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Within days, this Austin company hopes to start legally growing marijuana

If everything goes according to plan, Compassionate Cultivation will be an operating medical marijuana dispensary in Austin before too long. CEO Morris Denton, left, and Director of Processing Chris Woods step into a small room where the extraction of cannabidiol will take place. (Photo by Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune)

by Alex Samuels | The Texas Tribune

The winding road that leads to Compassionate Cultivation could easily be mistaken for a dead end. It takes several seconds before drivers get off the main road and end up at a warehouse immediately surrounded by a dirt lot.

In a few months, however, scientists and manufacturers working out of this warehouse in Austin will begin legally growing marijuana.

“Soon we’ll have a variety of products that’ll be available that’ll tailor to the different needs of our patients,” said Morris Denton, the CEO for Compassionate Cultivation.

This comes after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a measure in 2015 to narrowly allow for the growing or sale of marijuana. The Texas Compassionate Use Act legalized the selling of a specific kind of cannabis oil derived from marijuana plants for a very small group of customers: epilepsy patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

The law allows for the sale of oils with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive element in marijuana, and high levels of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-euphoric component known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. The Compassionate Use Act tasked the Texas Department of Public Safety with licensing at least three dispensing organizations by Sept. 1, 2017.

Two weeks after that deadline, only one dispensary has received final approval. Two other dispensaries — Surterra Texas and Compassionate Cultivation — are still “under review for statutory compliance,” according to DPS spokesman Tom Vinger.

“We’re in a matter of days before securing our license,” Denton said. “Assuming we comply and pass the on-site inspection, we’ll receive our final license within about 24 hours of that visit.”

Denton said he’s following the 19-page checklist from DPS to a tee: The building is armed with 71 security cameras and several badge readers to ensure maximum security. And the room that’ll store the medicine has two separate cameras and five different locks on it, even though it won’t be used for at least four months, the time it takes hemp seeds to produce plants from which CBD oil can be derived.

“This is where everything starts,” Denton said. “Both for us and for the the people with intractable epilepsy who need this medication.”

Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico now allow for comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Texas is one of 17 states to pass a law allowing for the use of "low THC, high CBD" products for medical reasons in limited situations.

On Sept. 1, Cansortium Texas became the first dispensary to receive final DPS approval. Along with completing a lengthy inspection report, the dispensary also paid an annual fee to the state of more than $400,000.

"Cansortium Texas is both humbled and honored to have earned a license as a low-THC dispensing organization,” the company said in a statement. “Suffering patients are one step closer to achieving the medical relief they so desperately seek and Cansortium Texas is ready to fulfill this need.”

“We essentially are growing marijuana in here”

As it awaits its state license, Compassionate Cultivation employees gave the Tribune a tour of its dispensary and explained how they plan to create the cannabis oil that they hope a small number of Texans will be able to purchase by January.

The process starts with planting hemp seeds, which are already legal in Texas, in a vegetation room where they will be grown and monitored at a specific temperature and humidity. After a plant has gone through a growing period of several days, it will be brought into a flower room — Compassionate Cultivation has four — where it will finish out the remainder of its growth cycle and later mature into a cannabis plant.

Denton said that, per state regulations outlined by DPS, the three dispensaries are not allowed to have any cannabis containing more than 0.5 percent THC at any time in their facilities. (For context, strains of marijuana legally available in Colorado can have THC levels as high as 28 percent.) To ensure the plants stay within those limitations, Denton said scientists in his facility will test every plant during each step of the process.

“We're essentially growing marijuana in here,” Denton said.

Different strains of cannabis have different THC levels.

“Just like wines come from different regions and have different grapes, cannabis has different strains which produce different cultivar,” Denton said. The strain the dispensaries are most interested in are the ones known for producing a high concentration and high potency of CBD.

“We get a strain of a plant that we know is capable of producing strong amounts of CBD, and then we have to grow that plant and put it through its maturation phase, which is typically about 80 to 95 days,” Denton said.

Next up comes the harvesting process, Denton said, which entails cutting and drying the plant. That takes another week.

When all the moisture is removed from the plant, it’s then pulverized and turned into “what almost looks like bags of tea,” Denton said. Once the plant particles have been pulverized, it’s put into an extraction machine that Chris Woods, the director of procession for Compassionate Cultivation, compared to “making a broth or a stew.”

The plant goes through the extraction process until oil is dispensed, which takes about 10 to 12 hours. But the oil needs to be tested, processed and manufactured before it can be used in the products Compassionate Cultivation will sell to its customers. The testing and manufacturing process takes another several days, Denton said.

“Once we have that oil, we test it to make sure it’s exactly what we want it to be, and then that oil can get infused into whatever the products are that we’re going to produce on behalf of our patients,” Denton said.

Denton said his dispensary uses as much of the plant as possible to yield the greatest amount of CBD, and whatever is not used is then pulverized and turned into mulch.

“None of the plant matter is thrown away in any way whatsoever. It can turn into soil,” he said.

A small population seeking relief

Despite the time and effort each dispensary will take to get licensed and begin producing cannabis oil, each will only be serving a select group of individuals.

According to Sindi Rosales, the CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation of Central & South Texas, roughly 160,000 Texans have intractable epilepsy — only 0.57 percent of the state’s total population.

“Even if this ends up only benefiting a small number of people, I think they’re grateful that they have this opportunity,” Rosales said. “Even if it’s a small number, why not provide this medicine if it’s available?”

Other advocates, however, point out that while Texas is making strides in the right direction, an even smaller group — epilepsy patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication — will be allowed access to the medicine.

“This is kind of a bittersweet time for those of us who are advocating for reform,” said Heather Fazio, a spokesperson for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “We’re happy the process is moving along, but it’s such a limited program and we know there are so many other people who could benefit from this if the program was more inclusive.”

Despite the small population of Texans who will actually able to use the medicine, advocates agree that the dispensaries could be life-changing for those who benefit from it.

“We’re just asking for another tool in our toolkit that we can offer people who are desperate and that’s what this is,” Rosales said. This may or may not work, but it should definitely be offered.”

“I think there’s a great deal of compassion in the Compassionate Use Act, and I think that’s very great and very encouraging,” she added.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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