After entering the nondescript Kunia warehouse, Brian Goldstein put on a lab coat, a hairnet, a surgical mask and a pair of Crocs that had never touched the pavement outside.
Personal protective gear that includes disposable shoe covers, gloves and surgical gowns is mandatory for anyone visiting the 15,000- square-foot pakalolo growing facility — even the CEO of Noa Botanicals, one of eight licensees to open Hawaii’s first medical marijuana dispensaries.
But it’s not to protect people.
“A single hair will fail a batch. That would be a contaminant,” said Goldstein, who even sterilized his gloves with alcohol and sanitized the bottom of his shoes in tubs of bleach placed throughout the facility. “Bio-security is incredibly important. We have a lot invested in the plants. Cannabis is the most valuable crop to have grown in Hawaii, so we need to take every precaution possible to ensure the safety of the product.”
Noa Botanicals gave the Honolulu Star-Advertiser a look inside its facility, one of the first cannabis factories to open in Hawaii since retail dispensaries debuted in the state in 2017. The Kunia facility has roughly 1,000 plants and can produce several thousand pounds of marijuana a year. Under state law, production centers can grow up to 5,000 plants.
It has more than 50 employees, including 20 at the warehouse who wear the same pocketless uniforms to “minimize potential diversion.” They go through at least two uniform changes while on duty “to ensure continued cleanliness” throughout the day.
The high-tech facility has separate rooms for each part of the process, beginning with the “clone” room, where plantlets are nurtured in containers under dim lights. The mother plants are kept in a separate “veg room,” where bright lights shine for 22 hours a day, which keeps the vegetation from flowering. The weak plants are discarded, while the strong ones continue in cultivation, each labeled with a numbered bar code tracked by the state.
“We want to pick the best of the best, and that’s what’s going to make it through,” said cultivation manager Ralph Roibal.
The plants are pruned like bonsai trees in a larger “flower room” and arranged on rolling tables according to the various stages of growth, beginning with the nonflowering and ending with the fully mature. They are fed a water-fertilizer solution and extra carbon dioxide to spur growth. Lights are on for 12 hours in this room, which is completely dark for the rest of the day, while sensors feed information “hundreds of times a minute” to computers that automatically adjust the temperature, humidity, airflow and lighting throughout the space.
“We use a lot of power,” said Goldstein, who spends more than $50,000 a month on electricity for the $5 million facility. “The flowers closest to the light are the most potent.”
Two weeks before harvest, the all-female plants are starved, only receiving water to flush out any fertilizer.
“It’s like doing a detox. It’s like going on a juice diet for a person,” Goldstein said. “When you stop feeding it, the plant thinks, ‘Oh, I’m going to die.’ So it will do a last burst of energy to make flowers.”
Every plant in the facility is female because a single male could pollinate the entire room and create seeds, and “no one wants to buy cannabis with seeds,” he said.
Sometimes a female plant will spontaneously turn into a male.
“Stress can do it. We scout this room every day, and if we see that happening, we kill the plant right away,” he added.
There’s one room in the facility that almost no one is allowed into: the “dry room.”
“That is the most bio-sensitive room in the facility,” he said. “It’s got this plastic siding … so the entire room can get washed down and decontaminated because that’s the room that the live plants get put in and that’s where they dry out, and that is when they are the most vulnerable, because they’ve lost their whole immune system.”
Once harvested, dried and cured “like aging wine,” the hand-trimmed flowers are tested and either packaged in pill containers or processed into 20 to 25 different cannabis products, including tinctures, oils and lotions. The clumpy buds full of tiny orange hairs are sold, while the leaves covered in “frosty goodness” — the white, sugary crystals known as THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component — go to manufacturing.
The entire elaborate process takes roughly four months and is a stark contrast to the way pakalolo is grown on the black market — often outdoors where it is potentially exposed to pesticides and other harmful environmental contaminants.
Only certified marijuana patients registered with the state can enter a retail dispensary. State law also prohibits the public from entering the highly secured production centers, but after lengthy negotiations and criminal background checks, the Health Department made an exception to allow media access to educate the public.
Hawaii legalized medical marijuana in 2000, but patients had no legal way to obtain the drug until Maui Grown Therapies opened in August 2017, followed by Aloha Green Apothecary in Honolulu. Pono Life Maui, Noa Botanicals and Cure Oahu started sales shortly after, followed by Green Aloha Ltd., or Have a Heart, on Kauai and Big Island Grown Dispensaries, formerly Lau Ola. Hawaiian Ethos on Hawaii island received approval to start growing but has not yet begun sales.
The legal cannabis market has more than doubled in recent years, with 24,521 patients registered as of Feb. 28, compared with 11,727 patients on Aug. 31, 2015. Hawaii dispensaries sold 1,569 pounds totaling $12.6 million in 2018, according to state statistics. In January 2018 the dispensaries sold $681,389, but by December cannabis sales had climbed to $1.5 million.
Goldstein, who used to be in software development, said he has done just about every job in the dispensary while learning about the industry. He wouldn’t disclose how the company acquires the seeds for the 16 different strains it sells or where it puts its money — issues that have been challenging for the fledgling industry, which is grappling with how to balance the legal market while marijuana is still considered illegal under federal law.
“We probably have more strains than the other dispensaries combined, and we’re introducing a new strain every week this month,” to celebrate April 20, or 420, the unofficial holiday for pot smokers. “What Valentine’s Day is for florists, 420 is for dispensaries. I’m incredibly excited to be part of creating this new industry in Hawaii. While it’s still a fledgling industry that’s going through some growing pains, I’m very hopeful.”
Hawaii legalized medical marijuana in 2000, but patients had no legal way to obtain the drug until retail dispensaries opened in 2017. The pot retailers:
>> Noa Botanicals
>> Aloha Green Apothecary
>> Cure Oahu
>> Maui Grown Therapies
>> Pono Life Maui
>> Green Aloha Ltd., or Have a Heart
>> Hawaiian Ethos
>> Big Island Grown Dispensaries (formerly Lau Ola)