Working in total darkness, Thaddeus Conrad carefully feels his way up a nearly vertical set of stairs before switching on a single green light.
The bulb casts a weak, eerie glow, revealing a room packed with heavily budded marijuana plants.
But don’t jump to the wrong conclusion. There’s nothing clandestine about the hazy light. Pure and simple, this is great crop science at work.
“I like to keep them in total darkness the last three days,” Conrad says, speaking over the hum of numerous fans. “It brings out those trichomes.”
President and CEO of the Med-Man Brand, which he describes as a “weed-seed-feed” company, Conrad is philosophical when it comes to marijuana’s medicinal properties, but fastidious and technical when it comes to agronomic practices.
Inside a nondescript cluster of buildings south of Steinbach, about an hour southeast of Winnipeg, Conrad carefully measures nutrients, conserves moisture, monitors temperature and controls light at each stage of plant development.
His horticultural expertise has been hard won, and now, as Canada prepares for the legalization of recreational cannabis — the newly dignified term bestowed on pot, weed, Ganja and Mary-Jane — his skills are in high demand.
The federal government introduced the Cannabis Act in April, which stipulates that legalization occur sometime before July 1, 2018. With it comes a deluge of interest from investors and startups looking to cash in on a market estimated by some at more than $22 billion.
As of May 25, Health Canada had received 1,665 applications to become licensed producers of cannabis for medical purposes. Of those, 265 have been refused, 69 withdrawn and 858 deemed incomplete. Still, 45 licenses have been issued, and about 30 are actively producing cannabis.
Partly, the low approval rate is because, although many people have brought cash and business acumen to the table, few have stepped forward with the agricultural expertise needed to consistently produce high-quality cannabis.
“I think the biggest thing is that we have seen some people become licensed producers that don’t have the agronomic background to grow on a commercial level,” says Dan Clarke, executive vice-president of business development and agronomy at A&L Canada Laboratories. “They had to learn really quickly, and they made expensive mistakes… the agronomy always has to come first or you are just not going to have a quality product.”
Clarke grew up on a cow-calf operation in Ontario before studying agronomy, first working with medical opium in Australia before moving on to medical cannabis, a plant he says has been underestimated in terms of production challenges.
“Some of these licensed producers, some of the initial ones, came into it and thought, well, marijuana is a weed, you can grow it anywhere,” he says. “And that statement is true, but we’re trying to grow a high-yielding, high-quality, safe product and there are certainly agronomic things that need to be looked after.”
Primarily, says Clarke, “Medical cannabis is no different than growing canola or cherries or corn or alfalfa. At certain growth stages it has certain requirements for nutrition and we have to make sure we are meeting those requirements.”
Back in southern Manitoba, Conrad blames police forces for spreading the idea that potent cannabis can be easily produced by lazy and itinerant criminals.
“The establishment has tried its best to shame marijuana users and marijuana producers, and a part of that shame is convincing the general public… that you plant seeds and you go on vacation to Jamaica for three months and then you come back and you collect a million dollars,” says Conrad, who is permitted to produce medical marijuana for himself and three others.
“What police and RCMP have always told me is, ‘You’re taking the easiest way out’ and you know what the biggest irony of those ignorant statements is? It’s that I have lived the hardest life of anyone I know… I’ve endured beatings from police, I’ve endured jail, I’ve endured petty court cases.”
Reaching into a warmly lit growth room to turn down speakers playing classical music, Conrad adds that in some cases there is also a reluctance on the part of licensed producers to hire growers who honed their skills in the black market.
“These corporate bigwigs aren’t hiring the right people,” he says. “They don’t want experienced people.”
Already, production issues have led to marijuana recalls in Canada. Random testing by Health Canada at Hydropothecary Corp’s facility in Gatineau, Que., this spring found leaf samples that tested positive for myclobutanil, a mildew-killing agent that becomes hydrogen cyanide when exposed to heat.
Other licensed producers have issued similar recalls in recent months, including Aurora Cannabis, Organigram Inc. and Mettrum Ltd.
“You can see that as an industry we are very young and infantile,” says Cole Cacciavillani, co-founder of Ontario-based Aphria.
The industry, he says, has been sending out messages that legally produced cannabis is healthy, and much better quality than what you can buy on the street. “We haven’t been able to make that claim without getting ourselves into trouble,” complains Cacciavillani. “We have to get there, we have to be able to tell consumers we are there.”
With 30 years of experience in the greenhouse industry, Cacciavillani says Aphria is probably the “only truly agricultural player” in North American cannabis. So it’s no surprise that Cacciavillani is critical of the federal government’s decision to leave Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada on the sidelines as legalization approaches.
Leaving the regulation of crop production entirely in the hands of Health Canada, he says, has contributed to more hurdles for marijuana producers.
“In all fairness to Health Canada, I don’t think they realized the whole scope and dynamics, and the geography, and how this whole thing really works,” Cacciavillani says. “When you actually start to get down here and you manage it, and you really have to start to ramp up production, that is where some of these issues are.”
Luc Duchesne, the chief science officer at WeedMD Rx disagrees on that point, at least in part. While he accepts that Health Canada has a steep learning curve ahead, the biochemist says the agency is a better choice for the regulatory tasks ahead than other government agencies.
“There is a need to educate the regulator about the biology of the plant, but it’s not a deficit… we can all collectively get a better understanding of the biology of this crazy creature that is cannabis,” says Duchesne. “Growing cannabis is really hard, it’s complicated.”
Cannabis, he says, “is a living organism that has all kinds of peculiarities that makes things very, very complicated for anyone trying to do it.”
Supreme Pharmaceuticals, which operates a federally licensed cannabis production subsidiary called 7ACRES in Kincardine, Ont., hired Conrad to get its production system up and running.
“It is an honour to have him,” Supreme’s executive vice-president Brayden Sutton told the Financial Press at the time. “He brings with him decades of practical experience, as well as a large and loyal patient following.”
Other Canadian cannabis companies have similarly turned to private consultants in an attempt to manage production issues and build agricultural expertise. Meanwhile, however, conventional farmers have remained on the sidelines as the country moves towards legalization.
“There are some other agricultural guys now looking at this space and trying to decide to get in, but capital becomes an issue,” says Cacciavillani.
Clarke agrees that capital costs are a barrier for conventional grain or livestock producers interested in diversifying with cannabis, but notes that stringent regulation is also a drawback — not to mention costs associated with security. Still, he says some farmers are tire-kicking the idea, particularly if they have surplus buildings or are in an industry with transferable infrastructure, such as greenhouse production.
“The other thing is, and this has nothing to do with crop production or anything, but some people just have a moral issue with it and that becomes a bit of a challenge as well,” Clarke adds.
Others think the technical aspects of cannabis production could be why conventional farmers are steering clear of the emerging crop.
“This is still very specialized agriculture. And part of the problem, what makes it so specialized, is the regulatory framework that you’re bound to carry with you,” Cacciavillani says.
“Even I found it quite overwhelming,” he says. “We brought in people from the pharmaceutical world to deal with the regulatory side of it.”
Concerns about monoculture have been raised by the cannabis community as large players prepare for legalization, but Conrad and others believe once the groundwork is laid, craft and specialty growers will find a home in the market. These niche markets could be more enticing to farmers looking to diversify as well, says Clarke.
Still, many questions remain about how legalization will work. While the expectation is that the medical cannabis producers of today will be the recreational producers of tomorrow, exactly how that transition will occur is yet to be determined.
What is clear, though, is that today’s legal growers won’t be able to meet consumer demand.
“One of things we’ve learned collectively as licensed producers is that each facility has its quirks, and to be able to produce the best quality cannabis at high yields, it takes a little bit of time to get there,” says Cam Battley of Aurora, which operates a production facility roughly the size of 16 football fields at Edmonton’s international airport.
At full capacity, Aurora will be able to produce 100,000 kilograms of marijuana each year — just a fraction of the 800,000 kilograms of the annual demand Battley anticipates following legalization.
“The volumes that we’re going to need to supply… they are incredible and we cannot grow those volumes in isolation wearing loud shirts and playing loud music. That’s not going to cut it,” says Cacciavillani.
Still, Cacciavillani sees smaller players entering the market in the coming years.
One of the big questions, however, is how many small-scale producers will be allowed to go after a slice of the action.
Battley speculates Health Canada will limit the number of growers at some point. “I would imagine that they are looking for a system that they are capable of regulating, and to me that means, not thousands of producers, but a manageable number,” he says.
For its part, Health Canada declined to be interviewed for this story.
As if existing production challenges weren’t heady enough, Cacciavillani sees fresh challenges on the horizon. For decades, cannabis strains or varieties have been bred for increased levels of tetrahydrocannabinol — better know as THC — or for specific cannabinoids like cannabidiol. Black market breeders have not necessarily focused on developing disease resistance, although even if they had it might be moot. Legally obtaining genetic material takes businesses down a winding, shifting path with limited choice.
Initially only one strain of cannabis was on offer from the Canadian government —developed from seeds seized by law enforcement, according to many in the industry.
Today, many cannabis strains have worked their way into the medical market one way or another, giving licensed producers new options. Still, there is concern about the process of legitimizing black market genetics.
Cacciavillani suggests another solution to the problem, one so far removed from the philosophy of many growers and consumers it drew an audible gasp from the crowd when he mentions it at a Cannabis Canada forum held in downtown Winnipeg earlier this year.
“The Monsantos of the world, the Syngentas of the world need to be involved,” Cacciavillani says, adding biotechnology is the only route to managing pests and disease without relying solely on pesticides. It’s a contentious issue, with some at the forum immediately voicing their opposition to what was dubbed “Roundup ready cannabis” by attendees.
“We’re going to have stuff hit us,” Cacciavillani responds. “One of the problems we’re going to have is that these places are continually producing and we’re going to start to introduce disease, and then we’re going to start to have mutations of diseases that we haven’t even seen yet, and we’re going to need help when that happens.”
Stepping out of his grow rooms, past some small Health Canada signs and into the soft afternoon light of summer, Conrad says he respects all the work and business skills cannabis startups have brought with them, but stresses that producing marijuana takes more than investment dollars.
“Where they fall short is they don’t have the farmer mentality. They have a corporate, capitalistic mentality,” he says. “If you talk to any farmer… you will actually notice how different their mentalities are.”
In some ways, Conrad doesn’t see himself as a grower at all, but rather as an environmental balancer. “The plants are doing the growing,” he says, adding that in time the cannabis market will also find balances of production versus quality, large-scale versus niche, and medical versus recreational.
And amid all the questions, Conrad hopes Canadians take a moment to step back and look at the big picture.
“People need to realize that the prohibition of cannabis had nothing to do with the plant and everything to do with infringing on our human rights. It’s not a plant or substance issue but a human rights and human freedoms issue,” he says, adding, “Anything that is good for human rights is good for our economy and it’s good for jobs and it’s good for everything.”