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West Haven medical marijuana facility part farm, part science lab

By Ed Stannard | Posted: 09/28/15, 5:55 PM EDT

WEST HAVEN >> There’s a room at Advanced Grow Labs on Frontage Road that’s filled with about 25 mature, healthy, fragrant marijuana plants, each one a different strain of cannabis.

The sign on the door says “Mother.”

These are the plants — sativas, indicas and numerous hybrids — from which the medical marijuana that AGL supplies to the state’s six dispensaries originates. They all started from seed, which was a requirement of the state to avoid possible contamination, according to AGL founder and managing partner David Lipton.

“It’s like a mom and dad having 20 kids and then each child is different,” Lipton said of the plants, from which cuttings are made and replanted. Each has a different name — not street names, but labels such as Indicol J. There’s even one called D.L., named for Lipton.

“You’re kind of picking your plants that are best suited to your environment and conditions,” such as how quickly they grow or what light and temperature they need, he said.

“It’s taken us a long time to select the right plants to become mothers,” Lipton said.

In July 2014, “we planted thousands of seeds, not knowing what would happen,” said Lipton. “These are our best of our best and these are what we call our mother plants.”

There are so many strains because each one has a different ratio of cannabinoids, the active ingredients in marijuana, primarily THC and CBD. THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) is the one that gives a high, while CBD (cannabidiol) does not. Each strain has a different ratio of THC to CBD, from 1-1 to 5-1 or any number of combinations.

Advanced Grow Labs is one of four marijuana growing and production facilities in the state, the only places where cannabis is legally grown in Connecticut. That’s different from some of the other states that have legalized marijuana and that allow patients to grow their own. Connecticut is one of 23 states, plus the District of Columbia, to legalize medical marijuana. (Four states have legalized it for recreational use: Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.)

The 400 Frontage Road plant is like a combination of a hydroponic farm and a secure Defense Department facility. Its 36 cameras peer into every room — and outside as well — and there is only a small “AGL” sign outside the door.

“We don’t want anyone to think they can get in here,” Lipton said. “It’s incredibly secure. Security was an important part of our getting a license” from the state Department of Consumer Protection.

Both visitors and staff have to change into blue scrubs and slippers, wear hairnets or ball caps and go through a 40-second “air shower” to gain access to the growing and production areas.

Each employee has an ID card that has to stay on site, and everyone has to re-register each year with the state.

“You leave the outside world behind you when you come back in the production area,” Lipton said.

Staffers clip clones from the mother plant and insert them into “wool rocks,” which are inundated with water so they can start rooting. Each is a female like its mother. When they’ve grown big enough, they are transplanted into larger pots.

In one of four flowering rooms, there are nothing but stems — the sativa plants that had been growing there had just been harvested. Sativa, whose leaves are “very long, thin, wispy, razorlike,” takes longer to harvest than the indica variety, Lipton said.

“This plant has a more earthy, tangeriney scent to it,” he said, holding out a trichome, a part of the plant that is rich in cannabinoids. “There’s no deficiency at all in these plants; they’re really healthy.”

Tyler McKinley, who’s been with the company for only 2½ months, is in charge of watering the cuttings, which are clones of the mother plants.

“We all work really hard to provide patients with exceptional medicine,” he says when Lipton asks him what AGL’s mission is. That “medicine” is used by the 5,357 patients who had registered with the state Consumer Protection Department as of Aug. 27.

Pointing to a plant in the mother room, Lipton said, “We’ve sold a lot of products from this plant. It’s what we call Hybridol B.” (Each letter signifies a different strain.) “They all test differently. This is made into oil and pens.”

No pesticides or other chemicals are used on the plants — they are given only nutrients, which bring the clones to harvest in about eight weeks.

“We want plants that yield well. We select them based on what we feel our needs are at the time. It’s a long, drawn-out process” that can take six months or more.

Once the grown plants are harvested, they’re hung on clothes hangers on garment racks in a 60-degree drying room.

In another room, Danielle Nachowitz was making capsules for vaporizing pens from oil derived from the cannabis. She’s also in charge of marketing.

Meanwhile, production assistant Camille Kritzman was putting tiny labels on the capsules.

Many of the products, such as under-the-tongue strips, known as slips, and oils used in vaping pens, tend to be higher in CBD.

“We have a lot of CBD products out,” Lipton said. “It’s nonpsychoactive.”

However, the chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies and cannabis-infused organic honey and a chocolate-hazelnut spread, made from Sativarin A, use only THC. “In this (jar) there’s 8 tablespoons of medicine. There’s 200 milligrams of active THC in this product,” Lipton said.

“Everything is tested multiple times,” Lipton said.

Samples of each product are analyzed and certified free of mold or other contaminants by Pure Analytics of New Britain. Then orders are shipped to the six dispensaries, depending on demand.

“Patients, all in all, really love our products,” Lipton said.

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