Monday, August 22, 2016

The Big Smoke

It was rush hour on a mid-May morning, and Bruce Linton, ceoof the world’s largest producer of legally grown, sold, smoked, vaped, and consumed marijuana, sat in the driver’s seat of a rented Dodge Charger, heading south, against Toronto traffic, on his way to wine country. He kept the speedometer at a respectable, but law-bending, 120 kilometres per hour, except when trucks or cars got in his way. Then the forty-nine-year-old pressed on the throttle.

It wasn’t yet 8 a.m., but Linton had been up for four hours, having woken around 4 a.m. next to his wife in a quiet and leafy part of the capital once known as the home of the Ottawa Senators and the rest of the city’s nouveau riche. He’d begun his day by pacing around his house in the dark and looking out at his swimming pool while he fired off a dozen emails. Then he’d driven to the airport and caught a plane to Toronto. I’d jumped in the car with him shortly after 7 a.m. and had been throwing questions at him ever since.

Linton’s eyes darted between the open road and the passenger seat, where I scribbled his words into a notebook. He waited for my pen to catch up. “If you really want to get all of this, we need to do a book,” he said. Then he recounted how he and a small team of tech and policy geeks with Bay Street cred had turned an abandoned Hershey’s factory into the most recognized grow op on the planet, and how they were now inking deals with industrialists in Germany, horticulturalists in Australia, sexual-aid manufacturers in Colorado, and celebrities in California. It’s all part of a fast-moving game that, if won, could leave Linton and his executives at the helm of a billion-dollar company when recreational pot becomes legal in Canada.

The needle crept toward 130 kilometres per hour as Linton described a future in which Canada would supplant Israel as the global leader in the scientific research of cannabinoids while replacing the Netherlands as cultural homeland of marijuana innovation and export. It’s a grand dream, to be sure, but one he insists is quickly becoming a reality. Headquartered in Smiths Falls, Ontario, his three-year-old company—Canopy Growth Corp.—is emerging as a national cannabis conglomerate. At the time we spoke, Linton was in advanced negotiations to get the high-cannabidiol strains he was growing in Scarborough sold in pill and oil form at pharmacies across the country. But it was his vision for the tetrahydrocannabinol (thc) drawn from the weed in his Niagara-on-the-Lake greenhouse that seemed truly inspired.

It’s a two-stage plan. First, he’ll let customers get used to seeing a range of his combustible marijuana strains for sale in the same stores that carry traditional liquors. Then he’ll release a line of drinkable cannabis products. Linton sees a world in which thc will become one of the main ingredients inside corked bottles of what future generations will consider premium booze. thc-laced soda pop is already available on the black market, and people have been infusing liquor with cannabis at their homes for years. Linton is going to take it mainstream, challenging the spirits establishment by producing an entirely new beverage that offers a different sort of buzz. Most people still think of pot as something to smoke and vape, or as something that can be added to food. Linton wants to show it can be so much more.

Shortly before 9 a.m., we started to see signs for the United States border. “We’re running early,” Linton said. “Let’s get breakfast.” He pulled off the highway and made for a McDonald’s drive-thru. He ordered an extra-large coffee and two breakfast burritos for himself and an Egg McMuffin meal for me.

We sat in the parking lot and ate off our laps. Between bites of salsa-doused burrito, Linton explained how rare it is to witness the birth of an industry, especially one based on a known commodity with a pre-established market. The drug already has a multi-generational user base estimated at seven-million people in Canada alone. Linton is determined not just to reach as many of those people as possible, but also to access the worldwide market. “Three years ago, I knew nothing about growing pot,” he confessed. “Now I’m the ceo of the biggest grow op willing to publish its address.”

At times, Linton sounded less like a traditional drug-policy reformer and more like a corporate monopolist. There are those who criticize him for this, but he doesn’t seem to care.

The cultural and political landscape surrounding marijuana is changing fast, and Linton, more than anyone else, seems primed to profit from it. The Trudeau government has promised to do what only Uruguay had done before: declare a national end to the prohibition on the recreational growth, sale, and consumption of marijuana. Linton’s company—and his country—is set to spearhead a global movement.

“Cannabis is going to be the great disruptor of our time,” he said. “Once the recreational markets start opening up, this whole industry is going to explode. We’ve got a three-to-four-year lead over the rest of the world, but we gotta make sure we don’t lose it.” He scrunched up his burrito wrappers and tossed them into the paper takeout bag by my feet; then he peeled the free-coffee stickers from both our cups and stuck them to the back of his BlackBerry.

“I love any company with a loyalty program,” he said. Then he fired up the Charger and asked, “Are you ready to see the Farm?” (...)

It was just after noon, and Linton was already behind on the to-do list he’d written on a Post-it. The first item involved printing out a homework assignment for one of his sons. Now he was preparing for item number four, “Fraud audit with Deloitte,” and the equally intriguing number five, “Meet Colorado sex guys.”

Linton invited me into his office, which had a “Mr. Wonka” nameplate on the door. He twisted the top off a bottle of Canadian Tire–brand water, took a swig, and began dialing a number on his phone. Soon, he was on the line with the owners of a Colorado-based sex-spray company that claimed to have harnessed the “therapeutic aphrodisiac” within cannabis and was now making a niche for itself by producing “the first marijuana-infused personal lubricant for her pleasure.” It took an hour before Linton was done negotiating the beginnings of a licencing agreement to sell the Colorado company’s line of products—which included suppositories it claimed could both relieve menstrual pain and boost sexual pleasure. No one on the call knew what the deal should be worth. Still, sex and weed seemed to go together, at least in the minds of the suppository guys, and Linton wanted a cut in case they were right. When the call ended, he got up from his chair with a bolt of nervous energy and said, “This is the most exciting part about all of this.”

“The sex spray?” I asked.

“People are just starting to figure out all that can be done with this stuff. We’re not just growing pot. We’re growing cannabinoids.”

It has been 211 years since scientists first extracted morphine from opium and began using it for medicinal purposes—a historical development that Linton believes is relevant to the future of marijuana. “Who smokes opium anymore?” he asked. Linton believes his crops will soon be used as a sort of opioid-light—a less addictive, less harmful, and ultimately lifesaving alternative to the roughly 20 million prescriptions for opioid-based painkillers being written in this country every year.

by Brett Popplewell, The Walrus |  Read more:
Image: Richmond Lam