PRODUCTION OF MEDICAL CANNABIS
Production of medical cannabis: The mother plant
Cultivars (strains) that grow particularly well that are selected according to cannabinoid and terpene levels are designated as the mother plant. The mother plants are the basis of medical cannabis production. In contrast to the cultivation process with seedlings, where they each have different characteristics, the cuttings from a mother plant are all genetically identical.
The producer MG Health in Lesotho currently has several CBD and THC strains in its production facility. The hybrid strain currently grown here, among others, is characterized by high pest resistance, fungal resistance, and exceptionally good growth characteristics as a mother plant.
Its growth rate, for example, is ideal for taking cuttings every 14 days. In this case, it was possible to introduce an efficient working protocol that allows the plant to grow out within a 14-day rhythm and to cut it back to a minimum after taking the cuttings.
The lower biomass after pruning makes it possible to identify the condition in which the respective mother plant is.
The mother plant is checked especially with regard to good air circulation, as stagnant air between a too dense biomass, especially with too much foliage, could lead to mildew. Mother plants that have grown too densely and have not been cut back sufficiently also provide shelter and cover for pests, so it is very important to keep a close eye on the biomass.
The mother plant grows under 18 hours of light, so it is continuously in its growth phase and develops a massive stem. Any cuts that occur due to thinning along the stem and side shoots are closed for safety to prevent infection or pest infestation.
As soon as the mother plant shows signs of flowering under an 18-hour exposure or behaves non-compliantly, becomes sick or is attacked by pests, immediate action must be taken. Sound IPM (integrated pest management) prevents pest infestation or infection. With daily control and proper thinning, a mother plant can be kept for 6-12 months. After that, the growth rate of the plant usually diminishes. The mother plant has done its job and is replaced by a fresh one.
Production of medical cannabis: Cuttings
Cuttings, called clones, are branches or shoots that are taken from a plant, which develop roots after a special treatment. If you put them in suitable substrate, they grow into plants of their own. Cuttings are thus the starting point for commercial cannabis production.
In contrast to seedlings, cuttings have the great advantage of carrying the exact same characteristics as the mother plant. In this plant breeding process, which is designed to meet the highest pharmaceutical requirements, cannabis strains are selected according to their growth structure, resistance to mold, stress tolerance and flower structure.
This means that the mother plant is selected in advance for the desired characteristics. These are passed on by all cuttings, as they grow into fully fledged plants. The offspring produced are thus genetically identical to the mother plant and consequently carry on its characteristics.
The rooting process takes place through the addition of special hormones, which trigger the formation of roots on the cuttings. It is very important that the cuttings are first cut from the mother plant with sterile blades – disinfected with high-percentage alcohol or special plant-compatible agents. A “medical” 45° cut has proven to be effective. This is the best way to close the cut, which give little chance for plant mold or similar pathogens to attack the plant.
When the cuttings have been cut from the mother plants, they must first be freed from excess leaf material. This is necessary because the cut branch is virtually a plant in its own right, but its leaf mass is too large in relation to the length of the cutting. If this were not done, it would quickly lose all its moisture and wither.
After the leaf mass has been trimmed, the stem is again lightly scored with a sterile blade and the cut is dipped in rooting hormone. The wetted cuttings are put into small medium cubes, so-called plugs. These plugs are available in various designs and materials, such as rock wool, pressed coconut fibers, specially prepared soil or water-retaining sponges. The medium selected in each case is conditioned before the cuttings are inserted, i.e. fertilizer is added and the pH is adjusted to the optimum value for rooting.
These plugs are placed in carrier containers that are closed with a transparent lid. They remain in this for three to five days in an environment with increased humidity to start the rooting process. During this process, a small cluster of cells, the callus, forms at the prepared sites under the influence of the rooting hormone. The roots of the future plant finally form from this.
Within 14 days the cutting is usually rooted enough to be able to live on its own. It is an independent plant and ready to be placed in the next larger medium or pot to continue growing. The next step in the cultivation process is the vegetation phase, also called the growth phase, where the plant grows bigger and stronger and eventually produces its flowers, which are harvested.
The success rate of such a production process basically depends on the sterility of the working environment, the health of the mother plants and ultimately the skill of the grower to cut equally sized cuttings from the mother plant.
Due to a standardized procedure and effective workflows, only very small quantities have to be discarded in the production of MG Health. The amount of rejects is in the per mille range. This ensures that each batch of cuttings is uniform and thus produces a homogeneous quality of plants.
Medical cannabis production: the growth phase
The growth phase, also called the vegetative phase, is a very important phase of the cultivation process in the production of medical cannabis. After the cuttings phase, where the cannabis plant has spent 14 days developing its first roots and becoming “self-sufficient”, it now enters the length and size growth phase.
The plant now grows in height and width, increasing both its root surface and the number and area of its leaves, which of course requires considerably more nutrients.
In the growth phase, it is important that the cannabis plant receives 18 hours of light per day at a stretch. In MG Health’s cultivation rooms, daily real-time measurements are taken to determine how much artificial light needs to be added to the daylight to ensure the daily amount of light required to thrive.
The aim here is to provide the plants with plenty of natural sunlight, as well as to create high, consistent quality by adding artificial light as needed.
In general, the growth phase is there so that the plant can strengthen itself and develop to its full potential in the subsequent flowering phase. Size, branching of the branches as well as the root surface play a major role for the future harvest.
Depending on the strain, a growth phase can be shorter or longer. For the strain that MG Health grows, an average period of 14 days is sufficient.
One parent of this strain has “stretching” properties that have a positive effect on the crossing of the two initial strains. It thus shows increased length growth before entering the flowering phase (generative phase). However, it still retains a relatively low spacing of the nodes. These are nodular thickenings from which side shoots are formed along the main shoot and from which the flowers are also formed. The aim is also to achieve inflorescences of equal size in order to optimize the yield. This characteristic of rapid length growth makes it possible to shorten the entire growth phase.
The entire cultivation process, the technology used in it, as well as appropriate genetics of the plant strains used, have been selected for rapid growth, an optimal flowering phase and an effective harvest, with the lowest possible power consumption and thus low production costs.
Medical cannabis production: flowering phase
The final phase of a normal cultivation process is the flowering phase, also called the generative phase. “Generative” means “producing and reproducing” and in the plant world usually describes reproduction by pollination and subsequent seed production.
In the case of medicalcannabis flowers, flowers should of course also be produced, but unpollinated flowers. This is because the goal is an unpollinated, female flower of the cannabis plant that is harvested and used. The production of seeds that would result from pollination is precisely undesirable here.
In contrast to the vegetative phase, in which the plant only grows, various events occur in the flowering phase of the cannabis plant.
In the first few weeks, once the flowering phase is initiated, the plant may experience enormous stretching, the so-called “stretch”. Depending on the strain, this effect varies. It literally “stretches” towards the sun and often increases in volume and height many times over. In the plant world, this phenomenon is generally known as “shooting”.
This stretching of the cannabis plant probably pursues different “goals” depending on the sex of the plants: For the male plant, it means that it releases its pollen at a greater height, allowing it to be carried further. For the female plant, the elongation increases the chance that her flowers can be pollinated better. Both aspects that contribute to successful propagation and species conservation in a natural process.
In sunny Lesotho, the flowering phase is initiated by reducing the hours of light from 18 hours during the growing phase to 12 hours, always taking care to use the hours of sunlight effectively. For the flowering phase itself, the natural exposure to sunlight of almost 12 hours in the summertime is almost completely sufficient. However, in order to achieve a constant light intensity, artificial light lamps provide the additional amount of light required. This is especially necessary during sunrise and sunset. The artificial lamps are also needed for the winter period in southern Africa to guarantee a consistent and consistently flawless product quality.
It has been shown that daily exposure to light for a period of 12 hours is beneficial for optimal growth of cannabis plants. The amount of light received during this time allows the plant to thrive best and thus reach its full potential. However, to ensure this, one must “feed” light. If this were not done, the plant would “think” that autumn was now coming and would significantly and permanently reduce its productive activity.
The intensity of illumination and the creation of equal conditions in the flowering space are of great importance for the quality of the harvest.
In this way, the production facility achieves a certain standardisation of the so-called “canopy”, or “plant cover”,- quasi the green biomass or sea of leaves and subsequently the flowers of these cannabis plants.
Once the plant has completed its “stretch”, or longitudinal growth, usually over the first 1-3 weeks, it is important that the lower shoots are thinned out.
Small shoots and leaves that take away the plant’s strength and would be of no further use are therefore removed. The positive effect of this is that a greater homogeneity of flowers is achieved, as the vigour is now transferred to the higher nodes (shoots).
In this way, the quality and size of the flowers can be determined. In general, it is desirable to produce a medium-sized flower without a thick stem. Pruning and thinning ensures that all flowers produce a golf ball-like size.
A strain specially produced by MG Health in Lesotho is a moderately elongating plant in flower, with high nodal spacing and airy structure allowing a good portion of the lower biomass to be thinned. In general, this type of growth is well suited for the production of medicalcannabis, as it allows for good aeration. With such a plant structure, one can expect better illumination, as no overly large “solar sails”, in the form of their own large leaves, cover the rest of the plant.
The scent that cannabis plants produce in the flowering phase and before that in the growth phase is a mixture of mainly terpenes, terpenoids and flavonoids. Their concentration increases in the course of the flowering phase. The flowering time until harvest is about 63 days.
The dominant terpene of a special MG Health strain is limonene, which leads to a strong lemon scent. Besides this, beta-carophyllene, “clove scent”, is also produced in larger quantities.
Safety concept and quality assurance
The EU-GMP certified cannabis production at MG Health in Lesotho is surrounded by fences and there are strict entry controls. A strict security protocol must be followed. This begins in the morning when production workers enter the company area and register by fingerprinting at the entrance gate. After that, they move on to the sanitary rooms and the linen distribution area. Since safety is paramount in the production of medicalcannabis at MG Health, and especially protection from contamination, employees are provided with fresh work clothes every day, which are washed in the in-house laundry. This is particularly important as only work clothes that are freshly washed and treated daily can be guaranteed to be free of contamination and unwanted particles.
Free-use showers are available to staff and are used regularly. This ensures that every employee enters production clean and can leave the company just as clean after work. Contamination with undesirable substances of any kind or the discharge of any adhesions to the body or hair from the production facility is thus largely excluded.
The safety concept in the cultivation rooms consists of several facets. In addition to the entrance controls, which make it possible to track which worker is currently in which production area, the staff’s clothing is also searched daily at the end of the working day. For this purpose, there are several security staff at the company exits and around the company premises.
Likewise, the company premises are video-monitored and observed by the company’s own security office. During special work processes such as the transport of cuttings to the vegetation rooms, the transport of the plants from there to the flower rooms and especially the harvest, at least two security staff members are present during the work steps themselves.
Since the process of manufacturing pharmaceutical products, and especially narcotics, is highly critical and no negative deviations are allowed to occur here, personal supervision and camera-recorded monitoring are indispensable. Camera surveillance and critical examination of the processes also take place at product reception in the processing area. On the other hand, this camera surveillance also serves to ensure that employees are not suspected of having stolen flower material, for example, and thus also to protect them.
A critical phase in the production process, during which particularly strict controls are carried out, begins about two weeks before the harvest, when the first samples are sent to the laboratory to measure the content of the active substances, i.e. the “potency” of the upcoming harvest. The samples needed for this are accompanied by security staff when they are brought to the laboratory located in Maseru. Since several batches are always growing in parallel, samples can be taken continuously.
Data collection and counter-measurements of how many grams have left the production site and arrived at the laboratory are recorded in detail. The same procedure is followed during harvesting. These control steps are carried out by the security staff.
Although a visual inspection takes place daily and all production steps are validated, i.e. tested and inspected, a precise laboratory examination is required for each individual harvest. This guarantees that each harvest meets the requirements for the respective flower strain. The medicalcannabis strain currently grown by MG Health is in the medium to higher THC range.
In the last two weeks of the nine-week flowering period, the flower structure thickens again and finally results in the desired value of the ingredients and the flower gains its characteristic appearance. Regular sampling for laboratory tests is one of the most important steps in the MG Health flower rooms. As soon as the blossoms arrive in the drying rooms after harvesting, a representative sample is taken from each harvest (or harvest batch) and its ingredients are determined in order to ensure that there is an even content and homogeneous distribution of the desired ingredients, which are ultimately decisive for a successful therapy with the product.