The Largest Cannabis Grow Isn’t Where You Think It Is

When you think about the center of cannabis cultivation in the United States, California is probably the state that comes to mind. The Golden State is known for its relatively long history with cannabis cultivation and the northern part of California has earned the nickname “the Emerald Triangle” because of the massive amounts of green produced in the counties that make up that region.  But California grows located in the Emerald Triangle dwarf in comparison to the $160 million facility that began construction in March 2017 in Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico.

Acoma Pueblo is Set to be the Largest Cannabis Grow—If Federal Prohibition is Lifted

A 25-year business deal struck between the Delaware-based Bright Green Group of Companies and Indian Tribe Acoma Pueblo has set New Mexico up to be home to what could be the largest cannabis grow in the country. Shaun Cunningham, the CEO of Acoma Business Enterprises, celebrated the potential of this deal in the following statement:

“This is a great opportunity for the Acoma Pueblo, which will bring job opportunities and resources to the Pueblo. Collaborating with Bright Green makes sense for the Pueblo in so many ways.  It is a great use of tribal land, provides financial benefits to the community, and will be an economic driver for the local area and the State of New Mexico.” 

Acoma PuebloThe facility will include a 118-acre fully automated greenhouse, 900, 000 square-foot manufacturing warehouse, 96,000 square-foot research building, and a 12-megawatt power generation operator. According to John Stockwell, the CEO of Bright Green Group, the facility will employ a little less than 300 people once construction is completed.  Those employees will work to maintain the plants as well as conduct research investigations and develop medicinal plant-based products. The facility will partner with New Mexican universities as well as the MJ Brown Research Center, a branch of the Bright Green Group specializing in research and development. 

Construction has been scheduled into four phases for an approximate total time of about 30 months. The first phase was completed in September 2017, allowing the facility to begin processing and manufacturing. Once completed, the facility is projected to grow up to 40 million plants annually.

The company already has patents on cannabis-derived products. For now, that’s more of an investment in the future. Once the facility is in full operation, the greenhouse will only cultivate plants that are in compliance with federal law such as pennywort and Indian ginseng. The greenhouse will serve as a research center for the potential uses of medicinal plants, and while cannabis is included among those, it is not the main feature…yet.

“We’re just in the process of building our facilities so we’ll be customizing our crops to what the market is most receptive to, but it’s definitely an important part of this,” Bright Green Chief Operating Officer Clarity Patton explained regarding the role cannabis is expected to take in the venture’s development.

John Stockwell, Bright Green’s CEO, explained the company’s reticence to go all in with cannabis. “What we plan on doing is working with the FDA to approve our novel prescription drugs. We’re not in the smoke business; we’re in the oil business,” he explained. “To spend this much money and to integrate this much technology, we’re looking to abide by the federal rules. We want to be a part of the solution, not part of the problem.”   

A Smart Move for the Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo has a rich farming hisoryWhile the completed facility will directly employ a few hundred personnel, the facility will be responsible for providing over 1200 jobs that are either directly or indirectly related to its construction, administration, and maintenance. From construction to technology, the deal is a promising one for the community.

The Acoma Pueblo has a rich farming heritage extending far before the existence of the United States. The tribe’s 2000 year-long experience farming the land has more than qualified its people to take an active role in greenhouse operations.

Chris Ahmie, Acoma Business Enterprises Business Development Officer, connected the tribe’s history with the future promised to it by the cultivation facility. “Collaborating with Bright Green is a strategic part of the Pueblo’s commitment to staying on the cutting edge of agriculture for the next 2,000 years and beyond,” Ahmie said

CEO of Acoma Business Enterprises is convinced that Bright Green has the tribe at the forefront of its plans. “Bright Green has demonstrated real intent to benefit the reservation and its members, which makes this a unique collaboration,” Cunningham said. “It is truly a long-term effort that will bring economic development and quality of life improvements to the Pueblo.”

About Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo is a federally recognized Indian Tribe known for being the oldest continuously inhabited community on the North American continent. Its origins reach back to 1150 A.D., and since then, the tribe has carried on its unique and wonderful culture. About 4,800 tribal members live across its 431,664 acres of land. The 250 dwellings that make up the communities of the Pueblo do not operate with electricity, sewer, or water. 

As an Indian Tribe, the Acoma Pueblo is entitled to sovereignty, or the right to control its own decisions about issues such as education, housing, and health services. Sovereignty protects the tribe from intrusion by the federal government. This has made it possible for tribes to enter into the cannabis industry on their own terms. Tribal sovereignty places the control over civil and criminal law, zoning, and other licensing activities into the hands of the tribe. That means that there is a lot more flexibility regarding cannabis laws within the tribe even if that isn’t the case in New Mexico.

In 2007, New Mexico signed a medical marijuana bill into law. The law allows qualifying patients to apply for a medical marijuana card if they have a qualifying chronic and debilitating condition. Patients can possess up to eight ounces of medical cannabis and plant up to 16 plants (four mature, 12 immature) at a time.  Licensed cannabis producers in New Mexico have restrictive production limit of only 450 plants. This limit has made it difficult for the ever-increasing number of registered cannabis patients to access their medicine. Cannabis remains illegal for personal use.

Because Acoma Pueblo is a tribe and protected by tribal sovereignty, the greenhouse facility it houses can technically surpass these limits if it decided to. However, the company is playing it safe by waiting until cannabis is federally legal to fully engage with that side of the medicinal herb market. 

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.