Long before theme park tourists were Central Florida's cash crop, agriculture ruled our local economy, and although the citrus groves are mostly gone, a new harvest is proving increasingly lucrative in the Sunshine State.
In Indiantown, about two hours southeast of Cinderella Castle, a facility sits quietly along a rural road miles from the nearest fast-food drive-through, neighbored only by cow pastures and dense thickets of palm. The easily overlooked dirt driveway sports no identifying signage, and as you pass through the nondescript security gates, there's little indication that you aren't entering any ordinary industrial farm.
That is, until the unmistakable aroma emanating from high-intensity air conditioning units attached to rows of shipping container-like buildings hits your nose, and it's clear what type of herbs they are raising here. Welcome to Cresco Labs' newly expanded medical cannabis grow facility: Exhibit A for the rapid transformation of Florida's legal weed business.
Only a year ago, I was speaking with Bluma Wellness CEO Brady Cobb about his ground-floor involvement in Florida's medical marijuana movement, but just months after our interview was published, Cobb had departed after selling his company to multistate operator Cresco Labs. One Plant dispensaries (including Orlando's Fern Park location) converted to their Sunnyside national brand. They weren't alone: Columbia Care, which is also being purchased by Cresco, rebranded as Cannabist last year; Verano Holdings Corp. merged with AltMed, operator of MÜV; and Planet 13 (known for their glitzy superstore off the Vegas strip) entered the Florida market by buying its license from Harvest after they were absorbed by Trulieve, the state's dominant dispenser.
"Our focus is on being education-first, and really meeting consumers where they are," Cresco Labs/Sunnyside Florida regional president Cris Rivera told me in a recent phone interview. "It's about a new start to one's life with cannabis at the forefront of solving whatever conditions or ailments they have." Rivera says that a main reason Cresco Labs were initially interested in acquiring One Plant was "the quality of product they made, it's quite remarkable. I can argue it's as strong as some of our rec [recreational] states that have been selling and growing for some time."
The good news for discerning medical marijuana patients is that — as far as I could tell during my exhaustive two-hour tour of Cresco's facility — the new management is maintaining and building upon One Plant's high standards.
It all starts in the enormous grow houses, which Cresco has expanded to 42,000 square feet. They're outfitted with powerful climate control systems which make the budding crop's odor far less pungent inside than I'd imagined, but still allow in natural sunlight. There's no seeds or pollination here: New sprouts are cloned from mother plants for consistent genetics, then raised in precise rows of inert substrate, nourished by countless yards of irrigation tubes, and defended by beneficial bugs and botanical oils.
Raising these plants can take from nine to 12 weeks, depending on the strain, and I got to peek in on every stage of their growth, from the early vegetative period to massive mouth-watering flowers glistening with THC-laden trichomes. But that's only half the story, since the bulbous buds still need a lengthy process of drying for 10-12 days, curing (a key step for preserving aromatic terpenes that some producers skip) and hand-trimming. It can take up to a total of four months from start to finish before the finished product reaches dispensary shelves.
I found it a bit overwhelming inside the humidity-controlled Conex containers where the "weed river" is processed, shelves groaning with giant green bags exuding the heady scents of "blueberry muffins," "pankakez" and "grape cream cake." But the atmosphere was just fine inside the trimming trailer, where a young Black woman named V. was leading a lively crew in snipping and sorting forearm-sized branches of buds, from fist-sized nugs down to the smallest shake, as hand-painted murals of anthropomorphized cannabis strains looked on.
Of course, smokeable flower is just one method of cannabis consumption, and concentrates and edibles are commanding increasing consumer attention. Cresco has added to One Plant's top-shelf live rosin extraction setup — which I watched transforming steel cauldrons of fresh-frozen weed and ice water into potent powdery "sand" — and has introduced Supply and Good News vaporization products (made with ethanol-extracted distillate and cannabis- or plant-derived terpenes) for the mid-price and value markets. Distillate and cannabis terps also fuel Sunnyside's new vegetarian gummies, which they can churn out in batches of up to 2,000 a day; the Indica Blue Raspberry variety is particularly pleasant.
But what Rivera is really excited about are the possibilities unlocked by Florida's recent legalization of butane hash oil extraction.
"You're going to see butane extraction really take the marketplace, because it's the most cost-effective way to get a high-quality strain-specific with-terps product to consumers today, [so] you're gonna see the market change dramatically in vape offerings as a result of butane," says Rivera. "Solvents deliver a tastier product that is as efficacious as rosin at a more affordable price point, and I think [consumers] will move without a lot of hesitation or resistance."
If reading all this makes you interested in a cannabis career, a lack of experience — or past experience with the wrong side of the law — isn't necessarily an impediment for joining the 130 employees at Cresco's farm.
Cresco vice president of operations Dave Critchfield, who led me on my tour, says, "We do ask for any type of experience that [prospective employees] have had, but we're not asking them separate black market versus legal market. The majority of what we see are people that are cannabis enthusiasts, whether that's been for one month, one year, 10 years, whatever it may be. We're always looking for people to have drive; people that have an eye for responsibility, that will show up to work on time and be here when they're needed to be here."
For someone who spent their formative years furtively buying baggies filled with dried pencil shavings of unknown provenance, a visit to Cresco Labs' facility was like a trip to Willy Wonka's candy factory. I'm only sorry they don't have a gift shop, so the scent that lingered in my clothes will have to suffice as a souvenir.
And if you aren't one of the more than 560,000 Floridians who have medical marijuana cards, Rivera has a hopeful prediction: "If and when adult [recreational] use comes to the state, we will become the largest legalized market in the country. I have full belief that we could surpass California's legalized sales, [so] the level of competition and variety and niche in the marketplace will be wide. As a result, I view the transition from medical to adult use as the next disrupter of the current marketplace structure."