The state’s first legal medical cannabis operation in Des Moines is providing some serious scientific work for young professionals, I found during a tour of MedPharm Iowa’s production facility last week.

Coaxing optimal growth from cannabis plants was a natural career fit for Tyler Johnson, one of three cultivators at MedPharm’s facility, which has been ramping up production in preparation for medical cannabis product sales that begin Dec. 1. Johnson, who has a horticulture degree from Iowa State University, had worked for a number of years for the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden before being hired at MedPharm. 

As part of each growing cycle, which lasts about 23 weeks, MedPharm always has at least one or two experiments going on to test different growing variables and evaluate the resulting plants, Johnson said. 

“We’re looking at everything from different cuttings to help them grow faster, different lighting schedules, different potting mixes and container sizes,” he said. “We’re really looking at the entire production process under the microscope of what can we do to make this better.”

For now, the emphasis is on accelerating growth cycles to ensure the five Iowa dispensaries will be supplied, since no one knows for sure how fast demand may ramp up. 

Zach Baker, an associate chemist with MedPharm, is one of the key people who process the cannabis into the various formulations that will soon be sold at the state’s dispensaries. “I think it’s something that can really help people,” said Baker, a 2013 University of Iowa graduate in chemistry. “I’m just ready for the program to go live, for everything to be fully functional.” 

As their boss, MedPharm founder Chris Nelson, put it during last week’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, there are more than 400 molecules within cannabis that can potentially unlock new benefits for patients. 

“Our promise is MedPharm is not going to stop in the exploration of the science,” Nelson said.