The 2018 Cannabis Act transformed Canada into the financial and legal jurisdiction for cannabis entrepreneurs and investors looking to do business internationally. Today, Canadian weed companies have their eye on a massive prize: the lucrative medical and adult cannabis markets that are emerging around the world.
Much of the hype around corporate cannabis is linked to the acquisition of lands and smaller growing operations internationally. The selling point is that cannabis can be grown overseas and exported to meet demand in Canada (and eventually the US), but also that Canadian companies position themselves as suppliers in emerging local markets.
Legal bud is a new gold rush, and some of the practices of the corporate cannabis giants are reminiscent of the modus operandi that tarnished the reputation of Canadian mining companies abroad. Lobbying to impact national legislation, supporting criminalization of traditional producers, and moving into remote territories with plans to implement plantation style economies are just some of the critiqued practices of Canada’s emerging cannabis sector.
By far the biggest name in cannabis today is Ontario’s Canopy Growth, with operations in 14 countries and shares outstanding worth nearly $8 billion. Then comes Tilray, a pharmaceutical and cannabis company headquartered on Vancouver Island; Ontario’s Aphria, with operations in 10 countries; and Aurora Cannabis, with sales and production in 25 countries. There are dozens of smaller companies across Canada, many of which are start-ups looking to do big business on the legal cannabis boom.
Canadian cannabis companies are active in Europe, in Asia and Africa and especially in Latin America. Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Mexico have all passed medical marijuana laws, Uruguay fully legalized cannabis for adult and medical uses in 2012, and in other countries herb is effectively decriminalized.
Corporate Marijuana in Colombia
Hopes were high among traditional growers and peace activists in Colombia that regulation would open a path for those who had been criminalized for participation in the illicit cannabis economy to participate in a legal market. But the impact of Canadian companies on the marijuana market in Colombia has been nothing short of disastrous, according to Martin Jelsma, a researcher at the Transnational Institute, a think tank based in the Netherlands.
Colombia is among the most advanced jurisdictions in Latin America in terms of legislation and regulations pertaining to cannabis. Unfortunately, it’s also become a laboratory for what Canadian cannabis giants can get away with.
“In the early stage of the legislation and the licence decrees, there have indeed been attempts from the Canadian side, already in a very early stage, to try to get their foot in the door, even before the full details of the regulation were fully discussed and agreed upon in Congress,” Jelsma told Toward Freedom.
Canadian companies PharmaCielo and Cannavida were granted licenses to grow medical marijuana even before regulations connected to legalization were fully approved by Colombia’s congress. In Barichara, Colombia, where Cannavida has bought a 17 hectare plot, locals are concerned about water use and say they have been left out of decision making around what happens in their community.
Armed conflicts between state and non-state groups persist in many of the territories long used by small farmers, including in Indigenous communities, for marijuana growing. To get around the violence, Canadian companies are buying land in more secure areas with better infrastructure, and then contracting traditional cultivators to become day labourers on their new plantations. “When a Canadian company comes by and puts a contract on the table, in English, which has a huge figure on it, yeah, it’s difficult to not sign, and not sell out,” said Jelsma.
The future of legal, fair trade cannabis with participation by traditional growers and reparations for victims of drug war violence has dimmed considerably as Canadian companies have entered the fray. As of mid-August, an estimated $440 million has been invested in cannabis in Colombia; 85 percent of total investments came from Canadian companies.
“Those few initiatives that really came out of communities, especially the ones that had been affected seriously by the war, plus the national companies that started with the intention to contribute and saw this as a contribution to the implementation of the peace accords, all those initiatives basically have all been bought up by Canadian companies,” Jelsma said in an interview via Skype. “There’s hardly anything left.”
Caribbean Ganja, Past and Present
St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a mountainous Caribbean island archipelago with a population of 100,000, has become another unlikely battleground in the struggle to keep legal cannabis grassroots.
Writer and poet Phillip Nanton describes St. Vincent as an island divided by a spine of mountains, where “a giant could hop along this spine from one central volcanic peak to the next and so work his way along the length of the island from south to north.” Cannabis growers in St. Vincent, who have often worked forested, government owned land in the hills, represent an important (and organized) political constituency in the island nation. A conservative estimate pegs the number of people working in the cannabis industry at 2,500, the real figure is likely much higher.
Ganja has long carried a political (and spiritual) significance in the Caribbean. “The introduction of cannabis in St Vincent was more or less associated with the development of the Black Power movement, to the extent that some people used to call cannabis Black Power cigarettes,” said Junior Spirit Cottle, who has been active in social struggles on the island of St. Vincent for fifty years.
Cottle came up in the Black Power movement, and his voice is deep and raspy, a reminder of the bullet lodged in his throat after he was shot by police following a manhunt in 1973. In a politicized trial, Cottle was convicted of murdering St. Vincent’s Attorney General (the conviction was later overturned). He was then re-arrested for shooting at a police officer, and served 11.5 years in prison. Upon his release in 1984, Cottle began supporting people from his community, including his own family members, in defense of the right to grow and sell cannabis.
After the collapse of St. Vincent’s banana industry as World Trade Organization rules went into effect in the 1990s, it was cannabis that became a key source of income for families left without a livelihood. Similarly in Jamaica, mass displacement connected to the introduction of bauxite mining (Canada’s Alcan had a hand in this) pushed people into growing cannabis.
“There weren’t any legal opportunities, so a lot of people who had agricultural skills, and there was land available, ended up planting ganja because there’s a local market and there’s a regional market,” said Kevin Edmonds, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto who researches cannabis cultivation in St. Vincent. “People took it upon themselves, like it was a form of survival, because you know your family might have been banana farming but now they can’t do it, and overnight you’re kind of stuck.”
Medical cannabis laws in St. Vincent include minimum thresholds for participation in the legal market by traditional growers. Organizations of traditional growers were involved in the legalization process, and today Cottle is a liaison officer between traditional cultivators and authorities.
The strides made by Cottle and others to ensure traditional growers a share of the legal cannabis market are crucially important, but they are not a guarantee that the market will be equitable. By comparison, critics say that in Jamaica, traditional cultivators and Rastafarians have largely been excluded from the legal cannabis market.
Edmonds cautions that cannabis produced in the Caribbean will mostly be destined for refining into oils for export to Canadian (and eventually US) markets. “Local people don’t have access to the refining, that belongs to the Canadians, the Americans and the British, so again you’re seeing this problematic kind of setup of the economy where the Caribbean is providing the raw materials and cheap labour, and they’re not really benefiting from legalization in that sense,” said Edmonds.
A 2018 report on marijuana by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) confirms Edmond’s warning: “The region must be proactive to ensure that economic benefit from cannabis is not restricted to raw products only, while developed countries outside of CARICOM use our raw products to create sophisticated by-products with huge commercial value. This has been the historical paradigm with regard to prized natural substances in the Caribbean, such as cocoa, sugar and coconut.” The report goes on to note that this “process has already started, with large Canadian and other firms lobbying for stakes in the Caribbean market.”
If we use Canadian mining companies in Latin America as a lens through which to understand corporate Canadian cannabis, one thing is clear: the bad behavior begins at home. Canadian mining companies set up shop on Indigenous lands from coast to coast, ignoring treaties, rights and title, and their duty to consult. In their wake, they leave polluted lands, poisoned waterways and thousands of abandoned mines. Profits accrue to executives in Toronto and New York.
With regards to weed, in the lead up to legalization, Black and Indigenous men in Canada were overrepresented in terms of arrests for possession. Following the passage of the Cannabis Act, “even a surface-level analysis of the rapidly growing cannabis industry in Canada reveals a troubling trend: The profits and wealth being generated are overwhelmingly landing in the pockets of white Canadians,” wrote Vancouver based researcher and scholar Chuka Ejeckam in a column in The Globe and Mail.
In April, an Indigenous man in Winnipeg, Canada, was arrested for possession of three ounces of marijuana and sentenced to 10 months. Legalization in Canada went ahead without proper consultation with First Nations around regulation and taxation.
In fact, the criminalization of growers and distributors of cannabis who are not integrated into the legal market is a fundamental part of the business model of Canadian cannabis giants. In its 2019 Annual Report, British Columbia based Tilray stated that “any inability or unwillingness of law enforcement authorities to enforce laws prohibiting the unlicensed cultivation and sale of cannabis and cannabis-based products” could adversely impact their business.
“At the moment, the great possibility is that the very people who used to fight against ganja, cannabis, and who used to help send Rasta and other people to prison for herb, they will be the ones who are gonna come and control the industry,” Ras Iyah V, a Rastafarian advocate and chairman of Jamaica’s Westmoreland Hemp and Ganja Farmers’ Association, told INI Roots n Culture TV.
Outspoken anti-drugs crusaders of all stripes, including police, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and former prosecutors have hopped on the marijuana money train, becoming directors and executives at corporate cannabis companies. In 2015, then Toronto police chief Julian Fantino supported mandatory jail time for cannabis possession, today he’s chairman of the board of Alefia Health. Former Ontario Premier Ernie Eves is now the chairman of ex-Crown Attorney Courtney Betty’s company Timeless Herbal Care, which is active in Accompong, Jamaica.
As if wanting for irony, the Vice-President of Compliance of Toronto’s Khiron Life Sciences company used to work as a DEA career special agent. Khiron’s focus is Colombia, a country where the majority of the population suffered decades of state terror linked to militarized prohibition.
In St. Vincent, a 2018 Amnesty Law encouraged traditional cultivators to sell their existing cannabis crops into the legal economy. Those who do not participate in the amnesty will continue to face harsh criminal penalties for illicit cultivation. “There’s gonna be people that are collateral damage so [the government of St. Vincent] can say to the US, they can say to Canada, they can say to investors ‘you have a safe place to do business, because we’re looking out for you’,” said Edmonds.
The US, which has yet to legalize on a national scale, is another key target market for Canadian cannabis. Canopy made inroads into the US market through a $3.4 billion agreement with a company called Acreage, which owns 87 dispensaries and 22 weed farms and processing facilities across 20 states. As soon as cannabis becomes legal nation-wide in the US, Canopy will take ownership of Acreage, giving them a head start to becoming the biggest weed growers and dealers in the world’s largest market.
Since legalization in Colorado in 2014, state-by-state regulation has seen Black and Indigenous folks and people of color continue to face harsher penalties that white people for marijuana possession, all while being sidelined in the legal industry. “The only way for black and brown small business people to enter is if you can partner with a large funded white business—and that’s fucked up,” Amber Senter, cofounder of Supernova Women, told Vice Magazine last year.
Canopy Growth has been open about their desire to re-make the world in their image. “This is a business with a cause and we are going to change the world, country by country,” said Hilary Black, Canopy’s Chief Advocacy Officer, in a promotional video. “The kinds of activism that created the success and freedom that we have here in Canada, we have to export that around the world now.” It remains unclear what kind of success and freedom Black is referring to, given the above mentioned context of racist policing and exclusive policies. Black did not respond to a request for comment.
Between Biotech, Big Pharma and Industrial Agriculture
Policing isn’t the only aspect of the future of legal cannabis that deserves scrutiny.
Within Canada, big cannabis companies have set up research and development campuses and labs and converted greenhouses to produce marijuana and carry out clinical trials. Canopy Growth, Aphria, and other companies have explored hiring or have hired employees in their Canadian greenhouses under the Temporary Foreign Worker program.
Chris Ramsaroop, a longtime organizer with Justicia for Migrant Workers in Ontario, has noted that cannabis growing is highly surveilled in greenhouses as well as in worker housing. “Cannabis workers have raised occupational health and safety concerns while working in the greenhouse that needs to be addressed through strengthening regulations to protect all farm workers across the industry,” Ramsaroop told Toward Freedom via WhatsApp voice message.
In some ways, cannabis companies in Canada are acting like biotech firms. Canopy already has 110 patents, and more than 290 patent applications. Their Intellectual Property (IP) strategy includes patents connected to vaping technology, to marijuana cultivation and processing technology, as well as to plant genetics.
Canopy CEO Mark Zukelin stated last month that “the IP moat around our business” is one of the company’s greatest competitive advantages. An IP moat “basically means putting together a portfolio of intellectual property protection around the core business,” according to Dr. Tania Bubela, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. This can include patents, trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, as well as data protection that would prevent other companies from piggybacking on regulatory filings so as to offer generic versions of the same. “The way that patents are most used is as a business strategy… It’s a signalling mechanism to attract venture capital,” said Dr. Bubela in a phone interview with Toward Freedom.
Canopy and Tilray have already entered into agreements with some of the world’s largest beverage companies. Proprietary THC and CBD infused beverages, brought to you by the same mega corporations that sell beer and booze, are a key part of the future big cannabis has in mind.
Last year, Tilray inked an agreement with Canada’s Labatt Breweries for research into non-alcoholic cannabis beverages. And Constellation Brands, a Fortune 500 company that produces and markets spirits and beer (including Corona brands, US and international wines, tequila and brandy) recently invested over $5 billion in Canopy. Canopy’s co-CEO and founder Bruce Linton was forced out after the Constellation agreement, and Zekulin will step down once a new CEO is found.
Canopy’s new CEO will presumably be to Constellation’s liking, as the US beverage company now holds four of seven seats on Canopy’s board of directors. Constellation is far from a neutral actor in Latin America. The company became the target of activists in the Mexican border city of Mexicali due to its plans to set up a water hungry brewery in the desert area.
One thing is for sure: there is a lot of hype. During Canopy’s Annual General Meeting in Toronto last month, outgoing CEO Zekulin called the global cannabis market “a multi-hundred billion dollar opportunity, across CBD, medical, recreational, animal and all these different areas, and its developing around the world.” But analysts and activists alike are warning that such estimates are exaggerated, in other words, that there’s a bud-bubble.
“There’s a bubble, licenses that cost $30,000 to buy are being sold for $1,000,000 or $1,100,000 with lands for planting,” said Julián Quintero, a researcher at Corporación Acción Técnica Social, a Colombian non-profit focused on harm reduction. “We’re all waiting for the bubble to pop, you could say there’s like a tense kind of calm in the air, there’s a lot of money that’s been invested, and lots of projections about what’s to come, and a lot of competition and posturing in the media around things that have yet to happen.”
Regulation for Peace
In Mexico, corporate players have organized into a Chamber of Industrial Cannabis, and ex-President Vicente Fox sits on the board of Toronto’s Khiron. Though it is clear that big cannabis has their own plans for the way pot is cultivated, bought and ingested, there’s still reason for hope.
A growing coalition in Mexico called #RegulaciónPorLaPaz, or #RegulationForPeace, aims to ensure the participation of traditional growers and ensure a part of the profits from a regulated adult market are destined to victims of drug war violence.
Among those bravely participating in a wealth of small-scale medical cannabis operations already active in México is Yolotl Villanueva, a therapist and herbalist from the Mexican state of Morelos. Villanueva described being talked down to by a man in a white doctor’s smock at a corporate cannabis symposium in Mexico City as something she’s come up against time and again.
“The symposium was an elite space that was classist and racist,” said Villanueva in an interview with Toward Freedom. “Even though I have treated many patients with cannabis therapy, there was obvious disdain for my community-focused work.” Villanueva, who identifies as Afro-Mexican, said she will continue to participate in regulation efforts that center traditional growers and community uses of the herb. “Our project is about the integrity of life, not just about the marijuana plant.”
As the #RegulaciónPorLaPaz coalition pushes for the regulation of cannabis for adult use within a social justice framework, activists in Colombia continue to work to protect the right of traditional growers in an increasingly hostile political climate. And an upcoming conference in St. Vincent aims to bring together traditional cultivators from Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Antigua to coordinate a regional approach to foreign investment.
“There are some big companies that act something like vultures, there are some big companies that over exploit,” said Cottle from St. Vincent. He’s hoping his experience as an advocate will help make sure regulated cannabis includes traditional cultivators, while keeping the vultures at bay.
Dawn Marie Paley is a journalist and author of Drug War Capitalism.