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Evergreen Health Center looks like a typical medical marijuana dispensary, set in an open-air mall. On the left, it's flanked by tanning salons and pizza parlors; on the right, a sushi bar, hair salon, credit union and Safeway. inside, coffee tables hold overstuffed issues of High Times. Names like God, Sofa Lock and Obama Kush ("Make You Feel Different") fill the glass display cases. There were cans of soda, candy, gummy bears, cheddar cheese crackers and crispy rice crackers. There was even a sample bottle of cannabis lotion that made my hands feel extra smooth and tingly.
What sets this Bremerton, Washington, cannabis store apart from the hundreds of cannabis stores in the state's Puget Sound region is its industrial-grade vegetable oil extraction machine. A five-foot-tall monster of stainless steel tubing, valves and gauges, it looks like the kind of fiendish contraption one of Flash Gordon's nemeses might use. Evergreen uses this extraction equipment to refine the cannabis plant into a concentrate that users can ingest through vaporizers, pipes or medicine.
Malcolm Tice, an independent local processor, purchased $63,000 worth of machinery this summer from Careddi Supercritical, a small manufacturer of vegetable oil extraction equipment outside Columbus, Ohio, that sells to pot growers, processors and dispensaries. In addition to supplying concentrates to the virtually unregulated medical marijuana market in Washington, Tice hopes to obtain the licenses needed to sell to the state's newly established (and heavily regulated) recreational market next year. Evergreen owner Juse Barros, who opened the dispensary on June 1, thought an oil extraction machine would be a great addition to the store and agreed to let Tice keep He agreed to let Tice park it there.
The extraction unit, which I call "The Beast," occupies its own room in the back of the 1,400-square-foot store. Three bulletproof bank teller windows - remnants of the storefront's role as a payday loan business - allow customers to see the Beast in action.
"It's kind of like a restaurant with an exposed kitchen," Tess told me. It's certainly a novelty for patients to not only see the concentrate as "goo on the shelf," but also to see where it comes from and how it's made. In an industry still trying to shake up its black market roots, this kind of transparency is not only rare, but refreshing.
"How it's made" is a daunting task. On a Saturday afternoon in August, with the thermometer at 80°F, I took a 30-minute ferry ride from north Seattle to the Kitsap Peninsula, then drove another half-hour to Evergreen to meet Tice and Barros and see for myself.
When I arrive, Tice, who has short brown hair and orange, red and black petunias tattooed on his right elbow, pulls out a plastic container filled with 1.1 kilograms of cannabis flowers and stems and pours it into the beast's five-liter chamber. When he was done, his black jeans were "productively" stained green. (Euphemisms abound in this industry. When I used the word "sale" to describe the transaction between Evergreen and its patients, Jason, the employee behind the counter, quickly corrected me: "We said 'donation. ")
The rest of the Evergreen team calls Tess a "Malcolmite," and he seems irritable - anxious, even. He's only been using Beast for a few weeks, and he's concerned about properly transforming the raw plant into the putty-like oil needed. He's a self-taught grower and processor who sees himself as a cannabis artisan, much like a microbrewer.
While extraction units can be designed to dissolve plant matter into a concentrate using butane, propane or isopropyl alcohol, Beast uses pressurized carbon dioxide (CO2 ). Tice chose this method because it doesn't leave traces of the solvent in the final product. "I really wanted to have the purest, most complete cannabis extract possible," he says.
He shows me the latest extract yield he collected earlier in the week: two cups of brown sludge that looks more like motor oil than cannabis, ready to be packaged into vials for Evergreen distribution. Depending on the size, they cost $20 to $60.
To make the magic happen, Tess grabbed his toolbox and called in Barrows to help. Armed with ratchets and rattle guns, they began tightening Beast's many oversized bolts. The vacuum pump is temporarily turned on to remove all moisture and residue from the Beast. Once finished, Barros, wearing his signature Evergreen Health Center T-shirt, picks up the lengthy instruction manual and begins checking the list while Tice adjusts the valves on command. "Pressurize extraction chamber by slowly opening valve 13 ...... open valve 6 ...... close value 12 ...... slight check ......" The pressure was too high and some steam came out of one of the cylinders. The tool comes back out and Tice quickly loosens and retightens the Beast bolts.
This preparation and adjustment will continue for several minutes. "You're dealing with a tremendous amount of pressure," Tice said of the cylinders. One careless mistake and the system could fail and shut itself down.
When we were finally ready to take off, Tice asked me not to photograph Beast's gauges or note specific temperatures and run times. He wanted to keep his recipe proprietary. Within seconds, the Beast's piston began to burn. As the pressure increased, Beast's racket acted like a train going uphill.
We raised our voices so we could hear each other. It's hilarious. It's so exciting. It's kind of crazy, too.
Beast is the brainchild of Andy Joseph, owner of Careddi Supercritical. In a previous life, Joseph spent six years running nuclear submarine reactors for the Navy and earned a master's degree in welding engineering. after returning to civilian life in 1996, Joseph worked as a lab director for a manufacturing technology company in Columbus, Ohio. Like any good manufacturer, he spent his downtime in a garage. Soon after, the company hired him to design stainless steel industrial equipment for them, sometimes asking him to work from verbal instructions or napkin sketches.
By 2001, Joseph had a full-fledged side business making plant extraction and distillation equipment for food, perfume and herbal supplement manufacturers. (Think mint for ice cream, lavender for perfumes and kava for nutritional products.) But a funny thing happened a few years later. In a stunning case of right place, right time, the booming legal weed industry came to town.
Larger and more established manufacturing companies didn't want to offer their customers potpreneur. but Joseph didn't have any reservations. With only a handful of small competitors in the country, the playing field opened up for him. By the time Colorado and Washington put it on the 2012 ballot for recreational use, Joseph's phone rang.
It wasn't just pot processors and dispensary owners like Tice and Barros who demanded Joseph's CO2 extractor. So are doctors, patient collectives and medical growers.
"It's not like some people are saying, 'Hey, man, I want some medicine,' with quotation marks," Joseph explains. These people are legitimately trying to alleviate the suffering of the sick and chronically ill.
He knows he's earned it when some of his clients let him in on their math. They were talking about recouping their investment in his $18,000 to $150,000 device in one to two months. "The numbers people are throwing out there are crazy," Joseph says. "What about paying off so many weeks? Usually it's paying it off over a lot of years."
To keep up with demand, Joseph quit his full-time lab job last year, moved his operation from his garage to a 2,500-square-foot space and hired seven contractors. "I couldn't get my equipment up fast enough," he says. Instead of building one custom extractor per customer, he now builds multiple at a time and keeps $500,000 to $750,000 in stock. "We've gone from building Ferraris to Model T's," he jokes.
Since ramping up production last year, he has sold about three dozen machines. His most popular model? The Beast.
With square hips.
Joseph is one of the people you'd expect to see waist-deep in the cannabis industry. He's not a user or an activist. He has a wife, five kids, a house in the suburbs and friends in law enforcement. Unlike Les and Barros, who have 20 years of experience growing medicinal weed between them, Joseph takes the "It's Your Brain on Drugs" ads of his youth to heart. His own children ranged from three months to 11 years old. But by then, he was well prepared to explain why it's OK for dads to live their lives and why it's not OK for a group of minors to pass a bong at a party.
Medical marijuana is now legal in 20 states and Washington, D.C., and Colorado and Washington are now working on laws for recreational use. Ohio, where Joseph lives, has yet to pass a law legalizing weed. As far as the federal government is concerned, all cultivation, sale and possession of marijuana is illegal.
Joseph does not consider himself a marijuana cowboy. Not directly handling pot and selling equipment that extracts any vegetable oil certainly helps mitigate his legal exposure. But he's well aware that the federal government has the power to shut him down, or worse. "I think you'd be crazy not to care about the legal environment," he explains. "I have five kids. I don't want to go to jail and abandon them."
Any professional looking to avoid trouble will tell you they work with multiple attorneys, take their bookkeeping very seriously and comply with state tax and licensing laws to the point where T. Joseph, Tice and Barros certainly do. But unlike his plant-handling counterparts, Joseph sees the industries he puts on the map as a means to an end. His plan: further expansion into the food, vitamin and beauty industries, which is where his career began.
"The medical marijuana industry is very respectable, but natural products are 50 times bigger," Joseph says. "It's also much more sophisticated." In other words, there's more money to be made and fewer legal issues involved.
That's not to say Joseph is hiding in the shadows. His website lists the extraction of cannabis and Supercritical CO2 Extraction machine concentrates for medicinal use as a common application for his extraction equipment. He promotes his business at cannabis trade shows and through Google AdWords. He is actively meeting with investors in the cannabis industry to fund his expansion.
Not everyone who makes plant extractors agrees with Joseph's upfront approach. "I think if you're trying to pick up speed, you don't want to be the front of the line," says David McGhee, who sells butane-powered extractors.
McGhee is based in Cleburne, Texas, and he's well aware that his state is not cannabis-friendly. His extractors start at $1,500, a price that is sure to attract more pot enthusiasts and entrepreneurs than the more consumable CO2 extraction devices. He is concerned about transporting the product and that authorities might consider using pot on interstate lines. For this reason, he won't sell to customers who wear their weed the way they like it on their sleeves. If he learns that a current customer is using his equipment to make concentrate pots, he will cut off their customer service.
That said, he's certain that many of his customers won't buy his equipment to make spice or vitamin extracts. "We couldn't keep them away from our equipment if we wanted to," he says of the cannabis crowd. Without them, his sales would be significantly lower, but it's hard to say exactly by how much. Customers who violate federal laws tend to use discretion.
Back at Evergreen Health Center in Washington, D.C., Tice and Barrows are trying to calm the beast. She's been running for an hour, but a barely perceptible "micro-hiss" tells them something is wrong. The culprit: A small piece of jar debris from the last batch of concentrate had prevented the lid of the extraction chamber from sealing.
Once Tice cleans the lid, it goes back to power tools and bolts tight. Then Barros checks the list again while Tice flies from valve to valve, preparing his extraction unit for another lift-off.
Tice prides himself on maintaining the integrity of all of the plant's terpenes (the chemicals responsible for the smell, flavor and effects of a particular strain) throughout the extraction process. This means extracting cannabis oil at a lower temperature than most people who make cannabis concentrates. Most producers heat it up to increase THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis.
"I got tired of the whole notion that higher THC means a better product," Tice told me. He likens the ideal consumer of his oil to a wine drinker who chooses a bottle not for the alcohol content, but for the smell, taste and consistency.
"We're looking for cannabis connoisseurs who every time they consume it, they can taste it, they can smell it, they can identify it," he says. Even so, he produces an oil with a THC content of 45 to 65 percent, which is not insignificant.
Barros, who likes to enjoy the fruits of Tice's labor in a vaporizer, gives this comment, "It's beautiful. It's like tasting it for the first time."
As Beast began its noisy climb up the extract mountain, the store's steady stream of customers remained unfazed. Everyone is focused on the merchandise, and Tice expects Beast to be churning out the batch for the next few hours. Although he lives nearly two hours away, he'll stay late into the night to make sure everything goes smoothly, long after the rest of the Evergreen crew has gone home.
Once the batch was complete, he would prepare it for Evergreen's shelves: dehydrating, packaging and labeling it if needed. Then he'll spend two to three hours cleaning the beast so she'll be ready for her next run later in the week.