Photo: Roxana Gonzalez/ shutterstock
The entire nation stood at attention as the Food and Drug Administration approved the first cannabis-based medicine for use in the United States. Epidiolex, a 99.8% pure cannabidiol product produced by GW Pharmaceuticals will soon be available by prescription for pediatric cases of severe seizure disorders. This means rescheduling CBD is inevitable so physicians can prescribe it and pharmacies can dispense it. However, the rest of the industry is wondering how the new laws will impact the current operations in legal cannabis.
One Denver-based company welcomes the innovation GW Pharmaceuticals is bringing to the industry. “GW is a great company, not the ‘big pharma’ company you’d typically think of, but down to earth people who are open to new ideas,” stated Albert Gutierrez, CEO of MedPharm Holdings.
Last week, Gutierrez granted CannabisTech a rare glimpse behind the scenes at MedPharm’s advanced cultivation, processing, and research facility, which resides in a relatively unassuming building in the heart of Denver’s industrial Northside.
The company formed about four years ago after T.J. Johnsrud wrote a paper about how to advance the cannabis industry as a client for Medicine Man in Colorado. Together with Gutierrez, they partnered with Andy Williams, CEO of Medicine Man and Dr. Chris Nelson, owner of MedPharm Iowa and President and CEO of Kremin Industries, a global ingredient manufacturer.
The MedPharm facility is modest from the street view, yet within its understated exterior lies an extraordinary level of technology intended to help advance the legal cannabis industry. Just inside the doors, guests are immediately greeted by a large, bay window peering into the mother room where lush, green vegetation gleams under the bright lights. The ceilings are open to display a massive schematic maze of pipes, conduit, cables, and ductwork. Gutierrez pointed out, “We could’ve enclosed all the ceilings, but we decided to leave them open to display the technology and inner workings of the facility.”
Truth be told, the mechanics of the building are nothing short of impressive. This complex building houses MedPharm’s entire operation including multiple cultivation rooms, a drying and curing room, extraction room, packaging room, as well as, a high-tech laboratory, not just for product testing, but for actual research on the individual compounds within the cannabis plant. MedPharm sets the bar for innovation.
Before heading down the hallway into the cultivation rooms, everyone was fitted to lab coats. Gutierrez explained they must protect their facilities from any contaminants guests may be carrying on their clothes. In fact, the building itself has a protective layer to help prevent mold and mildew from forming due to the vast Colorado temperature swings.
The mixing room housed large water tanks where water is purified using reverse osmosis before the nutrients are combined and then piped directly into the grow rooms. Each plant is individually hand-watered to keep “…eyes on the plants at all times,” according to Gutierrez.
Stepping into the glaringly bright vegging room, dozens of plants in various stages of vegetation lined the shelves. This room receives 18-hours of intense light per day from Solis Tek Digital Lighting systems with a million-dollar chilling unit to control the temperature in each room dynamically. In fact, the grow rooms at MedPharm are monitored extensively with online systems and set parameters for each room. Gutierrez commented, “All our data points are tracked, if something dips out of range, I’ll get notified with a text message.”
Additionally, MedPharm isn’t growing dozens of strains at once. Rather, this facility is focused only on growing 9 strains perfectly. By tracking the yields at different variables such as temperature and carbon dioxide levels, MedPharm is learning how to improve the cannabinoid and terpene expression in these strains.
Gutierrez pointed to a few plants in the front which looked weathered and explained how they use a technique called “schwazzing” to shock the plants into producing higher yields. This process of defoliating the plants at particular intervals and rebuilding the plant with nutrients builds a stronger, healthier plant as it responds to the stress. The end result is said to dramatically increase yields, and based on the flowering room at MedPharm, the results speak for themselves.
Leaving the vegetation room, similar to a safe room prior to entering a photography darkroom, we first stepped into a corridor, where we waited for one door to close before opening the door to the flowering room. A stark contrast to the vegetation room, the flowering room was dark and filled with massive, beautiful cannabis plants with lush, dark green leaves which stretched at least four feet above our heads.
“These plants will be schwazzed one more time before they’re ready for harvest,” Gutierrez explained. Despite their limited number of strains, MedPharm produces 40-50 pounds of harvested cannabis per week by perfecting their growing environment and processes which are ideal for those strains.
MedPharm uses APEKS Supercritical CO2 extraction processes followed by thin-film evaporation processes to extract the individual compounds from the material. After extracting the crude oil from the plant material it is placed in food-grade ethanol in a negative 20-degree freezer for a couple of days to separate the waxes before being processed in a rotary vaporizer. The oil retrieved at this point is typically around 75-80% pure, but then it is refined again through the thin-film processes which provides a purity of above 96%.
Having applied for a Bulk Manufacturers Licensing from the federal government to allow them to transport material across state lines for research purposes, Gutierrez hopes these highly refined processes help lead future research initiatives. Citing that providing better quality product than the “Goop” which the University of Mississippi has notoriously supplied for federally approved studies on the plant is critical to quality research. Additionally, Gutierrez is helping to push new legislation forward to create a new license specifically working with universities and research facilities which have otherwise been hesitant due to the federal stance on cannabis.
While the federal limitation may be preventing large-scale cannabis research at most major research facilities, MedPharm understands the importance of pushing the research forward. Answering the cry for further studies, their facility also houses a state of the art research laboratory, as well as, a clean-room, formulation lab for future products such as pharmaceutical applications like eye drops.
Highly Skilled Team of Researchers
Director of Formulation, Scott Karolchyk brings 25 years of transdermal experience to the MedPharm team to improve the formulation for their various products. Karolchyk explained how their proprietary Lipophilic Enhanced Absorption Formulation, or L.E.A.F, acts as a natural lecithin to improve the bioavailability of cannabinoids and could help reduce the dosage required by many patients.
Stefanie Maletich, an Extraction and Research Chemist, explained how MedPharm sends out all its product for the mandated testing required by the State of Colorado, however, with their own analytic lab onsite, they are also able to do their own intermittent testing and research. With an HPLC Mass Spectrometer, they can measure 10 different cannabinoids in as little as 15 minutes. Additionally, a GCMS is also available to test volatile compounds like terpenes in the gas phase. “These are not mandated tests,” Maletich commented, “but its helpful in determining formulations. Terpenes and other compounds have their own set of benefits and may complement each other.”
Dr. Tyrell Towle, PhD. is MedPharm’s Director of Chemistry and extraction, who, in fact, holds his own patent for an extraction method which cuts down days in the process. After receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, Dr. Towle moved back to Washington on a mission to improve the extraction process and make it safer.
“Today,” Dr. Towle explained, “all stories are anecdotal, we want to put the science behind the stories. Here, we are focused on finding answers for diseases for brain health such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as, starting in vitro studies on the effects of cannabinoids on ovarian cancer.”
Products: Current and Future
Some current and future products from MedPharm include Become vape cartridges which are specifically formulated with cannabinoid and terpene formulas geared towards women’s health. Although Gutierrez admits, “Women like the products according to our studies, but anyone male or female can enjoy the benefits.”
Other products from MedPharm include Aliviar cream, a non-greasy topical formulation which contains 650mg of cannabinoids including a broad spectrum of THC, CBD, CBC, and others, as well as therapeutic doses of geranium, lavender, and rosemary essential oils.
New products on the horizon include high dose CBD tinctures at therapeutic doses in purified, fractionated MCT, or C8, a pure ketone, and even water-soluble cannabinoids which can provide cannabinoids in solutions, teas, tablets or even powdered inhalers.
Industry Crystal Ball
Asking Gutierrez where he sees MedPharm in the future, he simply wants the best for the MedPharm and the US population, stating, “MedPharm wants to be a reputable, known bulk transporter of cannabis which is safe, trusted, and reliable for multiple states, or every state if changing federal regulations allow it.” With Gutierrez and his broad vision at the helm, the cannabis industry clearly has an advocate to help keep extrapolating the science of health and wellness through cannabinoid supplementation.