A tour of Natural State Medicinals

A tour of Natural State Medicinals

On a rainy Thursday in May, Robert deBin toured me around Natural State Medicinals, the Jefferson County medical marijuana grow operation he runs. Like most Arkansans, I’d never been inside a cannabis cultivation facility before, and I was partially and inadvertently to blame for that. In 2019, I assigned a reporter and photographer to tour BOLD Cultivation in Cotton Plant, the first marijuana grower up and running, and the Arkansas Times subsequently ran a story about the operations and pictures of marijuana plants. The state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, which also regulates the medical marijuana industry, followed up by fining BOLD $4,700 and putting it on six months’ probation for violating an ABC rule that prohibited allowing unauthorized personnel inside limited access areas where cannabis was “grown, harvested, processed, and stored.”  

So the inner workings of cannabis producers remained opaque for several years, thanks to the ABC treating a relatively mild intoxicant like it was enriched uranium. Cultivators only got the greenlight to welcome visitors after the 2021 Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 919, which allows entry to anyone 21 or older who has been invited by cultivation staff, as long as they have a valid government ID. Because the ABC’s initial rules prevented legislators from entering the facilities, the industry had little trouble persuading them to change the rules.

My May visit fell at a pivotal time for Natural State. An expansion is underway at the facility between Redfield and White Hall. And while he didn’t want to talk about it on the record for competitive reasons, deBin said the building project was necessary to meet demand in the medical marijuana program, but conceded that it would also favorably position the company to respond to a dramatically expanded market should a constitutional amendment to allow adults to use marijuana recreationally make the ballot and pass. 

pic of ROBERT DEBIN: Natural State CEO.

ROBERT DEBIN: Natural State CEO.

Natural State and the other cultivators in that first batch authorized to begin operations  — BOLD, Good Day Farm in Pine Bluff, Osage Creek Cultivation near Berryville and Revolution in West Memphis — each contributed $350,000 to Responsible Growth Arkansas, the campaign committee advocating for the passage of the marijuana amendment. Responsible Growth raised $1.94 million as of mid-June and said it’s far surpassed its signature-gathering goals. Should it make it to the ballot, deBin believes the measure will pass. 

With all that excitement swirling in the background, deBin seemed even-keeled, or at least he projected calm in May. In a striped polo shirt, khaki pants and cowboy boots, he was tall and loping and looked younger than his 32 years. He met us inside the lobby of Natural State’s 32,000-square-foot headquarters, situated in what he describes as “the middle of a pine forest,” just off Interstate 530. The nondescript metal building isn’t a place you stumble upon by accident. There’s no signage. A chain link fence capped with razor wire surrounds the property. My colleagues and I couldn’t get through the gate before confirming our appointment through a call box. After getting buzzed into the front door, we had to enter our names and other information on wall-mounted computers and stand still for a camera to snap our headshots for temporary badges. 

Before we launched into our tour, we got fitted with surgical gowns and stomped and shimmied the soles of our shoes on a sanitizing mat. When it came time to touch the plants, Matt Dedman, vice president of marketing, was ready with black plastic gloves. The plants spread out among Natural State’s nine grow rooms, each around 2,000 square feet, take up half of the building’s square footage and represent millions of dollars of inventory. Any pests or organic matter riding in on someone’s clothes could throw that all in jeopardy.

CHECKING THE BUD: Matt Dedman, Natural State’s vice president of marketing.

“We’re growing plants indoors in basically a rainforest environment that we create,” deBin said. “It attracts mold and insects, so we have to be careful.”

Our first stop was a “veg room,” where hundreds of mid-sized plants in 5-gallon buckets were stacked in orderly rows atop tables. Industrial fans mounted along the walls blared and abundant lights hanging from the ceiling gave off a golden glow. 

“There are two main life cycles of cannabis: the vegetative cycle and the flowering cycle,” deBin explained. “Cannabis is photo-period sensitive, meaning that the amount of light per day tells it what stage of life it needs to be in. That kind of mimics regular outdoor agriculture: You plant in the spring and harvest in the fall, so at some point during the summer, when the amount of light per day reaches a certain level, it switches from vegetative to flowering. Growing outside, you get to harvest once a year. Here, we harvest about 36 times a year, or three times a month.”

Where the plant is in that cycle determines how much and what type of light it receives. The light in the veg rooms isn’t as bright as that in flower rooms, but it stays on longer. In the veg rooms, the light remains on for 18 hours a day. In the flower rooms, the artificial “sun” shines for 12 hours. 

pic of one of Natural State Medicinals' veg rooms

WHERE LIFE BEGINS: In one of Natural State Medicinals’ “veg rooms,” where the lights remain on for 18 hours per day.

“Controlling the environment is the single most important thing for us,” deBin said. Growers have to monitor the amount and spectrum of light plants receive, the air movement, the temperature and humidity. They infuse the rooms with carbon dioxide. 

In the veg room, deBin points out the “babies” on the wall. These are plants that have recently been cloned from a mother plant. Natural State growers take a clipping from a plant, dip it in a rooting hormone and put it in a growing medium that resembles rockwool — something that holds moisture while allowing room for roots to spread. 

Growers mostly rely on clones to ensure consistency. “When you clone, you’re taking a genetic copy of the plant,” deBin said. Cloning also ensures that the new plant is female, the only type of marijuana plant growers want anything to do with. The resinous buds of the flower are meant to capture the pollen male plants produce, but when the female plants get pollinated, they stop producing flowers. 

Natural State Medicinals' Frank Yelland pic

WORKING WITH ‘BABIES’: Frank Yelland transplants clones in a “veg” room.

It’s a common misconception that marijuana growers start with seeds. There’s too much variability with seeds, deBin said. 

“If we got a 10-pack of seeds and eliminated the males out of them — after they start growing they’ll show their sex — and say we get five females out of that, and we grow all five, they’re going to have significantly different attributes. They’re going to be different shades of colors, different smells, different effects, different yields. Some will like this environment more than others. It’s a pretty tricky process.”

Cloning streamlines the process, but it isn’t a failsafe. Over time, cloned strains can fall victim to what’s known as genetic drift. “When you take a clone from a clone of a clone, it makes it more susceptible to disease,” deBin said. Natural State and other growers slow that phenomenon by keeping a “mother plant” from which they take clippings. 

Natural State wants its plants to live a stress-free life. “Every living thing wants to reproduce. If the power went out and we lost light for a long stretch, the plants will self-pollinate.” The industry term for that is “herm,” like the verb form of hermaphrodite. When the marijuana you buy has seeds in it, a male plant has somehow snuck into a grow operation. “When you get seeds in your weed, you catch hell,” deBin said. “We’ve destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of product because we don’t want to deal with the reputational hit.” When a plant gets pollinated, it stops using its energy to grow flowers and instead uses it to grow seeds, which could affect the potency.

Outside in the hallway, we pass large tanks where growers mix water and certain nutrients. Different plants in different stages require different types and levels of nutrients. The actual watering is automated. 

In a flower room where the cannabis is 2-3 weeks from harvest, the smell is pungent, and the light is brilliant. Long exposure to it is harmful to your eyes; Natural State employees wear protective glasses with spectrum-altering filters. A grid of PVC pipe and string netting support the flowering plants, which vary dramatically in terms of height and color. A strain called Funky Charms with grayish blue leaves and fledgling buds will turn a deep, dark purple as it nears harvest time, Dedman noted. What’s selling well lately? “Whatever is new,” Dedman said. “The market really cares about freshness more than repeating strains.” But building on the initial success of a strain can be difficult, deBin said. “We release something and the people say, ‘This is amazing, we want more of this.’ It’s like, ‘OK, we’ll start to propagate more of this. You won’t see it for 130 days.’ But at that point is it still trending?”

Pic of Natural State's Funky Charms

FUNKY CHARMS: Near harvest time.

When it’s time to harvest, Natural State employees cut down the nets, cut the plants at the base of their stalk, calculate the “wet weight” of the harvested cannabis and report it in the state tracking system. Once growers cut the plant at the stalk, it’s finished, but state regulators require cultivators to thoroughly destroy the dirt and whatever else is left over. Natural State had to upgrade its industrial grinder three times already to satisfy the state. 

After they’re harvested, plants go to quality control where they’re hung to dry. When we visited, the marijuana had just been picked the day before. Already it had started to shrivel. “As a grower, this is kind of the sad part,” deBin said. “You leave that grow room and it’s the most beautiful flower you’ve ever seen, and then you have to hang it up to dry.” The air conditioning is going full tilt in quality control. “You can’t dry it out too fast. It’s a careful balance,” deBin said.

IN QUALITY CONTROL: Cannabis hangs to dry.

Nearby is a room that houses the cryo cure or lyophilization machine, a large, cylindrical metal tank that looks like a deep-sea submarine, or the sensory deprivation tank from “Stranger Things.” Lyophilization has long been used to preserve food and pharmaceuticals, but Natural State was the first marijuana cultivator in the country to install the patented freeze-drying system, which  preserves the size and color of the buds and promotes a better, more efficient cure. “Some people who have been smoking their whole lives say, ‘[The freeze-dried weed] is weird. I’m not coughing when I smoke this.’ ” By utilizing lyophilization, Natural State is removing the moisture and the lipids, which make you cough. The process also preserves more of the plants’ terpenes, the aromatic chemical compounds that produce various therapeutic effects, which deBin says leads to better looking and tasting marijuana.

“This is the future of cannabis,” deBin said. “I’d like to see all of our product cryo’d. However, I anticipate some resistance from legacy customers who are accustomed to the texture of traditionally dried cannabis and the coughing that comes with it.”

pic of Trevor Swedenburg

TREVOR SWEDENBURG: Natural State’s executive chef holds court in his kitchen.

From there, our tour took a decidedly Willy Wonka turn. When we reached the kitchen, effervescent head chef Trevor Swedenburg quickly offered us samples of (no THC) Sour Glass Apple, with a punch similar to a Warhead. “It’s gluten- and dairy-free, vegan, diabetic-friendly, kosher and halal,” Swedenburg said. He showed us his new chocolate machine, which melts, tempers and molds the finished product. A new white chocolate bar called Cereal Milk tastes just like its name, he said. Natural State is unique in that it makes gelatin gummies, Swedenburg said. Other companies make pectin-based jellies or chewies. Natural State gets its gelatin from a company that makes Jell-O shots for bars. Gelatin is like a traditional gummy bear, while chewies break down more easily in your mouth. Swedenburg creates all sorts of multitasking gummies: Some have equal parts CBD and THC. Others have melatonin added, or Bragg’s Apple Cider Vinegar for gut health. A chili and watermelon-flavored gummy has vitamin C for immunity. 

Swedenburg uses decarboxylated, winterized crude THC in all the edibles to give “a little bit of a green flavor, so you know you’re not eating regular candy.” When marijuana is legal recreationally, he plans to make some using THC distillate, which has no flavor. 

How do Swedenburg and other Natural State employees test their products? They can’t just sample their wares in house before putting it on the market in Arkansas dispensaries. They must first send it off for testing by a third-party laboratory. Then they have to package and label it, ship it to a dispensary and buy it like they’re regular consumers. And that happens every time they create a new product and for every new iteration of that product. 

The burdensome regulations don’t stop there. The state requires marijuana to be tested in 10-pound batches, meaning one third-party test is required for every 10 pounds of product. deBin points to five tables of Super Lemon Haze in one of his flowering rooms, 12 plants on each table. That’s 60 plants. Each plant has about 1.2 pounds of marijuana in dry weight, which amounts to 72 pounds. So even though the marijuana is the same strain, grown under the same conditions, harvested and cured all at the same time, it will be tested eight separate times. Through variance in testing, it’s likely there will be eight different THC percentages in the results, deBin said. Because customers have thus far considered THC percentage the most important criteria, the test results determine the price Natural State can sell to dispensaries. 

deBin is champing at the bit to get into his new space. The packaging operation now takes place in a hallway. “When we built [the original headquarters], we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” he said. The company has been fluid. “We’ve turned every closet and mechanical room into an office or production facility or something. We’ve learned a lot over the last couple of years.”