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DENVER – When you speak with Tim Cullen, it’s immediately obvious that he knows a lot about the science of growing marijuana.
As the CEO of Colorado Harvest Company, he could probably talk nonstop about how he has perfected the grow operation at his massive Denver facility, which can hold about 8,000 medical and recreational plants.
And once you find out what he did for a living before starting to grow and sell pot commercially in 2009, his intense knowledge about the subject makes perfect sense.
“I was a high school biology teacher for 10 years before I jumped on this crazy train that has been my life for the last six years,” he said, chuckling that he is sometimes the victim of “Breaking Bad”jokes.
Cullen has developed an intricate system to increase plant productivity. The types of lights he uses in his indoor grow mimic only two seasons: fall and spring. He also increases reproduction by confusing the plants about which direction is up.
Plant hormones communicate internally, he said, naturally reproducing the most buds at the top of the plant. To change that, Cullen spreads his plants on a parabola-shaped piece of mesh.
“The plant doesn’t know where its true top is, so rather than getting one big cola [bud site] on the top of the plant, we’ll get a whole bunch of golf ball-sized flowers that will happen on these plants which makes production and packaging a lot easier,” he said.
The full process of growing marijuana from seed to sale takes about five and a half months in his facility, Cullen said. One of the biggest challenges since recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado has been keeping up with demand.
“We started off as relatively small medical marijuana stores that were set up to deal with three or four people that were trickling in all the time,” he said. “Now, we’ll see as many as 400 to 500 people on a Friday afternoon, and so, we’ve had to redo all the stores … so we can handle the volume.”
Beyond the volume of customers, Cullen said businesses like his still face legal challenges.
“I really feel like there are two more dominoes that have to fall for us to be treated just like any other business in the country, and that would be changing the tax code … and the other part is banking,” he said.
Since marijuana is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government, Cullen said Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code prevents businesses like his from deducting various expenses if they deal in the trafficking of illegal drugs.
Although he has accounts at smaller federal credit unions, he said many larger banks are still afraid to deal with cannabis companies.
“We can’t go down to a major national bank and open an account,” he said.
Cullen said he also experienced a “tiny little bump in the road” recently when the Colorado Department of Agriculture changed the rules for the types of pesticides that would be permitted on indoor grow operations, starting last year.
In the process of plant production and in an indoor facility, he said, everyone uses pesticides to some degree. If you were growing these plants outdoors, you’d have a whole ecosystem to contend with, he explained.
A collaborative effort between the state and a working group developed an approved list of pesticides. Cullen said they had initially seen some pests that his growers had never seen before, forcing them to figure out which products on the approved list could be applied to the soil.
“We’ve been pushed back into a corner of having to figure out a whole new regimen of applications for these plants,” he said.