Seven people share their stories of going for broke in the cannabis industry

By Patrick Marcoux
Published October 14, 2018

As Canada embraces the legalization of recreational cannabis, a new industry is born. Despite the stigmas that surround it, and an uncertain future, some bold pioneers see an opportunity to win big at a fresh start.

The Globe and Mail talked to seven entrepreneurs – including economists, lawyers, marketers and business owners – about the risks and rewards of leaving the security of their jobs to make the leap into the cannabis industry.

Bridget Hoffer &
Katie Pringle

61 and 34, Oakville

Previous Job Ms. Pringle: Principal of Pringle Communications
(4 years, 3 months)

Ms. Hoffer: Communications consultant for Bridget Hoffer Strategic Communications
(2 years)
Cannabis Job Co-founders of Marigold Marketing & PR
(1 year, 11 months)

For 13 years, Bridget Hoffer worked for the CBC as executive director of communications and helped launch their new and emerging brands. Her business partner, Katie Pringle, has a marketing background in women’s brands that includes managing the launch of the Oprah Winfrey Network in Canada. With Marigold, their new marketing company, they have embraced the cannabis sector, which comprises the majority of their clients.

Overcoming stigmas

Ms. Hoffer: There are always challenges when you’re starting to work in an area that has a lot of stigma attached to it. Medical cannabis has been legal for quite some time but there is still an element of overcoming stigmas. We understand that working in cannabis may not appeal to our other clients, which could be a sacrifice, yet [the sector is] a great opportunity for us, moving forward.

Empowering people

Ms. Pringle: We’re working on a campaign right now called “Legalize This,” which is Canadians sharing what legalization means to them. For people who feel like they’re being helped by cannabis, my hope is that they can start to feel less judgment and less shame. We’re very committed to this industry. Because it’s so nuanced and because the rules are changing, it’s important to work with a firm, a PR firm, that really understands. There are a lot of banks, institutions and, in some cases, agencies that aren’t prepared to take on cannabis clients at this point. We’re embracing it.

Stephen Verbeek

34, Hamilton

Previous Job Financial adviser
(10 years)
Cannabis Job Founder and chairman of the board of directors for Hello Cannabis
(1 year, 9 months)

Stephen Verbeek has a background in economics, and worked as a financial advisor for about a decade before founding Hello Cannabis, where he is chairman of the board of directors.

Finding the right help

I was prescribed dilaudid, an opioid, for pain management after an accident where I dropped about 22 feet, shattering both my heels. Afterward, I recovered from one of the most insane dilaudid addictions I think is humanly feasible. I quit, cold turkey, after two months. I essentially didn’t eat or sleep for four days. It was to the point where I couldn’t even swallow water. [My doctor] recommended I use medical cannabis. After using cannabis, I was able to get my life back. It was pivotal for me in being able to recover. But it was difficult to find a doctor and I didn’t know what product to use. I was uneducated; most physicians are also uneducated.

The mission of Hello Cannabis

Hello Cannabis essentially connects three dots: physicians, patients, and the product. We find patients that are looking for a doctor, and we connect them with a doctor that is CME (Continuing Medical Education) approved, specializing in cannabis, to find the right product and the right dosage for each particular individual. Think of us as a medical concierge in the cannabis world. North America has been decimated with opioids and the rest of the world is quickly following. I really hope the rapid expansion and education around cannabis as a therapeutic product can stop a massive epidemic from spreading globally.

Ben Rispin

38, Hamilton

Previous Job CEO for Misfit Island
(2 years)
Cannabis Job Content producer for Puff Digital
(2 months)

A Juno-nominated musician, Ben Rispin is also a marketing guru who has spent three years in the Canadian cannabis industry. Working in the entertainment industry gave him the skills he employs as content producer for Puff Digital, which helps develop, support and market cannabis.

Transitioning to cannabis

Before working with cannabis, I worked in music – I got into music at a really young age. Most of the stuff we did in music was DIY. We didn’t have a lot of financial backing but we made it work. After that, I was CEO of Misfit Island [Studios]. We did a lot of productions; we produced a film and did events. A dispensary asked me to produce some of their videos and charity events, which led to doing their social media/branding integration. It was all black market and I had to get away from that. So I quit. I had been doing it for about a year. I definitely learned a ton about the consumer, a ton about cannabis and how the medical world works with cannabis.

One of the greatest enemies of the industry is miseducation. I was out with some intelligent, professional, young – early 30s – educated people and they didn’t know that cannabis is better for you than opioids. Right now, we’re doing the “Into the Weeds” podcast, which is designed to break down the stigma. I’m privately interested in creating unbiased cannabis content.

Grant McLeod

40, Toronto

Previous Job Principal consultant for Global Development Advisors
(1 year, 9 months)
Cannabis Job Co-founder of Seven Oaks
(1 year, 2 months)

To start Seven Oaks, a Metis recreational cannabis brand, Grant McLeod gave up a job working for the U.S. government in Afghanistan. Prior to that, he worked for the government of Canada, adjudicating First Nation land claims.

A modern Métis message

Seven Oaks’ brand was developed on a modern interpretation of the Métis sense of adventure and freedom. The way I translate this is in terms of who I am as a modern Métis person who has taken on significant challenges, overcome them, and been able to tell stories about them. What I wanted to do was build a brand that has an inspirational and positive message. You can be a lifetime consumer of cannabis, you can go to the best law school in the country, work in the highest levels in government, you can do very interesting things in Afghanistan or elsewhere and still be a regular consumer of cannabis.

The risks

Deciding that I’m not going to take any income outside of cannabis and saying that I’m going to start this company and recognizing that it’s going to take some time and some investment to move it forward is a huge financial risk. Reputational risk is significant as well. I’m a lawyer. Certain people in the legal community have certain perspectives on cannabis. It is still relatively new to the majority of people. Am I hire-able by the U.S. government at this point? I would say no. I’ve basically given up my life’s work, in that sense, to pursue this. We truly believe that we have a brand that can be something similar to Roots – a heritage brand that tells the story of Canada.

Dr. Adel Zarei

52, Guelph

Previous Job Research associate
(8 years)
Cannabis Job Quality assurance, WeedMD
(9 months)

Dr. Adel Zarei completed a PhD in Plant Molecular biology in Holland, and is now a quality assurance person at WeedMD, a licensed producer in the outskirts of London, Ont., that produces more than 30,000 kg of medicinal cannabis per year.

A great opportunity for research and development

For a period of six months before working at WeedMD, I was scientific advisor for another Licensed Producer. In the cannabis industry, I found many similar jobs as I was doing during my PhD. The cannabis plant makes a group of molecules called cannabinoids to protect itself from adverse conditions. It was fascinating for me to learn that a few members of that group of molecules have bioactive properties on humans.

Our knowledge on cannabis is very limited and lags behinds many crops. Legalization is a great opportunity for research and development on what we don’t know. So far, much of the information we know is from “underground activities,” and now is the time for science to step in and discover the real truths.

My main job is quality assurance person. I make sure everything leaves our facility as a high quality product and meets the requirements under ACMPR (Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations). We test for aflatoxin, heavy metals, mold and microbes. In mold tests, we have to make sure that none, even one part per billion, does not exist in the final product, otherwise, we destroy it.

We have a long way to go in terms of cultivation, breeding, biotechnology, processing, packaging – all of this needs to be fine-tuned. Another challenge is that cannabis product has not been standardized. It’s not like grabbing a bottle of Merlot. This is the future in about five to 10 years.

Scott Rogers

35, Oakville

Previous Job VP, director of business operations for the Mississauga Steelheads Hockey Club (6 years)
Cannabis Job VP of sales at Sail
(4 months)

Scott Rogers went from working on Bay Street to running the business side of a hockey team for a sport management athlete representation firm before transitioning to his position as vice-president of Sail, a medical cannabis technology company. Sail allows physicians to safely qualify, evaluate, and prescribe patients medicinal cannabis.

Never a dull moment

This is my first experience in the cannabis industry. It’s been a crash course in discovering the needs of health-care practitioners and what they require to offer medical cannabis to patients. My goal remains to successfully offer Sail’s software tools to our clients, and help them confidently dose and prescribe cannabis to their patients.

The industry comes with its own set of risks that apply to anyone working in it. The entire industry is at the mercy of the laws that govern the space, and the industry could change at a moment’s notice, all hinging on evolving legal frameworks. There is never a dull moment here.

CREDITS: Photography and reporting by Patrick Marcoux, photo editing by Clare Vander Meersch, art direction by Matthew French and interactive editing by Jeremy Agius.