Lift & Co. kicked off its annual cannabis conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre yesterday (January 10). The Toronto-based media and technology company organizes events across Canada showcasing popular and up-and-coming weed professionals and their businesses.
The expo, which highlights over 200 exhibitors from around the world, is considered to be one of the largest of its kind in Canada, playing host to thousands of curious consumers and investors.
As a result of the country’s latest legislative shifts around cannabis, Health Canada placed stringent limits on advertising and branding weed products, making these education and brand activation opportunities increasingly important to the fledgling legal industry.
The weekend-long expo launched with its fourth annual Lift & Co. Business Conference (LCBC)—an industry-focused day of expert panels and forward-looking presentations.
One of the more popular segments, featured for the second year in a row, is called “Big Ideas”. The talk presents five sector leaders who weigh in on what they think the industry needs to focus on over the next year. From addressing regulatory issues to tackling the gender bias, each speaker had five-minutes to shine a spotlight on a growth opportunity for Canada’s rapidly growing cash crop.
Dr. Jonathan Page led the presentations with a call for more scientific exploration into the plant’s molecular composition. He asks the question: if cannabis is already considered a breeding success story, do researchers still need to strive for genetic improvement?
“The answer is yes,” he says.
Page is the co-founder and former ceo of Anandia Labs, one of Canada's leading independent cannabis analytics, testing, and genetics research facilities. The company was acquired by licensed producer Aurora Cannabis last summer, where Page is now the chief science officer.
“Cannabis is a breeding success story in the sense that THC and CBC levels are now over 20 percent. It is high-yielding. It grows remarkably well in indoor environments, greenhouses, and outdoor environments,” he says. “It’s the foundation of an agricultural success story in Canada and globally, unlike any other plant.”
Page, who is an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia and has a PhD in botany, co-led the Canadian team that reported the first sequence of the cannabis genome in 2010.
“But cannabis has problems, as well,” he says. “We’re not there yet.”
Page notes that the industry in 2018 saw a number of advances in genomic studies, including a spike in researchers dedicated to cannabis. Much like any other agricultural crop, however, there are a number of things weed still does poorly.
“It’s infected with fungal pathogens, like powdery mildew and bud rot…it’s susceptible to pests, things like thrips and mites,” says Page, listing a number of issues plaguing growers today. He adds the plant’s strict lighting requirements and lack of genetic uniformity means cannabis is not yet optimized for large-scale agriculture.
How can the cannabis industry solve those problems?
“The solution is science,” he says. “I’m not saying the breeding efforts that have gotten us high-yielding, high-potency cultivars that are now commercially available and the backbone of this billion-dollar industry are failures. But more science is needed to fix these problems.”
While a market brimming with elite, diseases-resistant cultivars boasting optimized cannabinoid and terpene content and high-yield crops seems like a grower’s day-dream, Page believes it’s a plausible reality—and genomic sequencing is the way forward.
“We’re at the dawn of a new era of cannabis science…it’s a really exiting time to be a scientist.”
Equitable economic opportunity
“We have to be dedicated to building this industry in the right way,” says Shanita Penny, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), as she called out discrimination she both witnessed and experienced firsthand.
Originally from the United States, Penny started a cannabis consulting firm, Budding Solutions, five years ago to help educate and bring new entrepreneurs in the industry.
Penny says she first saw the industry's lack of diversity while working with her first clients as a management consultant—applicants for limited licences in the state of Maryland.
“The thing to know about Maryland is that one-third of the population is black, three of the wealthiest counties in the U.S. for black people are in Maryland,” she says. “We had great resources, great talent, I thought there was no way my clients wouldn't win a licence.”
At the time, the state had 25 licences to divide amongst hundreds of applicants. When the process was complete, no minority growers or processors had successfully completed the application, including Penny's clients
She then went on to work in Pennsylvania where she worked closely with legislators to ensure future licensing systems take into account ethnicity and other elements of diversity, like gender and disability.
It was in Pennsylvania Penny came face-to-face with tokenism that exist in the cannabis industry. She was hired by a company she was worked with to develop a diversity action plan, only to see the owners ignore the goals once they won their licence.
“They hired me, and I was their token. I was a black woman and it helped them win a licence,” she says.
As a result, Penny has since refocused her work on holding licensees accountable to their diversity and community outreach goals.
“If you’re planning to expand into the U.S., you should prepare yourself to work with economic empowerment applicants, as well as social equity applicants,” she says.
“The bottom line is that we are now carving out a lane for folks that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs and have had significant barriers.”
Penny believes the focus needs to be on pressing local governments to hold large corporations accountable to promoting equity within the sector.
“Equitable economic opportunities are important because what they do is revive communities that are distressed. The war on drugs did a lot of that work,” she says. “This multibillion dollar industry presents an opportunity to pour back into those communities.”
In most industries, companies risks loosing contracts and incurring fines if they don't meet promised diversity goals and equity standards. Penny believes this attitude needs to be adopted by the cannabis sector in Canada, as well.
“Finding a black person or a woman to add value to your company without providing them a voice or vote, it’s not going to work,” she says. “If you’ve seen any of the research on diversity in business, inclusion does affect the bottomline.”
Female consumers and gender bias
As an outspoken advocate for female consumers and entrepreneurs, April Pride is no stranger to explaining how weed works differently for ladies—and that’s exactly what she says needs to stay at the forefront of the cannabis conversation.
Pride is the founder of Van der Pop, a leading weed accessory brand and educational platform tailored to a feminine consumer. The company launched 2016 but was acquired in 2018 by Hiku Brands, which in-turn was bought by Canopy Growth Corporation. While the brand is not exclusive to women, it caters to an emerging market of weed-lovers who don't see their identity reflected in the preexisting subculture.
But it’s not all about the pink rolling papers and lipstick-print grind cards, Pride suggests. Women need representation at the highest level of the industry.
“It’s no surprise we’re different creatures,” she says. “Women are more connected, men are good at focus-driven tasks. Women want to analyze, while men want to take action. Women are looking to be educated, and men are looking for efficiency.”
Understanding the contrast between genders when it comes to purchasing habits, she believes, is going to dictate a company's ability to find and retain consumers in the cannabis space.
A growing body of research also shows that the plant interacts differently with male versus female physiology, and Pride believes the industry needs to take notes if they wish to grow their margins and create customer loyalty.
“Women are very quickly the fastest growing segment of cannabis consumers. You need to consider what they are looking for in a brand and in products,” she says.
“Unfortunately, we’re beginning to see this industry exhibit patterns we've see in other industries relating to gender bias.”
She says trends in employer recruitment, talent retention, research, and revenue streams point to a lack of attention or concern for the female weed experience.
“In the U.S., there are 26 drugs approved for improving men’s sexual health, and one for women,” she says. “That is simply because men are making those decisions and no one is asking women.”
Recently, California passed a senate bill mandating all publicly traded companies have equal representation of gender on corporate boards by 2021.
“That is going to put California at a unique market advantage,” Pride says. “Here in Canada, we can start doing the same by appointing women to boards.”
Consumption lounges and lifestyle brands
Under the new legislation, smoke lounges are illegal, sampling is not permitted in retail stores, and landlords can effectively kick tenants out for smoking weed in rental properties. Jeremy Jacob, co-founder of the local dispensary Village Bloomery and president of the Association of Canadian Cannabis Retailers (ACCRES), says the lack of consumption sites is one of the biggest barriers facing consumers today.
“The number one recreation substance in the world is alcohol. Here in B.C., you can go to over 900 liquor stores to purchase it. You can go to over another 10,000 sites to purchase and consume it,” he says. If the residents and tourists of B.C. look for a place to consume legal weed, however, they’ll be hard-pressed to find even one.
“The new regs, essentially, list private residences as the only legal place to consume cannabis,” he says, adding that the new bylaws disproportionately affect individuals smoking or vaping for therapeutic purposes.
“For patients who are often unable to consume cannabis where they're housed, consuming together creates opportunities to gain a positive human interaction.”
Jacob points to another reason to legalize on-site consumption—one that’s traditionally ignored in conversations around the licensing oversight. Social sharing is a large part of the traditional ritual and allure of consuming cannabis. (Think about it. Everyone knows the two golden rules in a smoke circle: pass the dutchie to the left and don't Bogart the joint.)
“Peace, joy, calm, laughter, creativity, and innovation—these are all some of the things that happen when people get together and consume cannabis,” he says.
“It has been present at every major social event from your high school graduation ceremony to now.”
In light of federal legalization, consumer’s face greater barriers now around consumption then they did pre-legalization. The new provincial framework not only excludes lounges and cafes, but prevents Canadians from consuming in places like social housing, public sidewalks, and city parks.
“In Canada, we have a clean sheet opportunity to create a new segment in this market,” he says. “Rules for these sites should ideally allow for a revenue stream to makes the business liable.”
Jacob points to Alaska where they have introduced a system that allows for dispensaries to have on-site consumption lounges and sell up to one gram of flower, or up to 10 milligrams in infused-edibles, for on-site consumption.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” he says.
Jacob urged the industry to push local governments to revisit strict proximity rules, which render things like smoking while close to community hubs illegal, and create a class of licences allowing different businesses to facilitate consumption.
“For legalization to be fair and complete, I’m saying cannabis consumption sites need to be incorporated into the legal framework,” he says.
Despite the plant's legal status in Canada, cannabis consumption and product display is not allowed in the Vancouver Convention Centre, where the Lift & Co. conference is being held this weekend.
Transforming the retail experience
The final presentation touched on the ever-transforming brick-and-mortar retail experience. Matt Ryan is the vice president of marketing for National Access Cannabis, a Canada-wide network of care centres and pharmacies providing access to legal cannabis. Through its Canada-wide network of medical cannabis clinics, partner pharmacies, the association is responsible for 20 stores: six in Manitoba and 14 in Alberta.
Ryan’s call to action was aimed specifically at retailers, urging them to prepare for the upcoming local and global onslaught of consumers looking to purchase cannabis.
“What we have right now is not an ideal model or a sustainable model,” he says, warning business owners to brace for the first wave of consumers set to hit the market over the next year. “There are retail stores open, but not enough. There is a good amount of product, but it’s not enough. There’s a lot more product coming and more stores that are going to open, and staff that will need to be trained.”
He says regulatory shifts, the increase in customer demand, and the difficulties around employee training pose unique challenges to the modern retailer. But not one that can’t be avoided with the right preparations.
“The magic in cannabis retail happens in stores,” he says. “These are the places we can have important connections with customers in an age-gated environment.”
Ryan says with careful planning and consideration for a diverse array of consumers, retailers will stand to not only survive the evolution of the market, but thrive.
“Be ready for the demand for flower versus everything else,” he says. “We just put out our most recent numbers and 94 percent of our revenues have been driven by consumable cannabis—the majority of which is flower.”
He also says as the normalization of cannabis occurs, more and more new consumers are going to come into play, meaning retailers need to be able to talk to, understand, and merchandise to emerging demographics—not just exisiting ones.
“We as retailers must be ready. We can prepare blindly or think strategically about what’s coming and figure out ways to be ready to do this in our retail environment.”
The expo and conference runs Friday through Sunday at the Vancouver Convention Centre.