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Is There a Medical Cannabis Crisis Brewing in Germany?

By Marguerite Arnold
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There is a great deal to be happy about with medical cannabis legalization in Germany. This is the first country that has mandated insurance coverage of the drug – at least at the federal legislative level.

However, as the government evaluates the finalists in the first tender bid for domestically grown and regulated cannabis, a real crisis is brewing for patients on the ground. And further one that the industry not only sees but is trying to respond to.

Spektrum Cannabis GmbH, formerly MedCann GmbH began trying to address this problem when they obtained the first import license for Canadian cannabis last year. They are also one of the apparent five finalists in the pending government bid to grow the plant domestically for medical purposes. According to Dr. Sebastian Schulz, head of communications for Spektrum, “Shortly after the new cannabis law was reformed we experienced a huge increase in demand from the side of patients. We had prepared for that. The German population is very curious about cannabis as a medicine and in general very open to natural remedies.”

People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowly. Much like Israel, the government has allowed a trickle of patients to have access to cannabis by jumping through multiple, time consuming hoops. The process of getting cannabis prescribed, much less getting a pharmacy to stock it, was difficult. Patients had to pay out of pocket – a monthly cost of about $1,700. While that is expensive by American standards, to Germans, this is unheard of. The vast majority of the population – 90% – is on public health insurance. That means that most Germans get medications for $12 a month, no matter what they are. Allegedly, German patients were supposed to get about 5oz a month for this price. At least that is what the law says.

People are curious here. But like other places, the law in Germany has evolved slowlyAs in other countries, no matter what Germans think about recreational reform, the clear majority of them at this point support medical use. And at this point, both legislatively and via the courts, the government has said and been required to provide the drug to Germans patients at low cost.

Unintended Effects & Consequences

Since the law went into effect in March of this year however, things have suddenly turned very dire for patients.

The handful of people who had the right to grow at home – established under lawsuits several years ago – were suddenly told they could no longer do so. They had to go to a doctor and regular pharmacy. Even regular patients in the system found that their insurance companies, allegedly now required to pay, are refusing to reimburse claims. Doctors who prescribed the drug were abruptly informed that they would be financially responsible for every patient’s drug cost for the next two years (about $50,000 per patient).

Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

To add a final blow to an already dire situation, German pharmacies that carried the drug, then announced an additional fee. It is about $9 extra per gram, added at the pharmacy, pushing the price of legitimate cannabis north of $20 dollars per gram. This is justified as a “preparation fee.” Cannabis bud is technically marked as an “unprocessed drug.” This means the pharmacies can charge extra for “processing” the same. In reality this might be a little bud trimming. If that. The current distributors in the market already prep and pre-package the drug.

What this bodes for a future dominated by infused products, oils and concentrates is unclear. However the impact now is large, immediate and expensive in a country where patients also must still go to the pharmacy in person for all prescription drugs.

There is no mail order here, by federal law. Online pharmacies are a luxury for Auslanders.

At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow.While nobody has challenged this situation yet en masse, it is already a sore point not only for patients but across the industry. It means that an already expensive drug has gotten even more expensive. It also means that the government regulations are not working as planned.

At least not yet. For the large Canadian companies now coming into the market with multimillion-dollar investments already sunk in hard costs, Germany will be a loss-leader until the system sorts itself out.

According to Schulz, whose company is now in the thick of it, the new law is very vague. “Currently, there are almost no cannabis flowers available in German pharmacies because companies like us are not allowed to sell them,” says Schulz. “Various different regulatory demands come up that seemed to change on a monthly basis. We are ready to deliver even large amounts of cannabis for a market that might well explode soon – but we first need to overcome the regulatory nightmare that leads to the suffering of so many patients here these days.”

At minimum, this could mean that without some relief, German patients will go right back into the black market and home grow. Black market costs for cannabis are about $10-15 a gram. In other words, exactly the situation the government was hoping to avoid.

What Is Causing The Situation?

The intended effect of the legislation was twofold, according to industry insiders: To legalize cannabis in such a way to meet a rising public demand and, in the face of a court decision, to limit the home grow movement. The latter of which, despite federal regulations, is thriving here. Germans like to grow things, and cannabis is a rewarding plant to nurture.

High attendance at the Mary Jane Grow Expo in Berlin in June is just one sign that the genie is out of this particular bottle. BfArM – the federal agency in charge of regulating narcotics and medical devices – cannot stuff it back.Patients are going back to the way things were

However home grow does not build a professional, high volume cannabis market, much less a highly regulated medical one make. The government also made clear that it is going to have strict inspections and quality controls, and will technically buy all the cannabis produced, per the terms of the bid application process.

However, it is not entirely clear when the government will start actually doing the buying. And why the buying has not started yet. If insurance companies are refusing to pay, this means the government is not reimbursing them. The same government, which has also agreed to do so, as of March 2017.

What Gives On Good Old German Efficiency?

On the streets, patients are going back to the way things were. Many are used to fighting for the only drug that makes them feel better. The euphoria in May, for example, has been replaced with weary acceptance that things might get a bit worse before they really improve.

That said, there is also a realization that more activism and lobbying are required on just about every front. If an extrapolation of data from say Colorado or California is applied to Germany, there are already at least a million eligible patients here, based on the qualifying conditions. The government is planning for an annual increase in medical patients of about 5-10,000 a year, including in the amount of cannabis they are planning on buying from the licensed producers they choose. The numbers, however, are already not matching.Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.

Added to this wrinkle is the other reality that is also looming, particularly now.

With one exception, all of the firms now apparently in contention as finalists for the German government bid will also be supplying a domestic market in Canada that is going rec next summer. One year, in other words, before the German companies even begin producing.

What Is The Upshot For Patients?

Guenther Weiglein is one of the five patients who sued for home grow rights in 2014. He is now suing again for the right to extend home grow privileges until the government figures out its process. He is not the only one. Earlier this year he was told he had to stop his home grow and integrate into the “mainstream” system. So far, he, along with other patients who are suing, including for insurance coverage, have not been able to get cannabis easily through the system, although they are starting to make progress.

Weiglein’s situation is made even more frustrating by the fluidity of the situation. As of late July, he had finally gotten agreement from his insurance company to cover the drug. But now he cannot find a doctor willing to accept the financial risk of prescribing it to him. And in the meantime he has no access to medication.

Talk to any group of advocates right now, and there is one ongoing story. Even existing patients are literally being forced into the black market again.

And those that can’t afford it? They are out of luck. Some patients say a tragedy like someone dying will create the impetus to move this into public eye. A hunger strike here by a leading cannabis doctor earlier this summer has so far not had much impact on policy. There is a great deal of pessimism here, as promised change earlier this year has turned into a long and drawn out multiyear question mark.

If this sounds like a bubbling and untenable situation, especially before a national election, it is. The prospect of another four years of Angela Merkel does not bode well for fast cannabis reform.

That said, the German government is now in an interesting situation. The law has now clearly changed to say that sick Germans are allowed to use cannabis as a drug of choice for chronic diseases when all else fails. Further, the national government has bound the insurance industry to cover it. So far, every patient who has sued for coverage has won. That has not, however, moved the insurance industry altogether. Nor has it solved the problem with doctors prescribing the drug.

Many now ask what will? It is clear, however, that it will change. The question is when, how fast, and in what situations.

The problem will undoubtedly ease by 2019, when the first German crops are finally ready, although it will be far from completely solved.

PA Announces First 12 Grower/Processor Permit Winners

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Pennsylvania Department of Health announced today the first 12 winners of growing and processing permits for the state’s medical cannabis program. At first glance, it appears those who won the permits have teams with experience in successful cannabis operations elsewhere in the country. The permit winners now have six months to become operational, according to a press release.

The list of permit winners by region

According to that press release, John Collins, director of the Pennsylvania Office of Medical Marijuana, received 457 applications in total, with 177 prospective grower/processors and 280 for dispensaries. “With today’s announcement, we remain on track to fulfill the Wolf Administration’s commitment to deliver medical marijuana to patients in 2018,” says Collins. “The applications from the entities receiving permits were objectively reviewed by an evaluation team made up of members from across commonwealth agencies.”

A sample score card for the applicants

In the populous Southeast region of Pennsylvania, grower/processor permits were awarded to Prime Wellness of Pennsylvania, LLC, and Franklin Labs, LLC. Prime Wellness is a Connecticut-based enterprise. According to Steve Schain, Esq., attorney at the Hoban Law Group, Franklin Labs includes team members from Garden State Dispensary, a successful medical cannabis operation in New Jersey.

Two of the businesses that won permits are actually from Illinois, not Pennsylvania. GTI Pennsylvania, LLC (Green Thumb Industries), has a strong presence in Illinois and Nevada. AES Compassionate Care LLC lists their business state as Illinois as well.

Steve Schain, Esq. practicing at the Hoban law Group

“Based on the first phase award of grower/processor licensees both the strength and weakness of Pennsylvania’s program has been highlighted,” says Schain. “Many licensee recipients are affiliated with existing national marijuana-related businesses with excellent track records for operating in a transparent, compliant and profitable manner.” The applications were rated on a scorecard out of 1,000 points. “Unfortunately missing from this initial phase license winners are purely regional enterprises who may have been unable to compete with national concerns’ resources and checkbooks.” According to Schain, some of the more significant areas on the scorecard reflect a diversity plan, community impact statement, business history and capacity to operate, capital requirements and operational timetable. Capital requirements are the applicants’ demonstrable financial resources comprised of at least $2 million in capital and $500,000 in cash. All of the growers are required to grow indoors, not in a greenhouse or on an outdoor farm.

There is also a ten-day appeals process for scorecards that will undoubtedly be utilized by companies that were not successful in their bids. The next phase, according to Schain, of Pennsylvania’s Medical Marijuana Program regards “Clininical Registrants” in which grow/processor and dispensary licensure will be awarded to eight applicants, which, if able to satisfy requirements including demonstrating $15 million in capital, will be authorized to open up to six dispensary locations.

 

Applications for Tissue Culture in Cannabis Growing: Part 3

By Aaron G. Biros
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In the first part of this series, we introduced some relevant terms and principles to tissue culture micropropagation and reviewed Dr. Hope Jones’ background in the science of it. In the second part, we went into the advantages and disadvantages of using mother plants to clone and why tissue culture could help growers scale up. In the third part of this series, we are going to examine the five steps that Dr. Jones lays out to successfully micropropagate cannabis plants from tissue cultures.

Cleaning – Stage 0

Explant cuttings are obtained from mother plants. The cuttings are further separated into smaller stem pieces with a single node.

Micropropagation includes 5 stages. “Stage 0 is the preparation of mother plants and harvest of cuttings for the explant material,” says Dr. Jones. “To ensure the best chance of growing well in culture, those ladies [the mom’s] should be cleaned up and at their best. And hopefully not stressed by insects or pathogens.” She says growers should also make sure the plants are properly fertilized and watered before harvesting explants. “Obtaining the explants is done with a clean technique using new disposable blades and gloves,” says Dr. Jones. “Young shoot tips are harvested and placed in labeled, large Ziploc bags with a small amount of dilute bleach and surfactant solution, then placed in a cooler and taken to the lab.” This is a process that could be documented with record keeping and data logs to ensure the same care is taken for every explant. “Once in the lab, working in the sterile environment of the transfer hood, the cuttings are sterilized, typically with bleach and a little surfactant, and then rinsed several times with sterile water,” says Dr. Jones. Once they reach the sterile environment, Dr. Jones removes the leaves and cuts the stem down to individual nodes.

Establishment – Stage 1

Established explants propagating shoots

Establishment essentially means waiting for the shoots to develop. Establishing the culture requires an absolutely sterile environment, which is why the first step is so important. “Proper explant disinfection is equally as important is the control parameters of the facility itself,” says Dr. Jones. Mother plants are not grown in sterile facilities, but in an environment that is invariably contaminated with dust, which harbors micro-organisms, insects and other potential sources of contamination, including human handling. We discussed some of this in Part 2.

Explants, once sterilized and placed in the culture vessel, must establish to the new aseptic conditions. “Basically Stage 0 ends when the explants are cleaned and placed in the vessel. Stage 1 begins on the shelf while we patiently sit, watch and wait for the shoot growth,” says Dr. Jones. “Successful establishment means we properly disinfected the explants because the cultures do not become contaminated with bacteria or fungi and new shoot growth emerges.”

Multiplication – Stage 2

Stage 2 involves subculturing an explant to produce new shoots

This stage is rather self-explanatory as multiplication simplified means generating many more shoots per explant. In order to create a large number of plants needed for meeting the demand of weekly clone orders, Dr. Jones can break up, or subculture, one explant that contains multiple numerous new shoots. “Let’s say one vessel, which originally started with 4 explants each developed four new shoots. Working in the hood, I remove each explant from the vessel and place it on a sterile petri dish. Now I can divide each explant into 4 new explants and then place the four new explant cuttings into their own vessel. In this example, we started with one vessel with 4 explants,” says Dr. Jones. “Which when subcultured 4-6 weeks later, we now have 4 vessels with 16 plants.” This is instrumental in understanding how tissue culture micropropagation can help growers scale without the need for a ton of space and maintenance. From a single explant, you can potentially generate 70,000 plants after 48 weeks, according to Dr. Jones. “Starting with not 1, but 10 or 20 explants would significantly speed up multiplication.” Using tissue culture effectively, one can see how a grower can exponentially increase their production.

Rooting – Stage 3

“When the decision is made to move cultures to the rooting stage, we typically need to subculture the plantlets to a different media formulated to induce rooting,” says Dr. Jones. “In some instances, the media is very dark, and that’s because of the addition of activated charcoal.” Using activated charcoal, according to Dr. Jones, helps darken the rooting environment, which closely mimics a normal rooting environment. “It helps remove high levels of cytokinin and other possible inhibitory compounds,” says Dr. Jones. Cytokinins are a type of plant growth hormone commonly used to promote healthy shoot growth, but it is important to make sure the culture contains the right ratio of hormones, including cytokinin and auxin for maximum root and shoot development. Dr. Jones suggests that growers research their own media formulation to ensure nice, healthy roots develop and that no tissue dies in the process. “With everything I grow in culture, when it comes to media, in any stage and with all new strains, I run some simple experiments in order to refine the media used,” says Dr. Jones. She puts a special focus on the concentrations and ratios of plant hormones in formulating her medias.

After harvesting and multiplying, these explants are ready for rooting

“We commonly think of auxin’s role in rooting, but it’s also important in leaves and acts as a regulator of apical shoot dominance,” says Dr. Jones. “So having no auxin may not be ideal for the shooting media used in Stages 1 and 2.” Auxin is a plant hormone that can help promote the elongation of cells, an important step in any plant’s growth. “And cytokinins are typically synthesized in the root and moves through xylem to shoots to regulate mitosis as well as inducing lateral bud branching, so again finding that nice balance between these two hormones is key.”

Acclimation & Hardening Off – Stage 4

“When plants have developed good looking healthy roots, it’s time to pop the top,” says Dr. Jones. This means opening the vessel, another risk for contamination, which is why having a clean environment is so crucial. “The location of these vessels needs to be tightly controlled for light, relative humidity, temperature and cleanliness.” In the culture, sugar is a main ingredient in the medium, because the growing explants are not very photosynthetically active. “By opening the lid of the vessel, carbon dioxide is introduced to the environment, which promotes and enhances photosynthesis, really getting the plants ready for cultivation.”

Harvesting explant material from mother plants

The very final step in tissue culture micropropagation is hardening, which involves the formation of the waxy cuticle on the leaves of the plant, according to Dr. Jones. This is what preps the plant to actually survive in an unsterile environment. “The rooted plants are removed from the culture vessel, the media washed off and placed in a potting mix/matrix or plug and kept in high humidity and low light,” says Dr. Jones. “Now that there is no sugar, contamination is no longer a threat, and these plants can be moved to the grow facility.” She says conditioning these plants can take one or two weeks. Over that time, growers should gradually increase light intensity and bring down the relative humidity to normal growing conditions.

Overall, this process, if done efficiently, can take roughly eleven weeks from prepping the explants to acclimation and hardening. If growers perform all the steps correctly and with extra care to reduce risks of contamination, one can produce thousands of plants in a matter of weeks.

In the fourth and final part of this series, we are going to dive into implementation. In that piece, we will discuss design principles for tissue culture facilities, equipment and instrumentation and some real-world case studies of tissue culture micropropagation.

Applications for Tissue Culture in Cannabis Growing: Part 1

By Aaron G. Biros
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Dr. Hope Jones, chief scientific officer of C4 Laboratories, believes there are a number of opportunities for cannabis growers to scale their cultivation up with micropropagation. In her presentation at the CannaGrow conference recently, Dr. Jones discussed the applications and advantages of tissue culture techniques in cannabis growing.

Dr. Hope Jones, chief scientific officer at C4 Labs

Dr. Jones’ work in large-scale plant production led her to the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) where she worked to propagate a particularly difficult plant to grow- a native orchid species- using tissue culture techniques. With that experience in tissue culture, hydroponics and controlled environments, she took a position at the Kennedy Space Center working for NASA where she developed technologies and protocols to grow crops for space missions. “I started with strawberry TC [tissue culture], because of the shelf life & weight compared with potted plants, plus you can’t really ‘water’ plants in space- at least not in the traditional way,” says Dr. Jones. “Strawberries pack a lot of antioxidants. Foods high in antioxidants, I argued, could boost internal protection of astronauts from high levels of cosmic radiation that they are exposed to in space.” That research led to a focus on cancer biology and a Ph.D. in molecular & cellular biology and plant sciences, culminating in her introduction to the cannabis industry and now with C4 Labs in Arizona.

Working with tissue culture since 2003, Dr. Jones is familiar with this technology that is fairly new to cannabis, but has been around for decades now and is widely used in the horticulture industry today. For example, Phytelligence is an agricultural biotechnology company using genetic analysis and tissue culture to help food crop growers increase speed to harvest, screen for diseases, store genetic material and secure intellectual property. “Big horticulture does this very well,” says Dr. Jones. “There are many companies generating millions of clones per year.” The Department of Plant Sciences Pomology Program at the Davis campus of the University of California uses tissue culture with the Foundation Plant Services (FPS) to eliminate viruses and pathogens, while breeding unique cultivars of strawberries.

A large tissue culture facility run in the Sacramento area that produces millions of nut and fruit trees clones a year.

First, let’s define some terms. Tissue culture is a propagation tool where the cultivator would grow tissue or cells outside of the plant itself, commonly referred to as micropropagation. “Micropropagation produces new plants via the cloning of plant tissue samples on a very small scale, and I mean very small,” says Dr. Jones. “While the tissue used in micropropagation is small, the scale of production can be huge.” Micropropagation allows a cultivator to grow a clone from just a leaf, bud, root segment or even just a few cells collected from a mother plant, according to Dr. Jones.

The science behind growing plants from just a few cells relies on a characteristic of plant cells called totipotency. “Totipotency refers to a cell’s ability to divide and differentiate, eventually regenerating a whole new organism,” says Dr. Jones. “Plant cells are unique in that fully differentiated, specialized cells can be induced to dedifferentiate, reverting back to a ‘stem cell’-like state, capable of developing into any cell type.”

Cannabis growers already utilize the properties of totipotency in cloning, according to Dr. Jones. “When cloning from a mother plant, stem cuttings are taken from the mother, dipped into rooting hormone and two to five days later healthy roots show up,” says Dr. Jones. “That stem tissue dedifferentiates and specializes into new root cells. In this case, we humans helped the process of totipotency and dedifferentiation along using a rooting hormone to ‘steer’ the type of growth needed.” Dr. Jones is helping cannabis growers use tissue culture as a new way to generate clones, instead of or in addition to using mother plants.

With cannabis micropropagation, the same principles still apply, just on a much smaller scale and with greater precision. “In this case, very small tissue samples (called explants) are sterilized and placed into specialized media vessels containing food, nutrients, and hormones,” says Dr. Jones. “Just like with cuttings, the hormones in the TC media induce specific types of growth over time, helping to steer explant growth to form all the organs necessary to regenerate a whole new plant.”

Having existed for decades, but still so new to cannabis, tissue culture is an effective propagation tool for advanced breeders or growers looking to scale up. In the next part of this series, we will discuss some of issues with mother plants and advantages of tissue culture to consider. In Part 2 we will delve into topics like sterility, genetic reboot, viral infection and pathogen protection.

Understanding Dissolved Oxygen in Cannabis Cultivation

By Aaron G. Biros
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Oxygen plays an integral role in plant photosynthesis, respiration and transpiration. Photosynthesis requires water from the roots making its way up the plant via capillary action, which is where oxygen’s job comes in. For both water and nutrient uptake, oxygen levels at the root tips and hairs is a controlling input. A plant converts sugar from photosynthesis to ATP in the respiration process, where oxygen is delivered from the root system to the leaf and plays a direct role in the process.

Charlie Hayes has a degree in biochemistry and spent the past 17 years researching and designing water treatment processes to improve plant health. Hayes is a biochemist and owner of Advanced Treatment Technologies, a water treatment solutions provider. In a presentation at the CannaGrow conference, Hayes discussed the various benefits of dissolved oxygen throughout the cultivation process. We sat down with Hayes to learn about the science behind improving cannabis plant production via dissolved oxygen.

In transpiration, water evaporates from a plant’s leaves via the stomata and creates a ‘transpirational pull,’ drawing water, oxygen and nutrients from the soil or other growing medium. That process helps cool the plant down, changes osmotic pressure in cells and enables a flow of water and nutrients up from the root system, according to Hayes.

Charlie Hayes, biochemist and owner of Advanced Treatment Technologies

Roots in an oxygen-rich environment can absorb nutrients more effectively. “The metabolic energy required for nutrient uptake come from root respiration using oxygen,” says Hayes. “Using high levels of oxygen can ensure more root mass, more fine root hairs and healthy root tips.” A majority of water in the plant is taken up by the fine root hairs and requires a lot of energy, and thus oxygen, to produce new cells.

So what happens if you don’t have enough oxygen in your root system? Hayes says that can reduce water and nutrient uptake, reduce root and overall plant growth, induce wilting (even outside of heat stress) in heat stress and reduce the overall photosynthesis and glucose transfer capabilities of the plant. Lower levels of dissolved oxygen also significantly reduce transpiration in the plant. Another effect that oxygen-deprived root systems can have is the production of ethylene, which can cause cells to collapse and make them more susceptible to disease. He says if you are having issues with unhealthy root systems, increasing the oxygen levels around the root system can improve root health. “Oxygen starved root tips can lead to a calcium shortage in the shoot,” says Hayes. “That calcium shortage is a common issue with a lack of oxygen, but in an oxygen-deprived environment, anaerobic organisms can attack the root system, which could present bigger problems.”

So how much dissolved oxygen do you need in the root system and how do you achieve that desired level? Hayes says the first step is getting a dissolved oxygen meter and probe to measure your baseline. The typical dissolved oxygen probe can detect from 20 up to 50 ppm and up to 500% saturation. That is a critical first step and tool in understanding dissolved oxygen in the root system. Another important tool to have is an oxidation-reduction potential meter (ORP meter), which indicates the level of residual oxidizer left in the water.

Their treatment system includes check valves that are OSHA and fire code-compliant.

Citing research and experience from his previous work, he says that health and production improvements in cannabis plateau at the 40-45 parts-per-million (ppm) of dissolved oxygen in the root zone. But to achieve those levels, growers need to start with an even higher level of dissolved oxygen in a treatment system to deliver that 40-45 ppm to the roots. “Let’s say for example with 3 ppm of oxygen in the root tissue and 6ppm of oxygen in the surrounding soil or growing medium, higher concentrations outside of the tissue would help drive absorption for the root system membrane,” says Hayes.

Reaching that 40-45 ppm range can be difficult however and there are a couple methods of delivering dissolved oxygen. The most typical method is aeration of water using bubbling or injecting air into the water. This method has some unexpected ramifications though. Oxygen is only one of many gasses in air and those other gasses can be much more soluble in water. Paying attention to Henry’s Law is important here. Henry’s Law essentially means that the solubility of gasses is controlled by temperature, pressure and concentration. For example, Hayes says carbon dioxide is up to twenty times more soluble than oxygen. That means the longer you aerate water, the higher concentration of carbon dioxide and lower concentration of oxygen over time.

Another popular method of oxidizing water is chemically. Some growers might use hydrogen peroxide to add dissolved oxygen to a water-based solution, but that can create a certain level of phytotoxicity that could be bad for root health.

Using ozone, Hayes says, is by far the most effective method of getting dissolved oxygen in water, (because it is 12 ½ times more soluble than oxygen). But just using an ozone generator will not effectively deliver dissolved oxygen at the target levels to the root system. In order to use ozone properly, you need a treatment system that can handle a high enough concentration of ozone, mix it properly and hold it in the solution, says Hayes. “Ozone is an inherently unstable molecule, with a half-life of 15 minutes and even down to 3-5 minutes, which is when it converts to dissolved oxygen,” says Hayes. Using a patented control vessel, Hayes can use a counter-current, counter-rotational liquid vortex to mix the solution under pressure after leaving a vacuum. Their system can produce two necessary tools for growers: highly ozonized water, which can be sent through the irrigation system to effectively destroy microorganisms and resident biofilms, and water with high levels of dissolved oxygen for use in the root system.

Implementing Real Science in Cultivation and Extraction

By Aaron G. Biros
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Formed in 2015, Outco is a vertically integrated, licensed producer of medical cannabis in Southern California. Outco manages Outliers Collective, the first licensed dispensary continually operating in San Diego County. They operate the first licensed cultivation on Native American land in Southern California, the first cultivation building permit in Southern California and the first licensed extraction facility in San Diego County. Outco is on track to be the largest licensed producer of medical cannabis in Southern California.

Lincoln Fish, co-founder and chief executive officer of Outco
Lincoln Fish, co-founder and chief executive officer of Outco

The company prides themselves on attention to detail; the well versed team implements real science in their cultivation and extraction processes. Lincoln Fish, co-founder and chief executive officer of Outco, has more than 30 years of experience as an entrepreneur. Before entering the cannabis industry, Linc started and sold companies in the healthcare technology and nutraceutical spaces.

With construction underway at new facilities, Outco is anticipating an expanding market and higher demand.
With construction underway at new facilities, Outco is anticipating an expanding market and higher demand.

Fish’s experience with FDA regulations in nutraceuticals prepared him for running a business in such a tumultuous, highly regulated environment like cannabis. “One thing I took from the nutraceutical industry is how to present products to consumers and letting them know it is safe, effective and consistent,” says Fish. He says he noticed a serious lack of consistency in products. They tested 25 different vape cartridges, with their own oil, to find a consistent product they can use and know that consumers will safely and consistently get the same results. “There is a lot of room for more professionals and a lot of room for more science,” says Fish. “We try to position ourselves in a way that is consistent with where we think policy will go so we are very careful with recommendations from a scientific standpoint, patient information and product safety.”

Starting at a seed or cutting, plants are grown with the protection of biological control agents
Starting at a seed or cutting, plants are grown with the protection of biological control agents

According to Fish, they currently distribute cannabis products to about 75 licensed dispensaries in Orange County, San Diego and Los Angeles. With construction underway at their cultivation facility on Native American land, Fish says they plan to generate roughly 2600 pounds of cannabis each month. Gearing up for that in addition to the expanding recreational market requires some planning in advance, says Fish. Part of that plan is making sure quality controls are in place to keep consistency in the product quality and dosage. They are also actively seeking to open their distribution channels further.

One of the cultivation facilities at Outco
One of the cultivation facilities at Outco

“We are building out a full lab of our own in addition to third party testing to perform internal quality controls,” says Fish. Equipped with their own laboratory instrumentation like HPLC and GC, they hope to establish proper in-house quality controls as well as provide that resource to younger startup companies. As one of the founding partners of Canopy San Diego, an ancillary startup accelerator, Fish sees great potential in working with younger companies to get them off the ground. Fish met Outco’s vice president of extraction, Dr. Markus Roggen, at a Canopy San Diego event. It was there that they had the idea to build a startup accelerator for companies that actually touch the plant- extractors, cultivators and infused-product manufacturers, as opposed to a startup accelerator that would only help ancillary businesses.

Dr. Markus Roggen, vice president of extraction
Dr. Markus Roggen, vice president of extraction

Dr. Roggen, who is an organic chemist by training, heads up Outco’s supercritical CO2 extraction operation. “I came to the ‘art’ of cannabis extraction with an open, yet scientifically focused mind,” says Dr. Roggen. “My approach was to look past the myths and stories about extraction methods and focus on finding data, as there really wasn’t much available. I therefore, from the beginning, started to study the capabilities of our extraction equipment by chemometric methods.” Chemometrics is the science of relating measurements made on a chemical system or process to the state of the system via applications of mathematical methods. “Already the first sets of experiments showed that long-held beliefs in the cannabis community were inaccurate,” says Dr. Roggen. “For example the particle size of extracted material matters. Or that it is possible to preserve and even isolate terpenes by CO2 extraction methods.” With plans to have a full plant and analytical chemistry laboratory on site, they hope to perform more research that focuses on optimizing extraction processes.

Plant irrigation and fertigation procedures are determined via experimentation
Plant irrigation and fertigation procedures are determined via experimentation

Dr. Allison Justice leads their cultivation team with a background in greenhouse management and commercial horticulture. Dr. Justice says plants are grown, starting at a young age (seed or vegetative cutting), with the protection of biological control agents. “Biological control is a management strategy that entails the release of beneficial insects or fungi, such as parasitoids and predators, in order to suppress or regulate insect populations in greenhouses and grow rooms,” says Dr. Justice.

Dr. Allison Justice, vice president of cultivation
Dr. Allison Justice, vice president of cultivation

When implemented properly, this eliminates the need to use synthetic pesticides. “Biological control agents are not put in place to eradicate pest populations yet are applied as preventives to minimize plant damage and maintain their own populations.” They are constantly evaluating light types, spectrum and intensity to determine optimal ranges, according to Dr. Justice. They don’t use any pre-mixed “cannabis” nutrient supplements for their plants, instead they design an experiment to determine the desired levels and ratios of essential plant nutrients. “We have found it crucial to determine what ratios of nutrients the plant actually needs and by knowing this, we know how to manipulate the recipe determined by the plant’s given nutritional symptoms,” says Dr. Justice. Every type of adjustment in cultivation and extraction is based on results from experimentation rooted in legitimate science. Instead of guessing when it might be time to harvest, they use a water activity meter, logging and recording all the data to determine the appropriate time to trim and cure plants. Performing analytical testing at every step is key, says Fish.

Looking toward the recreational market, Fish sees an obvious opportunity to expand their wholesale operations substantially, with several larger new cultivation projects planned. “The key though is to produce flower and concentrate offerings with the same standards we employ for medical cannabis,” says Fish.

PA Cannabis Banking Committee Announces Formation

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Hoban Law Group announced today the formation of a committee to address banking access issues for the Pennsylvania cannabis market. Steve Schain, Esq., nationally recognized consumer finance litigation, banking law and cannabis law expert practicing with national cannabis law firm Hoban Law Group, is the committee’s spokesman and chair.

Steve Schain, Esq. practicing at Hoban law Group and chairperson of the committee.
Steve Schain, Esq. chair and spokesperson of the committee.

Limited access to banking is an ongoing issue plaguing cannabis businesses due to its federally illegal status. According to Steve Schain, cannabis businesses across the country are forced to pay their vendors, utility bills, payroll, taxes and insurance in cash. “At any time, a dispensary or cultivation operation could have up to $200,000 in cash on site- not having a place to bank opens opportunities for criminal activity,” says Schain. It also presents operational issues for business owners like record keeping or even personal bank accounts getting shut down.

“All of those issues could mean less jobs, less economic activity and less tax revenue for the state,” says Schain. “Fully compliant operations should not have to deal with this.”

Schain formed the committee for a number of reasons, including “Setting the table and starting a dialogue. We want this to be scalable. In the past, the great flaws in banking efforts for cannabis were a lack of cohesion and operating credibility- we hope to approach it from a multi-disciplinary angle and change that,” says Schain.

State Senator Daylin Leach introduced the bill
State Senator Daylin Leach

The committee’s members include three PA politicians: Daylin Leach, State Senator of the 17th District, who introduced the bill that legalized medical cannabis in Pennsylvania, Derek Green, Philadelphia City Councilman and Mary Jo Daley, Representative of the 148th District. Tom Fleming, former assistant director of the Office of Compliance at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, is also a member of the committee.

A number of committee members are actively involved in the legal cannabis industry and cannabis banking initiatives. Sundie Seefried, a member of the committee, is the chief executive officer of Partner Colorado Credit Union, which is

Lindy Snider, advisor at Greenhouse Ventures and KIND Financial
Lindy Snider, advisor at Greenhouse Ventures and KIND Financial

currently handling over half of Colorado’s estimated billion-dollar cannabis banking market, according to Schain. Lindy Snider, founder and chief executive officer of LindiSkin, advisory board member of KIND Financial and Greenhouse Ventures, is also listed as a member of the committee.

“According to the treasury department, only 301 financial institutions have reported banking cannabis cash,” says Schain. “Few federally chartered banks or credit unions will work with cannabis businesses, but two states-Washington and Maine- have banking regulators sensitive to cannabis banking and we have found 36 banks and credit unions providing financial services to cannabis enterprises.”

The goal with forming this committee is to change that and create an environment where banking for cannabis businesses is much easier. “We plan on drafting a white paper with best practices on compliant and profitable banking on behalf of cannabis-related businesses and financial institutions,” says Schain.

Working from a banker’s perspective is the key here, says Schain. They want to create a working, compliant and profitable system for banks to do business with cannabis cash. One of the problems in the meantime is the high-risk nature of dealing with cannabis companies, leading to an inability to get insurance on those accounts. In the eyes of the federal government currently, conducting cannabis-related transactions may be deemed money laundering and highly illegal. “The real issue is with the federal government and I strongly suspect this is not an issue at the top of the Trump White House agenda.”

MedicineManTechGrow

Legal Cannabis Industry’s Energy Bill Not So Alarming

By Aaron G. Biros
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New Frontier, a financial data analysis firm, recently released a report that caused a media frenzy over the cannabis industry’s alarmingly high energy bill. The Washington Post published an article with the headline “The Surprisingly Huge Energy Footprint of the Booming Marijuana Industry.” Denver news publication, Westword, posted an article with the headline “Legal Marijuana Used Over $6 Billion in Energy Last Year, Report Says.” There are dozens of articles published suggesting the legal cannabis industry’s energy consumption has a $6 billion price tag, which is misleading.

What’s the problem? The $6 billion figure that New Frontier cites comes from a 2012 research study that estimates the energy footprint for legal and illicit markets. That means the $6 billion estimate includes the legal cannabis industry and the black market’s energy footprint. To put it in perspective, the size of the entire legal cannabis industry in the United States was less than that in 2014 at $4.6 billion, according to the ArcView Group.

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The projected energy demand for growing in the Northwest through 2035, from the New Frontier report.

According to Giadha Aguirre DeCarcer, founder and chief executive officer of New Frontier, only including the legal market would significantly reduce the size of this estimate. “Dr. Mills’ study looked to assess the total energy use associated with marijuana in the US, not just that of the nascent legal marijuana industry; including this holistic view is an important growth determinant for the legal market as the U.S. transitions from a predominantly illicit production environment,” says Decarcer.

Dr. Evan Mills, energy analyst at the Department of Energy and member of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, conducted the 2012 research study and is a senior advisor on the New Frontier report.

Brett Roper, founder and chief operating officer at Medicine Man Technologies, believes those numbers still need to be adjusted. “Dr. Mills’ study is based on pre-2011 data and sources that date back as far as 2003,” says Roper. “The study provides figures that are, quite frankly, outdated based upon changes in the industry related to cultivation and production efficiency.” The study focuses on cultivation increments of sixteen square feet consuming 13,000 KW per year that, according to Roper, is not reflective of current indoor cultivation technology and energy consumption metrics.

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A back-end view of Medicine Man Technologies’ indoor production facility

According to Roper, today’s efficiencies, scalable cultivation operations and new technology could explain the overestimate from five years ago. “We are a Tier III operator that produced approximately 5,100 (+/-) pounds of dried cured flower in 2015 and have a total power bill of approximately $420,000 for the year,” he says. Note that the company had roughly $18 million in revenue in 2015. “Using this metric we have a total energy billing of approximately $83 per pound grown.” According to Roper, they cultivate completely indoors with HPS lights that are not particularly energy-efficient, so this estimate is relatively conservative.

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Medicine Man Technologies’ approximately 40,000 sq. ft. cultivation facility.

Dr. Mills’ research cites much higher numbers for the cost of energy per pound of finished product than Roper’s findings. “From the perspective of a producer, the national-average annual energy costs are approximately $5500 per module or $2500 per kilogram [roughly 2.2 pounds] of finished product,” says Dr. Mills. That would suggest the average cost of energy for indoor growing to be above $1,000 per pound, roughly half the current average wholesale price. These numbers would mean that cannabis growers, on average, lose roughly 50% of their total revenue to their energy bill. Medicine Man Technologies’ energy usage is less than 3% of their total revenue.

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Xcel, a Colorado utility, showing the rise in electricity demand for cultivation.

The New Frontier report does provide caveats on the use of Dr. Mills’ research. “While this analysis was conducted before many of the recent advancements in cultivation technologies, it highlights the significant energy-related environmental impact of marijuana production, and makes the issue of energy efficiency not just one of competitive advantage but also one of environmental sustainability.”

New Frontier’s CEO, DeCarcer, stresses that their report is intended to serve as a starting point to a much broader exploration of energy use in cannabis. “We are already in the process of establishing a partnership through which New Frontier will ingest real time energy-use data from cultivators across different legal markets for analysis in our next report,” says DeCarcer. “Our goal is to build on the work done by Dr. Mills and others in order to ensure that we are providing the most accurate representation of where the industry currently is, and where it is headed.”

Regardless of the discrepancies, this kind of discourse is great for prompting innovation and getting people to think about the environment. It is very important to examine the energy footprint of cannabis cultivation as it raises questions regarding energy efficiency, which would help the industry’s long-term environmental sustainability.

adamplants

Adam Jacques: Award-Winning Grower, Pioneer and Medical Cannabis Provider

By Aaron G. Biros
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Walking into one of the grow rooms on Adam Jacques’ farm outside of Eugene, Oregon, you will find dozens of cannabis plants and a whiteboard on the wall with the note “Do it for Frank” across the top. This is a reminder of why Jacques and his team are growing medical marijuana: To help people.

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Above some notes is their daily inspiration: “Do it for Frank”

Frank Leeds, one of Jacques’ cannabis patients, lost his battle with cancer in early January.

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A view of the grow room where they have 48 plants in flowering..

Jacques was working with Frank for the past five years to develop “Frank’s Gift,” a high-cannabidiol (CBD) strain with a slew of potential medical benefits. Deeply saddened by the loss of his patient and close friend, Jacques continues to run his grow operation, Grower’s Guild Gardens, where he and his wife, Debra, work to get high-quality, safe medicine to their patients.

His patients and other publications have repeatedly referred to Jacques as a “legend.” Jacques previously won Canna Magazine’s award for Most Influential Grower in the Northwest.

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Adam Jacques looking over his plants in their vegetative stage.

On their farm, strain testing is currently underway for the upcoming changes in the recreational program in Oregon. “With the way the medical laws are now, I have 48 plants for my patients, including multiple high-CBD genetics, and any excess flower will be sold to recreational dispensaries to cover our overhead costs,” says Jacques. When the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) grants them their recreational grow license, he will take some of those trial strains to an outdoor crop estimated to be in the thousands of plants on his 42-acre farm.

Presenting at the Dispensary Next Conference a few weeks ago, Jacques said to a crowded room of industry professionals: “The biggest reward is helping people.” Jacques and his team’s work exemplifies the good that smaller grow operations can do for the industry.

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This plant is roughly four weeks from harvest, currently in the flowering stage.

Jacques’ recent work has taken him to help Leni Young, a four-year-old girl originally from Alabama who suffers from debilitating seizures. Her parents became medical refugees when she was not selected for an Alabama study involving cannabis oil. As a result, the Young’s took their daughter to Eugene, where with the help of Jacques and his team, they could get her customized cannabis oil with high doses of CBD and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THC-A) that could help treat her seizures.

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Left to right: Wayne Young with his daughter, Leni Young, and son, Thomas Young, alongside Debra Jacques.

The cannabis oil that Jacques created has brought Young’s seizures down from multiple occurring every day to just one every six weeks. “One-strain solutions like ‘Charlotte’s Web’ are no longer the answer for treating medical conditions,” says Jacques. “We create something custom designed for individual patients, and it is working.” CBD and THC-A, the main active ingredients in Leni’s medicine, are two of the non-psychoactive compounds in cannabis believed to have extraordinary medical benefits.

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Jacques inspecting some of the different strains they are testing for the recreational program.

Less than three weeks ago, a bill was introduced to the Alabama legislature that would decriminalize the possession of and allow patients to get high-CBD oil. The bill is called “Leni’s Law.”

Jacques’ goal in the long term is to get clinical trials with peer-reviewed studies to connect the dots between his patients, cannabis and evidence-based medicine. “I am working with a laboratory in Arizona and a doctor from Israel to perform a peer-reviewed study,” he adds. “Getting peer-reviewed will allow me to provide legitimate scientific evidence for my claims and get the knowledge into the hands of my patients.”

Looking into the immediate future, Jacques is wary of different regulations coming to Oregon. “Once you go recreational with your business, you lose the ability to provide any sort of a medical recommendation,” says Jacques. “I do not want to see the recreational program and the desire for profits push out our ability to help patients.”

Jacques and his team represent the idea that embodies the cannabis legalization movement, which is to help people get the medicine they need. “The money is not really important any more,” says Jacques.

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Biros' Blog

Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016, Part II

By Aaron G. Biros
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soslticefarms_feb

In the second part of this series, I speak with Alex Cooley, vice president of Solstice, to find out what particular solutions growers can use to increase efficiency. Last month, I introduced the challenge of growing cannabis more sustainably. To recap, I raised the issue of sustainability as an economic, social and environmental problem and referenced recent pesticide issues in Colorado and carbon footprint estimates of growing cannabis.

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The growers at Solstice put their plants under a trellis net to increase yield.

Alex Cooley is the vice president of Solstice, a cultivation and processing business based in Washington. Solstice is at the forefront of the industry for innovating in energy, water and raw materials efficiency. I sat down with Cooley to discuss exactly what you can do to grow cannabis sustainably.

“Switching to outdoors or greenhouse will always be more sustainable than indoor, but depending on the type of facility, energy efficiency and specifically lighting should be at top of mind,” says Cooley. “Just looking at your bottom line, it is cheaper to use energy efficient lighting sources such as plasma or LED lighting, which will reduce your need for air conditioning and your overall energy consumption.”

Looking into sustainable technologies is one of the quicker ways to improve your overall efficiency. “We are big believers in VRF [variable refrigerant flow] HVAC systems because it is one of the most energy efficient ways to cool a large space in the world,” adds Cooley. “Use a smart water filtration system that gets away from wasting water by catching condensate off AC and dehumidifiers, filtering and then reusing that water.”

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Indoor cultivator facilities use high powered lights that give off heat, requiring an efficient air cooling system like VRF HVAC.

Utilizing your waste streams is another relatively simple and cost effective practice to grow cannabis sustainably. “Our soil and biomass goes through a composting company, we recapture any of our waste fertilizer and runoff for reuse,” says Cooley. “We try to use post-consumer or fully recyclable packaging to reduce what would go into the waste streams.”

So some of the low hanging fruit to improve your bottom line and overall sustainability, according to Alex Cooley, include things like reusing materials, composting, increasing energy efficiency and saving water. These are some of the easily implementable standard operating procedures that directly address inefficiency in your operation.

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The tops of plants are beginning to flower in this Solstice indoor facility.

In the next part of this series, I will discuss Terra Tech’s approach to sustainable cultivation, which utilizes the “Dutch hydroponic greenhouse model” on a large scale growing produce such as thyme and basil, but are now taking their technologies and expertise to the cannabis industry. I will also discuss the benefits of using a third party certification, Clean Green Certified, to not only help grow cannabis more ecofriendly, but also market your final product as such. Stay tuned for more in Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016, Part III.