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Chris Mayerson, chief cultivator for Aurora Cannabis Inc., walks through the company’s surreal-feeling facilities. (Jeff McIntosh For The Globe and Mail)
Chris Mayerson, chief cultivator for Aurora Cannabis Inc., walks through the company’s surreal-feeling facilities. (Jeff McIntosh For The Globe and Mail)

Inside Alberta’s growing medical-marijuana industry Add to ...

This is the great indoors, the place where you can stand at the end of a long metal table, stare straight ahead to its opposite end some 75 metres away and you will be lost in a mighty greenness.

You will see thousands of familiar jagged-edged leaves reaching up to the lights inside Alberta’s largest grow-op. Seconds later, your mind taps into a stash of marijuana gag lines, from this facility being a “joint venture” to “your staff room must be well-stocked with Doritos.”

Chris Mayerson smiles politely at such witticisms. They are unavoidable the moment people find out what he does for a living; that he is the chief cultivator for Aurora Cannabis Inc., a publicly traded company that has Health Canada’s approval to grow and sell marijuana for medicinal purposes. It’s a job Mr. Mayerson takes seriously, knowing that his handiwork is assisting those who benefit from the drug’s pain-numbing qualities.

“Everyone knows someone who is using it for whatever reason,” Mr. Mayerson says. “The stigma [of marijuana] is being removed.”

Aurora, named to instill a sense of nature, was the first Alberta producer to receive a federal licence and, along with that, a set of defined rules on everything from how much dried marijuana can be produced during the length of the licence and how much can be sold (maximum shipment at one time, per patient, is 150 grams). Health Canada’s position is that “dried marijuana is not an approved drug or medicine in Canada … but the courts have required reasonable access to a legal source of marijuana when authorized by a health-care practitioner.”

Aurora chief executive officer Terry Booth and his partners got their licence in February and started planting at the end of April. Mr. Booth invested $2.5-million into the project. He was optimistic the harvests would be good financially. He and his fellow investors were wrong. It exceeded their expectations.

“This last harvest was our eighth. It came in more than double our expected yield,” Mr. Booth says. “We were budgeting for 1.4 pounds per [growing] light and we just did close to three pounds per light. So, 136 kilograms times $8 per gram [equals] $1,088,000 versus around $500,000 we expected. That’s significant.

“When we hit full production, we will be harvesting this amount every nine days.”

Aurora is not the biggest marijuana operator in the country. Of the 26 companies that have licences to cultivate and/or sell, 14 are based in Ontario and six in British Columbia. The West Coast embraced its reputation as a marijuana hot house when snowboarder Ross Rebagliati tested positive after winning a gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. He said he had only inhaled second-hand smoke and that it was a Whistler brand known for its robust after-kick. The IOC stripped Mr. Rebagliati of his medal, only to give it back when it was discovered marijuana was not on the list of banned substances. It is now. As for Mr. Rebagliati, he started Ross’ Gold to sell medical marijuana.

The first grower licensed by Health Canada dating back to 2000 was Brent Zettl, the chief executive officer of Prairie Plant Systems Inc. in Saskatoon. He has been hailed as a pioneer of medicinal marijuana. He says his operation almost went under financially, a victim of high start-up costs and borrowed money with high interest rates.

“We lost money for the first eight years of the contract because of all the things we had to get through,” Mr. Zettl says, referring to the many Health Canada regulations. “So why did we continue to do it? We wanted to prove a point by taking a plant and turning it into the manufacturing of a [medicinal] drug.”

Aurora scored a significant win earlier this month when it was awarded the national distribution rights to Mystabis. It’s a marijuana inhaler that serves up a measured dose of cannabis.

Aurora was the first company to construct a facility – 55,000 square feet – solely for the production of medicinal marijuana. It functions in plain sight in a sprawling hayfield in Mountain View County north of Calgary. That’s the outside view. Inside, it’s a $11.5-million, high-tech operation that requires you to dress in throw-away medical apparel that covers your shoes, hands, head and any facial hair. It’s done to keep the plants free of germs or cross-contamination.

You must also wear special lenses to protect your eyes, and you find out why when you step into a rectangular storage room, all of it filled with full-grown plants, thriving under the strict lighting that gives the room a science-fiction feel, as though it’s a scene from The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

“Yeah, it is surreal in here,” Mr. Mayerson says.

Aurora has its own power generator and its own water plant for watering plants. Everything is done to detail. Temperatures and the level of water nutrients are monitored. Every batch is numbered, treated, trimmed and tracked. And keeping tabs on everyone and everything are more than 150 security cameras.

Members of the Organized Crime and Intelligence Unit stationed in Red Deer contacted Aurora and were allowed to come in on harvest day to watch how marijuana is handled, from plant to package. RCMP officers from Didsbury routinely drive by the facility to ensure all is well without drawing attention to its exact locale.

“There’s a big difference between growing cannabis and trying not to get caught than being able to do it legally,” says Mr. Mayerson, who ran a decorative concrete business before changing vocations.

Now he adheres to the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations and has all the resources he needs to produce the perfect plants.

“A lot of people typically equate potency to tetrahydrocannabinol,” Mr. Mayerson adds.

“However, we know that some of the most potent strains don’t necessarily equate to THC, just other compounds such as terpenoid and flavonoid – what gives the cannabis its taste and smell.…The compounds in the drug and how they react together, we’re learning something about that every single day. I’ve always been proud of the medicines I’ve grown.”

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