Miami-Dade County

Turning plants into pills: Behind the scenes with Miami’s lone medical marijuana grower

Inside South Florida’s only legal medical marijuana grow operation

Modern Health Concepts owns South Florida's only legal medical marijuana grow operation. The company recently allowed a Miami Herald photographer and reporter to tour the facility.
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Modern Health Concepts owns South Florida's only legal medical marijuana grow operation. The company recently allowed a Miami Herald photographer and reporter to tour the facility.

Somewhere in rural southwest Miami-Dade, Pete Demorejon waits in the doorway of a nondescript greenhouse as a retired Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent rolls back the gates of two security fences mounted with motion-sensitive cameras.

“Usually, no one is allowed in here,” Demorejon, the director of cultivation for Modern Health Concepts, tells a reporter and photographer as they enter the building. “So, welcome.”

Wearing a lab coat, hair net and plastic gloves, Demorejon passes through a second door, down a short corridor, and pulls back a heavy, black plastic fabric. Inside is a room full of bushy, seven-foot “mother” marijuana plants, the heart of South Florida’s only above-board marijuana grow house.

In full operation for only four months, Modern Health Concepts remains cagey about its business operations. Details about the number of patients served by the company, the amount of medicine it produces, and the size of its cultivation facility are kept private by the Florida Department of Health and remain confidential under company policy. In order to gain access to the company’s Redland greenhouse, the Miami Herald agreed not to disclose its specific location.

But following the November passage of a constitutional amendment that should soon expand Florida’s nascent medical marijuana industry, the Costa Nursery Farms affiliate is beginning to open up. This week, the company gave the Herald exclusive access to its cultivation and processing facilities for a behind-the-scenes look at how its medicine is produced, from plant to pill.

“This isn’t something in the backyard or something in a garage. This is all done in a lab. It’s very clinical,” said Richard Young, the company’s CEO. “Our goal is to eliminate preconceptions.”

The entire process, which takes months from start to finish, begins with the company’s “mother” plants, strains curated to produce high-quality cannabis and spawn thousands of “clones.”

From these plants, Demorejon’s team snips cuttings, which are potted in soil, nurtured for several weeks, assigned a unique bar code and then moved to a separate “flowering” room. There, with steady temperatures of about 76 degrees, reduced humidity and a rack of overhead lights, Demorejon’s team simulates the optimal conditions to stimulate the budding of the plants.

A college-educated, former minor league pitcher who years ago found his calling in the marijuana industry, Demorejon moves on to a different section of the greenhouse filled with dozens of potted, budding plants as tall and fragrant as Christmas trees. He gently pulls at a plant with a gloved hand to display a flower covered in frosty crystals and orange hairs.

“Right now we’re in the eighth week [of flowering], so most of these are ready to harvest,” he says, pointing to the plants and then the overhead lights. “What you see here is supplemental lighting, and a light-deprivation greenhouse. We elongate and shorten the days to induce flowering. This is a huge labor of love. We put in a lot of hours.”

During the harvest, the plants, which have already been shorn of their excess leaves, are cut down. Everything is save the stems is then placed into plastic containers and then cured in order to draw out psychoactive and therapeutic chemical compounds, called cannabinoids. Throughout the process, everything is weighed.

At this point, the marijuana could be packed in a pipe or rolled up and smoked. But Florida’s existing medical marijuana law, set in 2014, doesn’t allow its operators to sell the whole flower.

Instead, security guards transport the cured cannabis to an unmarked distribution center about four miles away, where the dried product is tested for contaminants and ground into a fine, green powder with the consistency of prepared coffee in order to be processed into medicine.

First, the grinds, which continue to be linked back to specific plants by bar code, are fed into a CO2 extractor, which turns the ground-up pot into a pungent, concentrated paste. The extract is then diluted with 200-proof ethanol and placed in a freezer in order to separate out any remaining waxes, filtered to weed out non-digestible fats and lipids, and placed into a rotary evaporator that boils and evaporates the ethanol out of the remaining product.

From there, the concentrate is placed in an oven, which removes the acids from the solution, thereby activating the therapeutic THC and CBD chemical compounds and leaving behind an oil that can be used to treat serious medical conditions, from Crohn’s disease to cancer.

But the process isn’t done just yet. After an independent lab tests the solution for potency and again for contaminants, Modern Health Concepts’ lab staff mixes the liquid with safflower oil in a homogenizer until it meets the consistency and potency authorized by the state. The liquid is tested once more, and then it’s ready to be bottled, either as low-THC Haleigh’s Hope for seizure patients or in a higher THC potency form currently reserved only for the terminally ill, and hand-delivered to patients or made available at the company’s distribution facility.

Should there ever be a problem with a product, bar codes link each vial and pill bottle back to its origin.

“If it’s returned to us for whatever reason, we can scan it and tell you what plant was used to make that product,” says Ponciano Gari, the company’s product research and development chemist.

For now, the reach of Modern Health Concepts’ products is limited, with only 2,150 patients registered to receive medical marijuana under the state’s compassionate-use registry, although that number has more than doubled since Amendment 2 passed in early November. Exactly how much the registry increases depends on how the state Legislature chooses to regulate the expanded industry, but conservative state estimates predict Florida could see around half a million clients.

In order to prepare for the coming changes, the company is developing and testing vaporizer pens, creams used to treat pain by rubbing cannabinoids into the skin and suppositories. Young, the company’s CEO, said all the products coming out of the company’s labs will be produced under similar rigors.

“We’re taking this very seriously. It’s medicine in the end,” he said. “You want to ensure this is being made in a very thoughtful, scientific and clinical manner.”

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