Medical marijuana industry hopes an inside look will blow away misconceptions

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For the first time in the state’s medical cannabis program, select members of the media were allowed inside a marijuana growing facility.

Noa Botanicals, one of Hawaii’s eight licensees, hopes an inside look at its operations will educate the public about pakalolo.

"There's still a lot of misunderstanding, there's still a lot of stigmatization around this plant," said Brian Goldstein, CEO of Noa Botanicals. "And it's just a plant."

Noa's $5 million, 15,000-square-foot facility in Kunia can produce several thousand pounds of medical cannabis every year.

The warehouse is home to about a thousand plants, and Goldstein says they are currently growing 16 different strains.

Because the plants are extremely valuable, and Hawaii has the most stringent testing standards in the nation, strict protocols are in place to protect the plants.

"If there is a single hair, one hair, it will fail the entire batch," said Goldstein.

Visitors must wear protective gear -- head to toe -- including a hair net, surgical gown and mask, and shoe covers.

Those handling the plants need to wear gloves.

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"Regardless of what stage, if you're handling one strain and you're going to go to another strain, you have to change your gloves or decontaminate your gloves with alcohol to ensure the biosecurity of the plants is preserved," Goldstein said.

The facility is separated into different rooms.

In the clone room, cuttings from select mother plants are grown in a dimly-lit environment.

“The clones ensure we have the same quality plant as the mothers,” said Eddie Pono, who works in the warehouse. “This way we’re guaranteed to have females. We don’t want male plants because they would pollinate the females in the room and reduce our yield.”

The juvenile plants are eventually moved into the vegetative room where there's a delicate balance between temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide.

There the plants are exposed to light 22 hours a day, which ensures they'll grow, but not yet flower.

Once they're the right size, the plants move into the flower room where they'll stay for about two months.

"In here, because the lights are on for 12 hours and off for 12 hours, they think its spring time, so they think it's time to flower," Goldstein said.

Each plant is assigned a universal product number that allows the state to track it and its products throughout the entire process.

After the flowers are harvested and dried, some will go to the trim room, where staff use little scissors to cut off unwanted leaves and stems.

The other plant material is taken to the manufacturing lab where temperature and pressure are used to transform the cannabis into products, like oils, lotions, and tinctures.

After the products are tested and cleared, they move to packaging.

“The people that pack the boxes, cannot be the same people that transport, and they cannot be the same people that receive. So every step along the way there are multiple elements to help prevent diversion of product,” Goldstein said.

The products are then brought to the dispensaries where patients can select the best strain for their medical needs.

The state Health Department, which administers the medical cannabis registry program, said there were 24,070 valid registered medical cannabis users in Hawaii as of Jan. 31.

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