The potent aroma at 2804 Decatur St. in the Manchester neighborhood of South Richmond could be described as either overwhelming, intoxicating or both.
One way or the other, the smell outside and in Richmond’s first licensed medical marijuana production facility is exactly what you’d imagine.
Green Leaf Medical of Virginia began operations in May and is set in late October to debut its products when its first dispensary opens on the ground floor of its production facility to sell products only to qualifying patients.
Co-founder and CEO Philip Goldberg said the Richmond area was appealing for his company because it offered a central location from which Green Leaf can conduct a statewide delivery model.
Goldberg founded Green Leaf Medical Cannabis in Maryland in the late 1990s with his brother Kevin Goldberg, now the company's general counsel and chief compliance officer.
The Maryland-based Green Leaf Medical, which also has operations in Ohio and Pennsylvania, partnered with Virginia Pharmaceutical Processors LLC in 2018 to form Green Leaf Medical of Virginia.
The same year, the Virginia Board of Pharmacy conducted a competitive application process for each of Virginia’s five health regions, and Green Leaf Medical of Virginia secured approval to be the lone licensee for Health Service Area IV, which includes the Richmond region and parts of Southside Virginia.
Green Leaf is one of four license holders in the state. It is joined by New York-based Columbia Care in the Hampton Roads region; Dalitso LLC (owned by Jushi Holdings, Inc., a US-based multi-state cannabis operator) in Northern Virginia; and Dharma Pharmaceuticals in Southwest Virginia. A Request for application has been opened for competitively awarding conditional approval to a fifth pharmaceutical processor in Health Service Area I, which stretches from Fredericksburg to Charlottesville and the Shenandoah Valley, a spokesperson for the Board of Pharmacy said via email.
Virginia Pharmaceutical Processors is led by Angel Papa, Sunita Gupta and Auserine Kuktelionyte, each of whom Goldberg said filled a different need for the company.
Papa, an associate broker for commercial real estate brokerage One South Realty, was familiar with the real estate market and proved instrumental in securing the appropriate property. (Her husband, Tom Papa, a principal of Fountainhead Real Estate Development, is a big residential and commercial development player in downtown Richmond and in Manchester.)
Kuktelionyte, co-owner of Oz Enterprises, a granite countertop fabrication company, had experience with vendors such as construction. And Gupta, chief operating officer of eHealthObjects, had experience building out a business in the health care industry.
Gupta also had familiarity with tracking patient outcomes, something Goldberg said Green Leaf is heavily focused on. Tracking patient outcomes allows the company to recommend appropriate products.
Green Leaf Medical of Virginia employs another pair of brothers working together in the cannabis industry, Trey and Adam Blankinship.
Trey Blankinship is the Richmond facility’s pharmacist in charge. He attended Virginia Tech for his undergrad and Virginia Commonwealth University for pharmacy school.
His brother, Adam Blankinship, a clinical pharmacist, went to VCU for both. The brothers are Richmond natives and Mills E. Godwin High School alumni.
They entered the cannabis industry, in part, because they wanted to help spread the word concerning cannabis’ medicinal benefits and break the stigma surrounding the plant.
”We just wanted to show everybody, show Richmond, show Virginia that this works, this helps and it has a place in medicine,” Trey said.
“It’s always been something we’ve both been passionate about, we’re advocates and enthusiasts, we believe in it as a medicine, we’ve seen it first hand. We know it’s going to help people, and we’re excited for it.”
The 82,000-square-foot gray building, which appears largely innocuous at first glance, houses a maze of white hallways connecting an assortment of rooms, some of which are designated for different stages of the marijuana plant’s life cycle.
In the clone room, infantile plants appear as tiny 3-4-inch palm trees which could be mistaken for elementary school science projects. Plants spend about six weeks between here and the propagation room, where they grow to about half a foot during their adolescent stage.
Then the plants make it to one of nine flowering rooms — a vast, brightly lit sea of green with gold and purple flecks strewn throughout, a scene one might see in a documentary on the cannabis industry.
High-powered fans line the walls, and the temperature and humidity are cranked up to provide the more than 70 strands — Martian Monkey, Jet Fuel, Gorilla Glue and Purple Punch, a few labels read — their optimal environment.
The plants spend about eight weeks in the flowering rooms before they’re harvested. It takes another two to four weeks for the products derived from them to make it through the lab to the dispensary.
Trey Blankinship said harvest days are difficult for some employees who’ve fostered the plants from their infantile to adults stages.
“There’s some employees that love the plants so much they are like their babies,” he said with a chuckle. “They actually don't like the harvest day when they get chopped down because they’ve been nurturing them for so long.”
The facility is expected to produce around 2,000 pounds of dry weight cannabis per month, Goldberg said.
The first harvest was Sept. 16 — those plants began their life cycle in May.
They were then dried out and some were frozen. That material is used to extract oil, which is then lab-tested to ensure it is free of contaminants before it is used to make edible products such as chocolate bars and gummy candies. Products must be registered with the state Board of Pharmacy after cultivation and production is complete and an independent laboratory has performed tests.
The Board of Pharmacy first inspected the building in May, and, after it passed, the company was allowed to begin growing. The facility is subject to quarterly inspections from the pharmacy board.
Harvests are initially scheduled for every two weeks, though the facility has the capacity to harvest weekly, Goldberg said. In addition to edibles, the company also will carry products for vaporization — cartridges and solid concentrates such as waxes, shatters and budders.
Per Virginia regulations, doses from these products are not allowed to exceed 10 milligrams of THC, the psychoactive component in cannabis. Licensed producers also are not allowed to sell marijuana flowers, though Goldberg hopes that could change in the not-so-distant future.
“We believe that law may change, we’re not sure what form that change will take, there’s a lot going on,” Goldberg said. “I think this will be a big year in the legislature with regard to cannabis and we’ll just have to see what comes from it.”
Green Leaf Medical of Virginia currently has about 65 employees at its Richmond location, but Goldberg expects the company to employ 250 to 300 workers in Virginia by May 2021.
Trey Blankinship said every employee at the facility lives in the Richmond area, and most grew up here. Four pharmacy students from VCU work at the facility, and he said the university has reached out to him to discuss incorporating medical cannabis into its curriculum.
“There hasn't been a new niche in pharmacy in a long time. It’s always retail pharmacy or hospital pharmacy and a few others things, but there hasn't been a new avenue for pharmacists in a very long time, so this is exciting,” Trey said.
Adam Blankinship is excited to go to work every morning, where he and his brother are on the forefront of a burgeoning industry rife with unanswered questions, work to be done and ample possibilities for growth and expansion.
“I’m excited to see where it goes, cannabis is still so new and the fact that it’s a Schedule I [narcotic], there’s hardly any research or scientific evidence out there,” Adam Blankinship said.
“Hopefully as more states legalize it and laws loosen up, there’ll be more research and more data out there so that we can truly get the word out that it’s a good medicine for people and they can have access to it and it can help patients.”
The ground floor of the Manchester facility will house Green Leaf’s only operational dispensary, for now. Goldberg hopes to open five additional dispensaries by the end of the second quarter in 2021.
The company had been awaiting clarity on regulations which will dictate where its new dispensaries will be located — for instance, they can't be within 1,000 feet of a school or daycare.
As Green Leaf expands its operations in the area, Goldberg said a single dispensary won’t be enough.
“It’s not really feasible. And it also helps with our delivery model to have delivery hubs, patient access points where we’re able to deliver from,” he said. “It creates a better experience for everyone involved, patients and industry folks.”
Patients must visit the physical dispensary in person when making their first purchase, but afterward can place orders for delivery online. At the company’s website, gLeaf.com, users are first met with a patient registration form, which will ask them if they’ve already registered with the state, as required by Virginia Board of Pharmacy regulations.
If a user selects no, the site walks them through the steps to register with the state. If they select yes, users can then register as a patient with Green Leaf.
Goldberg said online registration as opposed to registering at the dispensary will “really significantly cut down on the time it takes people to get through on opening day.”
He anticipates a crowd of more than 1,000 patrons when the dispensary opens its doors, hopefully at the end of October. The exact date is to be determined because some products have not yet cleared the approval process.
Hundreds of people per week have been registering online, Trey Blankinship said, and Green Leaf had more than 5,000 registered patients in the state as of late September.
That registration includes a consultation where patients outline their medical status. Trey Blankinship said conversations with prospective patients has thus far yielded a noticeable tone of gratitude and excitement at the imminent prospect of access to medical cannabis in Virginia.
“Everyone we call, they’re just thankful, saying they can’t wait and this doesn't seem real that this is actually happening,” Trey Blankinship said.
“On the other side of that, there’s still so many people that don't know that a medical cannabis program is in Virginia at all. So there’s still a lot of word that needs to get out.”
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