Explaining the origin of his company's name, Pettigrew says that the elderly grandmother of a friend, his initial investor, tried cannabis for the first time in Colorado. She experienced relief from her eye pain, caused by cataracts, and was able to read her Bible again -- something she hadn't been able to do in years. Pettigrew says, "The effect it had on her was so positive that it just kind of made sense to name the company after her as an honor to her, and as a reminder to us of really why we do this, and why we need to hold ourselves to the highest standard."
Who's "dabbing" or "vaping" Viola Extracts' butane hash oil (BHO), these days? "Our customers are extremely diverse," Pettigrew says. "There's 22-year-old-kids, there's military veterans, there's soccer moms, there's corporate CEOs."
In a 12,000-square-foot building in northeast Denver, Viola Extracts grows its own cannabis, and uses its four extraction machines and 10 ovens to process the raw cannabis into a highly concentrated product. "Butane hash is basically using butane to strip the THC off of the plant," Pettigrew says. "We then cook the butane off, and what we end up with is a pretty pure product that can come in the form of either 'live resin' or 'wax' or 'shatter.' The three of those are based on different consistencies."
He explains that "live resin" is made using freshly-harvested, frozen cannabis; the end result sometimes resembles crystallized honey. "Shatter" and "wax" are derived from already-dried plant material -- the former looking like translucent, amber glass. Pettigrew calls it a "very, very clean product and a very, very high-quality product."
And the effect compared with smoking marijuana flowers? "It's just a more concentrated experience," says Pettigrew. "So, the THC is more concentrated, the [scent-giving] terpenes are more concentrated . . . the flavor is more concentrated." Displaying a small plastic container of his live resin made from the Kosher Kush strain, the fruity aromas tingle the nostrils like an aromatherapy oil; the names of the most popular Viola strains give further indication of their scents or flavors: e.g., Papaya and Lemon OG.
Viola's products can be found in Denver, Boulder, Steamboat Springs, Berthoud, and Longmont, among other dispensary locales. The "shatter” can run from $40 to $50 per gram in some shops; the "live resin" for closer to $60 per gram. Viola also processes other companies' cannabis into BHO, accounting for approximately 30 percent of its business.
In October, Viola launched a cannabis "pen" cartridge, a "grab-and-go" device that provides around 200 hits, and a total of 250 milligrams of THC; a larger-sized version holds 500 milligrams of THC. Pettigrew says, "Basically, we're distilling and processing [the cannabis] down to pure THC. So it's about 90 percent pure THC. The terpenes are separated by steam distillation and reintroduced." He adds, "We think it's the best pen on the market, quite frankly, as far as potency and taste, quality of cartridge."
BHO is occasionally in the national news -- and due to unfortunate circumstances: Illegal, amateur hash makers sometimes cause explosions when, for instance, a spark accidentally ignites the butane. "Safety's always the number one priority," says Pettigrew. "It goes back to the values of our company: We treat our employees like family, and we'd never want anybody to be hurt, obviously."
Pettigrew's company follows codes and regulations laid down by state and local laws, and receives inspections by the Denver Fire Department. "One of the benefits of legalizing stuff is you get to regulate it properly -- and the [local fire departments], they're in every grow in the state, they're in every facility in the state, and they're some of the most knowledgeable people in the country when it comes to regulating this," he says. "They've figured out how to safely come up with guidelines that allow for the processing of BHO where the risk, I feel, is minimal. We trust their expertise. We, also, trust our own expertise."
Pettigrew, 43, moved from Michigan to Colorado in order to enter the cannabis business. "I had a car accident, and I had back pain issues, and I was always interested in the plant and the medical benefits of the plant," he says. Pettigrew calls Colorado "the premiere place to be in the world," in terms of its cannabis extraction industry.
Colorado isn't the only place in the world where Pettigrew has made an impression. Members of Jamaica's Cannabis Licensing Authority, who are tasked with implementing that country's own form of marijuana legalization, have visited Colorado and toured Viola Extracts' facility. As a result, Pettigrew was welcomed to drop in at the University of the West Indies, where research on cannabis is taking place in its lab facilities. "It was exciting to see the potential," says Pettigrew of his fact-finding trip.
Pettigrew has been cited as one of the few, yet growing number, of African Americans in the cannabis industry. He says of his company, "We value diversity," and adds, "I think one of the strengths of the plant is it brings a lot of diverse people together -- and I think it's historically done that. And, I think that, as a company, we believe that."
However, despite being a role model for some, Pettigrew is perfectly willing to let his BHO speak for itself: "We think the biggest spokesman for our product is our product."
Challenges: Pettigrew points to the newness of the industry. "There's no playbook book that is already written. You have to make a lot of decisions with a high amount of consequences," he says.
And there's a hefty amount of competition: "There's some really incredible companies out here. The competition is serious. That's one of the things I enjoy about being in Colorado: I feel like Colorado attracts the best and the brightest."
Needs: Continued determination and execution. "We're really plan-based, and it's really just to follow through with the plan we have in place and the discipline to function and operate day in and day out, every day, at a very, very high level," says Pettigrew. "It's challenging to create what we want to create: which is one of the best products on earth. And that takes commitment . . . and that takes work, it takes execution, and it takes a plan. So, I think our biggest need is to execute, you know, our vision."