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Benefits of medical marijuana inspire local cannabis cultivator

Cannabis cultivator Jessica Ryan had a deep personal connection to pot long before she started growing it.

Ryan’s father was diagnosed in 2004 with Stage 4 nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare type of head and neck cancer. She believes marijuana was one of the things that kept him alive.

“I saw him at his worst, on his death bed, and cannabis was the only thing that helped his nausea, sleep, pain and mental health,” Ryan said.

After about a year and a half, the cancer was sent into remission.

Given her experience, Ryan knew she wanted to get into the pot business as soon as former Gov. Pat Quinn signed Illinois’ medical cannabis pilot program into law in 2013. At the time, Ryan was “no stranger to plants.” She had graduated from Joliet Junior College with a degree in horticulture and greenhouse management and had worked a series of related internships and jobs.

Ryan was quickly hired to manage a cannabis cultivation center in Joliet for the upstart Cresco Labs, which has since emerged as the state’s largest pot producer.

“[My father’s] cancer motivates me daily at work so I can provide the same relief for people in his shoes,” Ryan said.

Marijuana plants at the Cresco cultivation center in Joliet. Inside this room, the plants are in the early stages of growth. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

Marijuana plants at the Cresco cultivation center in Joliet. Inside this room, the plants are in the early stages of growth. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

“[Cannabis] is something I’m passionate about and I think that’s portrayed in my work,” added Ryan, who is now a medical pot patient herself. “I’ve never had a job that I love, and I love coming to work every day.”

Her job at Cresco recently grew more demanding when the Joliet facility doubled its plant count in January. Nine gardeners working under Ryan now grow 18 different types of pot — a mix of indica, saliva, hybrid and high-CBD strains. The company’s most popular varietal is Pineapple Express, named for the fictional pot strain in the Seth Rogen stoner comedy of the same name.

Plants begin in a vegetative space until they’re moved to a separate room for the roughly two-month flowering phase. After that, the crops are harvested and either sold as dry flower or sent to the facility’s lab, where they’re converted to concentrates, tinctures or edibles crafted by the James Beard-award winning pastry chef Mindy Segal.

Jessica Ryan works at Cresco Labs’ cannabis cultivation facility in Joliet | Anne Costabile/Sun-Times

“There are a lot of different options,” Ryan said. “Not everybody wants to smoke a joint.”

That much is clear. In September, concentrates and infused products accounted for over $6 million of the nearly $12 million in statewide cannabis sales, outpacing sales of dry flower, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Compliance with the IDPH is also a fixture of Ryan’s job. Among other regulations, the state requires cultivation operations to track the progress of cannabis crops from seed to sale.

“If we’re not compliant, we don’t get to operate,” Ryan said. “When the state was looking to set the guidelines on what should and shouldn’t be done in cultivation centers and the program up and became going, we were just really efficient. They kind of looked to us to set the guidelines.”

Cresco has since established itself as a leader in the state’s pot game and beyond, operating cultivation and dispensary centers in Illinois, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Arizona as the company gets new facilities up and running in Ohio and California.

Cresco Labs’ cannabis cultivation facility in Joliet. | Anne Costabile/Sun-Times

Cresco took another major step in its expansion earlier this month when CEO Charlie Bachtell announced plans to go public in Canada through a reverse takeover of an existing company, Randsburg International Gold Corp. The deal is expected to close by the end of December.

“The Canadian market has been very supportive of U.S.-based cannabis companies, and we look forward to having expanded access to capital that will help us accelerate our strategic growth plan,” Bachtell said in a statement.

The announcement came less than a month after Cresco raised $100 million in Series D financing, marking the second-largest private funding round for an American cannabis company.

Meanwhile, Ryan remains laser-focused on the Joliet facility, which also packages cannabis products grown in Cresco’s other Illinois cultivation centers in Lincoln and Kankakee.

“I have my hands full here,” Ryan said.

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