Cana­dian green­houses may be the fu­ture of pot

Grow­ers go big with aim of driv­ing down prices, lim­it­ing black mar­keters

USA TODAY International Edition - - MONEY - Trevor Hughes

DELTA, Bri­tish Columbia – The redleafed blue­berry bushes and green­houses filled with toma­toes tell you that this small town south of Van­cou­ver is a great place to grow things. A pe­cu­liar smell in the air tells you mar­i­juana pro­duc­ers have al­ready figured that out.

Across Canada, gleam­ing glass green­houses that once grew pro­duce for con­sumers are be­ing retrofitted with air filters and light-block­ing shades. Gone are the tomato plants and pep­pers. In their place are tens of thou­sands of sun-grown cannabis plants and hun­dreds of farm­work­ers trans­plant­ing, wa­ter­ing, trim­ming and pack­ag­ing pot.

Ex­perts say these highly so­phis­ti­cated op­er­a­tions are the fu­ture of mar­i­juana pro­duc­tion in­ter­na­tion­ally. The hope is that they will drive the price of pot so low, black mar­keters give up.

“We haven’t changed the foot­print,” said Rob Hill, CFO of Emer­ald Health Ther­a­peu­tics, which is grow­ing mar­i­juana in Delta. “We’ve just changed the crop.”

Canada be­came the sec­ond and largest na­tion to le­gal­ize mar­i­juana on Oct. 17. The coun­try’s le­gal mar­i­juana sys­tem re­quires that cannabis be grown in­doors by li­censed providers, so Emer­ald Health Ther­a­peu­tics part­nered with a long­time pro­duce op­er­a­tion, Vil­lage Farms, in a joint ven­ture called Pure Sun­farms ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing a stag­ger­ing 82 tons of mar­i­juana an­nu­ally from the 1.1 mil­lion square foot green­house com­plex about 30 min­utes south of Van­cou­ver.

Canada’s de­ci­sion to le­gal­ize and reg­u­late mar­i­juana sales is be­ing closely watched glob­ally by gov­ern­ments, reg­u­la­tors and cannabis in­vestors who claim the na­tion’s prece­dent-set­ting move could her­ald broader ac­cep­tance of le­gal pot, par­tic­u­larly in the United States. The busi­ness of pot is a prime mo­ti­va­tor. To­day, whole­sale mar­i­juana sells for about $600 a pound in some U.S. states that have le­gal­ized it, mak­ing it a far more valu­able crop than let­tuce, al­monds or toma­toes, where per-plant profit mar­gins are usu­ally mea­sured in frac­tions of a penny.

The price of pot reflects the re­al­ity that it largely re­mains a bou­tique crop, of­ten grown un­der ex­pen­sive elec­tric lights in ware­houses.

Be­cause cannabis – and even hemp – has been il­le­gal to grow in most parts of the U.S., highly effec­tive and efficient farm­ing op­er­a­tions have stayed away from mar­i­juana, mostly ced­ing the space to hob­by­ists and en­thu­si­asts, or Mex­i­can drug car­tels.

Ex­perts and reg­u­la­tors say driv­ing down the price of le­gal mar­i­juana will help drive out those car­tels and black­mar­ket deal­ers. “We’re see­ing a shift away from peo­ple who were effec­tively hobby grow­ers,” said Kar­son Hu­mis­ton, 26, the founder of cannabis staffing firm Vangst in Santa Mon­ica, Cal­i­for­nia. “It’s all go­ing to Big Ag. That’s definitely where the in­dus­try is shift­ing. For them, what’s the differ­ence in grow­ing let­tuce, toma­toes or cannabis?”

A worker at Cana­dian mar­i­juana pro­ducer Pure Sun­farms moves plants in a green­house. Due to con­cerns about cross­ing the U.S. bor­der, few work­ers in the Cana­dian in­dus­try are will­ing to be pho­tographed in a way that they can be iden­tified.

PHO­TOS BY TREVOR HUGHES/USA TO­DAY

A worker at Pure Sun­farms trims a plant in­side a green­house.

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