The future has never been greener for Jamaican cannabis. Why do I say that? Because I am the CEO and Founder of Jacana, a leading cannabis company thriving in Jamaica. Quite the contrary to a recent Forbes article by Sara Brittany Somerset, which presents an inaccurate picture of the reality on the ground, Jamaica is emerging as a global cannabis pioneer. Most alarmingly, the article mischaracterises the real reasons some Canadian companies retreated from their international ambitions.
I have personally met with the CEOs of the largest cannabis companies, leading cannabis investors, scientists, policy makers and regulators all over the world. I am actively running Jacana and all this gives me a unique vantage point to explain what is really going on.
What happened to the international growth plans of Canadian companies?
In 2018, we partnered with Aurora Cannabis to build a very special retail cannabis experience in Jamaica. The fact that Aurora subsequently decided to sell the property had nothing to do with them being “Frustrated with the lack of action on the part of the Jamaican Government and its regulatory arm, the Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA),” as the article claims. In February, Aurora announced a transformation plan aimed at reducing operating costs, rationalising capital expenditures and focusing on EBITDA profitability. The sale of the property in Jamaica was directly related to the company’s reset plan.
That Aurora made a swift change in its strategic plan is not a surprise. Starting in 2017, many of the large Canadian cannabis companies embarked on a policy of global land acquisition, buying up as many assets as they could across the world as a way to secure their international growth plans. It is unfair to paint a picture of a ‘failing Jamaican cannabis industry’ as the reason why the Canadian companies, who were once bullish on global growth at all costs, later found themselves having to be more prudent with their capital and focus. This is a reflection on the performance and strategies of the Canadian companies, not a reflection on the Jamaican cannabis industry, its regulators, or its companies, as the article incorrectly states.
The Champagne of Cannabis
In fact, Jamaica is one of a tiny handful of nations where you can grow, process, sell branded products via retail channels, and legally export medical cannabis. The Jamaican cannabis industry is, without a doubt, setting the standard for what is achievable.
Cannabis was decriminalised in 2015 in Jamaica; for a small country, Jamaica has made significant strides in building an industry in a short amount of time. For example, we have found working with our regulator very straightforward, enabling us to develop our business very quickly. Jacana was established in late 2017 and in just 2.5 years we have built a vertically integrated cannabis operation that covers large scale cultivation, R&D, processing, laboratory testing, and distribution across both a domestic and international network. Our unique experience means that we often receive requests to help other countries and companies around the world build similar platforms.
Building an international cannabis company in Jamaica has three competitive advantages. First, we have human capital with multi-generational experience in cannabis cultivation. Second, Jamaica boasts optimal equatorial conditions that allow for low cost production of medical grade cannabis. Third, the world has a long-standing consumer association with Jamaican cannabis. Just as the best champagne comes from France, at Jacana we believe that the finest cannabis comes from Jamaica.
Jamaica: A Small Country that Packs a Punch
Jamaica has a population of 3M people and welcomes 4M+ tourists a year, with the vast majority arriving from North America. The potential value of the Jamaican market can be compared to a US state like Connecticut, with a population size of 3.5M.
Connecticut has witnessed an extremely successful medical cannabis program rollout and the market is expected to be worth $160M by 2025. It is reasonable to expect the Jamaican market to be comparable in size or even exceed this due to the high influx of tourists and the more liberalised access paths for consumers.
Advanced Grow Labs is one of the success stories of Connecticut and was acquired by Green Thumb Industries in early 2019. Founding Partner of Advanced Grow Labs, Marc Gare said, “The reputation of Jamaican cannabis precedes itself. One can reasonably expect to see high quality, Jamaican cannabis brands, like Jacana, poised to enter the world stage as regulations become more flexible.”
Jamaica also has one of the highest usage rates globally, with 15.8% of Jamaicans regularly using cannabis. Featuring a more liberal medical access framework than other legal medical cannabis markets, the forward-thinking Cannabis Licensing Authority (CLA), established in 2015, has prioritised the growth and development of the domestic industry to ensure a transition from the illicit market to regulated channels of cannabis.
How does International Trade of Cannabis really work?
The CLA’s published interim guidelines have allowed and facilitated numerous international exports, provided that all necessary approvals are issued by the importing countries. At Jacana, we have completed several exports to Canada while other Jamaican companies have also exported in the Caribbean and to Australia. [Read the CLA’s response to the Forbes article here.]
International trade of cannabis is complex, and the Forbes article fails to capture this complexity. To successfully trade cannabis internationally, two licensed commercial entities are required to complete regulatory processes within their respective countries.
In the case of a Jamaican company exporting to Canada, a licensed Canadian entity must apply to Health Canada for an importation license. Only once the import permit is issued can the licensed Jamaican company then commence an application for an export permit from its regulator, the CLA.
Because everyone wants to get their hands on Jamaican cannabis, Canadian LPs planned to import cannabis from Jamaica into the Canadian market for commercial purposes. Owing to reasons that have not been explicitly stated by Health Canada, they were unable to secure the commercial import permits for medical cannabis. As it stands, no commercial import permits have been issued by Health Canada. Cannabis shipments sent from Jamaica to Canada (or originating from any other country for that matter) have been restricted to scientific and research purposes only.
In the continued absence of guidance from Health Canada, one can only assume that there is an element of protectionism at play regarding medical cannabis importation. If our assumption is correct, then this could be in violation of WTO guidelines and will no doubt soon be challenged by other countries as the industry matures.
In the EU — and in particular Germany, the country with the most successful international cannabis trade to date — a similar process is followed. A licensed German company is required to secure an import permit first, and then a Jamaican licensed company can request an export permit.
Ultimately, the success of cannabis trade between two nations is dependent on companies and regulators in two jurisdictions. For the Forbes article to assert that regulators in Jamaica are inhibiting exports or industry growth is simply false. To date, we are unaware of any case in which a Jamaican company has been refused an export permit when all requisite conditions have been met.
The Complexities of Regulating a Nascent Industry
In our opinion, the Jamaican CLA is a highly supportive regulator for the growth of the cannabis industry. We applaud its demonstrated ability to find solutions to bottlenecks and other obstacles that have presented themselves. That has certainly been Jacana’s experience as we continue to move closer towards our first export to the EU. We categorically reject Ms. Somerset’s claim that the Jamaican government and CLA regulators are delaying exports.
Legal cannabis is of course a new industry. Wherever cannabis companies operate, regulation is an extremely complicated subject, with different frameworks having been implemented across the globe with varying degrees of success. Every company involved in the space, from Canada to California, has faced these regulatory hurdles and works to overcome the challenges of building and operating a business in an ever-evolving legal landscape.
The situation in Jamaica is no different. There are a number of items that we would like the CLA to review in order to advance the industry, such as regulated cannabis delivery; however, we cannot lose sight of how much progress has been made since The Dangerous Drugs Amendment Act in 2015.
Bruce Linton, former CEO of Canopy Growth, observed that “the regulatory system in Jamaica among the top two in the world…When I walk around and see how the facilities are here, it’s like a half twist on the Canadian system, but they made it more effective. When you get to the point of sale, it is 10 times better and the branding is better, so if you want to win against the illicit market, you will have to have branding and have control; so I have been quite impressed.”
Jamaica to the World
Internationally, many remain bullish on the country’s prospects and Jamaican companies are continuing to raise capital internationally. Will Muecke from Artemis Growth Partners stated, “Our investment approach is based on long-term growth and value creation. We have invested into Jacana because we remain optimistic on the Jamaican cannabis industry’s development and are content with the progress being made. The country has natural competitive advantages that will benefit from the transition to a liberalised global cannabis market in the future.”
As a key stakeholder in the Jamaican cannabis industry, let me say here loud and clear: we are optimistic about our future and here at Jacana we are doubling down on our growth plans for both the domestic and international markets. We plan to open additional dispensaries across the island and expand our range of cannabis-based products. We are closer than ever to exporting to the EU, where we are working with serious, established partners on the ground. The future is bright green for Jamaican cannabis.