How to Build a More Sustainable and Fair Cannabis Industry
Updated: May 5
Interview with Joe Oliver from FairCann
Note: The transcript has been edited for a more pleasant reading experience.
Hi everyone, and welcome to the first episode of Smells Like Business, a podcast for anyone who wants to learn more about the current and future state of cannabis in Europe. Every episode, we talk to different business owners and cannabis specialists, making it easier for you to enter and better understand the cannabis market.
So, on this episode, we'll be talking about how ethical, sustainable, and environmentally responsible the cannabis industry is and where it still has room to improve. Fortunately, there are people and organizations out there that are thinking about these issues and actually trying to do something about them. One of these organizations is FairCann, a global fair trade cannabis cooperative. And I'm excited to let you know that we have Joe Oliver from FairCann as our guest. So Joe, welcome, and thanks for joining the show.
Hello, lovely to be here.
Who is Joe Oliver from LDN CBD?
Tom Pettit 0:58
Lovely to have you here. So before we start talking about FairCann, can you maybe tell us a little bit about yourself? I know that you, along with a couple other friends, opened up the first CBD shop in the UK, which I definitely think is something worth mentioning. But maybe first, you could tell us why you decided to get into the world of cannabis and work on sustainable and environmental issues.
My background is about 15 years around the world building social enterprises, nonprofits, and for-profits in the innovation and sustainability sectors and really looking at those driving forces that are changing the world.
So when I started to become aware that cannabis in terms of CBD molecules was legal in the UK, and some family members and friends were actually benefiting a lot from it, I started to get it for them. And I started to understand that it was very hard to find a decent source. There was no shop that you could go to and just buy and to get advice, let alone anything to do with really knowing where it came from, and the pricing was a bit speculative, as it changed all the time.
So we opened a shop, basically six, seven days a week in the middle of Camden with a few friends. And we decided to... first we thought we'd open it for six months. And we opened it and did it, and a few months in, a huge shift in cannabis policy happened in the UK, and they legalized it for medical use for certain syndromes.
Tom Pettit 2:37
You were in the right place at the right time, weren't you there?
Exactly. It hit the news, and we suddenly had huge amounts of interest. We were interviewed by the BBC, something like four or five times, in loads of different magazines from Vogue to GQ. And we were like, wow, there's a huge demand out there for this, and it's really just about connecting people to a quality product.
So we've specialized now in having just the very highest quality CBD oil, which can be tracked and traced, and each bottle has a batch number, and we have lab certificates for everything, so it's completely legitimate. And I think we're one of only three or four companies in the UK that have that level of track and trace with the ability that you can go straight from the product in your hand back down acreage and say, "Where did this come from? What's the content of the soil?"
We're so rigorous about that that we started to make our own products and we are stocked in something like 14-15 other shops, but we've been very selective because it's really about quality. We haven't distributed to the high street yet because we're just focusing on making sure that we have the best quality there is.
And it's fantastic, and the number of people who come in and are just so grateful and so happy that they can get something regularly that works for them is profound, and it meant that I quit my other jobs and I decided to just focus on this, and it's very rewarding. And the aim for us is to really just take it around the world basically and make sure that people have the best advice and the best quality products which are reliable and legal and traceable.
Tom Pettit 4:13
Yeah, that's just great. It sounds like it just exploded! I mean, it started out as a pop-up, and now you've got your own brand.
Tom Pettit 4:22
And did that all happen within a space of a couple years or?
Yeah, within a year, actually.
Tom Pettit 4:27
Wow. I mean, that does say a lot about the industry in general, doesn't it?
It does. Yeah.
What is FairCann?
Tom Pettit 4:34
And what about FairCann? I know that it was founded by Manu Caddie in New Zealand? So what's the story there, and how did you guys meet?
I met Manu, who brought together all of the local community in order to crowdsource and fund their growing operation in North New Zealand because they had rights to the first licenses in New Zealand because they are Māori and indigenous, which has to do with the rights to agricultural crops in New Zealand.
I met Manu, and he had a fantastic story, amazing background, and insights. He started to tell me about a movement of people around the world who are trying to connect and foster collaboration between them in order to integrate things like basic sustainability practices, ethics, and a way of bringing power back to people who, for instance, are indigenous groups or tribes or trying to do the best organic practices in the world, which a lot of the larger pharmaceutical companies are ignoring.
It was fantastic, and he was part of their camp and had set it up with a couple other people who are based all around the world.
Tom Pettit 5:59
And what about you? When did you enter the picture?
I really joined after it had started. But it was quite clear there was a gap in this emerging economy for something which is really based on: what does fair trade and what does equitable mean? What does cooperative mean? What does it mean to have real organic practices in that sector? And their work so far was fantastic.
I've been working with them since something like March to formalize and set up the organization in a more structured manner. Because of some of my background, working with NGOs and advising governments, I've been able to luckily see the insides of various NGOs and understand how they work and operate in a sustainable manner. So these are the key areas that Faircann stands for and what we're doing it for, and it's probably good if I kind of go through them.
Tom Pettit 6:58
Exactly. What are the areas of the industry that you're trying to target or focus on?
Our focus is first to try and understand more about fair trade standards and how they infiltrate across transactions nationally and internationally.
And then looking also at policy coherence. So you have things like technical and legal frameworks that allow people to legally have interactions with each other in ways that are outside of this black economy, which is previously where a lot of marijuana cultivation has taken place. And then there's licensed access. So allowing people, for instance, who don't have $50 million available, to get licenses, because it's become an area whereby you basically have to have huge backing or be incredibly wealthy in order to play a part of the game, which is not equitable. It's not fair.
No, no. And, of course, all these independent farmers will get pushed out. And like you said, these big corporations will just sweep in and take over, which would be a bit of shame.
When there's such a large barrier to entry, I think it's incredibly challenging for anyone.
We've got some other things like intellectual property rights - so things like proprietary strains are not just stolen and then patented somewhere else. You've seen that quite a lot.
And, for instance, indigenous strains in places like Jamaica, where they want to create seed banks for their specific strain, indigenous to that country. And then you've got redistributed public policy, so ensuring that the tax dollars from cannabis sales go back in a way that is also equitable. That's one of the areas which also touches on this whole area about how people are basically still incarcerated for crime within the state that it is now illegal.
Tom Pettit 8:59
Yeah, I mean, that's just unbelievable.
Yeah, it's a fascinating thing. One of those cases is that Chicago has just wiped huge amounts, and it's like 68,000 people's criminal records, but only for minor offenses, which still makes total sense. And then also, aside from that, the final thing is also environmental sustainability standards, really saying what does it mean to have an understood global standard for measuring the sustainable impacts both socially and environmentally.
Tom Pettit 9:33
Yeah, that makes sense. And, of course, the cannabis industry isn't even a fully-fledged industry yet here in Europe. So are there actually any environmental, sustainable regulations set in place? Or is the industry actually checking its environmental footprint at all right now?
I think that you know, honestly speaking, every single industry sector and activity in the world right now needs to be looking at its environmental footprint. The nature of any agricultural product: the purchase, the logistics, the packaging, for instance, they're all things that have a huge impact, especially when they start to be used by millions of people.
You know, there's very low standards, for instance, on the quality and environmental standard for packaging, and the example in the US where you see huge amounts of cannabis products that are made in nonrecyclable, throw away plastic packaging, which is kind of the antithesis of creating any sort of "do no harm" motto.
American vs. European Cannabis Industry
Tom Pettit 10:33
Yeah, I must admit, I am a bit worried about these big North American companies coming into Europe and sort of taking over with their bad practices. What do you think? Are you not worried about these companies swooping into Europe and taking over?
I think that it's a challenge to try and match Europe's nascent industry against America's.
Europe, I think, is probably 5, in some cases 10 years behind, and it's also so disparate in the way that you have different countries having completely different attitudes. It's similar in the way that the states have different state laws.
One of the interesting things is that in Europe there are much more stringent environmental standards.
I think there's something like 50 or 60 pesticides out there. And in America, they only measure for 8. And for instance, if you go into lab testing in the UK, it's 0.000. So they go down to 3 zeros. In terms of testing in America, you only go for 2 zeros. So there are some differences between them. I think there is a lot that can be learned.
But also, I think that, fundamentally, it's not just these countries. It's also the places, for instance, like China, that is producing most of this packaging. And then also the basic reliance on things like the petroleum industry to create the plastics.
Now, hemp is probably one of the most interesting agricultural crops that we'll ever see in our lifetimes.
It is huge and has so much potential, and it's all coming out of prohibition. And this could be a totally unique situation whereby a plant can create fuel or biomass or be used in building materials or can be used for making plastics.
Tom Pettit 12:30
Almost anything, right?
Yeah. It's like this complete wave that's going to happen, and it's been driven by this medicinal properties and effect, but the knock-on effect will be huge amounts of fiber, new ways to make clothes that takes up far less pesticides, for instance, and herbicides used for cotton growing, so it's going to be hugely disruptive across many different industries.
I think when you look at it in that sense, it is going to have a huge environmental impact. And so it's very important for us to be aware of, and try and measure that and try and reduce that and put it in things in places that will ensure good stewardship for that now.
FairCann's Plan to Promote Sustainability and Fairness within the Cannabis Industry
Tom Pettit 13:13
So what is FairCann trying to do now to tackle some of these issues? I mean, would you like to see some sort of global standard?
I think it's really important to not imagine that there is one standard for the world.
It's far less about telling people what to do rather than celebrating what is the best approach so far.
I think that our best thing is to highlight out leadership examples, share that, educate and provide the tools other people can match and get to that standard right now, because firstly, none of these issues should be competitive, and secondly, it's impossible to cover the world with one viewpoint or one approach.
I've, for instance, tried applying the GRI, which is the global reporting initiative by the UN. And I did some first applications of that in various industries in China, and there's just huge sections that didn't apply within the indicators.
I think the idea that there is an aspiration that everyone will have a standard is great, but the reality is that there are probably going to be several different types of standards, all of which are trying to do the best that they can within their environment and their cultural background. Obviously, the scope of what we're looking at is not just the production of an agricultural crop, it's also looking into the law. It's also looking into the trade agreements, it's looking into the logistics and then also the kind of knock-on other industries that can be affected by it. So, it's so broad in that sense.
Tom Pettit 15:02
It looks like you're trying to cover, well, a lot of the different aspects of the industry, so I can imagine it's quite an undertaking.
The main thing is to spark conversations around this and allow the industry to work together and not try and control that dialogue so strongly, but to allow there to be the spark or conversation, the forum on which these things are discussed. And the idea of collaboration and sharing and education between people allows for a stronger, more sustainable, more equitable industry for everyone.
Tom Pettit 15:40
So yeah, what's FairCann gonna do now to try and tackle some of these sorts of ethical, sustainable, and environmental issues that are affecting the cannabis industry?
So right now, what we're doing is we are connecting and speaking to as many of the different groups out there. For instance, there is a local group on organic sustainability in Oregon, but they're not necessarily talking to a similar group, which is based in California, even though they're both on the same coast. Or they are, but they're not really looking in terms of how the dialogue can be connected. So we're trying to really say, "Okay, well, that's great. Now, what about what's happening in Jamaica or Colombia or New Zealand, and what can we all learn and share from that?".
The interesting thing is a lot of these countries it's all nascent, it's all been formed now. I've been speaking to a government agricultural minister, and they're saying: "Well, what should we look at, what are the best examples out there?". And by our very nature, we're connecting them to what we consider to be great practice, and then they're adopting those methods.
It's that direct, which is also incredible because it's the kind of thing that would probably take four or five years to turn an industry, whereas in this case, we're literally just opening the doors and allowing people to take on the best practice and do that from day one. It's a bit like allowing new industries and new sectors in the country that are newly forming to skip, you know, nine years worth of mistakes, or to learn from these best practices, which is very similar to when, for instance, China did its huge economic jump.
It didn't have to make all the mistakes we did along the way.
Yeah! And they did that through basic technology and knowledge transfer and learning what the best thing to do now is, and that's very healthy and gives a great potential, and it feels like there's actually quite a lot of impact that could be made just by doing these light-touch simple aspects now and I think it's not a big hole as such.
Tom Pettit 18:03
No, no. Well, it obviously is an emerging industry, so if you can point governments or big companies in the right direction before they've even settled or made a big stamp on it, that's just great.
Tom Pettit 18:18
So, I know that FairCann is trying to help establish some sort of legal framework for the cannabis industry, which I imagine must be quite an undertaking as there are so many moving parts, missing pieces of the puzzle, so many different aspects to take into consideration.
But one aspect that I know is an objective of yours is the protection of intellectual property rights for breeders, for farmers. In other words, these breeders or farmers are having a difficult time patenting their plants or having ownership over their strains. I can imagine this must be a bit of a tricky problem to address. How do you guys plan on tackling that?
This is a very complicated question.
On one side the truth is that nobody should own the plant. And you've got these pharmaceutical companies... I know of one in England that tried to patent the cannabis plant, which is just a whole plant, which is outrageous.
The reason they couldn't was that there were challenges and, really, people vocally saying that this is absolutely not acceptable. So there's a level there, which is, firstly, about screening out the crazy stuff that people are doing to try and control and own the plant. So that's not acceptable.
Is Provenance a Good Idea for the Cannabis Industry?
On the other hand, is that you have these amazing growers who, let's say, have been doing it for 20 years. And they have these amazing strains, and then a company kind of, you know, not just uses it, but then reverse engineers or gets it checked in the genetic lab, and they're copying them. And it's like, you know this person's horticulturalists, effectively a botanist has gone in and grown a plant specifically for their thing, and then someone else has basically gone and used a lab to reverse engineer it. You know, is that fair? I don't know…It seems a bit like you have these breeders, these growers, a lot of whom have been doing it out of love; they've been perfecting it. And then you've got this case where a company is saying, "Well, how do I just own this thing?".
And another thing is the real question of provenance. A good example is when you look at things like Champagne. Sparkling wine, that's what it is. It's only called Champagne because it's from the Champagne region. But you can go five miles outside of the Champagne region, and you buy a bottle, and it's not allowed to be called Champagne. It's pretty much the same thing, and it's from the same area.
So this question of provenance is also, well, what could be considered a Jamaican strain? What is indigenous to Jamaica? What is an indigenous strain, for instance, for Thailand? Right? Because everyone's been talking about Thai weed for the whole time. And then in case of that, how do you ensure quality and provenance and again, the track and trace of saying that it actually comes from there, it's actually made by growers or people in Thailand using the Thai strain and then has some sort of DLC or denomination? I think that's the direction that these things are going to go in because you've got places like Humboldt County.
Tom Pettit 21:40
Yes, exactly, Humboldt County. They're quite proud of their products, and aren't they doing some sort of collaboration?
Exactly. So I think they've done things like "grown in Humboldt" and looked into how to trademark that or how to have that as a sentence which is only awarded to certain growers who have actually grown in Humboldt. And then whoever's buying that, at least through a decent channel or a legitimate channel, will know that it is coming from there and from these people and so forth. That level, it's what you should expect from anything that goes into your body or that you put on your skin. This is at a level that it should be.
It's also to say not all CBD or not all molecules are made equal, some of them are made in vast factories, and others are cultivated by hand on organic land. It's perfectly legitimate to say that we need to know which one is which and within that to allow the people who maybe don't have millions of pounds back in to also have their own strains or their own recipes. And those are their own artworks in effect.
The Impact of Cannabis Legalisation on Micro Farmers
How do you think these micro farmers will be affected by future laws and regulations? They are already, but it feels like in the US, they are fighting back, but they are also being pushed out a little bit. I don't know if Europe has that same history of micro or independent farmers as the US does. But over here in Europe, do you think they will be greatly affected? Or is it hard to tell at the moment?
It is hard to tell. One of the things is not necessarily about the history in America of micro farmers, it's because they did quite sudden legislation. So you've got a case of overproduction in certain states where you've got 600 new growers per year, and they're all micro growers. And they all think, okay, we're gonna be able to sell it, and then they realize that they're not allowed to sell off state or something. There are these incomplete legal frameworks that are causing quite a lot of disruption for smaller growers. And that's stopping them from, in some cases, selling the crop that they just gave up their life to start.
I think it's very important to remember that small growers are a bit like the small shops on the retail High Street. What happens is the big shops come along, and they price them out.
They replace their local butcher or your local person doing the same thing they've been doing or local farmer. And it leads to quite a homogenized industry, which is a real shame, and it means these, I would say, cottage growers, are priced out or moved out.
Again, it comes back to this idea, which is, if you really want to know where stuff comes from, buy local and buy from the person down the road, and that's the next thing.
In other cases, it's also good to remember that a lot of these new growers are amateurs and they don't know what they're doing, and they're not necessarily doing the most organic practices or the best for you, and it's very important to have legislation which allows people both the flexibility to be involved in it when they don't have a lot of money and when they do have just the skill, but also, on the other hand, to cut out people who are effectively cooking up moonshine in their shed, because that's not good for anyone.
Tom Pettit 25:16
No, definitely not. What about you guys at FairCann? Are you drafting any sort of laws or legislation?
We're not actually drafting them, but what we are doing is reviewing them and keeping an eye on them and having dialogue around it all, and trying to say what would be the changes if it were. In the future, we might look towards actually drafting templates and white papers and saying, "this is the direction we think it should go in." But again, it's like the industry moves so fast right now that it's really just about, kind of, how do you catch up with what's going on and link the pieces together because there's some great work out there and it's not necessarily needing to be replicated.
Tom Pettit 26:00
I can imagine it must be quite an undertaking because the industry is moving so fast right now that it just must be quite hard to stay on top of it all. Obviously, this is something the industry needs. But do you think this is something the industry wants?
Well, one, I think that there are people in the industry who want it, yes. There's some very strongly engaged dialogues happening all the time. The question is to know what the actual effect of that is. It's hard to say, although there are signs it's totally growing. Conferences on organic cannabis use and development have doubled in numbers year on year. But there is the question of how do we ensure that those learnings and those discussions are then implemented and go into ripples of change within the industry, and in some ways, it's quite early to be able to tell that because there's so much going on and nothing is particularly integrated right now.
There is not a very easy way to say yes. This trend has been integrated and learnt within an industry by this much yet, so it's very anecdotal. And it's also a question of, you know, we'll probably know within five years, and that's quite standard for sustainability, like deployment of renewable energy, for instance, across the UK, that took a long time and a lot of measurement., and only after a while did they say "Okay, well, it's actually looking like this is and it's an actual piece of the energy puzzle, and then it is this much in the market." That took quite a long time.
I don't think the cannabis industry isn't ready yet, as an overall, because I have seen everyone's numbers, for instance, the size of it, the growth of it - they're slightly different. So there's no one definitively known for sure, kind of, this is what the industry is right now.
Tom Pettit 27:52
No, and the industry is still in its infancy here in Europe. It's also so, so new and moving so, so fast, which actually leads me on to my next question. FairCann, you guys are fairly new yourselves, aren't you? Didn't it begin in July 2018?
So no, it was definitely going on way before that. It's just that it was when we formed the NGO in order to start to have bank accounts and transact.
Tom Pettit 28:21
Okay. So when did FairCann actually start?
FairCann was established a couple years ago, but there's been a lot of research, so we have resources, like folders full of all the different standard stuff that we're collecting, and a lot of research went into. So it's been in the works for a long time.
It's been in the works, but it's all it's all coming out now, that's great.
Just like every other bit of the industry.
Tom Pettit 28:51
Yes, yes, exactly. But it's also good to get out now while it's still growing so you can point companies and, well and hopefully, the government's in the right direction. Do you think there are a lot of challenges that lie ahead for you? And the industry in general?
I would say so. I think any change in industry growth, or just adoption, or just literally formation, is going to bring massive obstacles, and all three of those things are happening at the same time with cannabis.
It's, I think, one of the most fascinating industries to be part of in the world. Currently, it's completely disruptive.
And, you know, you get things like AI, for instance, which is similar in its potential for digital disruption. But it's a technology product, and you can't hold it, and you can't see someone's face light up after they've been able to use it for their pain and all the other things.
The actual fact that it's a plant is just mind-blowing.
That aspect of it is, I think, driving, just this incredible kind of momentum behind it. Which will not stop now! I think it's really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and just something to be aware of it's we're not going to see this again.
What Country Will Be the First One to Legalise Cannabis in Europe?
Tom Pettit 30:12
And hopefully, now Europe will be the next big frontier. In your opinion, which country or countries in Europe do you think have the potential to lead the way in cannabis legalization?
I think that the UK has a very strong potential for doing that. But that's only if the UK gets its act together.
I feel they're a bit behind some of their European counterparts.
But they also have a long history in doing BSI into ISO standards, so there's a lot of the British Standards often adopted globally, and there's quite a lot of history here for that. Now, whether or not that'll be required in cannabis or not is not clear. I think that Switzerland could potentially provide a lot of frameworks, and so could Germany, partly because Switzerland's background in indoor growing and hydroponic is very strong. But I'm fascinated by a new development, which is Luxembourg going completely legal. That's a tiny country, but they're a country that traditionally had pretty kind of tidy legal frameworks.
Tom Pettit 31:31
Yeah, they're quite conservative. I actually, funnily enough, grew up in Luxembourg. I'm half British, but I was born and raised there. It's got a banking history, and it's one of the EU capitals, and it was always quite conservative. So I'm very pleasantly surprised that they've done a full 180 on it.
Yeah, well, that's what I'm thinking because they're not going to be relaxed. So this is, for instance, some of the Spanish approach and Portuguese. They're just like," well, we're just not going to criminalize it," and that's cool. But it's not necessarily supporting the sector of the industry now.
I'm feeling like Luxembourg has chosen to do it for different reasons, but one of them will be to encourage commerce. And that is what I find fascinating because it's going to be the first time a European country is saying, "Yeah, it's okay, it's legal." And we're going to basically create the right frameworks around it for all those spectrums, not just medical, not just recreational, or partly recreational like in Holland. So I think it's a fascinating development.
It could mean that Luxembourg has just hit the golden pot if they do it right because it will just be a place where everyone dumps loads of money and investment into cannabis. They could just be complete geniuses right now. We're about to see.
Advice for CBD Entrepreneurs
Tom Pettit 32:54
Yeah, we'll find out. Like you said, it's all emerging. Well, I just have one last question which I ask all my guests. If you could go back in time, is there anything you would do differently?
Heh, hindsight is a wonderful thing
Tom Pettit 33:11
I think that it would probably be to have just gone full time a lot sooner because it's purely about helping other people, and that's what's wonderful. Seeing the more people helped, the more people who have access to something of actual quality, rather than what you find mostly in hundreds of brands on the streets in the UK, which is just crap, basically.
Tom Pettit 33:37
Rubbish, a lot of it, isn't it?
Yeah. And some of it doesn't even contain CBD! I get people walking saying, "Oh, yeah, I went into a High Street retail brand and bought CBD. And it didn't work." Well, yeah, because they are not doing it for the right reasons, probably, they don't care. So yes, it feels like I could have started a bit earlier on really kind of getting my teeth into this. But otherwise, no.
You take the good with the bad, and you keep going. And that's the only way to really accept life in some ways.
Of course. And you probably couldn't have started too much earlier anyway because, well, CBD wasn't even legal.
So, where can our listeners find out more about your CBD store and also about Faircann in general?
The best thing for Faircann is literally just to type in Faircann and go to the website, and you'll find contact details and what we're up to. And for London CBD, it's LDN CBD, and you can google us, or you can come to our shop in Camden, which is on 126 camera road, and or follow our Instagram @LDNCBD.
Tom Pettit 35:01
I will also include your links in the episode's description. Thank you so much for having this chat, Joe.
Thank you, Tom. Lovely to talk to you.
Tom Pettit 35:13
You too. Take care. Bye-bye.
Okay, so I just want to thank Joe once again for joining us on the show. I've been your host, Tom and I hope you will enjoy the episode as much as I did. Have a green day, everybody
You can listen to the original interview with Joe Oliver here.