It was the visit Dennis Staples had been waiting for. At the heart of Smiths Falls, Ont., sat a factory once used to make Hershey's chocolate, but vacant since 2008. The town, and the factory, needed new life.
Hope arrived in July with a visit to Mr. Staples, the mayor, by a group of investors hoping to push into an emerging commercial industry in Canada. Instead of chocolate, they wanted to produce medical marijuana.
In Mr. Staples, Tweed Inc. found a willing partner – a mayor of almost 20 years wanting to revive the local economy – and a man whose late brother used medical marijuana in the final weeks of his battle with cancer.
"For his last eight weeks on this Earth, his life was made more bearable because of that. So, in that way, I have personal experience in this, absolutely," Mr. Staples recalled.
Tweed needs to be approved, and still needs to buy the factory, but has the town's blessing. "My sense is they're going to be successful on both fronts," the mayor said.
Tweed is a project led by Chuck Rifici, an entrepreneur who is hoping to carve out a large chunk of the emerging medical marijuana market. Others are ahead of him, but Mr. Rifici hopes to become a high-profile player – the storied factory helps, he said – and eventually go public as a major provider of medical marijuana.
The big site – a roughly 470,000-square-foot factory, of which Tweed may use a third – gives the company room to grow. "It's a new industry. The growth market is really going to be from people who perhaps have never considered marijuana as a potential medical solution and never had a physician recommend that," Mr. Rifici said.
He also happens to be the chief financial officer of the Liberal Party of Canada. Tweed's vice-president, Mark Zekulin, was once a senior adviser to Dwight Duncan, a former Ontario Liberal finance minister. And John Gillis, president of the Nova Scotia Liberal Party, agreed to serve as a medical consultant for the project. This all comes as federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau pushes for the legalization of marijuana. The Conservatives fired back last week, accusing Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Rifici of making marijuana more easily available to children.
But Mr. Rifici said there's no link between Mr. Trudeau's stance and this business venture – one aiming, after all, to profit from rules the Conservatives brought in.
"This is not about politics. I think this is about medical marijuana and serving a very strong and real medical need in approaching that market," he said.
Tweed told Smiths Falls it could, at full production, employ 100 people in the town. Humble figures, but new life for an abandoned Smiths Falls icon, the mayor said.
"For those 30,000 Canadians who require this product now, [medical marijuana] is something that is of total benefit to them," Mr. Staples said. "Otherwise they wouldn't be using it. Otherwise Health Canada wouldn't have sanctioned it. That's how I view it."