Industry News - Dec 03, 2018

Switching sides, but not selling out: Why cannabis professionals are moving to the legal industry

As the Canadian government cracks down on the black market, entrants to the legal cannabis industry are playing by the rules to stay in the game.

Case in point: Jonathan Hirsh.

Post-legalization, Hirsh knew that being a cannabis influencer was not going to be legal. Founder of weedstagram416 and nominated for two Canadian Cannabis Awards (influencer and cannabis crusader) by Lift & Co. this year, he began posting his content on social media more than a year ago.

“I started off trying out strains from different licensed producers in Canada,” says Hirsh, whose Instagram page has 10.8k-plus followers. “As I was trying them out, I realized I was in an interesting position—I had been a medical patient and recreational user for over 14 years and I had a lot more information than most people.”

But when legalization came into play, Hirsh realized how tricky being a social media influencer was going to be, especially since his social feed also contained sponsored content. “After reading the Cannabis Act, I realized three things that were not in my favour as an influencer. The act states you can only post in an age-gated community, where the audience is of legal age—but merely clicking that you are over 19 is not a fool-proof way to ensure you are posting in an age-gated community, especially on social media; all cannabis-related communications must be conducted one-on-one in individual’s names—which means it must be in an email or a letter and must be directed to the individual; and you can’t post on foreign media with the intent of it coming back to Canada,” he explains.

Based on the act’s fine print, at the stroke of midnight on Oct. 17, Hirsh put up his last post. “I don’t want to go to jail for posting about a joint. I want to play by the rules so that I can play as long as possible,” he says.

Hirsh is now a cannabis educator and CEO of The Education Station, a Toronto-based company that reports it is dedicated to educating “first-time and longstanding cannabis users in safe use, cultivation, extraction and edible-making.” “With absolutely zero digital presence, we are developing an age-gated community in Canada,” says Hirsh, whose first event with the company was in October at the Cannabis Living Expo in Toronto.

Hirsh’s story is just the tip of the iceberg for an industry packed with celebrated names who have similarly transitioned from the grey or black market in the past—Pete Young, master grower and partner at INDIVA, a licensed medical-grade cannabis producer, and Kenneth Suydam, head of cultivation and cannabis technology at Maple Leaf Green World Inc., a Canadian medical cannabis company, for example.

While Young, who founded the London, Ont.-based London Compassion Society in the mid-1990s, admits to receiving flak for switching sides, he says he believes that to make a difference, a person needs to be involved with the system. “People like myself, and Hilary Black—who was with Bedrocan and is now director of patient education and advocacy with Canopy—we did take a bit of hit because people thought we were selling out. But our idea is that if you want to make a difference, you have to be on the other side with the LPs, and get them to do things the right way,” says Young.

While many people from the cannabis movement are upset with big industries monopolizing the space and weeding out the small players, he suggests the sentiment, to a certain extent, is misguided. “The backlash is coming not so much from the medical community,” but from dispensaries, as Young cites. “That being said, there are good, compassionate-based dispensaries, but they are, unfortunately, few,” he says.

“It seems like dispensaries in Toronto are selling their grams for $12. That’s insulting; there’s no reason to sell a gram for $12, it only costs $600 to $700 to produce a pound. At London Compassion Society, where I am part of the Board of Directors, a gram is sold for $2.50 and the top of the line is $7. So for dispensaries to say that people like us are on the wrong side, well, if they put their prices at $5, I will support them,” he contends.

As the legal space grows rapidly, organizations such as NORML Canada are ready to help people make a swift transition. The non-profit group has been advocating for reforming cannabis laws since 1978 and aims to break the stigma associated with cannabis use by informing and educating.

“We believe the cannabis space is large enough, and best served with private businesses of all sizes, in addition to big corporations to co-exist and thrive together. To this extent, we advocate for practical policies that provide pathways for grey market individuals/businesses to transition into the legal framework, “says Andy Lee, communications director at NORML Canada. “A diverse cannabis sector will, ultimately, provide the most innovation, establish high-quality products and a better experience for consumers,” Lee argues.

Encouragement is also strong from people within the industry. “What it comes down to is what you want to do,” says Young. “Do you want to sit here and exploit the sick, or do you want to be a part of the movement moving forward? If you have the ability to get a retail license or a craft grow, all the power to you, I would support such entrepreneurs 100 percent,” he adds.

Young’s advice for those looking to transition: look for organizations that share the same vision. “When I met the original applicant, that then turned into INDIVA, they had all the right answers for me—they believed there is money to be made here and that it can be made for ethical and moral reasons,” he says.

Standing by that philosophy, INDIVA recently launched its “we are for twenty” campaign. “We are going to give 20 cents from every gram that we sell, whether it be from dried flower and oil, to health and mental health initiatives across Canada. We are showing that INDIVA is just not here to make money or appease our directors and investors, but we are here to appease our community, too.”

This article was originally published by The GrowthOp.

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