Everything we can tell you about our visit to Jesse O’Steen’s secretive – and legal – weed farm in North Canterbury.
It doesn’t look like much from the outside. A fence covered in black cloth is topped by barbed wire with just the rooftop of a bland building visible behind it. Jesse O’Steen covers his hand, taps a code into a keypad, and the gate swings open. Immediately, a giant black Rottweiler rushes forward and growls.
“Snoop! Sit!” yells his owner. Snoop does not sit – he lurks. Is he a guard dog? “Not really,” says O’Steen, his laid back Californian drawl making it sound like he doesn’t really believe his own words.
Here at a 20-acre block of land in North Canterbury, secrecy and security are of the utmost importance. I can’t name the street or suburb we’re in. I can’t describe how we got here. I can’t detail the neighbours’ properties or nearby farms. Over a long drive, O’Steen jokes that I should probably be blindfolded. Inside his compound, lasers are set up to catch any after-hours intruders. Every door is locked and requires a key code for entry – I count at least six.
Yes, there are panic buttons with direct contact to police. “If you hit it, they’ll know there’s a problem,” says O’Steen.
All this is necessary because O’Steen, Snoop and I are standing on a weed farm. Inside the black building we’re about to tour is marijuana at ever stage of the cultivation process, with multiple rooms full of seedlings, cuttings, mother plants, towering green leaves growing under blinding 2000-watt halogen bulbs with air conditioning and fans humming loudly. One room in complete darkness is full of plants near the end of the flowering process, the sweet, hoppy smell of marijuana indicating they’re nearly ready to be picked. “Killing them is my favourite time,” says O’Steen.
Paraphenalia to make these plants grow healthily and happily is piled in every corner: high yield soil, tubs of nutrient mix, fans, protective gear and monitoring equipment. It’s all legal. To get to this point, O’Steen and his wife Anna, along with their business partner Ike, have invested everything they’ve got. They’ve sold the family home and are renting to make their business, Kalyx, happen. They’ve navigated through a series of complex regulations to get to this point. They’re hoping, praying, the legal weed game works out for them. “It’s not a slam dunk,” admits O’Steen.
But the potential is there. O’Steen and his legal weed are on the frontline of an industry that could soon explode. Despite the 2020 legalisation referendum losing 49%-51%, regulations have relaxed to allow patients access to marijuana flowers. One supplier tells me sales are up 350% since last June. That doesn’t mean O’Steen can let his guard down. Cameras cover every inch of his property. Snoop may just want to sniff and play, but I sure wouldn’t want to be alone with him. “It’s as secure as it can be,” says O’Steen.
Nothing’s happened so far, but he knows there are risks doing what he does. “If someone puts a gun to your head and they say, ‘Open up’ … what are you going to do?”
This week, O’Steen’s buds become available to New Zealand patients. As The Spinoff has previously reported, dried cannabis flower – the kind that were only ever available in tinfoil wraps for $25 – is now a legal product being prescribed by doctors to treat chronic pain, stress, sleep and anxiety disorders. Ministry of Health regulations mean patients have been told to use a vaporiser, or steep the leaves in hot water and drink it as a tea (debate rages over whether or not this works).
Since June of last year, the only products that met the strict ministry guidelines for this to be possible came from overseas. Thanks to a complex series of negotiations and partnerships, along with evolving ministry regulations, that’s changing. Now, O’Steen’s Kalyx – in partnership with local medicinal marijuana company Nubu – has become the first to offer a New Zealand-grown cannabis flower.
That’s why we’re standing with O’Steen on a windy, overcast Canterbury day, getting a tour of his legal weed facility. “We did all of this,” says O’Steen, as he keys in another code and invites me inside. Yes, the certified builder put the walls up by hand.
It’s here that O’Steen has cultivated his strain, called Kikuya Peak, that will be stocked alongside all the imported stuff. The process isn’t easy. O’Steen’s weed plants take three months to grow from seedlings into harvestable flowers. His bills are astronomic, from the building he’s set himself up in, to the equipment, seeds, soil and staff. Running all those lights and air conditioning mean his monthly power bills can hit $16,000.
Just a week ago he was forced to throw out an entire room full of plants because the peat he’d been supplied was different and it “fucked up my mix”. He shakes his head when asked how much that cost him. His business isn’t yet making money. “Financially, we haven’t reaped any rewards yet,” he says.
But harvesting is just the first stage. From there, O’Steen sends samples of his weed to Australia for testing. That’s a 30-day process. Once he’s got the results, O’Steen needs to apply for an export licence. That’s another 30 days. His weed is then shipped and sold to a partner in Australia, which breaks it down into plastic patient-sized pottles. These are then sent back to New Zealand and distributed to doctors through Nubu. All of this red tape is frustrating but necessary, says O’Steen, because Aotearoa doesn’t yet have the proper facilities. He’d like customers to be getting his product as soon after harvest as possible. “Perception is big,” he says. “No one wants to buy old weed.” (His weed is vacuum sealed and he says it has an indefinite shelf life.)
This rickety house of cards could fall over at any point. Recently, a small law change in Australia promoting local growers over imported supplies nearly did the whole deal in. A box that wasn’t ticked on New Zealand’s side of the border put one of O’Steen’s shipments months behind schedule. Despite the progress, his business still doesn’t feel stable. He isn’t sure when he might be able to get his family’s house back.
“This is highly stressful,” he admits. “There’s a lot on the line, right?”
I‘ve been dressed like a bogan surgeon. A hair net covers my head, and another smothers my face. White overalls have been pulled over my clothes. O’Steen’s dressed the same way. As he peels open the door to one of his grow rooms, he passes me black sunglasses to shield my eyes from the blinding glare.
Why all the protection? He’s worried about his plants. The ministry’s standards are so high he can’t risk foreign particles, potentially causing mould or other problems, damaging his plants. His wife Anna admits they’re also to protect us from the weed. “I’m worried about being smelly, because I’m going to pick up the kids,” she says.
O’Steen has several years of experience doing this. He met Anna on an American ski slope and the pair moved to New Zealand in 2008. Initially, O’Steen worked as a builder, helping to restore Christchurch after the devastating earthquakes. In 2018, he felt burnt out, so returned to California on his own for two years to try growing commercial weed in a more mature and less restricted market. It worked, but long distance with his family became an issue, and then California’s weed rules became too difficult to navigate.
Back in New Zealand, he considered moving to Australia to do the same thing. Then it became apparent that rules here might begin to relax. The pair sold their family home, moved their three kids into a rental and used to the money to build this grow house. Once it was finished, O’Steen began buying seeds and testing different strains – all with the ministry’s approval – to work out which might have the highest THC content and be best for market if it ever became possible.
A chance meeting with Mark Dye, the co-founder of Nubu, resulted in a contract to supply New Zealand-grown weed to local patients, if regulations ever evolved to allow it, which they now have. (In a statement, Dye said: “We have the most stringent regulations in the world, so bringing local flower to market is no small feat … [It] means access to more affordable and fresher products for patients.”)
Walking around his grow rooms, seeing his enthusiasm for his product and how carefully he manages his plants, you can’t help but think that O’Steen is definitely “the weed guy”. He admits getting called that all the time. “I get called a drug dealer,” he says. But he doesn’t like it. He isn’t comfortable doing interviews. It felt strange having TVNZ there recently with cameras filming his operation. “It’s just foreign to me,” he says. “I don’t want to be that guy. It’s not really my thing. We just want to cultivate good weed.”
Recently, his daughter asked him what she should tell her friends when they asked her about what her dad does for a living. “Tell them we grow flowers,” O’Steen replied. “I’m a horticulturalist.”