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10:16 AM Wed, Nov. 14th

What goes on behind the marijuana fences

Strict regulations govern the grow process

Michael O’Connor-Masse, owner, and Elizabeth Cruz, inventory manager, standing in one of their two greenhouses. (Sue Tone/Courier)

Michael O’Connor-Masse, owner, and Elizabeth Cruz, inventory manager, standing in one of their two greenhouses. (Sue Tone/Courier)

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Workers process medical marijuana that will be sent to the different distribution facilities. (Sue Tone/Courier)

A tour of one of Chino Valley’s cannabis grow facilities this past week uncovered the rigorous standards imposed by state law. Not only must one have permission to enter the premises, a copy of one’s photo ID or driver’s license is kept as a record of the visit.

For 18 years, Michael O’Connor-Masse grew tomatoes in his greenhouse on North Road 1 East, employing two workers. Today, he grows cannabis and has 32 employees.

O’Connor-Masse owns the property and manages the operation that encompasses 20,000 square feet and is tightly controlled by state regulations. The potted plants, annuals that die after one season, begin their life in one greenhouse, undergo harvesting in another, and then the usable product is processed, packaged for sale and shipped out.

He can’t officially use the term “organic” for his product because the terminology falls under federal oversight, and by federal law, growing marijuana is illegal. For all practical purposes, however, O’Connor-Masse’s product is as organic as can be. The fertilizer he uses could be drizzled on a green salad and not adversely affect the consumer, he said.

Recording data

Security cameras inside and out are but one requirement compelled by state law. Detailed records track the product from the originating mother stock plant to the dispensary shelf.

“The state wants to know how much the harvest weighs down to the gram level,” O’Connor-Masse said.

He halfway jokes about a key employee, a “forensic tracker,” who can hunt down any missing product weighing even a half a gram. After harvest, when all plants have been weighed and documented, the end waste is weighed and properly mixed with soil at a disposal site.

Usable parts of the plants are the flower buds and the small leaves that grow out of the flower, known as “trim.” The trim gets sent to a lab to make edible products, or is processed into wax or oil, which is then mixed into the final product.

The CBD (cannabidiol) compound comes from the flower, and growers desire a 21:1 or even 31:1 ration of CBD to THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) content. THC is the ingredient that provides recreational users a “high.”

The process

O’Connor-Masse grows his cannabis in large pots, a process that is more expensive than using a hydroponic system where the plant is grown in water. Also growing in the greenhouse are nasturtiums and other flowers that attract the same sort of pests as cannabis. He keeps an eye on these in what he calls a canary warning system.

After harvest, the stems are hung upside down to dry in a humidity- and temperature-controlled room, similar to how tobacco is cured. Workers weigh everything at every step along the way.

Elizabeth Cruz, who has a biology and nursing degree, manages this room and is in charge of “burping” the plastic bins as she keeps an eye on the curing cycle. She audits the post-harvest product every week; the company self-audits the entire facility every month.

The longer the product cures – one to four months – the smoother the quality, O’Connor-Masse said, especially the smokable product. He wouldn’t know by personal experience, nor would Cruz. Neither said they use marijuana in any form, same as about 95 percent of the workers. If customers’ feedback and the market indicate a preference for longer-curing stock, he would consider providing more.

In the processing room, workers strip the plants, trim the buds. They are labeled by their strain, weighed again, packaged and given barcodes. The particular type or strain is included, with names like Cali Train Wreck, Girl Scout Cookies, AK-47, and Jedi Kush.

Workers use gloves, and some also wear a paper facemask; they work at sterilized stainless steel counters. The distinctive odor, not unpleasant, can remain on clothing, Cruz said. Sometimes people look at her funny after walking past her in the grocery store and she wants to tell them she works in the industry, she doesn’t use the product.

Job applicants are screened and fingerprinted.

“Some just want to be near the plants. I tell them, ‘It’s a production plant. We’re not hiring you to admire it,’” O’Connor-Masse said. “The vast majority don’t use it.”

Research

O’Connor-Masse’s degree is in finance and he said he wishes he had paid more attention in his chemistry class. He learned a lot during the nearly two decades growing tomatoes, however.

He keeps a 3-inch thick binder of research studies and medicinal properties of cannabis.

“It works. I’ve seen it bring people out of seizures in 30 seconds where medicine couldn’t,” he said, adding that he personally knows of two people who used cannabis to stop alcohol addiction.

According to WebMD, Focus for Health and other medical websites, studies prove that cannabis use for withdrawing off prescribed opioid-based painkillers helps patients. There is some indication that it also helps with withdrawal from heroin addiction.

O’Connor-Masse said people approach him today, after getting past his “strait-laced” demeanor. “I’m shocked at the people who come out of the woodwork to talk to me.”

Security measures are everywhere. Not everyone has clearance to all parts of the facility which take an electronic identification card as well as a code to enter. Fencing is rolled out to screen a short sidewalk when product is moved from one building to the next. A hot button connects the facility directly to the Chino Valley police. No one is allowed in the inventory room by themselves.

Current payroll and benefits provides more than $1 million to workers, which all goes back into the community, O’Connor-Masse said. Investment margins are potentially high, “but you can put a lot of money into this and never get it out.”