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A peek into the Area 51 of pot

A rare glimpse at the inner workings of the highly secretive medical marijuana cultivation center in remote Delavan, Illinois.

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Revolution Enterprises maintains a 75,000-square-foot facility downstate. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Revolution Enterprises maintains a 75,000-square-foot facility downstate.

The stench of chlorine was disorienting. I had expected, upon entering a facility that bills itself as one of the state's largest producers of legal weed, to encounter the sweet, pungent odor of raw marijuana baking under a string of LED lights. But here I was, getting my first glimpse of the place in a four-by-five-foot foyer that looked like the entrance to a heavily secured doctor's office and smelled like a public pool.

"I think you're supposed to step into that, actually," says a middle-aged man to my right—a fellow reporter on this carefully orchestrated press junket. He points at a shallow one-by-two-foot rectangular pool on the floor—the source of the chlorine smell.

A facility employee behind a plate-glass window confirms his hypothesis. The pool and the foyer—which, it turns out, is pressurized—are designed to ensure the death of any insect or fungus that might try to enter the facility, whether buzzing in on its own accord or hitching a ride on the soles of our shoes. In an office located beyond the foyer, we're led to a stack of Tyvek-brand disposable hazmat suits and blue booties, told to pick a size larger than what we'd usually wear, and suit up.

So I, my photographer, and the half-dozen other reporters and photographers along for the tour pull on the bulky suits, and looking like a gaggle of awkward astronauts, are led through double doors into one of Illinois's tightly regulated medical marijuana cultivation centers.

Revolution Enterprises, located about three hours south of Chicago in the remote and rural town of Delavan, is one of only 17 businesses awarded licenses to operate medical marijuana cultivation centers in Illinois. These centers have been growing medical pot for just over a year, but because recording of any kind was previously prohibited, journalists were barred from these sites up until a few months ago, and little has been seen or written about these facilities. (An exception: for a report published last October, the Associated Press gained exclusive access to Ataraxia, a cultivation center in Albion, Illinois, 270 miles south of Chicago.) Few members of the public have ever been allowed inside.

We wanted a firsthand look at how this new industry is faring in Illinois, how companies like Revolution grow their weed, and what kind of state-imposed—and self-imposed —regulations and restrictions they grow under.

After nearly two months of repeated requests for access (more on that in a minute), Reader director of photography Danielle A. Scruggs and I were invited to tour the company's 75,000-square-foot grow house and laboratory on a humid day in mid-August.

With the effort it took to get in, and all the mystery and security surrounding the place, it might as well be the Area 51 of pot. Its rules are reflective of the tight restrictions the state has placed on its medical marijuana pilot program as a whole. Whether the secrecy surrounding the facility and the industry is necessary is another question.

Revolution expects to eventually produce as much as 10,000 pounds of medical marijuana annually. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Revolution expects to eventually produce as much as 10,000 pounds of medical marijuana annually.

About that security: Revolution's facility sits at a corner of two country roads and is surrounded on all sides by acres and acres of cornfields. A chain-link fence topped by barbed wire encompasses the property, and every square foot of the premises is under constant surveillance. (The footage is stored for a year, per state rules.) Those of us on the tour were sternly told to leave our cell phones in the car, and were forbidden from photographing any security features. All of Revolution's products—its buds, edibles, and weed extracts—are delivered to dispensaries in armored cars.

We were also told by Revolution representatives that the security system was modeled on ones used by facilities that produce materials for nuclear weapons, but the company declined to offer more details about what that means. It would be the first of many seemingly larger-than-life claims made about the facility, some of which proved difficult if not impossible to verify.

But now, we finally smell it. Newly disinfected, we've just emerged in a vast warehouse with 24-foot-high ceilings and gleaming white walls, and the strong smell of raw marijuana—a musty pine funk with a sweet edge—wafts through the extremely well-lit space. A whirring sound, like an air conditioner, reverberates around us.

Each of the facility’s five grow rooms holds hundreds of plants. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Each of the facility’s five grow rooms holds hundreds of plants.

Our entourage today includes Tim McGraw, Revolution's founder and president, and his right-hand man, COO Dustin Shroyer, who take turns helming the tour. The manager of the facility, a Delavan native named Eric Diekhoff, and the company's director of communications, Cassandra Dowell, tag along too. The cohort of reporters hails mainly from downstate newspapers, along with one from the Chicago Tribune, who shows up late. After pushing for months to get in, we were surprised to learn that other journalists had also been offered a peek inside the facility.

A man in a suit and a white lab coat follows us silently. I later learn he's Jeffrey Cox, bureau chief of the Illinois Department of Agriculture's medicinal plants division, the requisite state regulator who, for reasons undisclosed to journalists, must tail our group during the tour. (Jack Campbell, the new director for the state's medical marijuana program, greeted our group prior to the start of the tour, but let Cox take over as the tour began.)

As we walk towards a 2,500-gallon water tank, McGraw explains that the water is piped in from Delavan, then filtered to remove minerals and other deposits. The filtered water is then infused with nutrients for the plants to soak up.

"That's as pure as you can get," he says. Purity—or the idea that weed, and especially medical weed, should be "pure"—is a recurring theme on the tour. But when pressed for specifics, Revolution declined to say what types of minerals are being filtered out or what kinds of nutrients are added in.

At this point we still haven't seen any plants or any signs of organic matter. McGraw pointsto a door marked BREEDING. The facility's plant-breeding program takes place back there, we're told, although we're not allowed to enter.

Instead, McGraw tells us that selecting which seeds to plant is an incredibly complex process. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana and its most well-known chemical compound. But McGraw says marijuana plants contain more than 140 other cannabinoid compounds that act on receptors located in the human nervous system.

"Every plant or seed has a different cannabinoid profile," he says. Strains are cross-bred in an effort to find ones with medicinal value for specific ailments and conditions.

"We're not allowed to smoke it," McGraw says, meaning they can't directly test a strain's potency or effects by ingesting it; they instead map the genetic makeup of the plant to determine whether or not they want to keep growing it.

"Within a year or so, almost everything we produce will be proprietary to us," he says.

When asked in a follow-up interview what he meant by this, McGraw says that "most" of the strains will be unique to the company, but they won't be able to patent them because weed is still classified as a highly restricted Schedule I drug by the federal government. (Vice reported in August that the U.S. Patent and Trade Office had just approved the first-ever patent for a plant containing significant amounts of THC, and that the office is now accepting and processing patent applications for individual strains of pot. The move signals another step on the road toward marijuana legalization, but it's unclear how the the rush to patent individual varieties of weed would affect the industry.)

When I ask McGraw for the names of some of the company's strains, he says he's not allowed to disclose them, because it could be construed as advertising, and state rules forbid cultivators from marketing their products to anyone other than a doctor or a dispensary.

We continue to walk. McGraw leads us down a short hallway with rows of doors on either side. He opens one to reveal a grow room—an extremely brightly lit room full of hundreds of pot plants. Positioned in long rows, the plants are a backlit verdant blur of stalks and stems and jagged leaves and, depending on the plants' life stage, bushy buds clustered around their center stalks. Their earthy vibrancy contrasts strangely with their ultrasterile surroundings. The photographers in the group jockey around the threshold of the room in a bid for the best, most tantalizing shot of the weed.

We watch an employee decked out in what looks like doctors' scrubs emblazoned with the Revolution logo—an R with the left side of the letter missing—carefully pour water into the pots at the base of each plant. All the plants are likewise hand-watered, McGraw says.

Some cultivators group their plants together in a greenhouse setting, but Revolution separates its plants by life stage, and keeps them in relatively small groups to protect against any potential pests or other contaminants, like mold. If one room is compromised, McGraw explains, they can seal it off from the rest of the crop and ideally contain any outbreak. They're forbidden from using any sort of pesticide, it turns out, so the grouping and the Tyvek suits and the treated water in the foyer are all components of a strict biosecurity plan.

While we gawk at the plants, McGraw launches into the topic that animates him most during our tour: medical marijuana's potential to curb opioid dependency.

"We have an opioid epidemic in this country: 1,705 opiate overdoses in Illinois alone last year," he says, his voice rising. "That's insane." (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the figure McGraw cites is the number of people who died from opiate overdoses in 2014. Figures for 2015 aren't yet available.)

McGraw also claims that every state with a medical marijuana program that allows patients with chronic pain to receive the drug has seen a reduction in opioid-related deaths.

"People use cannabis over opiates?" one reporter asks, somewhat incredulously.

"Absolutely," McGraw assures him. "The only gateway cannabis is is a gateway off opiates to better health."

Revolution founder and president Tim McGraw holds a beaker of 98 percent pure THC. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Revolution founder and president Tim McGraw holds a beaker of 98 percent pure THC.

McGraw sounds like an evangelist, but here at least he's right: a study supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse links the presence of licensed medical marijuana dispensaries with lower rates of opioid-overdose deaths and fewer admissions to treatment centers for opioid addiction.

But Revolution's bottom line is also at stake here. Medical marijuana isn't currently approved for patients with chronic pain in Illinois, and that clearly frustrates McGraw. He assures us that state officials will see the benefits of pot and add the condition eventually, potentially adding thousands more customers to the program.

When asked about the likelihood of adding chronic pain to the list of approved conditions, state officials said that decision was up to the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board, which oversees the list.

DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
Employees carefully weigh and process bud for sale. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Employees carefully weigh and process bud for sale.

After we leave the grow rooms, we're led through more white hallways into a series of smaller rooms, past more employees sporting the Revolution-branded scrubs. In what reminds me of an office break room devoid of any decor, a few employees are gathered around a table, trimming the excess leaves off marijuana buds. In another room, a man with the Revolution logo shaved into the side of his head weighs out buds, carefully placing each fuzzy green nubbin on a large metal scale.

"How much cannabis do you guys actually produce?" a reporter asks.

It's likely the number one question on all our minds—at least it is on mine. Knowing the scale of the company's production would hint at the amount of medical marijuana consumed regularly by patients in the state, and could help establish a baseline for the company and the industry's future growth.

But McGraw doesn't answer the question directly. Instead, he breaks production
down by light. He says the facility produces two pounds of "flower"—the hairy buds that grow around the center stalks of female plants—per grow light.

When I ask why the company measures it that way, McGraw responds that "it's just the standard."

Another grower I spoke with after the tour confirmed this, adding that quantifying production by grams per watt of light or grams per square foot of marijuana canopy are both common ways to measure output. Still, I continue to prod McGraw, asking how many lights the facility currently uses, and how often Revolution harvests its weed. He says there are about 45 lights per grow room, and five rooms currently in use; they harvest each crop every eight to 12 weeks. If you do the math, that equals nearly 2,500 pounds of pot annually. But, he reminds us, they're only using between 25 and 30 percent of the entire facility.

"This facility fully operational will have over 1,100 lights," he says. Dowell interjects, explaining that as patient demand for pot grows, Revolution will gradually scale up its production.

I tried asking the quantity question again in a follow-up interview post-tour, but McGraw again declined to give a specific number, saying only, "We don't like to do that." When pressed a third time, Dowell said that at full capacity the facility will produce "well over 10,000" pounds per year. Later, in a follow-up e-mail exchange, she asked us not to include the number of lights Revolution uses "for proprietary reasons," even though the information was freely provided by McGraw during the tour.

Revolution’s lab. “This facility is dedicated to the advancement of the science of cannabis,” McGraw says. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Revolution’s lab. “This facility is dedicated to the advancement of the science of cannabis,” McGraw says.

Finally, we're ushered into the lab, the facility's most unique feature—at least that's what we're told by Revolution's representatives. No other cultivator in Illinois has anything like it, they say. This room is also white, with a lower ceiling than the vast hallways we had previously walked through. It contains various metallic and glass lab devices worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, we're told. With this equipment, "we can do anything any state lab can do," McGraw boasts. There's not a speck of dirt, a leaf, or anything that resembles organic material to be found.

Revolution's research chemist, Andrew Gumbiner, later described the equipment to me in a detailed e-mail. Among other devices, the company's lab contains a high-performance liquid chromatography instrument used to test the potency of weed and determine the best strains for the facility's breeding program; a gas chromatography mass spectrometry instrument is used to profile each strain's unique aromas, and to identify how much residual solvent remains in marijuana extracts, concentrated forms of pot’s chemical compounds. (Extracts are typically produced using solvents like butane, ethanol, and carbon dioxide to separate cannabinoid compounds from plant material, and the state sets maximum permitted levels for residuals in products sold to consumers.)

"This facility is dedicated to the advancement of the science of cannabis. Purely," McGraw says, launching into a speech that makes him sound like an idealistic Silicon Valley CEO. "Yes, we want to produce as much flower as possible, but at the end of the day, we want this facility to save lives and to change lives, and to do that we need to understand the plant better than we do now."

We're then ushered to a display in the center of the room. Various types of extracts are laid out on the table before us: everything from hash to oil to a beaker full of a viscous amber fluid. McGraw holds the neck of the beaker between his thumb and index finger. Its contents remind me of honey, but it's actually roughly 98 percent pure THC. At another table there's what looks like a cookie sheet covered with a hardened amber-colored substance about a half inch thick. It's called "shatter," McGraw explains, a form of pot concentrate revered by marijuana connoisseurs for—you guessed it—its purity.

In addition to bud, Revolution produces several extracts—concentrated forms of pot’s chemical compounds—including shatter, left, and hash, right. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • In addition to bud, Revolution produces several extracts—concentrated forms of pot’s chemical compounds—including shatter, left, and hash, right.

The difference between the various extracts arises from the process used to cull the cannabinoid compounds from the plant matter. Extracts are a growing market in the weed industry because they provide alternatives for children or other patients who may not be able to smoke the drug because of a health condition or personal preference.

"Part of the reason we get such high quality, we do whole plant extract," McGraw explains. "We extract flower."

He goes on: "Most of the other parts of the country—Washington, Colorado, and everywhere else—their extracts are made from what they swept up off the floor. The purest medicine in the country comes out of Illinois."

But several Colorado cultivators I spoke to strongly rejected McGraw's claims. Anthony Franciosi, CEO and founder of Honest Marijuana, a grow facility based in Oak Creek, Colorado, says many pot extracts sold in Colorado are produced using pure flower material. He called McGraw's comment "audacious and untrue." Andy Williams, founder and owner of Medicine Man, a Denver-based grow house and dispensary, says Colorado cultivators offer a variety of extracts, including some made from trimmings, but that those trimmings are never "swept up off the floor" as McGraw claims, and are sourced in a "clean" manner. McGraw's assertion is "irresponsible for a licensee in this industry to say, because it's untrue and knocks down the industry in another state to make themselves look better," Williams says.

As it turns out, Revolution's claims about the uniqueness of its lab were also disputed. Zach Marburger, chief information officer for Cresco Labs, a company that holds three medical marijuana cultivation licenses in Illinois, says his facilities are also capable of conducting the same kind of testing McGraw boasts about.

But the strain of secrecy that seems to pervade the industry held firm here too. Marburger declined to provide any further details about his labs or his testing, saying, "We don't elaborate on equipment specifics more than that." Representatives from another Illinois cultivator told me something similar, and declined to go on the record.

Reporters during the press tour. The Illinois Department of Agriculture previously barred nearly all access to the state’s cultivation centers. - DANIELLE A. SCRUGGS
  • Danielle A. Scruggs
  • Reporters during the press tour. The Illinois Department of Agriculture previously barred nearly all access to the state’s cultivation centers.

The journalists disperse. I leave the lab and meander back to the grow rooms, where the Tribune reporter and a cameraman are prepping for a video interview with McGraw.

It suddenly strikes me how ill-equipped we—the journalists—are to call this company out on its claims in the moment. This is a new beat for all of us, and as we struggle to get up to speed, the private sector and the state have often hampered our efforts at educating both ourselves and the public about the burgeoning industry. The state has heavily restricted media access to these facilities and declined to offer up key pieces of information. And however pleased bigwigs at companies like Revolution are to showcase the results of their hard work—and more than $40 million in personal and investment money—from the names of their strains to the price of their products, there are still some questions they're not comfortable answering.

In the months leading up to our visit, I worked with Dowell, Revolution's press liaison, to try to gain access to the facility. The Revolution people would be happy to have the Reader come inside for a tour, she told me, but the state prohibits journalists from visiting cultivation centers. Dowell reached out to the Department of Agriculture multiple times in June, July, and August to see if we would be allowed in. Ultimately, we were given the go-ahead, but only after we threatened to write a story about not getting access to a privately owned facility—where the owners welcomed our presence—because of opposition from state regulators.

While there may be a business rationale for keeping some things secret—not wanting to tip off competitors to the company's yield, for example—or legitimate security concerns around producing something still illegal at the federal level and valuable on the black market, it's still not totally clear why the state continues to insist on such secrecy.

During the tour I wondered aloud how much Revolution charges for its flower, edibles, and extracts.

"Are you allowed to give us an idea of your prices?" I ask.

McGraw turns to the state regulator: "Jeff, are we allowed to talk about pricing?"

Cox mumbles something in a negative tone, and McGraw says to me, "Yeah, probably best not to."

Instead, McGraw says that, as is typical, the company sets wholesale prices, whereas the dispensaries set the retail price. McGraw then claims that retail prices for Revolution's products are lower than what's asked for on the black market.

I reached out to several Illinois dispensary owners who purchase products from Revolution to see if they'd confirm this. A highly scientific survey of my pot-smoking friends indicates that the black-market price for an eighth of bud is approximately $60, and has remained so for at least a decade. One dispensary owner, who's located outside Chicago and spoke on condition of anonymity, said an eighth of weed from Revolution costs him between $27 and $32 wholesale; he sells it retail for about $55. That's less than the going rate for an eighth at a dispensary in Chicago, which is between $60 and $65, he said. He also described Revolution as "one of the higher priced" cultivators in Illinois. Other cultivators, he said, will sell an eighth for as little as $22.50 wholesale.

(Another dispensary owner I spoke with declined to provide wholesale costs, nor would he share the outlet's retail price points. Even after I offered him anonymity, he still declined, saying he feared Revolution would somehow find out it was him who had tipped me off.)

As for Cox's reluctance to disclose prices, when asked to explain why a regulator would forbid a cultivator from disclosing that information, the state echoed McGraw's explanation about the potential for prices to be construed as advertising.

But this approach isn't common. Nate Bradley, executive director for the California Cannabis Industry Association, which acts like a chamber of commerce for weed in that state, says no California municipal or state official would ever dictate what information cultivators are or aren't allowed to share with the public. Bradley sees this as further evidence that the marketplace in Illinois is "overregulated."

"Illinois's registration and their whole plan is extremely unique and over-restrictive compared to laws in other states," he says.

Still, Revolution and the more than a dozen other companies operating in Illinois have complied, partially because they have no choice and, Bradley says, partially because they have an economic incentive to do so.

Medical marijuana cultivation licenses are "golden tickets" in Illinois, he says, and "even though [the rules] are overly restrictive at the moment, as the general public in Illinois gets used to [medical marijuana] and the fear subsides, the regulations will loosen and it's the people who've been there the longest that will benefit the most."

When asked how the company felt about the state dictating what it could and couldn't say to the public, Dowell referred me back to comments McGraw made during the tour, in which he'd thanked the state for allowing the media to tour the facility and called it a great step forward in promoting transparency.

Campbell had been in his new position as head of the state's medical marijuana pilot program for about a month when he made an about-face and allowed not only the Reader but any media publication that wanted access the opportunity to tour these facilities, provided a state regulator was available and willing to tag along.

Before the tour began, I asked Campbell why the policy was reversed.

The rules banned recording devices from cultivation centers, with the exception of the cameras used to surveil the facilities, he said.

"But there is also a way, a legitimate business purpose, for allowing recording devices in," he explained. "We are allowed to interpret our own rules and, up until now, we were saying we are not allowing any recording equipment in the facility. Now, we'll take a different interpretation of that, because we want to put you together with the cultivators and let the public know what's going on behind closed doors."

As heartening as Campbell's push toward limited transparency is, his assertion that the Department of Agriculture can interpret its rules anyway it sees fit is somewhat alarming. He won't be head of the program forever, and it's possible whoever his successor is will come up with his or her own interpretation of the rules—an interpretation that doesn't allow the public a clear look at a growing legal marijuana industry in Illinois. Medical cannabis is subject to more state scrutiny than any other agricultural industry. Regulators are required to inspect each cultivation center at least once a week, and it's the taxpayers who are funding their salaries. It seems this industry should be the most transparent, not the least.

Maybe the state should take a lesson from the real Area 51. A lack of transparency can sometimes fuel wild speculation and conspiracy theories. Which, when paired with weed, is a really bad combination.   v


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