Sanpete hosts 10,000-square-foot medical marijuana facility
By Rhett Wilkinson
One of the first facilities for growing medical marijuana in Utah has been set up in a former turkey shed in the Moroni-Fountain Green area, creating about 20 jobs.
The owner is Dragonfly Wellness of Salt Lake City, one of eight companies selected by the Utah Department of Agriculture (UDAF) to grow what in a medical context is often called medical cannabis.
Dragonfly CEO Hoang Nguyen talked about the company’s operations before the Sanpete County Commission on Aug. 18.
In the meeting, Nguyen gave a $10,000 check—the “first of many,” Nguyen said—to the commissioners to thank them for welcoming Dragonfly to the county. One of the commissioners said the money would probably go toward improvements at the Sanpete County Fairgrounds.
“We really are grateful to Sanpete County,” Nguyen said. “It’s been a great partnership down here.”
Medical cannabis became legal in Utah after voters approved Proposition 2 in 2018. Following approval by voters, the Utah Legislature passed a revised law in December 2018.
In July 2019, UDAF licensed eight companies, including Dragonfly, to grow medical cannabis. Among the eight, “there are quite a few businesses who haven’t started up yet,” Nguyen said.
Leaders of Dragonfly say they started the business because they believe in the healing properties of cannabis.
Last March, at the grand opening of Dragonfly Wellness’s dispensary on State Street and 700 South in Salt Lake City, Narith Panh, the company’s chief strategy officer, described cannabis as “this incredible, incredible medicine that has so many medical benefits that it can literally impact so many different people out there.”
At the event, Panh talked about his brother, who had been hit by a drunk driver while crossing a street in Salt Lake City. The brother had been in a great deal of pain, and Panh had been afraid he could become addicted opiates. Knowing it was illegal in Utah, Panh got some medical marijuana from California for his brother.
Dragonfly Wellness has “no investors, no big money that’s backing us,” Pahn said. “All the money was collected from the community, from family and friends. And that’s hugely important…Everything we do is for the patients, not for financial gain….We’re truly honored to… have this opportunity to represent the patients and ensure that we’re providing quality medicine at an affordable price for our patients.”
To obtain medical cannabis, a patient must apply online at http://www.medicalcannabis.utah.gov and pay a $15 application fee. Then the person must meet face to face with a medical provider who is registered with the Utah Department of Health.
The provider must fill out a certification on line saying the person has one of the qualifying health conditions listed in the state law. When all that is done, a medical cannabis card comes in the mail, which the person can present at medical cannabis dispensary to obtain the drug.
The 10,000-square-foot turkey shed where Dragonfly Wellness is growing cannabis in Sanpete County is on one part of a property of about 50 acres.
Nguyen stressed that the facility has tight security to make sure none of its product gets into the non-medical, illegal market. It is fenced off, guarded 24 hours per day, and is not accessible to anyone who is not at least 21 and not working for Dragonfly. And, Nguyen noted, all aspects of the medical cannabis business are tightly regulated by the state.
The facility has been set up to use minimal water. “Condensation occurs naturally, and inside the growing rooms, and we’re collecting and recycling that water,” Nguyen said.
When Dragonfly first started growing plants in the one-time turkey shed, the company was using a generator for power, which had a negative effect on its product, Robert Allen, the head grower, said on a podcast called “I am Salt Lake.” Since then, Rocky Mountain Power has run lines to the building.
“We’re just so happy we’re down in Sanpete County where were able to reuse the turkey shed without having to build brand new structures,” Nguyen told the Sanpete Messenger.
In the podcast, Allen said another reason the company located in Sanpete County was that property taxes on their site were about $1,000 per year. “And at the end of the day, the cheaper the land, the cheaper the product is for the patient,” he said.
The company chose to grow medical cannabis indoors because doing so compresses a nine-month growing season into 10 to 16 weeks, Allen said on the podcast.
It’s a “10-hour-plus job,” he said. “I put eyes and hands on every single plant every single day. It’s time consuming. There’s so much that goes into it. I have 10 weeks to make it or break it. So everything has to go right.”
If things don’t go right, he said, “the weight won’t be there, it won’t be as pretty,” and the plants won’t have the THC levels needed.
Besides making medical cannabis available to patients, Nguyen and others associated with Dragonfly Wellness are working on altruistic programs related to agriculture. The projects will be operated under the umbrella of a nonprofit organization called The Foundry.
One is a “teaching farm” on their land in Sanpete County geared toward K-12 public-school students. The facility will be some distance from their cannabis building so students will have no contact with the cannabis operation, Nguyen emphasized.
Right now, Dragonfly is working on “soil regeneration” to make the site suitable for growing vegetables and other crops. “We have some scientists working on it,” Nguyen said. The work involves using bacteria to break up the clay soil and adding nutrients to the soil.
Once the teaching farm opens, students will probably make one-day field trips there, but eventually Dragonfly plans to install cabins where students can stay for several days and work on the farm, Nguyen said.
The other project The Foundry is working on is called the “Food Hub.” It would be a warehouse and distribution facility in Salt Lake County to promote locally sourced food.
Utah farmers and ranchers who have trouble making a profit selling to national processors and distributors could sell to the Food Hub, which would sell the products within the state. Hoang said 200 restaurants have expressed interest.
“We would support all the local farmers from the whole state of Utah,” Nguyen said. “Farmers could sell directly to the Food Hub and not worry about distribution, not worry about processing.”