Cresco Labs' 54,000-square-foot cultivation and manufacturing facility is located on a 38-acre plot in the wetlands of Martin County, devoid of cell service and without any signage to suggest what's transpiring inside. A security guard operates the gate under a canopy tent. The undeniable stench of marijuana is the only hint this is not a top-secret CIA black-ops site but rather the hub where all of the medical marijuana for Cresco Labs' 28 Sunnyside dispensaries across the state is grown and manufactured into shelf-ready products.
All licensed medical marijuana operators in Florida must be "vertically integrated," a contentious regulatory model that requires the companies to oversee every step of production from "seed to sale." While opponents argue this model prevents small and minority-owned businesses from participating in the Florida cannabis industry, it is why the Cresco Labs cultivation facility is as intricate, massive, and elusive as Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.
"It is a fun operation getting our 28 stores supplied every day," Cresco Labs' regional Florida president Cris Rivera tells New Times. "The growing, the drying, the edible room, the packaging, and logistics — it's fascinating."
Cresco Labs was operating in nine other states before it set its sight on Florida's $1.3 billion medical marijuana industry. In 2021, it acquired One Plant Florida's eight dispensaries along with the Martin County cultivation facility in a $213 million deal. Since then, Cresco has rebranded the One Plant dispensaries as Sunnyside and opened 20 additional stores.
"One Plant was doing really well at [its] stores, but it couldn't expand past that without the enhancements and improvements that we made to the site," Rivera explains. "I can now supply 30 stores, potentially up to 40 stores with a little bit of buffer — that's how much more productive the facility is — and we still have plans to continue to evolve that site to make it best-in-class in the state."
Last year, Cresco Labs announced a $2 billion purchase of rival Columbia Care, its more than 30 cultivation and manufacturing facilities, and 99 dispensaries, including 14 in Florida. The Columbia Care deal, expected to close this summer, could make Cresco the largest cannabis company in the U.S. by revenue.
Two weeks after roughly 2,000 clones are propagated inside the humid, indoor incubation room, only the top 1,300 or so are wheeled a few feet down the hall into one of three "veg rooms," sprawling greenhouses that boast natural and LED lighting overhead along with fertigation lines to feed the plants with nutrients. Staff tends to the plants dutifully over the next two to three weeks as they rise like bean stalks toward the transparent roof. The plants are examined for defects, and those that survive final scrutiny advance to the next round in the harvest, while the rejects are processed as biological waste and destroyed.
If a particular batch is slated to be sold as flower, it will be weighed and packaged. If it's destined to be sold as an edible or concentrate, it will be frozen in the onsite "Connex Village," where 31 shipping containers are set up to extract cannabinoids from the plant matter and manufacture them into nine flavors of edibles, butane- and ethanol-extracted resin, or solventless rosin, which uses heat instead of chemicals to extract cannabinoids.
"I have chemists that are working with the plant matter to get the right mix of everything to make the products, so there's a lot more consistency and lack of variability in the manufactured goods," Rivera explains. "With flower, it's just what nature provides you, and nature has a way of having swings that you can't control. You can try to limit the swings, but there always will be natural swings in flower."
Cresco Labs' 29th Sunnyside dispensary is slated to open in West Miami this week in anticipation of 4/20 — a "Superbowl-like holiday," Rivera says, for which the cannabis company spends six to seven months preparing. To honor the herbal festivities this year, Cresco Labs is offering in-store events and promotions and unveiling three new strains: Melon Fizz, Truckstop Wedding, and White Runtz. Whereas Melon Fizz and Truckstop Wedding boast high THC percentages, Rivera says, White Runtz is considered a lower-potency flower with beautiful colors that is really smokeable and offers a controlled high.
"I want to make sure everyone can participate in 4/20 regardless of what your pocketbook will allow because a lot of people want to celebrate what this plant does for people," Rivera says. "Now it's go time."