By Susan Montoya Bryan
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.-On a patch of tribal land in western New Mexico, a company plans to build a $160 million state-of-the-art greenhouse for researching and growing medicinal plants, including marijuana.
Bright Green Group of Companies is partnering with Acoma Pueblo on what would be the nation’s largest commercial growing operation, by far dwarfing medical marijuana greenhouses already planned in Massachusetts, Illinois and California.
Plans call for Bright Green’s greenhouse and its associated research facility to eventually cover nearly 6 million square feet, or about 100 football fields. Officials at the Delaware-based company say they would have room for as many as 40 million medicinal plants, from marijuana to pennywort and Indian ginseng.
While marijuana is expected to make up a significant portion of the operation, supporters of the project say the business plan was originally designed to sustain itself by producing oils used for various remedies already popular in the homeopathic world.
“We’re just in the process of building our facilities so we’ll be customizing our crops to what the market is most receptive to, but it’s definitely an important part of this,” Bright Green chief operating officer Clarity Patton said of marijuana’s role in the venture.
The multibillion-dollar industry is expected to continue its upward trajectory as voters in more states embrace the idea of legalizing marijuana, market researchers say. Eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for recreational use, while New Mexico and more than two dozen states have medical marijuana programs.
Only licensed non-profit producers are allowed to grow medical marijuana in New Mexico, and the competition is fierce. For example, more than 80 applicants filed paperwork with the state in 2015, and only 12 licenses were granted.
Bright Green officials don’t intend to seek a state license, saying their operation would be on tribal land and subject only to tribal and federal laws.
Under a 25-year agreement with Acoma Pueblo, Bright Green has vowed that whatever plants it grows and the oils it produces would adhere to federal regulations.
“What we plan on doing is working with the FDA to approve our novel prescription drugs. We’re not in the smoke business; we’re in the oil business,” chief executive John Stockwell said. “To spend this much money and to integrate this much technology, we’re looking to abide by the federal rules. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
The Trump administration has warned of a crackdown on recreational marijuana use, but White House spokesman Sean Spicer has said the president does not oppose medical marijuana.
Kris Krane, president of Boston-based 4Front Ventures , an investment and consulting firm focused on the medical marijuana industry, said it’s too early to tell how the administration’s comments will affect the marijuana business but that those on the medical side are feeling somewhat reassured.
Krane said the economic effects are hard to ignore. “As this industry grows, job opportunities grow, tax revenue grows and ancillary businesses grow around them. It’s been a real financial boon for the states where it’s been implemented,” he said.
Still, Krane questioned the size of the New Mexico project given the state’s stance on recreational use and the relatively small medicinal market. Such a large greenhouse has the potential to produce four times the annual volume of medical marijuana used in the state, with no opportunity for shipping beyond New Mexico’s borders because of current federal laws.
Bright Green and Acoma Pueblo say the focus is on the future.
Chris Ahmie with Acoma Business Enterprises described the marijuana debate as complex and contentious. He said the goal is to create what he called a gold-standard facility that would be recognized internationally.
“We’re not willing to risk that investment or that goal by skirting or subverting federal laws or anything like that,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking at, the long range. We’re taking our time with it. We’re going to make sure everything is right.”
Company and tribal officials met at the site Tuesday to mark what they hope will soon be the start of construction, which is expected to take about two years. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs must still sign off on the lease agreement between the company and the pueblo, Ahmie said.