The adult-use cannabis market is about to open up in Canada. On Oct. 17, the country will become arguably the most cannabis-friendly nation in the world and is likely to shake up global perceptions of cannabis.
Entrepreneur and activist Justin Cooper is both a leader in Canada’s legal cannabis industry and a vocal advocate whose efforts helped win the right of medical users to home cultivation — an important prelude to general legalization. His company, Green Planet, supplies equipment to all of Canada’s Licensed Producers of cannabis and is producing its own line of fertilizers. With “recreational” cannabis about to go legal in Canada, he shared his thoughts on how we got to this point, and the road ahead.
Prelude: The Medicinal Struggle
Canada’s path to cannabis legalization really began with the medical marijuana program, which came online in 2001 following litigation from patients. But it has been a struggle to preserve the rights established by that medicinal program, which was initially called the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR). In 2013, a new system came in, the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR), which mandated that patients purchase mail-order dried cannabis cultivated by Licensed Producers. Cooper, whose own business was providing to the LPs, nonetheless came forward to assist the fight for the right to home cultivation.
“MMAR allowed patients to grow medically in Canada,” Cooper recalls. “Once the federal government started to put their heads around how to get rid of the medical growers, one of my customers came to me and said he wanted to take on the government’s plan.”
That was Jason Wilcox, co-founder of the Cannabis In Canada Society, who teamed up with attorney John Conroy to launch the litigation that ultimately won back the right to home cultivation. “Green Planet gave the initial seed money to get the case started,” Cooper says.
Cooper acknowledges that many of the 45,000 licensed home-growers under the MMAR were customers of Pacific Northwest Garden Supply, a chain he co-owns that has several outlets in British Columbia.
“We couldn’t in good faith stand by and watch them lose their ability cultivate medical marijuana,” he says. “Seeing people come in wheelchairs with the loss on their faces, knowing they had to shut down their gardens… it was a really difficult time. So when we have the opportunity to do something about it, we had no choice but to act.”
Cooper also admits that at first, “I felt we were throwing our money away. How often can you fight the federal government and win?”
But it became a vigorous effort — with the legal effort backed up by a public campaign to raise awareness and funds, under the rubric of the Coalition Against Repeal. And in the end, it was successful.
The 2013 injunction in Allard v. Her Majesty the Queen only impacted the 45,000 patients under the former MMAR system — allowing them to keep growing their own. But in 2016, a final decision in favor of the plaintiffs prompted Health Canada to implement yet a third system, the Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations (ACMPR). This restored a right to home cultivation even for new patients entering the system. Canada now has some 200,000 registered users.
And come Oct. 17, all Canadians over the age of 18 (or 19 in some provinces) will be able to cultivate four plants for personal “recreational” use. Cooper is developing the website GrowYourFour.ca to encourage his compatriots to get started. “We want to take away the stigma, educate and inspire Canadians to learn more and understand how to grow your four plants at home.”
Canada in the Global Vanguard
“This is a really big deal,” Cooper enthuses about the present moment. “We’re the second country to legalize after Uruguay, and the first member of Commonwealth. So this sets a precedent for all the other Commonwealth countries. We also have the longest border in the world with the country that views cannabis as having no medical benefit, even when 31 of its own states have some kind of medical program.”
Addressing his comments to the United States, he adds: “It’s a pivotal moment globally. There are 120 LPs in Canada that are able to cultivate and export cannabis globally, and trade on the Canadian stock exchanges. So U.S. citizens can invest in cannabis on the Canadian stock exchange— even though it’s still technically illegal in your country.”
A big, scientifically sophisticated industry will pose an increasing challenge to the global prohibition regime, in Cooper’s view.
Room for ‘Craft Cannabis’
However, Cooper does think that Canada needs to make room beside the massive Licensed Producer cultivators for smaller cannabis growers. Reminded that the phenomenon of “corporate cannabis” or “big bud” is sparking a backlash, and a great deal of skepticism from small cultivators and consumers, Cooper is quick to point out that there is a place for “grassroots” operators in the emerging system.
“A lot of people want sun-grown boutique or craft cannabis, and I’m a believer in this artisanal component to the industry.” He points to a new LP, BC Craft Supply, which has emerged to service this specialty market. It will not actually cultivate, but will purchase from what Cooper calls “craft producers.”
These small “craft” manufacturers will only be able to sell to an LP — not to the end-user.
“Micro-cultivation licenses” for such producers will be coming online soon through Health Canada, limited to 200 square meters (2,152 square feet) of canopy per licensed unit.
Cooper also notes that pesticide use across the industry is tightly regulated by Health Canada. “The stronger commercial pesticides are barred, with just a few of the more benign ones approved.”
The Green Planet Story
Cooper relates something of his personal vision, as a founder and co-owner of Green Planet — which is actually two companies, a wholesale distributor of cultivation equipment and a nutrient producer. Green Planet Wholesale now supplies all of Canada’s LPs, while Green Planet Nutrients sells to cultivators in several countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, Spain, Chile and Australia. Pacific Northwest Garden Supply is meanwhile the largest private retail chain in Canada’s hydroponic industry.
“I endorse growing your own, whether that’s food or cannabis,” Cooper says. “Green Planet Nutrients is a blend specialized with the correct ratios of micro, secondary and macronutrients that cannabis loves.” He says 25 years of experience has produced his balanced combination of synthetic salts and organic ingredients.
Green Planet Wholesale is now the Canadian distributor for products such as Gorilla Grow Tent, designed for indoor hydroponic cultivation, and Method Seven protective eyewear, which allows cultivators to work under high-intensity discharge (HID) lighting for long hours without retinal damage. Another is the AutoPot gravity-fed hydroponic system.
Cooper launched Green Planet in 1993 in Surrey, the working-class Vancouver suburb where he grew up. “We’ve built this company through hard work, effort and a dream,” he says. “My parents were hippies and I knew cannabis wasn’t as dangerous as we were told it was, and every day that I’ve been working here it’s become better and better for you. The more we learn, the more you realize we’ve been fed a lie.”
Cooper reflects on how consciousness about the plant has evolved since he started his business.
“Back then, everyone was trying to breed as much THC as possible. With new techniques, we’ve come to an understanding of how terpenes work synergistically with different cannabinoids for a whole-plant experience and an entourage effect,” he says. “It’s not all about THC anymore. Pheno-hunters are germinating seeds every day to access new varieties and hybrids that were never before available, to meet different needs. ‘Different strains for different pains,’ as we say. And what works for your endocannabinoid system may not work for mine.”
Cannabis and Planetary Survival
Cooper also sees cannabis legalization as having positive implications for the global climate crisis.
“We haven’t seen the tip of the iceberg of how cannabis is going to change the planet. Hemp absorbs carbon from the atmosphere at a very fast rate, and removes nutrients from fields at a very slow rate,” Cooper says. “It can be used to make a renewable building material: hempcrete. The seeds are full of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that help cognitive function. CBD has major medical benefits. At a time when global food security is an issue, and pharmaceutical companies pushing opioids is an issue, cannabis is a great alternative, a potential natural remedy for many of our problems.”
He points to the use of hemp crops to decontaminate the soil near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine, in a process known as phytoremediation.
“There’s so much happening in the cannabis field right now, and every Canadian is going to be able to have their piece of it,” Cooper concludes. “And that to me is exciting. The moment the government says it’s legal, the stigma factor shifts. People who have stayed away from cannabis, even to deal with pain, because of the stigma of using an illegal drug may now see it as a viable al medication or just as a good time.”
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