Marijuana moguls in the Cowichan Valley

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Chris Clay is a marijuana celebrity. Behind the counter at his Mill Bay dispensary, Warmland Cannabis, he sells soothing remedies to customers looking for relief from arthritis to cancer symptoms. But the often grey-haired clients probably don’t realize that Clay is part of marijuana legal history in this country.

In 1995 after selling a pot plant seedling to an undercover police officer in his store, The Great Canadian Hemporium, he was charged with trafficking and related offences. “I was trying to push the boundaries,” said Clay.

Chris Clay

Chris Clay reminded the government of its planned drug policy change when he faced the Supreme Court

By 2003, the London, Ontario man had taken his case right to the Supreme Court, his legal team arguing that the ban on marijuana was unconstitutional. They lost that battle, but succeeded in pushing the issue so that today, Canada is undergoing a major legal shift, as it moves to legalize and regulate growers and sellers. The fight earned him lots of media attention as well. These days, he’s part of the business community; he opened his dispensary in August 2015, and later hosted a Christmas party at his premises for the local chamber of commerce.

Meanwhile, at Broken Coast, a North Cowichan marijuana production company, the business is far more low-profile.  There are no signs on the door of their location in an industrial park, and they don’t want their exact location disclosed for this story. But the place is easy to find online, and the small batch “boutique” approach to quality has attracted 1,600 mail-order clients so far – over 40 per cent in Ontario – after starting production in 2014. Their marketing plays on the public’s notion that ‘B.C. bud’ is the product to get, so the strains have names like Lasqueti, Thetis and Cortes.

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Broken Coast GM John Moeller next to the individual watering systems for each hydroponic crop

Broken Coast’s master grower Kevin Anderson left a career as an electronics engineer in the UK, disliking the sedentary nature of the profession. He jumped right into a job with the opposite attributes: backbreaking landscaping work. That inspired him to study arboriculture, and after moving to Canada, he was in the right place to join Broken Coast, armed with the perfect combination of technical and horticultural skills. He’s spent thousands of hours learning about hydroponics. “I get a kick out of trying to make sure the plants are perfect and how the small changes affect the end product. It’s a big long learning curve. You have to wait and see what happens,” he said.

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Marijuana ready to ship

At present, the industry sellers and growers face a conflicting jumble of rules at least until the Trudeau government finds a way to apply them fairly.  Growers under the 2001 Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR) are legally protected after the government wanted to get rid of their status and start again under the 2014 Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR). Broken Coast is one of the 27 Canadian producers under the new regulations.

“It’s a big legal mess right now,” said Clay. “At the moment all these people are holding expired licenses but they’re still valid. There’s a court order protecting them all.” Clay’s Cowichan Valley supplier is the House of the Great Gardener, which has been growing for the Vancouver Island Compassion Society for 15 years. “I just want to make sure these new regulations don’t sideline B.C.’s growers that have been in place for decades doing this. There should be room for both. Just like alcohol and craft breweries.”

Marijuana Dispensaries

The dispensaries are still technically illegal, and they are making the news as downtown districts everywhere try to regulate the arrival of drug-peddling storefront businesses.  In some cases, cities opt for an outright ban. For example, Duncan city council recently voted to ban any marijuana dispensaries from setting up storefront operations within city limits, joining a long list of Vancouver Island municipalities struggling with the same issue (note: there is a dispensary, Cowichan Valley Access Centre, on the outskirts of Duncan). In November Port Alberni voted to have staff develop zoning restrictions on pot shops. In the same month, Nanaimo RCMP issued warning letters and later search warrants to local dispensaries after complaints of aggressive street promotion and sales to minors. In Vancouver, the city charges a $30,000 license fee for dispensaries.

Inside the Broken Coast facility, the halls have the same stark white ambience as a pristine medical lab. The doors to each growing room can only stay open for a few seconds before triggering an alarm.

There is the mothering room with plants that are the result of months of hybridization experiments, then a room full of cloned plants, taken from cuttings of the mother plant. Each room has its own reservoir so that a different nutrient mix can be pumped to each hydroponic growing area depending on the strain.

Security is evident throughout the building: cameras are everywhere and identity cards must be swiped at every doorway. The shipper works in room with a bank vault door. After all, this is a lucrative business. Broken Coast grew and sold 650 kg of marijuana in the first year of operations, bringing in an estimated $3 million a year in gross revenue. Prices for the product range from $4.75 to $9.50 a gram. They are at capacity now, and there are expansion plans in the works.

The employees (there are 23) talk like corporate middle managers, discussing quality assurance and research and development. “R and D is important in any company, says Broken Coast general manager John Moeller, who has a computer science degree. “In our case it is developing new strains and new procedures to make us more efficient.” Right now they are testing different oil products. “There are very strict limits to how much you can have because people eat it and it takes so long to kick in when they eat it they tend to overdose when they consume it orally,” he said.

The company’s quality assurance manager Chris Stone said the requirements are almost identical to pharmaceutical industry where he used to work. There is lots of paperwork, documenting systems and processes. The difference is the reaction when he tells people where he works now. “There’s that immediate reaction of ‘Oh I thought you had a legitimate job,’” said Stone. The new heavily-regulated industry means the Health Canada inspectors come one a month and stay for a full week once a year.

Attitudes are changing as marijuana use becomes a legitimate option for ailments as well as a recreational drug. Many of the doctors in the area are willing to discuss it with their patients and adult children are recommending it for parents, says Clay who has about 300 customers. Better testing has created new strains that have higher cannabinoids (CBD) as active ingredients as well as THC.

“It was a novelty for her but her kids told her to come in,” he said of one 83-year-old woman who giggled at the thought of adding THC infused honey to her tea. “A lot of these people certainly wouldn’t want to order it through the mail. They need to talk to somebody. They want to tell their stories.”

A recent suggestion that B.C. sell marijuana in liquor stores is a terrible idea, says Clay. “A lot of people use cannabis to get off alcohol and other drugs,” he said. The compounding effect when taken together can be harmful, he said. “They amplify each other so it’s not a good idea having them side by side.”

As the regulatory climate changes from the Wild West free-for-all, that will mean lots of mundane managerial duties for companies entering the industry looking for solid return on their investments. But for now, it still has that romantic bootlegger cachet.  “People think it’s cool,” said Anderson. “But you have to tell them we’re not all walking around smoking weed and just hanging out. It’s not the stoner movie idea of growing marijuana. It’s very strict and regulated. I’ve got paperwork.”

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