural Dwight and Hillcrest, plus four dispensaries in the Chicago area.
“Getting permitted, built and operational in six months (as required by law) is a very, very big undertaking,” Chief Operations Officer John Leja said. “Construction is one component, but it’s also hiring, building a brand and purchasing. It’s a complicated dance.”
While most cultivation centers are nondescript warehouses, PharmaCann’s facilities will have glass roofs above their steel-and-concrete walls to let sunshine in.
The solar energy is meant to cut down on the use of high-temperature grow lights and reduce the site’s energy bill and carbon footprint by up to half, Leja said.
Leja, a former intellectual property attorney, said he has been working 80- to 100-hour weeks since PharmaCann got its licenses. He said his team is in effect creating a company from scratch, based on lengthy applications submitted to the state last year, while constructing buildings and meeting a long list of regulations.
In general, the cultivation centers are huge, covering tens of thousands of square feet and employing dozens of workers. The structures have sophisticated environmental systems to control temperature, humidity, irrigation and artificial lighting.
Most will start with a small number of pots containing marijuana seedlings or clones, stem cuttings from another plant just 1 1/2 inches long, Leja said. From that initial crop, growers will discard the male plants in favor of flowering female plants and select the bushiest specimens to reproduce, eventually creating thousands of plants.
Under light for up to 20 hours a day, the plants can grow to several feet in height. As light is reduced to 12 hours a day, the plants enter a flowering stage, producing the buds that contain the greatest amounts of THC, the component that gets users high. Other strains will seek to maximize other components purported to have different medicinal qualities.
The first crop should take three to four months to grow, cut and process, growers said, making it available to consumers by late fall.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Advocates and critics agree that more research is needed on its medical use.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed 79 trials involving cannabis and found moderate evidence to support the drug’s use for chronic pain, muscle spams and stiffness, and lesser evidence suggesting its usefulness for nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy and sleep disorders.
Another study in the same journal last year found that states permitting medical marijuana had significantly lower rates of death from overdoses of prescription narcotics.
To get approval to buy the product in Illinois, residents must have any of more than 40 specified medical conditions, such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis. They must submit fingerprints and pass a criminal background check, and must get a recommendation from a doctor.
Only 2,600 patients have been approved by the state to receive the drug, a fraction of the 100,000-plus that entrepreneurs were expecting, but business owners expect that number to increase once the product becomes available.
Progress in getting the industry off the ground comes as the business license holders recently formed the Medical Cannabis Alliance of Illinois. The group consists of most of the license holders in the state, and its executive director is Bresha Brewer, a former state Department of Agriculture legislative liaison.
It advocates for extending the four-year trial period of the law, set to expire at the end of 2017, eliminating the fingerprint requirement for patients and expanding the number of qualifying medical conditions and patients.
A bill that would extend the pilot program for four years after the first dispensaries open has passed the Illinois legislature and is awaiting action by Gov. Bruce Rauner.