BRIDGEPORT — Harvest Care Medical’s cannabis cultivation and processing facility is under construction in Bridgeport, and officials with the company hope to have product ready for market by the end of this year.
The company was named one of West Virginia’s 10 licensed medical cannabis cultivators last year.
Harvest Care Medical CEO Bill Freas said the company has been welcomed in Harrison County, and he hopes to develop that relationship.
“We selected Bridgeport as our primary location, came down there and met with various organizations,” he said.
“Everyone has been very receptive to the opportunity in the Bridgeport area. When we were awarded the licenses, we selected Bridgeport as our ‘No. 1,’ and we’re working closely with the community.”
Kevin Gibbs, senior vice president of operations at Harvest Care Medical and chief operating officer of Merida Capital Holdings — a private equity fund in the medical cannabis space — said construction of the Bridgeport facility is well underway.
“The West Virginia project is one of a few we’ve done ground-up,” Gibbs said. “The site work and the weather delays over the winter pushed back our schedule a little bit, but our walls are going to go up next week. We should be under roof in July, and we’re looking for our first harvest early in the fall. We’re excited about bringing medicine to the patients of West Virginia.”
Harvest Care Medical is also planning to operate 10 dispensaries in the state, including one in Fairmont, with hopes to open doors at the retail locations in the fourth quarter of 2021.
“We are diligently pushing forward plans and approvals to get those dispensaries open so when we have product ready at the cultivation facility, we’ll have retail ready for our customers,” Gibbs said. “We would love to have our first patients be able to purchase our medical cannabis at the beginning of Q4 of this year, but some of that is going to depend on how quick the testing labs can turn around the product.”
The cultivation and processing lab is estimated to create 50 to 100 local jobs.
Freas said that once the plant is cultivated, the company will be able to turn the cannabis into medicine in many forms.
“This will be pharmaceutical-grade medicine when it’s complete in whatever form it’s in,” Freas said. “With our processing plant, we’ll be able to create edibles, vapors and extract, along with actual flower. It’s a very controlled process. Once we have product in market, we look forward to working with a number of dispensaries in the state, not just our own.”
The company and its officials have worked similar medical cannabis operations in a number of states, including Maryland and Virginia.
Gibbs noted specific Virginia patients whom the company’s product has helped through pain.
“Our first patient was a young girl who suffered from Dravet syndrome,” Gibbs said. “Using medical marijuana, she was able to significantly reduce the number of seizures she had. It was just a life-changing experience for her and her family. You’ll see a lot of stories like that. There are a lot of patients who need this medicine, and it’s going to make a lot of people’s lives a lot easier.”
Another key point that company officials make is the ability of cannabis to reduce dependence on opioids.
Harvest Care Medical Chief Development Officer Dustin Freas said that in states with legalized marijuana — whether it be medical or recreational — the rate of opioid overdoses drops.
He said Harvest Care Medical has been involved in pushing for opioid replacement legislation in the states where Harvest Care operates.
“There’s a place for opioids in the health-care continuum, but it’s not where it is today,” Dustin Freas said. “It’s a huge epidemic in our country, killing thousands upon thousands of people a year. That’s where cannabis comes in.”
Bill Freas, who is Dustin’s father, also discussed the advantages of replacing opioids with cannabis.
“It’s not addictive, and you get the same result,” Bill Freas said. “We’re seeing it all over. Where medical marijuana is up and operating, we’re seeing a drop in (opioid) overdosing and a drop in utilization of opioids on a major level … because you’re finding that you can get the same relief without the addictive qualities, and it’s not as hard on your system. …
“What we believe is that, ultimately, it will become an alternative, and likely a first option in many kinds of situations. At this time, there’s a lot of research being taken on and other variables at play here, but I believe in the next five years or so we’ll see a tremendous move in that direction.”
Bill Freas acknowledged that marijuana still has a stigma among some people. But he said that he and the rest of Harvest Care Medical hope to do what they can to dispel any negative ideas about medical cannabis.
“The stigma has been there for many, many years, and it’s not going to turned around overnight,” Bill Freas said. “I think the key to that is education. We will be providing everything from educational seminars to website education to get people more aware of how it’s really being used and what it could mean to given individuals of various diagnoses or problems. It’s not going to happen overnight, but states that are actively into medical (cannabis) now are seeing tremendous responses from the population.”
The officials said that they’re happy to be in on the ground floor of medical cannabis in West Virginia, and they’re ready to promote their product as an affordable, effective form of treatment for eligible patients.
“As cliché as it sounds, the most important thing for me is getting affordable medicine to patients so the can have access to this medication to help their lives and get positive outcomes,” Dustin Freas said. “Secondly, we’re blessed to be partnered with Harrison County and be able to come into a community that is clearly open for business by what they’ve demonstrated to us. … We’re really getting to change a community from the ground up in a very positive way, and in more ways than one.”
Bill Freas expanded on his son’s view.
“It’s really about making a difference in the community, first with putting quality pharmaceutical-grade medicine to market and secondly, having the opportunity to create jobs and help build the area,” Bill Freas said.
Fairmont News Editor John Mark Shaver can be reached at 304-844-8485 or firstname.lastname@example.org.