Medical pot grow readying to go

Vegetative growth room gives plants a kickstart. - Agrima Botanicals
Vegetative growth room gives plants a kickstart.
— image credit: Agrima Botanicals

It’s difficult to spot Agrima Botanicals’ new medical marijuana operation in old, rural Maple Ridge. From the road, the old buildings and fences remain unchanged and fit in with the rustic nature of the area.

It’s only when you drive past the two sets of gates, an old stable and into the parking lot that you see new construction.

Work is underway to extend a building that is two years old, and which itself is decorated in muted colours and trim so it looks like another old Maple Ridge barn.

But inside is where the work is going on.

In a large room bathed in green light, 1,000-watt metal-halide lights hang down from the ceiling, creating a scene that's like a hatching area for alien invaders. It’s actually called the vegetative-growth room, where dozens of medical marijuana plants are sprouted and nurtured under 18-hour lighting sessions that mimic the long days of spring and early summer.

After six or seven weeks, the plants are moved to the flowering room, where the buds grow, the source of the marijuana. After another two months, the buds are harvested and tests done to determine THC levels and impurities. Because the pot is being used for medicinal purposes, the product can have no contaminants or bacteria in order to protect those with weakened immune systems.

“We’re pretty confident in what we’re doing and we’re pretty proud of what we’ve done,” chief operations officer James Poelzer, who studied business at Simon Fraser University, says during a recent tour.

What Agrima has done is start an operation that it hopes meets Health Canada standards for security, product purity, odour and environmental control.

With the building and technology in place, and the District of Maple Ridge passing a bylaw that puts pot production into the Agricultural Land Reserve, the company is just awaiting a Health Canada licence that would allow it to grow medical pot under the new commercial regulations that kick in April 1.

“As long as we adhere to all the rules and regulations that they set out, I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to get licenced.”

Part of the transition to a new system is removing the stigma that’s been connected to previous pot productions resulting from ramshackle basement operations, grow rips, fires and organized crime.

Now, research, lab coats and business plans will be part of any medical marijuana operation. For instance, Agrima has recently hired a SFU masters graduate in biology to maintain quality assurance, another Health Canada requirement. It will also work with SFU to find ways to reduce mold and bacteria growth.

Health Canada regulations require that no pesticides or fungicides be used in the pot production, unlike those for food crops.

While there may be other companies just as far as advanced in the business, they’re mostly keeping a low profile.

For the past year and a half, Agrima has been producing medical pot under the current system, where patients can either grow their own or buy products from small, licensed medical growers.

With that changing, production will ramp up to a commercial scale. Exports could drive further growth as more countries legalize the product.

As for the neighbours who may not like a pot operation in their back yard, Health Canada standards address the concerns about health, safety or noise.

Before air is vented out, it’s first treated with ultraviolet light, then charcoal filtered, then passed through a hepa filter. Negative air pressure helps to keep the air inside.

Following a tour of the operation in the summer, Mayor Ernie Daykin said he couldn’t detect any marijuana odour after standing outside the building.

The set-up uses Metro Vancouver water, but much of it is recycled, and distributed so that healthy mature plants absorb most of the nutrients during the high growth cycle. When it’s discharged to the septic system, the water from Agrima has only concentrations of one part per million of nutrients.

To keep the building safe, the operation has to meet the same standards as a bank or pharmacy, where opiates and possibly lethal drugs are stored. A concrete safe will provide a secure area for the product while two fences guard the perimeter. Infra-red monitoring of the outside grounds will alert Sonitrol security about any intruders.

Poelzer said Maple Ridge’s pot bylaw, which forces all medical grows on to Agricultural Land Reserve, is a good one.

“It makes sense,” he said.

He points out that the statement by the Agricultural Land Commission that marijuana operations are legitimate uses of farmland will make it impossible to prohibit them in other cities.

Poelzer says the company has tried to inform people about what’s it doing, though it doesn’t want its location known or photos taken inside until it’s been granted its licence.

The company held an open house with its neighbours in the summer and has attended council meetings, and hosted politicians during a tour this spring.

The company has also hosted tours for staff from Delta, Richmond, North Vancouver.

“We’ve been open throughout the whole process, to give them an idea of what we’re doing,” Poelzer said.

“We’ve really worked on building a solid relationship with our neighbours.”


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