‘Cham­pagne of pot’ con­fronts a new re­al­ity

As BC Bud sheds its rene­gade im­age, will it sell out to cor­po­rate in­ter­ests?

Calgary Herald - - CITY+REGION - NATALIE OBIKO PEAR­SON

Take a 35-minute ferry ride across the im­pos­si­bly clear glacial wa­ters of B.C.’s Koote­nay Lake, and you’ll find your­self on the East Shore. For gen­er­a­tions, lush tracts of mar­i­juana flour­ished here along the aban­doned log­ging roads that snake through its craggy moun­tains.

Not long ago po­lice would rap­pel down from he­li­copters to hack away and pour bleach on the il­licit crop. Kevin McBride, a rugged 51-year-old wear­ing gum­boots and a wool cap, can re­call those in­evitable au­tumn raids.

These days, McBride reaps the re­gion’s most prized har­vest, the Moet & Chan­don Cham­pagne of pot. Con­nois­seurs in Am­s­ter­dam cof­fee shops pay as much as 25 eu­ros a gram ($805 an ounce) for the best strains, con­sid­ered among the world’s finest.

Most ar­ti­sans now raise their weed in­doors. A le­gal grower with a med­i­cal li­cence, McBride works out of the base­ment of his garage af­ter learn­ing the craft from a “crazy old un­cle” and other doyens of what is known as “BC Bud.”

In Canada, the first ma­jor in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­try to le­gal­ize recre­ational pot, this re­mote re­gion il­lus­trates the op­por­tu­ni­ties and chal­lenges fac­ing these ar­ti­sans: Can they de­velop their in­dus­try with­out sell­ing out to the Toronto “suits” who in­creas­ingly dom­i­nate the trade?

With stun­ning val­leys ringed by snow-capped peaks and a re­laxed out­doorsy vibe, the Koote­nay re­gion al­ready draws vis­i­tors. It’s easy to imag­ine tast­ing tours fea­tur­ing pot som­me­liers who of­fer guid­ance on the sub­tleties of the re­gion’s brands.

“For us not to brand what we have here is lu­di­crous,” says McBride, who is seek­ing a mi­cro cul­ti­va­tion li­cence for his com­pany, Koote­nay’s Finest.

His tar­get cus­tomer? “Not the Bud­weiser mar­ket.”

World­wide recre­ational cannabis sales could reach $120 bil­lion by 2025, ac­cord­ing to bro­ker­age firm BMO Cap­i­tal Mar­kets. In Oc­to­ber, Canada’s le­gal­iza­tion gave it an edge over the U.S., where pot is per­mit­ted in 10 states and the Dis­trict of Co­lum­bia for recre­ational use while the fed­eral govern­ment still out­laws it. Some 149 pot com­pa­nies val­ued at about $52 bil­lion have al­ready listed on Cana­dian stock ex­changes.

Bruce Lin­ton, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Canopy Growth Corp., one of the world’s largest pot pro­duc­ers, pre­dicts con­sol­i­da­tion will leave one “Google-like com­pany ” in the cannabis in­dus­try and a smat­ter­ing of “craft play­ers.”

In Nel­son, a town of 10,000 whose streets are lined with Vic­to­rian houses, the joke is that ev­ery sec­ond house is al­ready a craft player.

“I’ve com­pletely un­der­es­ti­mated the po­ten­tial of the in­dus­try, as many peo­ple have,” says John Doo­ley, Nel­son’s mayor, who op­posed cannabis un­til le­gal­iza­tion day.

Once a sil­ver min­ing out­post, then a log­ging cen­tre, the re­gion has long been a place of refuge, set­tled by Rus­sians flee­ing the czars, paci­fist Quak­ers, and Ja­pa­nese Cana­di­ans re­leased from Sec­ond World War prison camps.

Hip­pies and Viet­nam War draft dodgers started trick­ling in dur­ing the 1960s. They dis­cov­ered a land supremely suited to mar­i­juana. The Koote­nays’ wet springs nur­ture the plants, dry in­tense sum­mers kill the mould and cool au­tumns con­cen­trate the es­sen­tial oils known as ter­penes that give weed its flavour and smell.

To­day, the re­gion pro­duces some 25,000 kilo­grams a year of pot, enough for 50 mil­lion joints. It could amount to an eighth of Canada’s ex­pected an­nual pro­duc­tion in le­gal­iza­tion’s first year. Or, at least, that’s David Robin­son’s es­ti­mate.

His guess is as good as any. For 15 years, Robin­son has been sell­ing hy­dro­ponic equip­ment from the Nel­son branch of Pa­cific North­west Gar­den Sup­ply, one of the prov­ince’s big­gest re­tail­ers of pot para­pher­na­lia.

Robin­son, 43, looks more like a high-en­ergy en­tre­pre­neur than a laid-back stoner. He has closely cropped blond hair and a physique honed by Pi­lates and ju­jitsu.

Still, he re­veals hints of the counter-cul­ture. Robin­son wears a coy­ote tooth on a red-beaded neck­lace. It’s a me­mento from a 10-day spir­i­tual jour­ney in Peru aided by ayahuasca, a hal­lu­cino­genic brew of Ama­zo­nian plants. Known as the “Gar­den Sage” for his must-read grower’s hand­book, he says the op­por­tu­nity is there for the tak­ing.

“We have to step up to the plate, cap­i­tal­ize on the his­tory and rep­u­ta­tion that we’ve built,” Robin­son says. “We’ve got a chance to be first to mar­ket. Ev­ery­one’s talk­ing the Cana­dian mar­ket right now, but I’m think­ing about the world — think of cof­fee, think of tea. This could be huge.”

Cul­ti­vat­ing craft cannabis re­quires art and science.

In a hu­mid shed nes­tled in the Slo­can Val­ley, west of Nel­son, Par­adise Val­ley Botan­ics has been grow­ing pot un­der Canada’s med­i­cal pro­gram for more than a decade and a half.

The owner re­quested anonymity, un­der­scor­ing the on­go­ing stigma of the drug trade. He cul­ti­vates in small batches. To stim­u­late faster growth, a car­bon diox­ide tank en­riches the air to about four times the nor­mal level. Har­vests are slow-cured, like slabs of pork. For two weeks, the plants hang up­side down, con­cen­trat­ing the ter­penes into the flower.

But the true ge­nius of the ar­ti­sans lies in ma­nip­u­lat­ing the plants’ ge­net­ics. They select and cross-breed spec­i­mens to achieve a cer­tain scent, colour, po­tency or yield.

A va­ri­etal called Blood Or­ange, for ex­am­ple, has the tang of freshly peeled citrus. An­other pro­duces flow­ers with vi­brant fuch­sia specks. In­dica plants, like a full­bod­ied shi­raz, of­fer a heav­ier, mel­low buzz.

In con­trast, the big­gest li­censed pro­duc­ers take a fac­tory-style ap­proach in green­houses as big as 22 foot­ball fields. Wa­ter, light and tem­per­a­ture are au­to­mat­i­cally con­trolled, the prod­uct ster­il­ized with gamma rays.

Small-time grow­ers face high hur­dles. Le­gal­iza­tion in­tro­duced a Byzan­tine web of reg­u­la­tion and the rise of well-funded cor­po­rate ri­vals such as Canopy, Aurora Cannabis Inc. and Aphria Inc.

In re­cent weeks, ex­ec­u­tives from Aurora, Aphria and As­cent In­dus­tries Corp. have been pitch­ing part­ner­ships, draw­ing crowds in Nel­son of as many as 150 peo­ple.

“Peo­ple here are freak­ing out that their liveli­hoods are be­ing taken away by Bay Street suits,” says Robin­son.

“They’re mov­ing the money out east.”

To com­ply with mu­nic­i­pal reg­u­la­tions, McBride, the med­i­cal grower, had to buy a new 24-hectare plot. There, rather than ex­pand his ex­ist­ing shed, he has to build a struc­ture ringed with a 30-me­tre buf­fer. That rule alone will prob­a­bly bar most craft grow­ers in the area from le­gal­iz­ing their cur­rent op­er­a­tions, he says.

McBride ex­pects to spend more than $1.3 mil­lion on the prop­erty, con­struct­ing a new build­ing and meet­ing other stan­dards such as in­stalling chain-link fences and bar cod­ing for ev­ery plant. Money is scarce. Many banks still shy away from lend­ing to mar­i­juana com­pa­nies.

Ot­tawa also de­cides which seeds are le­gal — pre­cious few, for now. If craft grow­ers are un­able to get li­censed, their va­ri­eties will be lost to the le­gal mar­ket.

“It’s like say­ing beer is le­gal but you can only drink Pil­sners,” McBride says. “The black mar­ket will just mush­room.”

FILES

Nel­son, B.C., has land supremely suited to the cul­ti­va­tion of mar­i­juana.

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