Workers inside a temporary medical marijuana growing operation in Baker are preparing hundreds of plants each month that are being used to manufacture cannabis products for patients across the state while a major expansion is under construction.

For about two years, Ilera Holistic Healthcare has been the licensee for Southern University, which is conducting research at the site while the company crafts its commercial products. Ilera began selling its THC products for the first time in Louisiana in July — joining LSU-licensee Wellcana as the two state-approved medical marijuana providers in the state. The products are sold through nine specially licensed pharmacies across major metro areas in Louisiana. 

Each of the marijuana plants at Ilera's Baker facility off Plank Road being used to create medicine began as clones from mother plants of various strains chosen by the company and university researchers. 

"It's genetic preservation," said Brandon DeBoer, cultivation manager at Ilera. "The purpose of a mother is that when you find the strongest genetics, then you're saving it so you don't have to keep growing from seed where you'd get a random plant. Instead, you have a genetic clone you can keep cutting off."

Ilera began the process with two dozen potential genetic strains of cannabis and whittled it down to six main types of plants formulated for medicinal purposes and research by parsing it out based on mostly yield and quality. Terpenes, the scent profile from plant oils, are another factor. The company seeks to use terpenes with medicinal benefits. Those include linalool, which is considered to have anti-inflammatory properties, and ones that can stimulate an appetite for patients who have nausea. Each mother plant can produce thousands of clones.

"A lot of the strains these days are so hybridized; you're really getting a little bit of everything (in terpenes)," DeBoer said.

Cannabis at the site isn't grown in traditional soil but rather alternatives such as chalk and stone-based rockwool, peat moss or coconut coir. Workers separate plants that look stronger and add rooting hormone to transplant.

As the plants grow larger, they are moved to long racks stacked toward high ceilings in a mostly vertical growing operation. That maximizes the volume of product per square foot. The amount of artificial light a plant receives can stimulate growth. Some plants may get upward of 12 hours of artificial light during the process. 

“What keeps a plant in vegetative and flowering state is light schedules," DeBoer said. “Every day, we’re learning and refining our processes."

It takes about three months for clones to grow into mature plants, which includes 63 days for the plants to flower. While larger buds are associated with higher yield, it doesn't always mean more THC product when extracted into an essential oil. It does signify that the plant is more ripe. 

During a weekday afternoon in mid-October, there were about 560 maturing plants on long racks at the Baker facility, but the room housed 1,500 plants overall. For each 180 plants, the company could yield about 24 pounds of dry flower. For each 1,000 milligrams of THC essential oil, the company could produce about three batches of its most potent 600 milligram product.

The site is poised to grow significantly as crews complete another warehouse that is expected to be a mostly vertical growing operation. It could house tens of thousands of plants at any given time. Beyond that, there are plans to use natural sunlight in a traditional greenhouse on the Baker site, which shares a view of cow pastures. 

“We’re starting to harvest every three weeks. So right now, somewhere around 24 pounds, but then as we get new facilities, we’ll end up getting higher yield and the ability to harvest every week,” DeBoer said, going "from maybe 24 pounds every three weeks to maybe 100 pounds every week."

From there, it could grow to several hundred pounds of dry cannabis flower each week. By comparison, Wellcana, the LSU licensee produced about 600 pounds in 2019 as it was getting started. Wellcana at midyear was planning expanded operations at its facility off Highland Road in south Baton Rouge to produce more diverse products and was exploring construction of a 100,000-square-foot indoor marijuana greenhouse and storage facility between Baton Rouge and Lafayette.

Since August 2019, Wellcana has transferred 48,700 tinctures to pharmacies. Illera has transferred 5,529 tinctures since July 2020. 

Between August 2019 and June 16, 2020, there were 6,120 medical marijuana patients in the state. 

Ilera's strategy is to sell different tincture formulations curated for various ailments whereas Wellcana has been selling tinctures in differing strengths for all illnesses. 

This year, Ilera rolled out Ayo, which has six different tinctures ranging from 300 mg to 600 mg of THC, the psychoactive component in cannabis, in addition to a THC and hemp-derived blend in 150 mg and 300 mg strength tinctures.

Since then, the company began selling Shine and Hope, which is a general nerve protectant and a formula for people with autism. The company offered the autism formula in Louisiana because of the prevalence of the disease. 

"When I had to think about what products we would launch, I had to think about what was true to our mission. Being woman-led, we have to look at our children and our vulnerable populations, like our veterans," said Chanda Macais, chief executive officer of Ilera. 

The Freedom formula was launched for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"We're looking at targeting these different conditions to help patients with an alternate form of medicine. We have more that we can bring at different times," Macais said. 

After about three years in development, the company's Dream formula is designed to encourage sleep and has been a top seller in the Pennsylvania market by its affiliated business Ilera Healthcare, which has different manufacturing operations.

Affordability is a key component of the company's strategy, especially because insurance companies do not pay for medical marijuana products. 

"Everything is out of the patients' pocket, so it's up to businesses to make sure that it is accessible to the patient, especially the patients that we're targeting," Macais said. 

The sleep formula has been in "major demand" from patients in Louisiana, she said. 

"We had no idea that insomnia, in light of COVID and hurricanes that we're facing day to day, that people are suffering from insomnia," she said of the sleep product. "We found that patients over time who used just a CBD formula (to sleep) might not have the same effect because their tolerance is built up."

The company plans to roll out its metered dose inhaler and gelatin chewables as well. The available market of customers has grown in recent years as more illnesses qualify for doctors to recommend medical marijuana. The biggest change in August opened the door for any doctor in Louisiana to recommend medical marijuana for any condition. 

"We have access to over 600 different strains in our research facility. With our expansion, we will make more medicine," she said. 


Email Kristen Mosbrucker at kmosbrucker@theadvocate.com.