The region’s support-local mentality bodes well for continued cannabis firsts

The Atlantic Cannabis Conference & Expo (ACExpo), the region’s first-ever cannabis conference, is intended to clear the air—and any confusion—about cannabis in an age of legalization.
Scheduled for May 25 in Charlottetown, “The ACExpo was born with one goal in mind—to create an opportunity for Atlantic Canadian adults to learn about, engage and connect with the businesses and leaders who are shaping Atlantic Canada’s cannabis industry,” says conference organizer Shaman Ferraro, CEO of Gocanna, a PEI-based firm that established the first industry quality service standard for hospitality and tourism operators catering to the cannabis community. The conference is being presented by Biome Grow.

A new opportunity for the East Coast

While cannabis conferences are becoming the new normal across Canada, Ferraro says the East Coast has often been overlooked, and adults in the region have never been provided the opportunity to directly engage with the new and legal cannabis industry. “By establishing the ACExpo as the home of the Atlantic cannabis industry, we are creating a platform that connects every stakeholder in the region—from individual adult consumers to provincial retail decision-makers and industry leaders.”

Education is essential, emphasizes Myrna Gillis, co-founder and CEO of Aqualitas Inc., a licensed producer of certified organically grown cannabis-based in Brooklyn, N.S. Most industry players are operating legitimately within Health Canada’s rules and regulations, Gillis says, and while more expensive to operate within this framework, it is necessary to support public safety. “Industry players who are working to ensure this is a strong and long-lasting sector are making corporate social responsibility a priority,” she adds.

Breaking down stigma through professionalism

Strategic objectives aside, Ferraro and his colleagues have a personal goal for the one-day event: to advance the well-being of the industry. “While it has been shifting since legalization, the stigma and stereotype around cannabis use continue to prevail. We’re hoping that by demonstrating the professionalism of the modern industry that we can break these public opinions and enhance the conversation in supporting adults to make informed decisions that synergize within the legal frameworks for cannabis,” he says.

It will also be an opportunity for Atlantic Canada’s cannabis sector to toot its own horn. “The Atlantic region has done really well in the rolling out of the recreational retail marketplace. There has been great support for locally produced products, and sales in this region are the highest per capita in the country,” notes Gillis.

“Atlantic Canada—all provinces—did an exceptional job at rolling out legalization to be ready for Oct. 17. Each province had physical retail stores and product available and continue to operate successfully. This wasn’t necessarily observed in other parts of Canada,” Ferraro says.

New Brunswick claimed top spot in the national race to have a fully secured supply of recreational marijuana. In November 2017, the province announced its third memorandum of understanding had been signed, this one with Zenabis to supply the provincial government four million grams of cannabis and other products, with an estimated retail value of $40 million. Given regional time differences, the first legal weed in Canada was also sold on the country’s East Coast, in St. John’s, Nfld., where eager consumers lined up hours before the clock stuck midnight on Oct. 17, 2018.

That fervor does not appear to have abated. In the first six weeks following legalization, PEI led the country in per capita cannabis sales with sales of $2.1 million or $17.22 per capita. In second place was Nova Scotia, with per capita sales of $13.80. Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick took third and fourth place, respectively.

Innovation also defines the industry in the region. Aqualitas, for example, is Canada’s first recipient of Clean Green Certification, “a recognition of our commitment to organic management practices, compliance, quality and sustainability,” says Gillis.

The company has also established partnerships with local scientists and researchers, she reports. The development of its proprietary aquaponics platform took place at Acadia University and work continues on formulations for cannabis edibles and beverages.

Still some hurdles to clear

Of course, it’s not all smooth sailing for the cannabis sector. Gillis would like to see products in the industry have the same access to traditional financing as well as access to a broader range of economic development programs. “The cannabis sector employs large numbers of people in rural areas and we need to ensure that these areas have the infrastructure necessary to operate competitively in the industry,” she says.

Profit may also prove to be elusive. Ernie Steeves, New Brunswick’s finance minister, recently said the province should consider privatizing Cannabis NB or closing some of its stores following a $11.7 million loss in the first fiscal year.

Despite the challenges, the region’s governments and the cannabis industry have a distinct advantage: each other. “Atlantic Canadians have a ‘sibling’ relationship with each other and are a tight-knit regional community,” says Ferraro. “This is observed in the cannabis industry as well with the support-local mentality of hiring locally and emphasizing on regional growth through supply agreements and collaborative working relationships,” he says.