A marijuana harvester examines buds going through a trimming machine near Corvallis, Ore. (Andrew Selsky, Associated Press file photo)

A flower’s long journey: How legal weed goes from seed to sale

Boxes the color of a desert sunset are staggered between potted succulents at Santa Ana’s Bud and Bloom dispensary.

Canndescent products on display at Bud and Bloom dispensary in Santa Ana. (Photo by KEN STEINHARDT, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Inside each $50 box is a bundle of rolling papers, a wick made from hemp, matches and a glass jar with an eighth-ounce of “virgin” cannabis, purportedly untouched by human hands. Tucked up front is a note signed by the master grower at Canndescent cultivation facility.

Medical marijuana patients often don’t know where the cannabis they’re buying comes from, even if they’re shopping at a licensed dispensary. And often that’s on purpose, since many California cannabis growers have operated under the radar for years, without a proper green light from state or local authorities.

That leaves patients without a way to know whether their weed was grown organically or with pesticides, in a sterile facility or dank warehouse, legally or on the black market.

That’s changing. The state is finally rolling out rules for the cannabis industry, with the first licenses expected to be issued Jan. 1. From then on, all cannabis products legally sold in the state will have to be tracked from “seed to sale,” with a bar code that will detail the journey of every brownie and bud.

Companies such as Canndescent are ahead of the game, voluntarily using tracking software before it’s required. And – with a goal to shift perception of the industry while convincing customers to pay a bit more for their “boutique” buds – they’re offering a behind-the-scenes peak at how their cannabis gets from farm to bowl.

Born in the desert

The journey starts a hundred miles east of Santa Ana, in the shadow of those wind turbines that famously line the mountains near Palm Springs.

With all of that city’s sand and heat but none of its wealth and clout, struggling Desert Hot Springs in 2015 became one of the first cities in Southern California to allow commercial cannabis cultivation. Land values soon skyrocketed in a designated part of town that’s still largely vacant desert with a couple churches and blue-collar businesses.

Canndescent aims for a spa-like feel at its cannabis cultivation facility in Desert Hot Springs. (Photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Canndescent CEO Adrian Sedlin (the Santa Barbara entrepreneur with an MBA from Harvard) and his brother-in-law Randall Patten (the longtime gray market cannabis cultivator) were among the first to apply for a permit to grow marijuana in buildings that once housed an auto repair shop along bumpy Two Bunch Palms Trail. And Canndescent was the first (and so far only) grower to actually set up shop in Desert Hot Springs, with a grand opening in September and first harvest in December.

The entire Canndescent facility is 20,000 square feet, but there’s no “sea of green” here. Rather than create one large grow space, where all of the plants bloom and are harvested at the same time, Sedlin’s business savvy led the company to use the “microgrow” approach, with multiple smaller rooms accommodating different stages of the growth cycle.

The orchestrated rotation means that, while it takes roughly 120 days for a plant to go from tiny shoot to smokeable bud, operations manager Jason Pecache said Canndescent is able to harvest up to 70 pounds of cannabis every 10 days.

In the nursery

Marijuana clones start their life in the “Mom and Veg Room” at Canndescent’s cannabis cultivation facility in Desert Hot Springs. (Photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Canndescent cannabis doesn’t actually start from seeds.

The company keeps dozens of “mother” plants – which boast genetics of popular strains – in constant white light so they never bloom. Growers regularly clip shoots from each “mother” and replant them, much as gardeners can do with cuttings from tomatoes or rose bushes.

Canndescent plants are grown in rockwool. (Photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Canndescent also doesn’t use soil. Instead, the company plants those cuttings, or “clones,” in cubes of a popular growing medium called rockwool, made from melted rock and sand. Pecache said rockwool maintains moisture, drains better and has fewer pest problems than soil.

Replanted clones are lined up along shelves in one of Canndescent’s “Mother and Veg” rooms. Each gets tagged with a traceable bar code. And they’re kept in protective cases in the small, humid room for around 20 days.

To the grow room

Three-week-old plants are placed on rolling carts in one of Canndescent’s grow rooms.

The rectangular rooms glow with yellow light that imitates the sun. While they’re growing, plants get 12 hours of “sun” and 12 hours of darkness, triggering them to bloom as they would in nature.

A worker checks on flowering cannabis plants in one of the grow rooms at Canndescent’s cannabis cultivation facility in Desert Hot Springs on Wednesday, June 7, 2017. (Photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

A breeze constantly blows, with massive ceiling fans and air conditioning units to control the temperature. (The company is installing solar panels, which should help meet a new state mandate for the cannabis industry to use 42 percent renewable energy.)

Grow rooms are equipped with screens tracking data about the plants at Canndescent’s cannabis cultivation facility. (Photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Green plastic tubes are clipped to each pot, to feed purified water and organic nutrients.

All of this is precisely controlled by computers. Monitors are mounted above each door to show cultivators everything from the temperature to the level of carbon dioxide, so they can adjust conditions as needed.

Sometimes, Pecache said, growers talk to the plants and play music for them, doing everything they can to coax out the best buds.

During the last three or four days in the grow room, cultivators flush the plants with water to purge leftover nutrients. Otherwise, those materials can make the flowers tough to light and harsh to smoke.

Drying and curing

After around 60 days in the grow room, when 7-foot plants have fuzzy flowers blooming all around, growers chop the branches. They take them to a tall, skinny room, where they navigate a steel catwalk 8 feet in the air to hang the branches upside down from wires strung along the ceiling.

A drying room at Canndescent’s cannabis cultivation facility in Desert Hot Springs, on Wednesday, June 7, 2017. (Photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Plants cure anywhere from 10 to 20 days. Pecache said this is a critical step, helping to develop the plant’s fragrant terpenes.

Samples from each harvest are sent off to a testing lab, with all Canndescent flowers tested for a range of cannabinoids and terpenes, plus any contaminants or residual solvents. The remaining cured branches are stacked in plastic tubs and taken to the vault.

It’s not just any vault. It’s an environmentally controlled space that can also serve as a panic room if anything goes awry, with reinforced steel-mesh walls that would take wannabe thieves with drills more than 12 hours to penetrate.

Since their grand opening, Pecache said the only incident they’ve had was when two transients jumped the fence. The men were captured by one of 67 motion-triggered cameras that cover the facility, and they were quickly greeted by one of the armed guards that the city requires to be stationed there 24 hours a day.

Trim time

There are 38 full-time employees at Canndescent, each with benefits and stakeholder shares in the company. Several are local, with the company working toward a city mandate to have 20 percent of its staff be from Desert Hot Springs. And many of the employees work here, in the trim room.

Trimmers separate parts of the plant at Canndescent’s cultivation facility. (Photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

There are 12 tidy work stations, each with a jewelers loop magnifying glass. Trimmers wear gloves and have small, razor-sharp scissors. Many don headphones.

On one side of each trimmer is a bundle of cured cannabis branches. In front of them are four metal containers.

A hand trimmer works at removing tiny leaves from the cannabis flower at Canndescent’s cultivation facility. (Photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The biggest bin is for flowers. Trimmers are instructed to never touch the actual bud, always holding the plant by a stem to maintain that “virgin flower” designation.

There’s a bin for nugs, which are flowers that are too small to be sold at shops. And there’s a bin for fine trim. Canndescent typically uses both to make prerolled joints given out at special events.

Then there’s the water leaf. The company bags that up and sells it to manufacturers to make edibles and concentrates.

Everything is weighed during each stage, so the bosses can be sure nothing was wasted or misplaced in the process.

Box it up

Now comes those burnt orange boxes.

Canndescent labels their products in categories that correspond with different feelings from Calm to Charge. (Photo by Nick Agro, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Canndescent is all about branding. You’ll never see strain names like Green Crack or Durban Poison on their products. To elevate the experience and make it more approachable, they classify their flowers in five categories based on how they make consumers feel: Calm, Cruise, Create, Connect and Charge.

There are multiple strains in each category, with descriptions to help consumers narrow down what they want. The label for Cruise 201, for example, says: “Lightens the mind and body into a euphoric, stress-free state, perfect for errands or exploring a city.”

Employees weigh the flowers, placing an eighth of an ounce into tiny glass jars that have humidity-control packs tucked inside the lid. They place the jar in a box along with the accessories, then stick on a tamper-proof seal that’s color-coded to show which effect consumers can expect.

Packed boxes then go into another vault until they’re ready for distribution.

To the shop

Once a week, an armored vehicle comes to the Desert Hot Springs site. The driver loads up 40 or 50 pounds of packaged products, with each pound valued at around $3,000.

Wellness advisor Dustin Vu talks with a client at Bud and Bloom dispensary in Santa Ana. (Photo by KEN STEINHARDT, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Canndescent delivers leaves and other trim to a couple manufacturers. And the company’s flowers are sold in close to 40 dispensaries, Pecache said, from the Coachella Valley to Long Beach, San Diego to Malibu.

They plan to expand that reach dramatically over the coming year, with a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse in the works behind their current site and an 85,000-square-foot cultivation facility in development just down the road.

The company wants to offer tours at that flagship site, Pechache said. They hope it’ll give cannabis connoisseurs a firsthand appreciation for the journey each flower takes before it lands inside that glass case at Bud and Bloom, ready for one more trip.

Create 301, a Canndescent product, about to be purchased at Bud and Bloom dispensary in Santa Ana on Friday, June 9, 2017. (Photo by KEN STEINHARDT, Orange County Register/SCNG)

This story was first published on TheCannifornian.com