Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Ganja Labs confident in quest for global quality

Published:Wednesday | October 26, 2016 | 10:00 AMSteven Jackson
CEO Balram Vaswani caresses a ganja plant grown by Ganja Labs LLC at the University of Technology Jamaica on October 20.
A ganja plant casts a shadow on reflective Balram Vaswai as he walks through the plants cultivated by Ganja Labs LLC at the University of Technology Jamaica on October 20, 2016.
CEO Balram Vaswai walks the greenhouse in which Ganja Labs LLC grows its ganja plants at the University of Technology Jamaica, on October 20, 2016.
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Ganja Labs LLC, which grows marijuana at the University of Technology Jamaica (UTech) in Kingston, invested an additional US$150,000 to set up an outdoor greenhouse which spans its entire field.

The company, currently in its second test harvest, is aiming for global standards for its outdoor or greenhouse ganja cultivation equivalent to plants grown in California, United States.

"We can catch up just look what we have done in just two years," said Ganja Labs chairman and chief ganja officer, Balram Vaswani in a Gleaner Business interview.

The company recently set up its white, translucent greenhouse which spans approximately 5,000 square feet.

The farm produces various strains of marijuana for research and testing by UTech and Steep Hill Labs. It neither sells nor distributes the plant. In the first crop, Ganja Labs tested 36 strains, then focused on 21 strains for the second crop, with plans to further reduce those numbers going forward, with the main focus on picking the stronger genetics which perform the best under the growing conditions at low altitudes.

"Now we have identified six strains that will perform well, even with the heat," Vaswani said as he kissed the leaf of a plant in the greenhouse.

Vaswani said it is hard to control pests, rain, wind and heat in an urban environment on the university campus. However, the greenhouse has eliminated the wind and rain, and Ganja Labs is now working with local vendor Isratech on solutions that will be practicable and affordable for a local farmer to compete.

"The heat is still a factor, even with solar fans and extractors, but even so, we are still seeing a more consistent and healthier crop this time around," said Vaswani.

"We will know the difference between the first and second crop when the test results come back in a few weeks, but already I can say it will give a three to five percentage point improvement in THC," he said. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol identifies the mind-altering content of the plant.

Next, Vaswani will transform the floor of the greenhouse into a cooling agent by insulating the dirt floor with cold running water, similar to a river. A new floor will be laid above the flow of water.

The idea of utilising mist throughout the greenhouse was rejected as it would negatively raise the humidity in the greenhouse.

 

SEVERAL STRAINS

 

The greenhouse contains several ganja strains with names like Jamaican-bred Goldenback Gorilla, 9-pound Hammer, and Cherry CBD. They, however, still fit into three overarching categories of sativa, indica and CBD. Sativa gives an energetic or head-high, while indica gives a sensory or body-high, while CBD is considered a non-psychoactive cannabinoid.

Sativa plants are so rare in Jamaica that many ganja sellers don't offer it. It was more dominant in the 1980s. Nowadays, indica has taken over. Vaswani concurs with the trend, but adds that things are still evolving with local research and farmers planting a variety of strains again.

"Jamaica back in the '70s had some of the best weed, but we lost much of the good stuff," he said, alluding to police raids and destruction of farms.

"This killed out much of the sativa strain of weed in the island. Then we got strains from California in the '80s, which were basically indica which are usually easier to grow and does not take as long to reap, as the flowering times are eight weeks, compared to ten weeks for the sativa plant."

He then heads back upstairs Ganja Labs' two-storey office to check on his indoor medicinal plants. These will produce cannabidiol (CBD) pharmaceuticals for patients seeking solutions for illnesses where traditional medicine has fallen short.

Inside the indoor cultivation room, he caresses the lush green plants growing under temperatures fit to chill meat.

"Because we grow in perfect growing conditions," said Vaswani, "we are confident that the indoor plant can be benchmarked against US and international standards, but the price point will not make sense to develop a sustainable market here."

Plants in California are able to maintain 15-30 per cent THC up to 15 per cent CBD content.

Vaswani in advocating for medical marijuana wants it to get into the hands of patients that need it, especially those with epilepsy, even while acknowledging the authorities may take longer than originally expected to issue licences.

He pleads for at least two pharmaceutical licences to be issued immediately to the two universities, which are growing the plant Utech and UWI "to get the industry started for the patients that need it most".

Maintaining a consistent and predictable level of THC and CBD percentage will Jamaica to offer drugs to patients based overseas.

"This will allow patients coming from abroad to have the same medicinal standards that they are used to at home, which falls in line the health and wellness approach outlined by the Minister of Tourism Edmund Bartlett," said Vaswani.

Ganja Labs launched into the cultivation of marijuana using three methods: indoors in temperature-controlled rooms; outdoors in smart pots exposed; and in a greenhouse, grown in an enclosed shed with natural light. The expansion of the greenhouse eliminates outdoor growing.

The company currently operates under the UTech Medical Marijuana research licence. It recently filed the paperwork to apply for a variety of licences to cultivate, process, transport, and sell ganja legally in Jamaica.

They now await a response from the Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA), along with the other 200 applicants.

Ganja Labs broke ground at UTech last November and operates with six employees, which ramps up to 10 during harvesting and includes students from the university's schools of business, architecture, and engineering.

The company has invested US$500,000 so far in the venture, inclusive of the cost of the new greenhouse.

steven.jackson@gleanerjm.com