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 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 Council 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.