BY KRISTEN MOSBRUCKER | STAFF WRITER JAN 27, 2020 - 12:15 AM
The distinct sweet-yet-tangy smell of medical-grade marijuana plants wafts around a room full of oscillating fans meant to circulate clean warm air where pot grows in hundreds of containers. The overwhelming scent hits the nostrils of any visitor to the Wellcana Group cultivation and manufacturing site for medical marijuana on the south side of Baton Rouge where plants are turned into bottled tinctures. The cultivation room is inside an otherwise nondescript warehouse off Highland Road near Interstate 10. There's a tight security system. Clean room protocols are in place that are common in health care, food service and biotechnology, such as slipping on a white laboratory-approved bunny suit, hair net and shoe bootees. The smell stems from an organic compound found in all plants. "That is the terpenes," said Beau Druilhet, director of cultivation at Wellcana Group. "Basically everything has terpenes. So when you smell a lemon, that's what you're smelling. Each strain (of cannabis) has a very unique terpene profile." The strong scent of 600 plants in a single room is a bit overwhelming at first; it hangs in the air and sticks on clothing. In markets where recreational marijuana and raw buds are sold, customers typically gravitate toward cannabis with a strong scent, said Druilhet, a New Orleans native who has worked in Denver at a cultivation facility there. In Louisiana, only medical marijuana is legal, requiring the recommendation of licensed doctors for specific ailments with products sold through only nine state-approved pharmacies. Lafayette-based Wellcana has the exclusive license the state issued to LSU to grow and manufacture medical marijuana products for patients across Louisiana. Southern University holds the state's second license and has contracted with a separate company for operations that are expected to start this year. At Wellcana's facility, workers wear medical scrub uniforms and gloves with articles of clothing that never leave the building in an effort to preserve the integrity of the indoor greenhouse. And don't expect anyone to have pockets: Even white laboratory coats are missing pockets, a requirement in the highly regulated budding business. A sign hangs near the doorway of the facility, reminding workers that the cultivation and extraction of THC is for medical patients who are suffering from painful diseases, not individuals looking for a little recreational fun. Though that's the case now, the business is laying the foundation and would be ready to produce recreational marijuana if it's ever legalized in Louisiana. Every stray leaf and stem of the medical marijuana plants at the Wellcana facility must be accounted for and destroyed once the oils from the plants are extracted in a manufacturing process. In some ways, it is similar to processing honey or essential oil extracts used in consumer products. The steady thump of synthesized bass drums and quick-tongued rap lyrics seemed to fuel the rhythmic plucking of marijuana plant leaves as workers removed excess organic material from the plants on a recent weekday. The extra leaves, which aren't connected to the flowers, or buds, don't contain THC — the key active ingredient in cannabis. In fact, those extra leaves can pose a threat to the plant's well-being because they could block light and harbor mold, so they are removed. Likewise, stems of marijuana plants only have trace amounts of THC. Then, most of the branches on the lower third part of the plants are also cut off. The processes are known as defanning and skirting, respectively. "Be sure to take a picture down below, I just shaved their legs," Druilhet laughed. "We remove the leaves that do not have a bud or much medicine in those leaves. We just take them off to avoid overcrowding." The Wellcana facility, serving about 5,000 patients in Louisiana, has about 2,000 square feet of growing space. Between March and January, the operation produced 600 pounds of dried cannabis flower. Druilhet estimated the facility will likely hit about 1,000 pounds this year. On average, the facility harvests about 570 plants each month, but some strains yield more THC than others. "Some strains are 30% yielders, some are 10% yielders," he said. The first step of the medical marijuana growing process actually involves the usage of clones not seeds in Louisiana. Wellcana used an "immaculate conception" period under Louisiana law where it transferred nine tiny pieces of cannabis — each the size of a fingernail clipping and each a different strain — from it's former parent company in Nevada. “We brought those here, propagated those, brought those tissue cultures and basically grew those up into big moms,” he said. “It’s kind of like the mosquito in Jurassic Park, the (DNA from) the little mosquito became all these big dinosaurs … that’s kind of how we got all these cannabis plants." Those plants have since grown into very large mother plants. Workers take a 6-inch cutting from the mother plant at a 45-degree angle, dip it in rooting hormone and stick them in cubes with a nonsoil substrate known as rockwool. "It spends three weeks in the small rockwool cubes and then when it has roots we’ll move it here for an additional four weeks, so this is like their adolescence," he said about one vegetation room with hundreds of tiny plants. "It drains really quickly and doesn't hold moisture in the soil like other medias, which allows us to feed the plant more often and it allows it grow more rapidly." After the clones are cut, it takes about three weeks to root, then another four weeks for its vegetation stage and eight weeks for its bloom stage. All of the rooms are under what's known as positive pressure, so it's more difficult for insects to fly inside. The facility is served by city water that's filtered through reverse osmosis and then sent through a UV filter as well. "After 56 days in bloom, we harvest the plant and that's a wrap," Druilhet said. The plants are then dried slowly, cured and frozen before the extraction process. The final steps of producing medical marijuana for sale require the frozen buds to be washed, decarboxylated, then the oil extracted. "When it's ready and time for extraction, we take it out of the minus 40 (degree freezer), we crush it to a particle size that we think is optimal for extraction and we run a cold ethanol extraction or wash — it's essentially a washing machine," said Cameron Cason, production laboratory manager at Wellcana Group. That process allows the company to extract the compounds that it's seeking — the THC. Then that must be filtered twice, which is why the oil is not a shade of green but rather a golden hue. "What you have is a nice gold color, whole plant extract, so it's a crude oil but it's got a range a cannabinoids, terpenes and a few other plant material in there," Cason said. Then the THC oil must be converted into its psychoactive form via decarboxylation, a cooking process that makes the oil ready to be used in edible products. That's different than taking the raw marijuana and smoking it. "When you smoke a joint, that burning is the decarboxylating," Cason said. The THC oil extracted by Wellcana is later added to a carrier oil, such as MCT, or medium-chain triglycerides, extracted from coconut oil. Flavors are also typically added at that point. The concoction is then bottled as a tincture in dark containers to prevent spoilage. The manufacturing line for Wellcana's THC-infused tinctures is relatively short; it only needs to produce 5,000 bottles a month for its current patient pool. The Baton Rouge facility has about a dozen employees and in the coming year expects to add four more. But there's a lot of opportunity to expand that operation. Next month, Wellcana plans to build two more stand-alone pods at its Highland Road facility that will be used for manufacturing products. As previously reported, the company has even bigger expansion plans in mind for its medical marijuana operations and is looking to launch soon into CBD products. Wellcana expects to build a 100,000-square-foot indoor marijuana greenhouse and storage facility somewhere between Baton Rouge and Lafayette that will create between 100 and 200 new full- and part-time jobs. It also would be a center for collecting hemp grown by area farmers for the company's planned push into CBD, or cannabidiol, products. Hemp-derived CBD oils do not contain significant amounts of THC, can be sold legally by all types of retailers and have grown nationally in popularity for their own perceived health benefits. Wellcana has been developing prototypes for introducing its medical marijuana in topicals, then strips, edible chews and metered-dose inhalers. CBD products will be rolled out in similar forms, with the exception of the inhalers. “I’m really excited to have a hand in designing a new facility and bringing in skilled controlled environment agriculture specialists and using the latest and greatest LED technology, (using high-powered heat lamps) is not the greenest way to do this," said Druilhet, the cultivation director. "We'll be able to maximize our square footage with LED lights. There's so much we can do with hemp, it's incredible, that's going to be a whole new frontier."