Legal medical industry in Arizona
Arizona Hemp Center's Medical Marijuana Blog is a continually updated resource of news and information regarding proposition 203 in Arizona and medical marijuana use across the country. Our goal is to help promote the drug as a viable method of treatment for certain illnesses, and also share best practices for consumption on medical marijuana.
Inside the suite of a nondescript industrial park in west Phoenix, an armed security guard in a bulletproof vest guards dozens of tents filled with lush plants that supply medical-marijuana patients throughout the state.
All day long, men and women with varying medical conditions swing through the doors of the cultivation center to tend their crops, allowing fresh air to seep into the office suite, which reeks of a musky, skunklike odor. As hard-rock music blares, the growers measure nutrients, roll blunts (cigars), prune plants and prepare buds for drying.
When they need pointers on yielding the best harvest, they go to Bruce Barnes, a 32-year-old “master grower” who works for the center and specializes in growing highly potent marijuana that patients use to treat ailments ranging from cancer to chronic pain. Barnes helps patients and caregivers grow high-grade marijuana using sophisticated techniques to manipulate the plants with light, nutrients and air.
Arizona’s medical-marijuana era is still young, and Barnes is one of the few expert growers in the state who works for dispensary operators or cultivation sites that stock the drug for some of the 33,601 patients who are permitted to use it under state law.
While marijuana is illegal in most states and under federal law, it is still a plant and, like any successful farmer, Barnes can simply look at one and determine its variety and health condition.
“It’s like being a sommelier of wine,” said Robert Calkin, president of the Cannabis Career Institute, a California marijuana school. “You have to be familiar with every aspect of the method of creating the medical marijuana. You have to be able to identify strains of marijuana, know all the different kinds, know how to grow all the different kinds, know all the different methods and know how to grade and judge the values of it just by looking at it.”
At 6-foot-4 with a goatee and dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt that covers tattoos on both arms, Barnes presides over one of the largest grow sites in the state. Since Arizona’s program is so new, the state has the potential to become a mecca for growers who can produce cost-effective plantations of marijuana that smells good and tastes better. Already, growers from other states are flocking to Arizona to sell their skills, seeing potential in this unsaturated market.
Behind the office doors, Barnes is known by some as the “marijuana king.”
He can look at plants and quickly determine whether pH levels are off or if diseases are developing. In this line of work, a career is made by growing buds that can pass the muster of both discerning marijuana aficionados — such as longtime medical-pot users and growers — and amateur patients who seek specific strains to treat specific ailments.
“It’s mentally challenging because you’re not just thinking about the day,” Barnes said. “You’ve got to be planning out the next two months, so you’re constantly cloning and preparing for plants to move into flowers.”
Still, he said with a crooked smile, “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Must register with state
Barnes is allowed to cultivate under the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act, which was passed by voters in 2010.
The law allows people with certain medical conditions, including chronic pain, cancer and muscle spasms, to use the drug after obtaining a physician’s recommendation.
They must register with the state, which issues identification cards to qualified patients and caregivers, who can grow 72 plants for themselves and up to five other patients.
But by this time next year, state health officials expect most — if not all — marijuana cultivation to take place at dispensaries or off-site grow centers, similar to the one where Barnes works.
The Arizona Department of Health Services, which oversees the program, can license up to 126 dispensaries in designated areas statewide. As of Jan. 30, six dispensaries were operating in Phoenix, Tucson, Cochise County near Willcox, and Williams. Four more dispensaries could soon open.
Patients can obtain up to 2½ ounces of medical marijuana every two weeks. There is no limit to how much marijuana a dispensary or cultivation center can grow.
Barnes works to maximize quality for the estimated 60 caregivers who rent space at Compassion First Caregiver Circle’s grow site near 26th Avenue and McDowell Road.
One recent morning, he started his day checking nutrient levels, dipping a digital monitor into giant blue barrels that hold solutions of water and organic nutrients that feed the plants. He adjusted the warehouse’s temperature, climate, light, humidity and other elements that control the plants’ growth stages.
“It takes some time to learn the plants,” he explained, as he crouched down to analyze a stalk. “You really just learn how to adjust things on the fly.”
Barnes walked in and out of the 7-foot-tall black canvas tents that house the plants. He cut clones and replanted them. He schooled one grower, a caregiver, on how to rid his plants of spider mites and another on optimal pH levels.
Barnes, who bought pot from friends and smoked it as a teen growing up in Mesa, never aspired to be a professional marijuana cultivator. Back then, he figured he’d find a career in a science field — maybe biology or marine science.
But he followed in his father’s footsteps and started working in the construction industry as a painter. He smoked every now and then recreationally and started using marijuana medically — but illegally — around 1999 to relieve knee and shoulder pain from high-school football injuries and an all-terrain-vehicle accident.
Barnes got into the medical-marijuana industry in 2001. He moved to Rollinsville, Colo., and started working as a low-level bud tender at an indoor dispensary, where he used some of the skills that his grandfather, a Gilbert farmer, taught him.
“I grew up on the farm,” he said. “When I felt that I could make a better product, I’d use my knowledge of gardening, and so it all came together.”
Barnes read books about growing medical marijuana, traded techniques with other experts, watched video tutorials and kept up with new research, honing his skills and experimenting with different nutrients, strains and hybrids. He worked his way up to lead grower, overseeing the growth of 25 to 30 pounds of marijuana each week and supplying three dispensaries.
In late 2009, he returned to Arizona and restarted a painting business with his brother.
In 2011, a year after Arizona voters approved the medical-marijuana law, Barnes was on Craigslist looking for painting jobs. He clicked on a page and ended up on an advertisement looking for expert medical-marijuana growers.
He answered the ad and interviewed for the job, touting his experience in Colorado. He was hired in January 2012. “They weren’t just looking for a closet grower,” he recalled.
Variety of ways to grow
Some home growers still cultivate marijuana out of their closets, reminiscent of the days when high-schoolers and hippies tried to hide their plants from parents and prying eyes.
Barnes recently gave up growing marijuana at home, where he tended it in a professional tent set up in a shed attached to his house. (His wife is going to law school and he didn’t want to jeopardize her career.)
There are many ways to grow marijuana — indoor, outdoor, with soil, hydroponic, aeroponics, to name a few.
The rise of legalized medical marijuana over the years in 18 states and Washington, D.C., has led to a surge in indoor growing by both patients and cultivation centers that invest in expensive hydroponic systems, which generally use water, nutrients and non-soil mediums and can cost thousands of dollars to set up and thousands more each month to operate and maintain.
Barnes uses a hydroponic drip-to-waste system that uses a soil substitute, which allows him to control nutrient levels and maximize output. The buds are green, sticky and studded with crystals — characteristics of high-quality marijuana.
Barnes is constantly trying to improve his methods but models part of his technique after Ed Rosenthal, a renowned California cannabis grower and horticulturist, and other well-known growers.
Rosenthal, author of “Marijuana Grower’s Handbook,” published in 2010, said no method is better than another.
“If you speak with 10 gardeners, you have 20 ways of growing things like tomatoes — and that’s the same with marijuana,” Rosenthal told The Arizona Republic in a recent phone interview. “Everybody’s right — there are millions of ways of doing it, and people are constantly developing their own ways of doing it.”
Many growers also experiment with different strains, which are said to treat different ailments.
Sativa strains, for example, are typically used during the day because they provide pain relief but generally don’t affect a patient’s ability to be active. Barnes said sativas are often used to treat conditions such as depression, nausea and chronic pain and tend to suppress the appetite.
Indica strains, meanwhile, are best for nighttime because they induce what Barnes calls a “couch lock,” meaning they induce intense sedation and help treat pain, arthritis, insomnia and other conditions.
The science behind the effectiveness of marijuana in treating medical conditions is clouded in controversy. Some research generally indicates that marijuana is effective in dulling pain, controlling nausea and treating other ailments. But opponents question the legitimacy of such studies and argue that marijuana use could lead to additional health risks.
Most agree that more research needs to be conducted to determine marijuana’s effectiveness. Such efforts, however, are hampered by federal drug-control laws that restrict marijuana research.
Research — or lack of it — doesn’t prevent patients and caregivers from using marijuana for medical purposes.
Those like John Batchan, a Phoenix ticket scalper, still report to the cultivation center day after day to tend their crops. He said 25 years of walking around venues to sell tickets has taken a toll on his feet. Batchan became a medical-marijuana patient last October and began growing at the center about three months ago with help from Barnes.
“As you can see, I’ve got a green thumb now,” Batchan said while taking a break from watering a tent full of plants.
Barnes’ green thumb is highly marketable.
Already, he is being wooed by other dispensary operations that want him to run their grow operations.
Barnes says expert growers can make “a good amount of money” — in the six figures — but he won’t discuss his salary.
Barnes and other industry experts say growers are hard to find in Arizona because the industry is in its infancy here.
Some growers are migrating here from California, Colorado, Montana and other states that have an established medical-marijuana industry.
Dispensary operator Mark Steinmetz said growing experts will likely find success as dispensary owners look to professionalize their operations and maximize output.
“It is basically an agricultural skill set,” he said. “You have to be part botanist, part farmer to know how to grow in some kind of volume. A lot of people can do it in small grows … but taking it to 1,000 plants is a whole different situation.”
It’s a skill that many are trying to learn.
For example, cannabis experts from Burbank, Calif., will teach about 50 participants in March how to tend buds as part of training sessions in Phoenix, said Calkin of the marijuana school. “In Arizona right now, there’s a great need for grow experts. Generally, we try to come to Arizona every couple of months.”
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