Cannabis cultivators transition from hemp to medical marijuana production

Published 12:46 pm Monday, March 13, 2023

EAST LINCOLN — Jason McDonald and his husband Timothy Gibson might be well known for their Great Mississippi Tea Company but the business is just one facet of their lives. The two spearheaded efforts to legalize medical marijuana in Lincoln County after the Board of Supervisors voted to initially opt out of medical marijuana. 

The decision to opt out affected little other than delaying Gibson and McDonald from growing medical marijuana when voters in the County voted to opt back into the program. 

After the vote in August 2022, they started work on opening their own Medical Marijuana Cultivation facility. The business is called SADUJA and is separate from their tea farm but on the same property in East Lincoln. It was first licensed to grow Hemp in 2021 and as of December 22, was licensed to grow medical marijuana in Lincoln County. 

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Hemp cultivation was first legalized federally through the 2018 Farm Bill and was later legalized in Mississippi in 2020. Medical marijuana has a wide range of THC levels but Hemp had less than .3 percent and could not get a person high. 

“Crime rates haven’t gone up, property values haven’t gone down like people thought,” McDonald said. “We have been growing hemp since 2021. We sold hemp to local shops around Mississippi. I don’t think people have realized the cannabis plant was growing here legally well before medical marijuana passed here. It was here and it was growing on the farm.”

He said the medical cannabis business has become a hot button topic in the area. People should know the process to work at a cultivation facility is rigorous. McDonald said he can hire anyone over the age of 16 to work at the tea farm but when it comes to the medical marijuana cultivation they must be 21, must be a citizen who has not committed a felony and pass a background check.

Employees are then licensed to work by the Mississippi Department of Health. He said the facility has “more cameras than casinos.” From the seed they plant to the time it is sold the farm must track it properly. 

“I think with anything new people are generally afraid of it,’ McDonald said. “It is more of what we have done just doing it on a bigger scale and we switched over to medical cannabis instead of hemp. It is the same plant. Growing any plant is the same really.” 

People might notice their greenhouse looks like it is on fire at night because they have to keep lights on to simulate the middle of summer for growing year round. Medical marijuana plants require 15 to 16 hours of light. 

The delay caused by Lincoln County opting out and finally going to a vote and delays caused by short staffing in the Mississippi Department of Health could hinder the business. SADUJA started planting in mid-February and are now nine weeks away from their first harvest. 

McDonald said it takes about 12 weeks to get a medical marijuana plant to harvest. The product should hit the shelves in the third quarter of the fiscal year. 

Cannabis requires labor intensive work. He and Gipson have run their 10 acre tea farm by themselves for the last few years but had to hire five full-time employees to run the cannabis facility. They are also on the low end of cultivators in Tier 2 with 5,500 square feet, the highest in tier 2 is 15,000 square feet. 

“It is twice as much work as what we do with the tea farm. There is a lot of labor involved to get where you can harvest. If you can get there it pays for itself,” McDonald said. “It is a process. You are trying to get everything to go to the bud. You have to strip leaves two or three times throughout the plant growing. They have to come off the plant or else it will take nutrients away from the bud.”

The company’s experience with the tea farm has translated to the cannabis business. Modern farming requires intensive record keeping. He said knowing the health department’s system helped them get their cannabis greenhouse through bureaucratic hoops. 

They have to trace everything they do and the workload for marijuana was too much. He hired someone to keep up with compliance required by the state. 

Great Mississippi Tea Company started out as a long term sustainable business model for Gibson and McDonald. They hope SADUJA will continue to be sustainable over the next five years. 

“We hope to build something which will be around in five years. There are too many people in the business right now and market saturation will happen,” McDonald said. “I hope we will be here in five years. It is the gamble of starting any business. We had bumps with the roll out but at least it continues to roll forward. I hope in five years the state has it figured out. I hope we have helped patients and we will live happily ever after.  We are looking forward to being good business holders in Brookhaven and hope we can do the public good.”