JOLIET, Illinois (13abc Action News) - Legalized pot comes to Ohio this year raising questions about risks and fears about safety.
Now 13abc pulls back the curtain on the program for an exclusive look.
The I-Team recently took an exclusive trip to a medical marijuana production facility in Illinois. That company will be coming to Ohio later this year.
Spending time there is like walking through your neighborhood greenhouse. Owners refer to this operation as commercial agriculture.
Inside you’ll find small plants, large plants, fully grown plants and even finished products. This facility near Joliet Illinois cultivates, produces and packages medical marijuana.
On the outside you’ll find no sign that inside a product currently banned by the federal government grows around the clock.
“Sophisticated proven concepts, traditional agriculture techniques," said Charlie Bachtell, CEO of Cresco labs.
Bachtell’s Cresco labs runs this facility. They'll operate an Ohio cultivator facility but not the ones planned for Toledo or Gibsonburg. Bachtell says all production labs have at least one thing in common.
“An equal amount has to go in engagement with the community, public awareness, public education, medical community education, all of that is what builds a successful program,” said Bachtell.
"It's a very guarded program. It's a very respectful program both the public whether they're in favor of cannabis or not there are guidelines in place that protects them, protects the public," said Jason Nelson in the lab operation and production department of Cresco.
Nelson overseas operations and production where rows and rows of plants sit under all different light sources. Water is precisely measured and that watering done by robotics. Air temperature is monitored. Trying to grow a consistent product that will eventually become medicine.
"It's tricky. What really helps us is essentially the extensive data collection and then having some scientists on board who can analyze it, make some informed decisions about what's happening," said Nelson.
Every single plant here has this tag with a bar code on it. So from seed to sale there know exactly where the product is and where it's been.
"We aren't opposed to medical marijuana but we'd like to see the research done because we think there could be some value in it," said Deb Chany with the Sylvania Community Action Team.
Chany’s group would like to see more federal research dollars but that won't happen anytime soon. Marijuana still sits on what's called "schedule one." Substances banned by the federal government so federal research dollars can't be used. If it's changed to schedule 2 Chany says more research would be available to paint a better picture of what medical marijuana can do and can't do.
"We don't really look at it as being medically sanctioned in the medical field the potential is there. We'd like to see it done in the right way," said Chany.
In Ohio you won't get a prescription for a specific strain of marijuana. You'll see a doctor and if he or she feels you falls into the roughly 20 categories for medical marijuana, you'd only get a general approval. Then you head to the dispensary to figure out which exact strain works for you.
Ohio is learning from the other states with a medical marijuana program. For example Illinois fingerprints patients. Ohio will not.
"I think on paper that probably made people feel comfortable with the program and who would participate in it. But in reality you're making it very difficult for your target audience, the person this program was made for from participating in it because it's difficult to get through the process," said Bachtell.
Bachtell says there's a stark difference between programs east and west of the Mississippi. He calls eastern programs like Ohio highly regulated and compliance focused.
Ohio will be one of the few programs offering licenses to operators big and small.
“I think patients will benefit from this too because i think you'll see a better variety of product come out from it," said Bachtell.
"I would argue that our regulation components are stricter than that of controlled pharmaceuticals. So we have controls in this space than say opioid manufacturer would," said Nelson.
Opponents of medical marijuana will argue that no matter how highly regulated, compliance focused this program ends up, more marijuana will be in the state. They're especially concerned how that may affect kids.
“By having it passed as medical marijuana, we're taking that "well it must not be that bad because now they've passed it as medical marijuana and you have to go to a doctor to get a recommendation. So if he says it's OK. So that risk and perception of harm it really starts to go down," said Chany.
As for security, there are cameras everywhere. They're also very strict on the delivery. All route plans are filed with the Illinois state police. It will detail the time, destination and what's inside. All the vehicles are GPS tracked. Those vehicles are unmarked so again not advertising the product.
QUALIFYING MEDICAL CONDITIONS FOR MEDICAL MARIJUANA:
AIDS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy or another seizure disorder, fibromyalgia, glaucoma, hepatitis C, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, pain that is either chronic and severe or intractable, Parkinson’s disease, positive status for HIV, post-traumatic stress disorder, sickle cell anemia, spinal cord disease or injury, Tourette’s syndrome, traumatic brain injury, and ulcerative colitis.