When the first sales of medical cannabis in Maryland were made in December 2017, a patient could be certain that the medicine they received was raised indoors and grown under controlled conditions. By carefully regulating the light, climate, water, and nutrients that the plants received, growers could ensure that plants would produce a uniform product for harvest and use by patients. Popular wisdom held that outdoor growing on the East Coast (especially Maryland) was prone to failure due to the high humidity, the variable climate, and the pests that inhabit these parts. But sometimes, Mother Nature cooperates and popular wisdom yields to sheer determination.
And that is where Mackie Barch, the President and CEO of the medical cannabis cultivation company Culta, comes into the picture. This Fall, Culta undertook a grand experiment — the first large-scale commercial outdoor harvest of medical cannabis on the East Coast. This was historic for a number of reasons. First, medical cannabis is not typically grown outdoors on the East Coast. The weather, the temperature, and the insects all make Maryland a poor choice for outdoor growing. A new cannabis plant that does well in Maryland weather could be a big boost for patients and the availability of products. Second, outdoor grown cannabis is three times less expensive to cultivate, thereby reducing the price of popular concentrate and distillate products to consumers. And finally, outdoor growing has the advantage of having a much lower carbon footprint, being organic, and sustainable.
As Barch himself freely acknowledges, “Outdoor grown cannabis is by far the most cost-effective way to produce the biomass required to deliver the products our patients require. But make no mistake. It is hard work, labor intensive, and still very expensive.”
While indoor cultivation can regularly produce perfect cannabis plants with the full expression of a plant’s terpenes and trichromes, such intensive horticultural methods are not always necessary. Sometimes, the products only require certain cannabinoids (such as CBD, CBG, or CBN) or Delta-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (known as THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis). And this is where the outdoor market becomes indispensable to connecting patients with their medicine.
As Maryland does not have a “home-grow” exception included in its medical cannabis law, patients must rely upon the growers who have been licensed by the State of Maryland. Cultivators, such as Culta, must find new ways to expand the availability of medical products to patients, while keeping them affordable to drive away black markets. This is the key to a sustainable state-sponsored medical cannabis program where medicinal products are accessible by patients at a price they can afford.
Last month, a survey by the United Cannabis Business Association found that in California there was more than three times the number of black market unlicensed dispensaries than licensed dispensaries. An industry-backed financial audit projected that roughly $8.7 billion will be spent on unregulated cannabis products in California in 2019, compared with just $3.1 billion spent on cannabis sold by legal businesses. If Maryland is going to take the approach that it will only permit licensed growers, processors, and dispensaries of medical cannabis, then it must encourage outdoor cultivation by all its growers.
As Barch put it, “We went big. We grew one acre of outdoor grown cannabis in Maryland to be harvested this Fall. While outdoor is not analogous to indoor grown cannabis, the outdoor grow certainly exceeded our expectations.”