LEAMINGTON— A little over a year after becoming one of Canada’s first licensed producers and sellers of medical marijuana, Aphria Inc. is doubling its size, going on a hiring spree and expanding from dried bud sales into cannabis oils.
“It’s a real game changer for us,” said company president and CEO Vic Neufeld.
Not every medical marijuana user wants to inhale the product or is comfortable rolling and then puffing on a joint or inhaling a vapour. Oils not only allow the active ingredients THC and CBD to be ingested with food, but Aphria says it allows for more precise and controlled dosing and the effects are longer-lasting.
The federal agency gave Aphria the green light last August to produce cannabis oil, and sales are expected to begin in May. After getting Health Canada approval Feb. 12 for the expansion, workers began moving potted marijuana plants into the 22,000-square-foot greenhouse addition last week.
The company’s current workforce of 55 is also expected to grow to about 80 once the expanded operation goes into full crop rotation.
Aphria currently boasts about 4,000 clients. Patient care manager Sarah Dobbin said courier deliveries of Aphria’s product now go to every province in Canada, with mental health (depression and post-traumatic stress disorder) and pain (arthritis and cancer treatment symptoms) being the top targets for the natural remedy treatment.
Every day, between one and five kilograms of harvested marijuana is processed and readied for shipment from the heavily secured “vault.” The retail price for the 15 different strains of bud of different potency is about $7 per gram, but Neufeld said the price for cannabis oil will be “significantly higher.”
It takes 10 units of harvested marijuana bud to create one unit of cannabis oil. Using an oil extraction system, chemist and technician Bryan Landschoot said four kilograms of dry marijuana are loaded into an extraction vessel and, with a combination of liquid carbon-dioxide, pressure and heat, 400 grams of oil eventually oozes out the other end.
The carbon-dioxide, converted into gas during the extraction process, is recycled for subsequent use in the plant growing operation, said Landschoot. Being able to use greenhouses to grow the pot, and not the windowless bunkers common to the budding medical marijuana industry, means Aphria’s annual power bill is probably the equivalent to the competitors’ monthly bills, said Dobbin.
But there’s high security surrounding Aphria’s operations, contained within barbed wire and camera towers and located in the middle of a large regular greenhouse agricultural operation. Over 90 surveillance cameras capture every human movement (Health Canada requires all video be stored for two years), and nobody enters or exits the various rooms and greenhouse areas without signing in and out.
If so much as a leaf falls off a marijuana plant, Dobbin said its path through the “destruction process” has to be clearly documented.
Up to 128 patient shipments are sent out each day via Canada Post or Purolator couriers, most of them going to Ontario addresses, and with a significant number addressed to Canadian veterans suffering PTSD, said Dobbin.
Neufeld said the expansion was “desperately needed” with Aphria recently being forced to halt any new patients being added to its client list due to production limits from a shortage of growing space.
And after initial reluctance from the local medical community, Neufeld said there are now between 15 and 20 doctors in the Windsor and Essex County area who prescribe medical marijuana to their patients. Although professional medical bodies are still wary of pot, Neufeld said doctors dealing with “pain management” issues appear to be embracing marijuana as an effective alternative to pharmaceutical narcotics.
In addition to the extraction room, Health Canada also approved Aphria setting up a chemistry laboratory and a microbiology laboratory to continue research and quality control. The new combined facility could generate $30 million in annual sales, said Neufeld.
While more expensive, cannabis oil is more discrete and simpler to use, something some patients might prefer, including those in nursing homes, according to Aphria. It can be applied to the tongue with an eyedropper or mixed in with food.
But don’t expect Aphria to start delivering marijuana-infused goodies anytime soon. The company is limited to selling dry bud or, soon with final Health Canada approval, liquid cannabis oil only.
“We cannot sell cookies,” said Landschoot.