What It's Really Like to (Legally!) Grow Weed For Medicinal Use

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what their job entails. This week, TeamMD president Melissa Rolston tells us what it's like to grow your own medicine

Weed grower: Melissa Rolston talks about growing cannabis as a patient

(Courtesy of Melissa Rolston)

Age: 24

Education: Studied creative photography at Humber College

Length of time in the cannabis industry:

Four years, but I’m still very new to being a patient grower. I’ve been studying under a master grower for just over a year and I’ve been doing the hands-on work for about three weeks now.

How did you get into the cannabis industry?

I was in the creative photography program at Humber, but I’ve been working in healthcare since 2009 in chronic pain clinics. I started working in the cannabis industry in 2013. About a year after I started working in the industry, I realized that I was actually a patient as well. That’s when I chose to put the camera down and take this bold, entrepreneurial approach to this flourishing industry.

When did you start using cannabis as a patient?

I didn’t realize this at first, but all through high school, I was self-medicating. Back then, I would’ve considered myself a “recreational user” but I ended up quitting as I got older. I thought I needed to stop smoking weed and focus on being an adult. When I did that at 18, I started to develop severe symptoms of PTSD from a traumatic event I experienced during my early teens. It was then that I realized that cannabis is my medicine, and I started to take it four years ago to manage my symptoms and enhance my quality of life.

Related: What You Need to Know About Canada’s Changing Weed Laws

What does it mean to be a patient grower vs. a commercial grower?

The definition of “commercial” is making or intending to make profit, whereas the definition of a patient is a person who is receiving or registered to receive a medical treatment. As a patient grower, I’m not making or intending to make any profit off my growth. The great thing about cannabis is that you’re able to work with your medicine, and it’s the only medicine that you can really take on as your own and figure out what works best for you because the government has granted us that freedom. I’m really looking forward to the money I’ll be saving on my medicine and also the experience and the peace it will bring me while I grow it myself.

They don’t exactly teach cannabis growing in school so how did you learn about this? 

There’s tons of websites out there where you can access information but I was lucky enough to have found a mentor. There’s also a bunch of areas in Toronto that provide growing programs. Actually, with my company, TeamMD, we’re going to be rolling out a growing program where we walk the patient through the whole process. We’ll talk about things like: how do you apply and get approved to become a patient grower? What are the steps you need to take in order to have a successful grow? We want to make it easy for patients to grow their own medicines because it is one of our rights.

Weed grower: cannabis plant

(Courtesy of Melissa Rolston)

How does growing a cannabis plant differ from caring for any other household plant?

The thing that people forget is that at the end of the day, it’s farming. When these plants flower, you have to harvest them. There’s a lot of manual labour involved. I’m testing out around six different strains right now and they each have specific requirements. Sativa plants, for example, tend to be taller and lankier where as Indica plants are usually shorter and bushier. The different strains that you’re growing will determine what kind of nutrients are needed and in what quantities. Also, something that really needs to be considered is that the photoperiod—where the plants require a set length of continuous darkness in order to flower—needs to be controlled. In theory, you could grow cannabis on your balcony, but you don’t have control over the sunlight so you won’t have control over how much medicine you’ll be yielding. That part is important because you want to make sure you’re yielding enough medicine to last you until your next harvest cycle.

Why was it important to you to grow your own medicine?

I love watching life flourish. I enjoy the process of watching something grow. Even as a little girl when I lived in Nova Scotia, I used to grow sunflowers and garden with my mom. I have tons of non-cannabis plants in my home right now. I really appreciate the life that plants bring, they’re very quiet but they bring so much peace and serenity.

So there was the craft of it, and you also mentioned that it saves you money…

Yes, that was also a factor as well. Now that I’ve started to grow my own, I can’t really justify spending $12 on a gram.

You can’t exactly go to a garden centre and buy these plants. Where do you get them from?

You can order genetics, which is a cutting of a “mother plant,” from a licensed producer. There’s also patient networks where people have been growing their own medicine for a while and they have great genetics so sometimes you can get access to those. You can also order specific seeds so you can hatch them from seedlings.

How are your plants doing right now?

Right now, they’re just little babies. The seedlings have just hatched and I’m just starting to transplant them to the medium (i.e. the soil mix). They grow for about two to four weeks and then we’ll start transplanting and then we cut them to prepare them for flowering. After that, we do a 12-hour on, 12-hour off photoperiod and that will get them ready to start flowering. Once they flower, we harvest and then dry and cure the flowers. My master grower likes to cure them for around two weeks, depending on how wet they are. Then we have to start trimming them and once they’re all trimmed, they’re ready for consumption.

The cannabis industry is getting a lot of buzz right now. What is the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about growing your own cannabis?

That’s easy. People don’t realize that it’s a lot of hard work and takes dedication and a huge commitment—and a great deal of physicality. At the end of the day, I’m a hard worker and I enjoy putting in labour into something I am passionate about.

There seems to be a lot of women in the dispensary side of the cannabis industry, but not many on the growing side, why is that?

I’m the co-chairwoman for Women Grow’s Toronto chapter, and we cultivate female leaders in the cannabis industry. It is a new industry, an emerging market and an equal playing field for women to get in there at the same level as men. I think maybe the reason why there’s not a lot of women growing is because typically it’s a male-dominated side of the industry. Finding the right network and mentors that you as a female click with and aren’t so bro-ed out can be difficult. Another thing is, and I don’t want to upset anyone by saying this, but a lot of women aren’t necessarily heavy users which is typically an incentive for people to grow their own—but I find that is rapidly changing just as much as this industry is.

Related: Meet Cannabis Culture’s Jodie Emery: Activist, Entrepreneur, Pothead

What advice do you have for people who are thinking of growing their own cannabis as patients?

Reach out to people in the community who are doing this. I’m all about sharing my network and making sure that the patient’s needs are being met.

When you heard that the Canadian government is planning to legalize marijuana by July 1, 2018, what was your reaction?

To be completely honest, I’m really anxious to hear more and to hear what they believe what legalization will look like. The medical program has changed so much since 2014 and I really take my hat off to the government for trying to implement a program that they still are really figuring out. It was a bold move and if they didn’t do that we would still be years behind and probably not even looking at legalization being introduced for another four years. I know a lot of people don’t think it’s happening fast enough, but regulations take a long time at the end of the day.

The new legislation allows people to grow up to four personal plants. Will that change anything for you as a patient grower?

I don’t know what the legislation will look like for patients. However, with legalization coming, it will remove the criminality aspect to growing which will definitely open the door for more females to break into the growing side. On the patient side of things, I think it could allow for more job opportunities for patients in the industry. If patients are already growing their own medicine, those could now be skills that companies value if they want to get into the industry.

What is your hope for the future of this industry?

Because I’m coming from the more medical side of things, I’m super excited to see more studies being released and to see how far this medicine is going to excel in the next few years. It’s not just going to push holistic medicine but conventional medicine as well. I’m really excited to see those changes.

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