When I first started writing about Washington’s cannabis industry, I imagined I’d spend a lot of time in the field visiting cute little cannabis farms in the foothills of the Cascades. And I did! But I did not imagine that I would eventually be just as excited to walk through a relatively nondescript warehouse in Tumwater looking at cannabis extraction equipment, sampling uninfused candies, and poking my head into neat, well-organized grow rooms.
That big, sprawling commercial facility, however, is home to Northwest Cannabis Solutions (NWCS), Washington State’s largest cannabis supplier. What’s exciting about NWCS’ big old weed factory? For starters, the fact that what they do is not so very exciting anymore.
In the early days of medical cannabis, even the legitimate grows, ones with proper patient authorizations for each plant, were a little sketchy. They were typically hidden in someone’s basement or garage because, even though following the state’s medical marijuana laws would protect growers from prosecution, robberies were a very real threat.
Moreover, basements are not, no matter how much Kilz paint one applies to them, a particularly sanitary place to grow pot. Gray market growers had to combat all the attendant pests and mold problems, and they frequently did so with the type of general use garden products you might expect to find in someone’s garage. This is not to say there weren’t actual caregivers who were actually growing plants with care and providing them to patients in need, there were just a lot more people looking to make a quasi-legal, tax-free buck on the MMJ market, and those people were growing in a pretty slapdash way.
There is, a bit bafflingly, a lot of nostalgia in Washington for the “good old days” of medical cannabis, before I-502 came along and ruined it all for the patients. Or so the story goes. When I first began covering the cannabis industry, in 2015, that was a story that rung pretty true to me. I spent a lot of time looking into rumors that the big corporate growers who had sprung up in the wake of legalization were flouting the rules for a buck, spraying their plants with Eagle 20 and putting patients in danger. While I certainly found some foul play, a lot of that had to do less with the new corporate interest in cannabis, and more to do with shoddy business practices carried over from the medical market. As it turns out, a good number of the people who were sad about the end of the MMJ market were just sad that they couldn’t make obscene amounts of off-the-books money anymore, and had to follow rules and regulations about product safety.
Those regulations could certainly be better, as the OK Cannabis program has demonstrated. The most exciting thing about a company like NWCS production and processing facility is it’s not really an exciting place. Big cannabis companies have too much at stake to break rules or take risks. At NWCS, everything is done according to strict standard operating procedures, not old school growing tradition, and that seems to be working for them just fine. Indeed, NWCS has had many of its products subjected to OK Cannabis testing and has not had a single one fail. Walking through their facility, it’s easy to see why. When it comes to manufacturing clean, consistent cannabis products, this is exactly the kind of industrial facility you want that to be happening in.
When you visit their production plant, tucked away in an isolated industrial area of Tumwater, something you notice immediately is that their janitorial staff is always roving around cleaning, and they’re cleaning absolutely everything. In the growing facility, I actually saw a guy scrubbing the top of one of the I-beams that supported the building, a surface that’s not really even visible. When you walk through the actual growing facility as a guest, you’re asked to put on a single-use jumpsuit to avoid spreading pests or other contaminants. Employees have their coveralls washed and sanitized daily, and change into them on-site. Everyone passes through air exchangers, to help dislodge anything that could still be clinging to them.
This works well for them, as one of their preventative measures is not even a chemical. It’s just predatory mites, about the most “all-natural” pest control solution you can find. To prevent cross-contamination, the grow side of the site is arranged into a series of cells, which all sit around a central atrium. Behind each roll-up door is 256 plants of the same strain, and workers prepare nutrient mixes and potting soil in the atrium area.
“It’s factory work,” NWCS’ head grower, Jon Albitre, told me, as we passed by employees packing soil into new pots and cleaning floors. Going over to the processing side of things, where employees work on a 24/7 schedule to get deliveries out the door, that’s even more evident. The main factory floor is dedicated to packaging and is dotted with a number of machines that help automate the process. Their extraction lab, where they make the ultra-pure cannabis distillate that goes into their edibles, takes up a series of rooms on the south wall of the facility, while their kitchens are in the north wing of rooms.
This is not to say they don’t have fun. It’s still a cannabis company after all, as the Bob Ross videos running constantly on the lab’s computer will remind you. And I seriously doubt the Frito Lay plant that was here before them was playing much Future on the packing floor. Or putting up posters of Mona Lisa smoking a fatty, for that matter. But despite those little nods to stoner culture, it’s pretty much a standard factory. But factories, when they’re run well, are actually a pretty good way to grow weed.
None of this is to say that the people lovingly tending to their small, artisanal grow are growing bad pot. Probably quite the opposite. Those people are probably growing stuff so good it could make a rock cry, but they’re not growing a lot of it. NWCS is, and they’re doing it in a way that provides clean, reliable cannabis to the entire Washington State cannabis market. It’s easy to be mad at them for being big, but it’s hard to be mad at that.