Giant Florida marijuana grow house sets stage for recreational pot

CAPPS, Fla. — The pungent, sticky sweet smell of marijuana is the first thing visitors notice when they enter the 750,000-square-foot grow house that Trulieve built east of Tallahassee.

Giant holding tanks filled with water are injected with a proprietary blend of fertilizer and sent on their way through a network of pipes to feed the fledgling plants, which sit in neat rows on metal trays the size of cars in a facility the size of 13 football fields.

A robotic crane carries a tray of seedlings along an overhead track to each stage of development until they’ve become fully mature 4-foot-tall marijuana plants popping with lush, fat green buds ripe for clipping and drying. All along the way some 400-plus workers tend to each stage of their growth.

The final stop is the processing center where they are turned into smokable flowers, edibles, lotions, concentrates and vape cartridges.

This is next-level pot production.

Not only is it a technical marvel of climate-controlled, rigorously regulated cannabis production meant to cut down on inefficiencies. It’s also the first step in a plan to ramp up production if recreational marijuana for adults becomes legal in Florida next year and the federal government eventually downgrades its status as a drug to rival heroin.

“I don’t believe that will be the last facility like that we will build in our future,” Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers told a group of reporters after they took a tour of the gargantuan grow house.

One of the first five medical marijuana licensees in Florida, Trulieve is the largest purveyor of Florida’s $2 billion a year medical cannabis market. It is also among the largest sellers of marijuana in the nation, with stores in eight other states.

As it continues to consume a larger share of the medical marijuana market, it will need to build more ginormous grow houses to meet the demand.

Rivers sees the day when employees will be selling recreational weed alongside its medical grade products in Florida.

“That facility gives us the ability to take that product to large-scale output with a high quality,” Rivers said. “If Florida recreational passes and we see an immediate demand spike, having that flexibility in our portfolio to ramp those buildings up to meet demand in very short order and very little cost to us is … an important advantage.”

Legalizing recreational marijuana is one of the biggest single catalysts for the industry, she said.

Reclassification from a Schedule 1 drug with no medical value to a Schedule 3 drug, alongside drugs like Tylenol with codeine, is the other factor that will crack the market wide open, she said.

Pushing for voter approval

Trulieve has invested nearly $40 million in the Smart & Safe Florida citizens ballot initiative to legalize adult use of recreational marijuana in Florida for voters to consider next year.

The group has submitted more than a million signatures to get it on the ballot. The ballot language is under review by the Florida Supreme Court to see if it meets the statutory standard of being clear and unambiguous and covers only a single subject.

Rivers said she believes the Supreme Court will allow it on the ballot despite Attorney General Moody’s fierce opposition to it.

“The attorney general position is to oppose any citizen ballot initiative. That is a normal course of action for them,” Rivers said.

The Florida Supreme Court heard oral arguments two weeks ago and has until April to hand down its decision.

Rivers said she is optimistic the Supreme Court will approve the ballot language.

“We were very encouraged by questions asked by the justices,” Rivers said. “We believe the language is in compliance with the court’s previous guidance.”

The initiative uses the same language previously approved by the court for the medical marijuana ballot initiative that created the state’s medical marijuana industry and corrects language the court rejected in similar initiatives proposed for the ballot in 2022.

But Moody’s lawyers have argued the current language misleads voters by saying it would “allow” people 21 and older to buy marijuana for non-medical purposes. Her lawyers said voters might not understand the amendment wouldn’t change federal law.

Smart and Safe Florida lawyers said most adults realize that marijuana is still illegal under federal law and would continue to be if the amendment passes.

Voters overwhelmingly approved the medical marijuana amendment by 71% and polls say they’d vote in favor of legalization, Rivers said. It takes 60% or more to pass a ballot initiative.

If recreational marijuana gets on the 2024 ballot and passes, the state’s marijuana industry will likely see sales triple from $2 billion a year to $6 billion a year, industry analysts said.

It would also increase the state’s take from the industry as recreational marijuana would presumably be subject to sales taxes and maybe others as well.

Medical marijuana is exempt from paying them, so the state Office of Medical Marijuana Use relies on licensure application and renewal fees. Last year, it collected $14.9 million in license applications and renewal fees from the state’s 24 medical marijuana licensees. Patients and physicians paid an additional $65 million.

State records show 859,524 active medical marijuana patients and 2,729 registered physicians.

Building for the future

Plans to build the giant grow house began years before the Smart and Safe Florida ballot initiative and before President Joe Biden set the wheels in motion for the Department of Health and Human Services to downgrade marijuana’s classification.

“Three years ago I don’t believe we had a line of sight on either of those,” Rivers said.

Trulieve leaders decided to plan for a large-scale facility that incorporated what they learned with their smaller operations over the years, she said.

“It was something we needed to proceed with regardless. And it puts us in a competitive position in really every aspect of the business,” she said.

Trulieve bought the 85-acre property along State Road 27 in Capps in 2019 for $772,000, according to Jefferson County property appraiser records. The design and build was another three years in the making with the final touches done in 2022

It’s a far cry from the original 24,000-square-foot warehouse where Trulieve grew its first crop seven years ago, Rivers said.

“We’re a company of incremental improvement,” Rivers said. “That’s one of our mantras here at Trulieve. And innovation is part of our core.”