If you think about growing medical marijuana, you probably picture pot growing in a field or maybe a green house. Instead, think prison, with a hint of laboratory.
At the end of a residential road in Lake Wales, you’ll pass a set of railroad tracks and then a 10-foot barbed wire fence. There’s a guard shack with cameras, and another barbed wire fence.
This is McCrory’s Sunny Hill nursery, between Tampa and Orlando, and just down the road from the plant that makes the Florida’s Natural orange juice.
Here I meet Darrin Potter, the chief horticultural officer for McCrory’s Nursery. He’s wearing jeans, a Grow Healthy polo shirt and a camouflage hat.
“And we make sure we do all of our due diligence before anybody comes into the property,” Potter said. “Because it is a highly secure environment. We’re not just growing cannabis out in a field.”
And to be clear, McCroy’s isn’t growing anything yet – that would be illegal. McCrory’s is actually suing Florida because the nursery didn’t get one of the five licenses to grow medical marijuana. McCrory’s filed one of 13 lawsuits, and said there are several reasons why the nursery that got the license should have been disqualified.
He said one reason Florida should have picked McCrory’s is ready to grow medical marijuana.
“I can start growing in two weeks,” Potter said. “I’ve already got all the permits complete.”
Potter flips a set of fuses and brings me inside. There’s row after row of high-pressure sodium lights bathing the room in yellow.
“And this is just the first phase of lighting,” Potter said.
This former Sealy mattress manufacturing complex cost $2.3 million to buy. They’ve another $2 million into the infrastructure before they applied for a license so they could cultivate immediately.
“To get medicine to patients faster than anyone, that was my goal,” Potter said. “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to do it now, and who knows how long this legal process might take.”
The Florida Department of Health said in a statement that the selection process that passed over McCrory’s Nursery for the contract was fair. A trial has been set for April.
Although the building sits empty, Potter still gives a tour. Security is tight. The high-pressure entrance has a double bay door, and only one opens at a time. Employees will wear key cards that give them access to the building and also maps where they are inside the building. The company doesn’t just worry about security, it worries about employee theft.
Potter said it’s all done to give regulators –and, frankly, politicians – confidence that low-THC medical marijuana won’t end up in the wrong hands.
“Now in the specific areas of flower and vegetation, we're going a little bit further,” Potter said. “We’ll have not only card access scan but retinal scans.”
Potter graduated from the University of Central Florida with a degree in biology and worked in the radiology department at Orlando Regional Medical Center. He said he will bring those lab protocols into the facility as well: employees will wear color-coded scrubs, anti-microbial Crocs, and will shower before putting on the scrubs provided on-site.
Florida approved low-THC medical marijuana in 2014, and patients were supposed to be able to access the drug a year ago. Because the state is only allowing five growers, the fight for those licenses has been intense.
“The worst thing in the world is when a mother calls and says 'Hey, I know it's legal in Florida, can I have the medicine.' It's heartbreaking, I have to say I can’t do anything. They’re like but that’s what you do. But that’s my career,” he said.
“I hate to say it, but I feel like the patients were lost in this process a long time ago.”