The battle to sell cannabis in Hawai’i has been hard-fought. The beautiful, tourist-attracting island state also boasts one of the most highly regulated medical marijuana markets in the country.
Medical cannabis was legalized in Hawai’i in 2000. It was the first state to legalize medical marijuana through the legislature, as opposed to a ballot measure. When the law passed, it allowed medical card holders to cultivate their own plants, or designate a caregiver to do so. The law did not set any form of medical industry or dispensary regulations, that is until 2015 when Act 241 was passed. It began the Medical Marijuana Dispensary Program administered by the Hawaii Department of Health, which allotted 8 dispensary licenses in the state that were distributed by island: three on Oahu, two on Hawai’i Island, two on Maui, and one on Kauai.
Enter Big Island Grown, one of only two licensed manufacturers and dispensaries on the Big Island of Hawai’i. The company received its first “notice to proceed” with cultivation on October 31, 2018 and became the first dispensary to open on the island in early 2019. It’s grown on a former banana farm that sits on Mauna Kea mountain in Hawai’i, one of the tallest mountains in the world (when measured from the base, below the sea). Its product lineup has expanded over time with the gradual evolution of regulations. Big Island Grown is well-known for its flower, concentrates, and now edibles, the latest product made available to medical patients in Hawai‘i. Big Island Grown introduced its edible line Li Hing Mui Pineapple Gummies as well as THC Live Rosin Mushroom Capsules in March of 2022. The company also dropped a new biodegradable, compostable brand called Pakalolo Pouches made from Polylactic Acid (an innovative plastic that is derived from corn), as well as reusable bamboo and glass jars for its Farmers Choice line.
Big Island Grown was founded by Dylan Shropshire, a fifth-generation farmer who was raised on the Hamakua Coast of Hawai’i’s Big Island, where he lives to this day. I spoke with CEO Jaclyn Moore, Pharm.D./co-founder, and COO/co-founder Dylan Shropshire on the movement Hawai’i’s industry has made over time, what the most coveted landrace strains are on the islands, and where they think the industry will go in the future.
How has the journey been to become a licensed medical cannabis cultivator in Hawai’i?
Jaclyn Moore and Dylan Shropshire: In the year 2000, Hawai’i became the first state to pass medical cannabis laws through a legislature. It took another 15 years for the dispensary laws to become enacted and in 2015, we were lucky enough to receive one of the eight intensely sought-after vertical licenses. Since then, it has been an extremely challenging journey. Up until late February 2022, Hawai’i was still operating off of the same “temporary” rules that were published back in 2015 when we were awarded the license. We have made very little forward progress, from a regulatory and statutory standpoint, since the day that the licenses were awarded.
The passion we have for the plant and patients, and our commitment to normalizing plant medicine, keep us grounded and focused on the business and legislative efforts. The challenge is educating lawmakers how difficult and atypical it is to run a successful business within such an incredibly dysfunctional environment. As an example, the State of Hawai’i enacted the dispensary program without putting any banking in place. Being in the middle of the Pacific with not a single local bank that will work with us in a transparent fashion has become a serious safety issue. Lack of banking coupled with the added difficulty of getting supplies to the most remote islands in the world during a global pandemic are challenges that get us up in the morning.
When it comes to strains, what strains are Big Island Grown’s absolute favorite to cultivate?
The cultivars you grow are one of the major things that define your brand. As a Hawai’i-based company, we are focused on finding and breeding genetics that are from our islands. The flavors and characteristics of the plants grown here over generations are some of the most unique and high-grade you will find anywhere in the world. As we say in Hawai’i, it takes a lot of “talking story” and close connections to find these scarce genetics. We are always on the hunt and continue to fill our tissue culture lab with these rare cultivars.
While Hawaiian genetics come first, we try to maintain a healthy balance of old-school, Hawaiian heirlooms, and new school exotics. Our cultivation crew loves pheno-hunting for new strains. The potential to find a unicorn in a hunt is exciting for all of us.
In regards to our cultivars, it seems patients all have their own personal favorites but some definitely stand out from a cultivation standpoint. Maui Girl has become our premium Sativa strain and has reached up to 37.5% THCA with 43.55% total cannabinoids and terpenes. Maui Skunk Dog was another one of our highest testers and patient favorites at over 35% THCA. Strains with really unique terpene profiles like Golden Lemons, Haupia Buns, Widow Cake, and Cuban Linx are always rotating through our rooms as well. But by far, the most popular Big Island Grown cultivar is Kimbo Kush from breeder Exotic Genetix. It yields well, grows really clean, consistently tests high, and our patients love it.
Do you have Hawaiian “landrace strains” that are unique genetics to your team or unique/classic to the region?
Our “landrace strains” consist of genetics that came here mostly in the mid-1900s and have adapted to unique regions throughout Hawai’i. We have several of these strains like Kauai Electric, Kona Gold, Big Island Widow, and even some unlabeled bags with thousands of seeds from that era.
We currently have Da Corns (Puna Hash Plant x Molokai Snow) which is an old school, Hawaiian strain from Big Island Genetics; the Widow Cake (Puna Widow x Wedding Cake) which is the best of old and new school from Seed It Hawaii and Skunk Dog which is a Hawai’i classic! We also like to feature newer gear from local Hawai’i breeders like our Maui Girl from Joey Green and Greyskull Seeds and Donkey Dawg from Matchmaker Genetics.
We are still hunting for that real Maui Wowie, Puna Widow, and Kona Gold, but we have to do our due diligence and make sure they’re legit and we’re not just putting the name on the label.
I would love to talk about sustainable indoor growing: What does it mean for your team to have a sustainable operation?
Sustainability was a founding principle upon which the company was built. Our mission is to pioneer an agricultural renaissance that perpetuates the proud legacy of Hawai’i farmers through growing and crafting the highest grade cannabis medicine in the world. When you couple that mission with a sustainable production operation that responsibly and respectfully uses the natural resources available to us, it aligns with the State’s 2050 mission and sets an example for agricultural innovation in Hawai’i.
Living and operating on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean makes you really consider every decision you make; from energy to supply chain materials and sources, transport, and so on. When we first acquired the farm where we grow and manufacture our products, we were lucky enough to inherit one of the few hydroelectric turbines on the island. That, in addition to nearly 700 solar panels on our cultivation facility roof, helps us power our 35,000 square foot indoor grow. On top of that, we feed all our plants water from a Mauna Kea-fed spring that filters through miles of lava rock before getting to our farm.
We just rolled out new packaging, finally shifting away from all plastic bottles to reusable glass and bamboo and compostable pouches made from PLA, a plant-based plastic. We are constantly looking for ways to improve the triple bottom line and make decisions with consideration of our land, the planet, and our community; not just profit.
Is Hawai’i a unique setting for this type of indoor growing? Does your location make the greenhouse or sustainable method possible?
Not only are we lucky to be in Hawai’i where our solar window is longer and more potent than most places in the world, but having a stream run through the property creating hydroelectric power for our dehumidifiers and air conditioners even during the night is truly unique.
Where we are located on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island is extremely wet. We get over 150 inches of rain per year. This specific microclimate isn’t ideal for growing cannabis outside so to meet testing standards, we are very mindful of keeping clean room standards in our cultivation facility. Also, positive air pressure, a thermal buffer zone, and other features make our facility a unique fixture on the islands and really anywhere in the world.
In what other ways do you think the cannabis industry can move towards sustainability?
As a new and quickly evolving industry, we have the ability to implement standards that consider environmental impact as a top priority and precedent. Compostable and biodegradable child-resistant packaging is low-hanging fruit. We can create a starting point that sets the precedent for other industries (ie. Pharmaceutical) to follow.
It’s also cool to see the “deli model” in dispensaries where patients can bring their own packaging. That cuts down on packaging waste significantly. Allowing patients to reuse packaging would be helpful for everyone by reducing waste but also reducing costs that could be passed on to the customer. Figuring out a better way for tagging and tracking plants would be another great way to help cut down on a lot of unnecessary plastic waste until we can get tags and trellising made with sustainable materials.
Specific to indoor cultivations, LEDs seem to have come a long way, so an industry shift in that direction is inevitable. More resources are needed to continue to evolve cultivation equipment for optimal energy efficiency.
In places like California and Nevada where water isn’t as abundant as it is here, it would be nice to see more responsible water use strategies such as water recycling programs being implemented.
I know you have three locales: Kona, Waimea, and Hilo. Where does Big Island Grown want to expand next in the future?
When the world thinks of Hawai’i cannabis, we want them to think of Big Island Grown. This is our vision and is engrained in everything we do. An obvious next step for Big Island Grown would be to serve the outer islands. Unfortunately, we are one of the only states in the country with no wholesale and therefore no inter-island transport or sales.
We are hopeful that lawmakers will consider new bills in legislation that will allow for inter-island commerce. From there, we would love to share what we are doing with folks on the mainland and throughout the world. People come from all over the world to experience the beauty and aloha that Hawai’i encapsulates—we would love to be able to provide an experience of our cannabis culture and offer some of that to them in the form of clean, craft, Hawai’i-grown cannabis.
In your opinion: What does Hawaii’s cannabis industry look like in 5 years?
Access for all! In five years, every adult will be able, if they so choose, to freely and without undue restriction, walk into a state-licensed dispensary and purchase product. The elected leaders of the State of Hawai’i will deploy the substantial tax revenue that a sensible program will produce, and our industry will become a real contributor to the benefit of all the people of Hawai’i.
As the local industry grows, Hawai’i maintains a craft industry mentality with a strong focus on local brands and the genetics that have been grown here for generations. All plant medicine has become normalized and more naturally integrated into life without the stigmas that have haunted them for generations.