There are lots of farms and factories across the North Country. A couple of years ago, a completely new kind of enterprise came to the region: medical marijuana.
As part of the state's highly restrictive medical cannabis program, a company called Etain, LLC set up shop in the Adirondack hamlet of Chestertown, just west of Lake George. It's one of ten licensed growing facilities in the state.
About 30 workers grow marijuana plants and turn them into oils, liquids, and dissolvable powder. Zach Hirsch got a rare look inside.
The North Country’s medical marijuana factory is not designed to stand out. In fact, I was late because I couldn’t find it. It’s set back from the road. There’s no sign.
But then, there was an unmistakable smell and I knew I was in the right place.
Etain’s security team keeps track of everybody who comes in, so I handed over my driver’s license. Then I put on a hairnet and tucked surgical booties over my shoes.
We passed through a heavy security door and the smell intensified, enveloping our tour group.
Chief operations officer Hillary Peckham led us down a sterile, windowless hallway to a laboratory. Radiohead was playing from a little boombox on a metal countertop. Amber and greenish liquids burbled in dome-shaped, glass chambers.
“Everything that we do in here is making that refined oil for product formulation, that will go into our capsules and our tinctures,” Hillary said.
They also check for potency, consistency, contaminants, and they develop new products and techniques.
“I think they are trying to experiment over here. Is this the CBN?” Hillary asked her sister Keeley Peckham, the chief horticultural officer.
“The lab is constantly running new tests – trying to make a better, more specialized product that can help a wider range of people,” Keeley said.
A few years ago, this gleaming white, high-tech interior looked completely different. “This was actually a horse barn,” Hillary said.
The former owner reportedly wanted to turn the site into an offshoot of the Saratoga Race Course in the 1980s. That plan fell through, but it worked out perfectly for Etain. The land is level; there’s lots of room to expand. It’s also specially zoned for industrial development – rare for the Adirondacks.
Keeley unlocked an industrial storage room. Inside – big plastic tubs, all brimming with fuzzy, green buds. The fruits of a recent harvest.
“This is the most marijuana I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” I said. The Peckhams laughed.
“You’re about to see more,” Hillary said.
“This is just one harvest room,” Keeley added.
We passed a couple of workers who were listening to music and bottling cannabis capsules. There was an office decorated with a little ceramic plaque that said, “GARDEN OF WEED’N.”
Keeley took us into a greenhouse. “We need to keep the door closed or the temperature doesn’t stay consistent,” she said. It was hot, almost tropical. Bright yellow lights and industrial fans bore down on a sea of smaller marijuana plants. Workers were blasting upbeat pop. “The plants and the employees like the music,” Keeley said.
Employee Barbara Manley wore blue sunglasses designed to filter out the intense, yellow light. “These are three new mothers I just picked today,” she said.
“They look pretty. Nice and branchy,” Keeley said.
They were black gums – one of the many varieties Etain grows.
The workers also wear scrubs without pockets. Security is no joke – everyone and everything is on camera. All the plants are carefully weighed and tracked, even waste material.
The next greenhouse felt more like a jungle. The plants towered over the workers. Chief compliance officer Joe Stevens cracked a joke about the smell, which was now at its peak. But I seriously wondered if it was going to stick to my clothes, stink up my car.
“I guess – I don’t know. We don’t smell it anymore,” Hillary said.
“We got immune to the smell,” Stevens said. “People come in all the time – “Oof!” they say.”
“At this point it’s just, it’s a normal business. It’s regular life for us. We’re really grateful to be a part of it. It’s a really rewarding industry to be in,” Hillary said.
At the end of the day, of course, it’s not about pot puns or even the cannabis itself. Hillary said it’s about the patients – people who say this drug helps them live normal lives. Makes their pain a little more bearable.
Zach Hirsch visited Etain in December 2017 for Adirondack Life magazine. The original version of this story appears in the May/June 2018 issue and at adirondacklifemag.com.