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Medical Marijuana At Curaleaf NY: An Inside Look

The marijuana industry is in a time of transition in New York state. Medical marijuana is legal; recreational marijuana is not. In Albany County, Curaleaf New York is marking its first anniversary of its medical marijuana cultivation and processing center at the Coeymans Industrial Park in Ravena. WAMC’s Jesse King got an inside look.

“We’re gonna go into the Mom Room, OK? In the Mom Rooms, we grow these plants as big as we can, and we take cuttings off of them – so we’re not actually flowering them, we’re growing them just into big plants, and we’re taking those cuttings, and those are called clones," explains Nate McDonald, general manager of New York operations at Curaleaf. "So we get anywhere from 25 to 35 clones off each mom, and the next room that we’ll go in within that airlock is the Clone Room. Consider that like the nursery.”

You have to go through several decontamination checkpoints just to get into the bright, air-locked Mom and Clone Rooms at Curaleaf’s 72,000-square foot warehouse. McDonald is decked out in scrubs, hair nets, and Crocs as he nudges lanes of “moms” to make room for their equally-sanitized visitors. Over 20 strains of cannabis fill the room, and while McDonald won’t list them by name – that’s part of the Curaleaf recipe – he says it’s a wide range.

Some high-THC, some balanced, a mixture of THC and CBD, and some that are high-CBD," he notes. "Depending on what our production cycle is and what type of medication that we’re making for the patients will depend how many of those plants we’re gonna grow.”

Credit Jesse King / WAMC
The facility's Flower Rooms are yellow with high-pressure sodium light. The "cola" is the part of the plant that is harvested and used for medicine.

From clone to harvest, McDonald says, takes about 12 weeks. Just one of the warehouse’s Flower Rooms – showered in high-pressure sodium lighting to simulate the sun – contains thousands of plants. Head Grower Elizabeth Keyser says the ultimate prize is the “cola,” a clump of buds at the top. 

“The cola is where the most dense population of trichomes are," Keyser points to a plant in front of her, careful not to touch it. "Trichomes are the glands where THC is produced.” 

Once colas are harvested, they’re dried and ground up. McDonald likens the consistency to oregano. From there it’s about processing: pressing liquid CO2 through the “oregano” to extract its oils, purifying it, re-inserting its natural terpenes, or flavors, and distilling the final oils to match the potency required of each Curaleaf product. 

“What you guys’ll see is a lot of automation in this room, so I would say Automation Alex, Automation Marcia, Automation Seth…” McDonald smiles. 

He's being facetious – because as technical as the rest of the Curaleaf operation is, automation hasn’t yet taken hold in the medical marijuana industry. Each of the company’s products is filled, packaged, and stickered by hand. Curaleaf currently offers vaporizer cartridges, tinctures, and mint-flavored micro-tablets to patients dealing with cancer, AIDS, PTSD, and more.

Credit Jesse King / WAMC
The facility is working on a new product, called "Cura Chews."

Companies like Curaleaf are walking a fine line for the moment. New York lawmakers left the capitol in June without legalizing recreational marijuana even as neighboring states have embraced it. So McDonald is careful to call Curaleaf’s upcoming, gummy-looking “Cura Chews” “oral medication,” as New York state does not allow the production of edibles found at pot shops as close as Berkshire County. Dr. Lynn Parodneck says customers in New York have been heading to Massachusetts, where recreational marijuana is legal, for wider product variety. 

“Particularly cancer patients, old women who are not so comfortable with the idea of using marijuana – if it comes in a cookie, it seems a lot less stigmatized," she says. "So many families have found that, if they just go to the border, bring back some nice candy/cookies, grandma and grandpa are much happier.”

Part of the massive production at Curaleaf New York is in preparation for Cura Chews, and the company’s eventual ground-flower vape pods. McDonald says Curaleaf is a medical company, and didn’t comment on whether the company could ever transition to recreational marijuana in the event of full legalization. But Curaleaf Pharmacist Stacia Woodcock says any expansion would create better access for its patients. 

“We’ll see patients on a pain medication, and then something to help them sleep, and then something for anxiety, and something to keep them awake because their pain medicine makes them tired," she notes. "And to replace all of that with one thing that’s been proven over 5,000 years, you can’t overdose, it’s not fatal, it’s safe for patients, it provides relief in a way that very few pharmaceuticals do – has been really rewarding.”

Curaleaf New York says the current patient-to-dispensary-ratio in the state is one to every half million people. Curaleaf New York serves nearly 20,000 customers between its four dispensaries in Plattsburgh, Newburgh, Carle Place on Long Island, and Forest Hills in Queens. 

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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