Reefer gladness

At their Frederick cannabis facility, the Goldberg brothers, Philip, left, and Kevin, push hard for medicinal perfection.

If not for the smell, one might not know it’s there.

In the middle of a commercial office complex in Frederick sits a deceptively large gray concrete building. Aside from the tall barbed wire fence around the perimeter, the facility looks completely unremarkable.
Although the structure leaves no visible clues as to what’s inside, the smell is unmistakable.

It’s the redolence of cannabis, detectable even before a security guard (one of many who look after the property 24 hours a day, seven days a week) grants clearance through the gate.

This is the headquarters of Green Leaf Medical, LLC, a medicinal cannabis cultivation facility run by the Goldberg brothers: Philip, the company’s CEO, and Kevin, its general counsel and chief compliance officer. Although they were raised and reside in the Washington suburbs, they have roots in Baltimore’s
Jewish community.

During a tour of the facility, Philip speaks pointedly, sharing a wealth of information — everything from the facility’s impenetrable security and the business side of medical cannabis, to the origins of the names of the company’s products. Names like Blue Cheese, Cookies ’n’ Cream, Air Force One and Sour Diesel. Pineapple Skunk, L.A. Chocolate and Painkiller XL are Green Leaf’s most popular strains.

Philip says each strain of cannabis is typically named after either its place of origin, an allusion to the smells and tastes made up by its terpene profile (apparently, Blue Cheese actually smells like blue cheese), or is simply a holdover from the names hippies came up with long ago while cultivating cannabis under the radar.

For Philip, these names seem no more absurd than the names of prescription drugs one gets at the pharmacy.

“Drug companies have ridiculous names for their products. Maybe it’s based on molecular components, maybe they just think it’s catchy,” he said with a shrug.

The area of medical cannabis that Philip speaks to with most authority is the biological side. He chats about complicated cultivation techniques with such specificity, one would easily believe he’d spent decades as a botanist. But neither he nor his brother Kevin did that kind of work before starting Green Leaf. Each owned his own business for years before entering into the medicinal cannabis field. Philip is the owner of an ad agency, Interactive Market Solutions, and Kevin is a partner of the law firm Goldberg & Finnegan.

When it comes to cannabis, they are largely self-taught, relying on extensive research and meeting with consultants. Resources such as cannabis business conferences and trips to places such as Colorado, where the medicinal business is already in full swing, also play a part in their proficiency.

“Quite frankly, when we first got into this industry, it was a profit move,” said Philip. “But we realized we needed to start meeting with patients.”

It was after these meetings with people suffering from cancer, multiple sclerosis and intractable epilepsy, Philip said, that the humanitarian element in this line of work became evident.

“We met with a lot of different families and patients who were suffering, and their kids were suffering,” said Kevin.

He remembers a young man with cancer, who died before Maryland was able to get its program up and running. “Getting to know this gentleman confirmed that we were on to something more than just making money. We were on to something that could make people’s lives better.”

The Operation

The Green Leaf Medical facility, in its current state, has more than 10 separate rooms, all with a distinct purpose, catering to a plant’s needs at different points in its growing cycle. This includes the veg prop room, where clones of mother cannabis plants, which are continually cloned, are cut and then placed in a small cube of spun molten rock to cultivate.

At this point in the process, each plant is given a radio-frequency identification tag. This ensures being able not only to track the plant for quality assurance, but also to prove to the state that each plant is accounted for during inspection.

After more than a month in the veg prop room, each batch of new plants moves to a flower room, where they stay for another two weeks. To ensure consistency, the plants are under constant automated maintenance, including carbon dioxide monitoring and temperature control, and they receive nutrients from a watering system that feeds the plants 24 times each day.

From there, the plants are sent to the harvesting room, where the fan leaves are picked, leaving the buds, and the stalks are placed in a drying room. Once dry, the buds are ground and packaged to be sold.

Green Leaf Medical cannot cut corners when it comes to harvesting. Every bit of waste — the leaves and stalks — must be weighed and accounted for.

With mulitple flower rooms equipped with specialized growing lights, feeding systems and fans, and a massive dehumidifying system among the technology required to run the operation, Green Leaf’s January electric bill topped out at around $45,000.

The company sells approximately 500 pounds of cannabis a month to 26 dispensaries throughout the state, with 20 more in the process of coming online with the cultivation facility. The Goldbergs also own Green Leaf Extracts in Ocean City, a processing company where cannabis products such as oils are made.

The company employs 28 team members, but in as little as seven months, the facility size, and therefore its capacity to produce, will nearly double. The company expects to employ as many as 60 people.

One might assume the employees of a cannabis cultivation facility would be either master botanists or a gaggle of giggling stoners. Philip says that’s not the case.

“They come from all walks of life. We train everyone here; you don’t need any kind of special education,” said Philip. “You do need to pass a drug test, including cannabis.”

With each grow comes the opportunity for a learning experience. “Everything here is about identifying success and failures. We try to optimize the successes and minimize the failures,” said Philip.

Kosher or Not Kosher?

“When our family members and close friends initially questioned our decision to enter the medical cannabis business, we always made sure to remind them that there is a biblical precedent for what we are doing,” said Kevin. “In Exodus 30:22-23, God told Moses to mix spices with holy anointing oil. Many historians believe that this oil is, in fact, made from cannabis.”

Whether or not the holy anointed oil was truly a cannabis product, the Goldbergs are so interested in making medical cannabis available to Jews, they’ve been trying to receive a kosher certification for all of their products.

“Both rabbis I talked to said, ‘This is probably something that doesn’t need a kosher certification,’” said Philip.

In fact, in 2016, it was reported that Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, considered the leading haredi Orthodox rabbi in Israel, ruled that cannabis is kosher for Passover. But receiving a branded kosher certification might be trickier.

Dr. Avrom Pollak, president of Star-K, the Baltimore-based kosher certification entity, said his organization receives many requests for certifying cannabis products.

“However, our policy is that we turn them down,” he said. “If it is a true medical need, it does not require a kosher certification. If it’s for recreational use, we don’t want to take a position on endorsing the product because there is so much uncertainty about it.”

Rabbi James Kahn, co-owner of the Liberty Medical Cannabis Dispensary set to open in Rockville this month, said that he is pursuing a kosher certification as well.

“Cannabis the flower does not need to be certified as kosher, but some of the processed products could be certified,” said the rabbi, who was ordained in the Conservative movement. “The goal of all of this is to expand the number of people who have access to cannabis as medicine. We want to make sure that that is not a stumbling block.”

In addition to kosher certifications, isolating cannabis’ therapeutic value from the cannabis plant itself to help those outside of Maryland is a stumbling block the Goldbergs hope to work around. Cannabis products cannot cross state lines since the drug is not recognized as medicine by the federal government.

So they started a new company called Novel Molecules, LLC. The company, owned by Green Leaf, has obtained a processing-lab license with the intention of isolating the compounds and molecules that have therapeutic value in medical cannabis and reproducing them.

“We’re trying to come up with novel molecules that elicit the same healing effect found in cannabis,” said Philip. “Once we create these novel molecules that have the same effect, they are not bound to the same restrictions that the cannabinoids are. We’re really restricted to Maryland right now.”

The Legislation

For Philip, the progress of medicinal cannabis programs in Maryland and across the country comes as no surprise. “It has bipartisan support from the staunchest Republicans to the staunchest Democrats,” he said.

In Maryland, this has been true for quite some time. The first medical cannabis bill was introduced in 1980 by then-Del. A. Wade Kach (R-District 5B).

However, it wasn’t until 2013 that the Maryland General Assembly created the Natalie M. LaPrade Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission. Further legislation in subsequent years specified the broad list of conditions for which doctors can recommend cannabis, and that there would be 15 grower licenses.

“This replaced the prior medical cannabis law in Maryland that limited those who could grow/process/sell medical cannabis to universities and hospitals,” said Kevin. “No universities or hospitals participated because of the fact it was illegal federally. Therefore, the law was amended.”
Debbie Miran, a resident of Old Lutherville, is a former commissioner on the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, where she played a unique role between 2013 and 2016. She is not only a chemist with 30 years of experience in the pharmaceutical business, but also a former medical cannabis patient.

In 2006, Miran underwent a bone marrow transplant to combat chronic myeloid leukemia. The medications she was prescribed afterward left her without an appetite. At her worst point, Miran said she was losing 1 to 2 pounds per week.

“The recovery from a bone marrow transplant is very difficult,” she said. “I used a little bit [of medicinal cannabis] once a day about five minutes before I wanted to eat something. I used it for about four months while I was still on the CML medication that made me so sick. When I got off the medication, my appetite came back, and I didn’t need it anymore.”

Del. Dan Morhaim (D-District 11), who has been one of medicinal cannabis’ strongest legislative advocates and sponsored the bill that created the Medical Cannabis Commission in 2013, recommended Miran for the position as a patient representative for the commission. For Morhaim, Maryland still needs to step up its game.

“I’m glad it’s finally underway,” Morhaim said about the state’s medicinal cannabis program. “We still have a ways to go. Corrections and adjustments will need to be made, but at least some patients are finally getting some relief from our medical cannabis program.”

Morhaim first introduced a bill for medical cannabis in 2003. “It did not pass, but it did make a small step because it allowed for an affirmative defense,” said Morhaim. “That is, if you’re arrested with possession of cannabis and you can prove to the judge and the jury that you were using cannabis for legitimate medical reasons, instead of getting a criminal record, you would get a fine.”

Miran is in agreement with Morhaim. Although the state has made significant strides, it must make more.

“We set up the process of patient and physician registration to be really user-friendly,” she said. The problem lies in the amount of licenses that the state can issue to doctors who wish to prescribe cannabis, which Miran says is far too few. “I think the total number is somewhere around 800. We should have a couple thousand.”

While the number of doctors with licenses to prescribe remains low, the number of patient applications continues to grow. At this point, Miran estimates there’s around 21,000 people who have submitted applications. “The good news is these patients are registering; the bad news is that the commission has a backlog now in getting these processed.”

In addition to the commission working through this backlog, Kahn believes that deflating the stigma around cannabis use will ultimately make medical cannabis available to as many people who need it. He believes that making the connection between the work he has done as a rabbi to the work he is doing with cannabis will also help normalize its medicinal use.

For him, the Jewish community’s acceptance, and perhaps enthusiasm, toward medical cannabis comes as no surprise.

“Jews are boundary crossers; we go beyond limits,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons there are so many Jews in this industry. There are so many people willing to stand up and say, ‘This is a justice issue.’”

Connor Graham is a reporter for the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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