A Hazleton-area company that has decades of experience raising bulbs, sunflowers, poinsettias and other decorative plants hopes to grow with Pennsylvania’s new medical marijuana industry.
Van Hoekelen Greenhouses of Kline Township plans to form a new company called TheraBloom that will apply for a state permit to grow and process medical marijuana.
“We’re taking what we do, the best of (Van Hoekelen Greenhouses), and putting it into TheraBloom. We’re fully committed to both,” said Alexander van Hoekelen, whose parents started van Hoekelen Greenhouses or VHG in 1988. The company now employs 160 people.
Seeking a permit is as chancy as winning a lottery so van Hoekelen said the company depends on backing from the community and its elected leaders to prevail.
He hopes the community will recognize that medical marijuana growers can provide relief to suffering patients, provide jobs and investment but are divorced from the stoners of 1970s stereotypes.
Eighty-nine percent of Americans support medical marijuana, Forbes magazine reported, as do the major presidential candidates, and 53 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center in April favor legalizing marijuana.
Van Hoekelen, while walking through the seven-acre greenhouse on Lofty Road on Friday when mums bloomed and cactus, ivy and poinsettias had greened up, said TheraBloom would build a similar greenhouse for marijuana.
While the location isn’t set, there’s room for a new greenhouse on some of the 40 acres now used for growing plants outdoors next to the existing greenhouse.
Like the existing greenhouse, the new greenhouse would have temperature controls and automatic features for moving plants and providing water, sun, shade or artificial light to marijuana plants.
“They grow in the same environment as my poinsettias at Christmas,” van Hoekelen said.
By using greenhouses rather than warehouses selected by most marijuana growers in other states, the company plans to save power, which is better for the environment and the bottom line.
TheraBloom would abide by the detailed provisions of Pennsylvania’s law that seek to prevent marijuana from being stolen or diverted. The law requires all plants to be grown indoors at facilities with video surveillance and electronic locks.
In Colorado, Nick Hice of Denver Relief Consulting said growers install “casino-grade” video recorders, maintain recordings for 40 days and put a camera on any door, even closets, into which marijuana could be moved.
Pennsylvania’s law requires growers and processors to create and maintain an electronic system to track the product in real time from seed to plant to sale. Growers also must create records and processes for disposing of defective plants and plant waste. Among the controls will be GPS tracking on delivery vehicles and numbered seals on packages.
VHG Controller Patricia Grier, who headed up the team studying medical marijuana with van Hoekelen, said growers in other states track plants with chips similar to those used by naturalists who follow the migrations of wildlife.
Using the chip, growers can summon information such as the location of the seed, cutting, plant or product into which it was made.
In an interview from Denver Relief Consulting, Hice said marijuana seeds or cuttings become baby plants during their first month in the soil. During the second month, plans grow larger before beginning to flower.
The flowering cycle takes two more months and requires the plants to be in alternating periods of light and darkness.
After four months, the plants are harvested and allowed to dry for a week or two.
Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana law prohibits companies from dispensing dry leaves or patients from smoking marijuana.
Instead, medical marijuana can be dispensed as oils, creams, gels, liquids, tinctures, pills and through vaporizers and nebulizers.
To process the dried plants into forms legal in Pennsylvania requires another day or two.
Joseph Cantalini, a chemist with Organa Labs that extracts oils from marijuana in Colorado, said companies typically use solvents such as alcohol, butane, propane and liquid carbon dioxide to separate the plant material from cannabinoids such as THC and CBD.
After the solvents evaporate, the cannabinoids and essential oils remain, along with waxes that can be filtered out or saved when making oils, pills and other products, Cantalini said in an email.
Van Hoekelen said TheraBloom intends to process the plants in facilities built to standards of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, even though the FDA currently doesn’t recognize marijuana as a safe and effective drug for treating any medical condition.
Pennsylvania law requires producers to hire independent laboratories to test marijuana at harvest and final processing.
Growers must have $2 million in assets and pay $10,000 to apply for a permit. If their applications are accepted, they pay $200,000 a year to for the permits.
“VHG has the expertise, investment capital, labor market and partnerships to expand its operations in McAdoo,” Cok van Hoekelen, the company’s founder and president, said in a statement. He developed expertise in growing and production equipment while working in greenhouses since immigrating from Holland in 1969.
He has worked together for 30 years with his wife, Lori, the chief executive officer who makes decisions in financing, sales, personnel, inventory and new products. She said the van Hoekelens have been making contact with medical marijuana firms in other states “so we can learn and formulate our vision of expansion in this industry.”
Pennsylvania law says the principal owner, financial backers and employees of companies that grow, process and dispense marijuana must be fingerprinted to verify their identification and undergo criminal background checks. Employees who handle marijuana and the principal owner of a growing or processing firm must take a two-hour course that covers the handling and reporting requirements set by the law.
While marijuana remains illegal under the U.S. Controlled Substance Act, federal authorities in the past three years generally have declined to arrest firms that possess marijuana in accordance with the laws of their states.
The federal laws, however, discourage some banks from doing business with companies in the medical marijuana industry.