It's an unexpected shot in the arm for Alberta's struggling economy. And it's about as unlikely as it gets.
Alberta's only industrial-scale grower of medical marijuana, Aurora Cannabis, just served notice that business is booming. The company now has well over 2,000 customers, beginning from a standing start in January.
Prior to that, Aurora had to wait for the issuance of a sales licence from Health Canada. And that wasn't forthcoming until Aurora's crops had undergone extensive laboratory testing for quality control by an independent, licensed third party.
Company spokesperson Neil Belot, a senior executive with Aurora, admits that the 2,000-patients milestone isn't an exceptionally large client base. However, it demonstrates a fast-accelerating rate of growth, considering that it took Aurora three months to acquire its first 1,000 clients.
Belot attributes this recent ramp-up in numbers to the impact of word-of-mouth endorsements from satisfied registered customers. To date, the company has registered clients in every jurisdiction of the country except Nunavut and the Yukon.
Alberta is now second only to Ontario as having the highest number of monthly shipments to registered medical marijuana patients.
However, many of those who have chosen Aurora as their officially-designated supplier of choice are Albertans, he says.
In fact, Aurora's growing popularity illustrates a paradigm shift in public sentiment towards cannabis, especially in Alberta, Belot says.
According to Health Canada, Alberta is now second only to Ontario as having the highest number of monthly shipments to registered medical marijuana patients.
"Albertans are merely validating the emergence of a technology-driven, home-grown agricultural business. After all, this province has always embraced a pioneering spirit," Belot says.
"This validation is helping us to become what we believe may be the fastest-growing, large-scale licensed producer of medical cannabis in Canada."
Cannabis Goes Corporate - Alberta-style
Aurora's purpose-built 55,200-square-foot facility is big, really big -- the size of a football field. And it cost upwards of $12 million to construct. As many as 50,000 plants at any one time are cultivated in a sanitized, laboratory-like environment under the government's watchful eye.
It all takes place in an unobtrusive warehouse-type building on 176 acres of land near the village of Cremona, just north of Calgary. This high-tech facility represents the future of the industrial-scale growing of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis.
The facility's white-washed interior looks much like a medical laboratory. Large, brightly lit rooms pulsate with fans, filters, 1,000-watt lights, HVAC ventilation, irrigation systems and all sorts of other apparatus to ensure optimal growing conditions. This is very important not just for mass-manufacturing cannabis, but also for ensuring quality control.
In fact, the company has become proficient in standardizing each of its 14 strains of medical marijuana. In other words, each variety is consistent from plant to plant, as well as crop to crop, in terms of composition, potency and therapeutic effect.
Currently Aurora's facility is capable of producing more than 7,000 kilograms of cannabis per year -- enough for about 14 million 0.5-gram cannabis "joints" (though medical patients often consume cannabis by other means, such as vaporizing).
One of the company's key differentiators is that it doesn't use any pesticides, Belot says. Neither does it gamma-irradiate its products, unlike many of Aurora's competitors. Irradiation is a process that may damage the plants' terpenes -- aromatic compounds that are believed to have therapeutic properties, according to studies.
Aurora also wants to be known as an innovator of new strains of cannabis that are already making a positive difference in peoples' lives. To date, its biggest breakthrough is "Temple." With a THC content of less than 0.5 per cent and a CBD content of around 24 per cent, this is the world's strongest non-psychoactive strain of medical cannabis, Belot says.
By way of explanation, CBD provides some of marijuana's most sought-after healing powers, according to medical studies. Research has shown CBD to be very effective as an anti-seizure therapy for some children with debilitating, potentially life-threatening forms of epilepsy -- conditions that are notoriously resistant to other treatment methods, including conventional pharmaceuticals.
Currently, Aurora and its pediatric clients are also awaiting final approval to begin distributing cannabis oil, which is ideal for those who need or prefer a delivery system that does not involve smoking.
When Marijuana Goes Mainstream
Aurora is now readying itself for the federal government's pending legalization of non-medical consumer use of marijuana. And this additional market is widely expected to be a game-changer in that it promises to eclipse the medical cannabis sector.
If fact, nearly 5.5 million Canadians already smoke pot, according to a recent poll. And an estimated 31 per cent of the population -- totalling 8 million people -- are likely to embrace this new market, the poll also found.
Canada's recreational market promises to be worth billions of dollars annually if it proves to be anywhere near as successful as in Colorado, which has a population seven times smaller than Canada's 35 million.
Last year, legal recreational sales in Colorado almost topped one billion U.S. dollars. And 2015 was only the second year since the end of cannabis prohibition in this liberal-minded state. Colorado also collected more than US$135 million in marijuana taxes and fees in 2015.
The advent of Canada's regulated recreational market should also help resolve any lingering negative stigma surrounding cannabis, Belot says. Now that the cannabis growing industry is finally moving out of the shadows and into the business mainstream, Canadians of all different demographics are increasingly benefiting from the plant's many healing powers.
"We're all part of something historic here. And Aurora is helping to change attitudes, advance patient rights and improve the quality of peoples' lives," Belot adds.
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