An interview with Canopy Growth's Adam Greenblatt
Legalization is here, but cannabis advocate and activist Adam Greenblatt still has work to do.
Words— JP Karwacki
My first encounter with Adam Greenblatt was watching him speak as part of a panel at the international business conference C2 in Montreal. He was full of strong, salient insights on the coming cannabis industry that would strike Canada, to say the least: Canada is the first G20 country to make cannabis legal, which is going to invariably shake up the world’s stance on the effectiveness of prohibition and monumentally—however gradually—shift the treatment of drug users here at home.
Greenblatt’s experience in business development for the Ontario-based medical marijuana company Canopy Growth and his long history as an activist for cannabis made him an ideal person to speak to about Canada's recent legalization.
How did you start out as an advocate for cannabis? Where does your story begin?
My dad has multiple sclerosis, and he was diagnosed around the time I was born, so he’s had it my whole life. When I was almost 18, he was hitting rock bottom with the medication he was taking.
On Christmas Eve my mom woke me up, asking me if I had any dope. I thought she was coming in to take my weed away, you know? She told me it was for my dad, and that he was in a lot of pain, and that it was time for him to try it. I first tried to sautée some cannabis in butter for him and put it on an English muffin, but that didn’t work, so I rolled him a joint, and he smoked on some of it. All of a sudden, his pain was gone, there was a smile on his face; it was the first time he had smiled in ten years. His nausea was gone, and his appetite was up. Right away we knew it was something that was going to work for him, and that was the day I became an activist. I was living this hypocrisy of prohibition where I had to go fill my dad’s prescription at high school.
Shortly thereafter I moved to Montreal and I got involved with the Marijuana Party and marijuana activism. Then, in 2006, I started working in a cannabis dispensary in Montreal, and I worked in that for four years. In 2010, I founded my own cannabis dispensary which I ran in (the Montreal borough of) Saint-Henri for four and half years which I called the Cannabis Access Society and ran that with my partner Erin. I closed that dispensary to turn it into a medical cannabis clinic because the regulations were changing at the federal level; the federal government was implementing a new medical marijuana program which essentially privatized the production side of cannabis, and so I took that opportunity to shut down any of my illegal operations and make my leap into the legal world. That clinic still exists to this day and my partner runs it; she has since expanded it to several locations.
And where are you now? Are you anchored to Canopy Growth, more or less?
Yes. I helped to run my clinic with my partner for two years, and then I left in the summer of 2016 to join Canopy, and I led Canopy’s Quebec strategy for two years. I just recently moved to Vancouver in July to head up their BC business development strategy.
So, as part of Canopy’s business development, one of the things I imagine you are tasked with is to channel perceptions of a company. I trust that you work with them because you believe in what they’re doing; what is Canopy doing that you’d like to see in other companies moving forward?
I would like to see other companies put as much of a focus on social responsibility as we do. I don’t think we have any competitors who are touching what we’re doing on that front. We’ve put $20 million towards community development projects over the next four years, specifically for social responsibility initiatives. We also just launched an initiative with Mothers Against Drunk Driving and UBER, and we launched a Don’t Drive High campaign around cannabis-impaired driving to run in parallel with legalization. We’ve also put $2 and half million dollars to the University of British Columbia for a professorship in cannabis. I’d say that, compared to our peers in the industry, our involvement on the social responsibility front is leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else. That’s something I’d like to see become more industry-wide.
The first is the standardization (or lack thereof) of new products—I’m talking edibles and drinkables, on-the-go vaping pens and cartridges—that are an alternative to smoking. Are we moving too far away too fast from smoking?
No. It’s not a coercive push, it’s a market-driven one. Consumers want those products, and that’s why the market is moving that way. That’s not an artificially created demand. Those are super convenient products that consumers really enjoy, and that’s why they’re moving in that direction. Access to those products is going to be implemented in Canada in a phased way, so products like edibles, vape pens, and hash won’t be available until next October, but it’s only natural that people move away from smoking. On the other hand, I don’t think smoking cannabis is ever going to disappear—it’s a fairly traditional and popular, and frankly an effective way of using it—but it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. Not everyone likes the smell, not everyone can smoke, not everyone wants to, and that’s why derivative products are going to take off.
"I think you’re going to see the Canadian cannabis industry will be a world-class industry. A colleague of mine likes to say that what wine is to France, cannabis will be to Canada."
Let’s talk about the current political environment. I know you’ve said often that, leading up to the 17th, Canada was ripe for legalization. Did you think you’d see this day in your lifetime? Did you ever doubt it’d come?
No. I knew it was going to happen. I thought I would be older when it did happen, but to me, it was an inevitability. I was 16 years old when the Canadian Senate recommended for the second time that cannabis be legalized; the first time was with the Le Dain Commission in the 1970s. One of the highlights of my teen years was waking up and seeing that on the front page of the Globe & Mail: Senators want pot legalized. Growing up, it always seemed like an inevitability, and yeah. Here we are.
What are you envisioning for the future of a country beginning to adopt sensible, responsible drug reform?
For Canada, it’s a big deal because the world is watching us. It’s great because Canada’s already such a champion for human rights and social justice on the world stage, and certainly, the Canadian legalization is the first domino to fall because Canada’s prohibition is untenable in every jurisdiction that it exists, which is really most of the rest of the world.
(Canopy Growth’s) Smith Falls facility is the stage for the world. We have diplomats and government people from all over the world through here on daily basis. For example, just this week, we had government officials from Holland, Sweden, Denmark, and South Korea. It really is the first domino in the collapse of global cannabis prohibition, (and it’s) awesome for us to lead the way on.
What will a post-October 17th Canada look like in your mind?
It’s not going to look much different. People already smoke a ton of pot in Canada, so I don’t think that’s going to change. I think it’s going to mean a more free and just Canadian society. You’re going to see legal cannabis retailers in every municipality, you’re going to have cannabis stores and they’ll be just as normal as liquor stores, coffee shops… From a commercial perspective, we’re exporting all of this regulatory and cannabis production know-how into these jurisdictions that are legalizing.
I think you’re going to see the Canadian cannabis industry will be a world-class industry. A colleague of mine likes to say that what wine is to France, cannabis will be to Canada. I think it‘ll be a lot more normal, and I think the discussion around cannabis is going to change; our capacity to have an honest conversation especially with young people about cannabis will be a lot easier. You will see less fear-based conversations around it, and we’ll be able to approach with a more level head than we have in the past.
I also think it’s going to lead to is the decriminalization of all drugs. It’s not necessarily caused by cannabis legalization, but it does signal to the world that prohibition as an approach doesn’t work. That personally excites me because drug prohibition, on the whole, is a human rights atrocity. We do not treat drug users as human beings, and that is reflected in every drug policy that we’ve got. We criminalize drug users, we see them as sub-human, we dehumanize people who sell drugs; it’s really is an atrocity, a travesty of justice.
Legalization is a process, not an event. October 17th is the day the law changes, but it’s not the day the cannabis black market disappears. It’s not the day we completely stop arresting people for cannabis or punishing them, there’s still other penalties included in Bill C-45, so it’s not the last day someone will get in legal trouble for being involved with cannabis either. It’s a process, not an event, and all of the benefits that we stand to reap from legalization will certainly not happen on October 17th.
For the average headline clicker and article grazer out there: What do you have to say to Canadians who are concerned with government intervention having a negative effect on the production and quality of marijuana?
There’s definitely something to be said about regulatory overburden and the red tape that an industry has to go through. It can complicate things, and the government has put up barriers for entering into the industry, but I think that’s for the good. It’s ultimately to protect consumers. The government mandates that we test every batch of cannabis we grow for potency, for mould, heavy metals, and other contaminants, and there are very strict standards on the cannabis we sell. That’s to protect consumers; I think the ongoing challenge for the government will be striking the right balance of consumers and industry that protects them but also doesn’t hinder them too much. It costs us as a company quite a lot to comply with the 10,000 pages of regulations that we follow.
Admittedly, I’ve been suspicious of the government since legalization was introduced. It seems true altruism is a rare quality these days in politics, and—I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial here—I wonder who has a stake in this new industry and to what degree?
There’s been a lot of sensationalism around potential cronyism in the Liberals’ legalization, but I think that’s been quite overstated. I think the naked self-interest of the Liberals’ championing of legalization was political expediency. When Trudeau was running, at the time the only party out there with a sensible cannabis position was the NDP, and their position was just to decriminalize cannabis, so they didn’t have any plan to regulate the industry and the supply chain. They just wanted to decriminalize simple possession and leave it at that. Trudeau saw the opportunity to go to the next level, and look what happened.
Good point. Finally: What makes a life well-lived?
In terms of a professional life, working with cannabis means a life well-lived for me because cannabis is an intrinsically triple bottom-lined industry where the focus is not solely on financial profit, but where people and planet are also built into that success equation. Being able to work in any sort of environment where all three of those factors are built in is great and gives me a lot of satisfaction in my work life.
Personally, it’s spending time with loved ones and family, making the most of our time together because work is not all that is life. The more quality time I can spend with my partner and the possibility of starting a family together and settling down and having a nice house and a garden… that’s also quite appealing. Just being able to do good in the world and to prosper in doing so is worthwhile in its own right.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. If you enjoyed our sit down with Adam Greenblatt, check out some of our other interviews.