9 July 2016
Here’s the report…
Each is the result of months of careful growing, monitoring, coaxing, and finally cultivating, scores of plants in a hidden farm overseen by horticulturalists and protected by armed guards.
This is one of two production facilities operated by Surterra Therapeutics, the first of six companies to win state approval to grow and harvest medical marijuana for the seriously ill and dying.
It is part pharmaceutical production facility, part grow house. Its operators say it is just the start of new business they hope will bring high-quality, and formerly unavailable, medicine to patients who need it the most.
“It’s a very exciting place to be in the medical field in Florida right now, because this is not just a new medication we’re talking about,” said Dr. Joseph Dorn, Surterra’s medical director, whose career includes a dozen years in Florida hospice care. “This is a mindset transformation in the treatment of patients, probably tens of thousands of patients whose symptoms are not completely relieved right now.”
Florida laws adopted in 2014 and this year allow two types of medical marijuana: non-euphoric strains, such as “Charlotte’s Web,” that is thought to help control seizures and ease symptoms of certain other medical conditions; and full-strength marijuana to alleviate pain, nausea and other symptoms for patients considered terminally ill.
Since Surterra won approval to harvest last month, Florida has allowed four other companies to do the same: Chestnut Hill Tree Farm in Alachua County, Hackney Nursery in Gadsden County, Modern Health Concepts in Miami-Dade County, and Knox Nursery in Orange County.
Such businesses are poised to expand considerably if the required 60 percent of voters in November cast ‘Yes’ ballots for Amendment 2, which would legalize full-strength marijuana for an estimated 450,000 Floridians with debilitating illnesses.
And Surterra, an Atlanta-based start-up that partnered with the 30-year-old Homestead-based Alpha Foliage, plans to be among the state’s largest producers.
The company operates a 6,000-square-foot facility in rural Tallahassee to grow the non-euphoric strain; another slightly smaller facility outside of Tampa grows the full-strength variety. Each is expected to supply medicine for 2,000 to 4,000 patients per month.
“Surterra’s key thing is producing a consistent, high-quality, safe product,” said Susan Driscoll, the company’s president. “It’s for people who are sick.”
Surterra’s primary growing facility outside of Tallahassee is housed in a windowless structure in a sparsely populated, rural area outside of the city. The building is under 24/7 video surveillance and is surrounded by a chain-linked fence with barbed wire.
Nothing of the growing operation can be seen from the main road, and no signs announce its presence.
Visitors are given instructions to the site verbally — no emailed addresses — to make sure its location is not accidentally shared.
Employees and others that the company allows on the property must pass through two checkpoints, each with an armed guard, before reaching the main building.
Once inside, security takes all cellphones and checks IDs a third time.
Each marijuana plant, and anything harvested or discarded, is weighed and tracked by individual bar code.
Waste is ground into near dust and mixed in as compost out back. (Employees are thinking about planting a vegetable garden in the spot.)
“Nobody can slide away with it,” Driscoll said, motioning to the pockets in the protective jumpsuit workers are required to wear: “In fact these are sewn together.”
In truth, it’s a lot of expense and effort for marijuana that would be useless to most would-be recreational smokers.
This high-cannabidiol, low-tetrahydrocannabinol (or THC) type of cannabis does not produce the high typical of recreational marijuana.
If one were to smoke it? “You’d probably just get a headache,” Driscoll said.