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Slow-growing plant yields marijuana designed for kids

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(Keith Johnson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jennifer Napier-Pearce February 6, 2013.

By Kirsten Stewart

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Nov 10 2013 01:01AM
Updated Mar 3, 2014 07:02PM

Colorado Springs • Preparing Charlotte’s Web is a protracted, tedious process that starts at "the grow," two massive greenhouses on 56 acres of spring-fed land at an undisclosed location in the mountains.

It’s harvest time and the greenhouses are full of towering plants.

Colorado’s sunny climate allows the nonprofit Realm of Caring Foundation to grow marijuana year-round. It gets two harvests a year, but hopes to ramp up production to three to four harvests through a light deprivation strategy that causes the plants to flower in winter.

About a third of each greenhouse is devoted to Charlotte’s Web, a shorter, squattier plant that grows more slowly than other varieties. The plant is high in cannabidiol (CBD) but low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the component of marijuana that creates a high in users.

It’s in such high demand by parents of ill children, typically kids with epilepsy, that Realm can’t immediately supply them all.

"It keeps cutting into our THC growing, which has been necessary to move families off the waiting list," said 34-year-old Joel Stanley, one of six brothers running the foundation. "But we are walking a fine line" financially, he said, because Charlotte’s Web is sold almost at cost.

It takes 13 to 14 workers to tend the plants. Dogs roam the property, which is fenced and under 24-hour camera surveillance.

After the plants are harvested, they are hung to dry and cured like tobacco. They are trimmed, weighed and vacuum sealed into food-grade bags for shipment to dispensaries. 

Everything is labeled and carefully inventoried, and every part of the plant is used, including the stems as fertilizer.

Charlotte’s Web is sent to Realm’s lab, an industrial kitchen in Denver overseen by 32-year-old Jesse Stanley.

Buds and leaves are stripped from the stems and soaked for hours in grain alcohol to extract the cannabinoids, Jesse Stanley explained. The resulting dark amber-colored liquid is strained through a fine mesh to remove all plant material and poured into a rotary evaporator to remove the alcohol. 

A device used in chemical laboratories, the "rotovap" allows for liquid solvents — in this case, a CBD extract — to be quickly and gently removed without excessive heating. The end product is a gummy substance thicker than pancake syrup.

"We can do about a liter-and-a-half an hour," said Bryson Rast, a lab technician the Stanley brothers hired away from the pharmaceutical and nutritional supplement industries. 

The brothers also just acquired a high-performance liquid chromatography machine, which they’ll use to validate samples, or measure the amount of CBD and THC in each batch. Currently samples are sent out for testing, which is expensive, said Jesse Stanley. 

When the samples return, he dilutes them with olive oil.

"It’s primitive the way we do things, but accurate," he said. "Quality control is our goal."

Colorado Springs physician Margaret Gedde who is tracking children who are using Charlotte’s Web, said there are other growers that sell low-THC products.

"But so far nobody has stepped up like the Realm of Caring has to provide this to kids and do it in a way that is safe," said Gedde. "They grow it safely and test the batches so we know the actual milligrams and it can be accurately dosed."

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