Medical marijuana industry slowly grows

Staffing challenges include finding people who understand the business

Just one year ago, Health Canada’s new rules around the use of medical marijuana came into effect. The Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) were introduced to create conditions for a commercial industry responsible for its production and distribution and to “provide access to quality-controlled, dried marijuana for medical purposes, produced under secure and sanitary conditions, to those Canadians who need it, while strengthening the safety of Canadian communities.”

It was a big move meant to prevent abuses under the previous system, the Marihuana Medical Access Regulations (MMAR), but for many licensed producers, it’s been a long road when it comes to ironing out the details and finding appropriate staff.

One of the big challenges has been working through the process with Health Canada as it figures out how the regulations will be enforced and requirements will be met, said Greg Engel, CEO of licensed producer Tilray in Nanaimo, B.C.

“It has been definitely been a growing process on both sides,” he said. “Health Canada has the strictest regulations on medical cannabis in the world — but there are unique instances that come up that are facility-unique.”

The regulations are always evolving because this is a new industry , said Alex Abellan, founder and CEO of National Access Cannabis (NAC) in Victoria.

“Canada is going to be on a world platform level as (having) the most responsible method of dispensing marijuana in the world.”
Part of the challenge has been a lack of awareness or understanding. There are a lot of misconceptions and not a lot of information out there for people, he said.

“Medical marijuana is very complex and, not only that, to work within the guidelines and regulations of Health Canada, a lot of patients are having a hard time filling out the forms and also having a hard time finding the physicians who are comfortable dealing with cannabis. Also, patients are having a hard time finding producers, licensed producers, because those producers are not allowed to advertise.”

With marijuana, there’s billions of dollars’ worth of consumption each year, said Norman Paul, chair and co-founder of licensed producer CannTrust in Vaughan, Ont.

“What we’re discovering in the work we’ve done is that a lot more people are using it for medical reasons than was made open to public because there’s a bit of a stigma: ‘Oh, you’re using marijuana, it’s just to get high.’ The truth is people are using marijuana for chemotherapy and extreme pain, to reduce the amount of opiates, anorexia nervosa, general anxiety disorder and so on.”

Recruitment challenges
Since starting up, the business has gone well as attitudes evolve, said Engel.

“What we’re seeing is a real shift in awareness and attitude towards medical cannabis, as education efforts increase, as physicians and certainly patients become more aware of it as an option for them — the acceptance level continues to grow, so we’ve been in a great position to continue to expand.”

And when it comes to recruiting, the challenges have diminished, he said.

“As there is a broader acceptance and awareness that this is a legitimate industry — with government support and working under very strict guidelines — it has elevated the level of position and awareness of the industry, so it has made it much easier for us to attract people that we might not have been able to attract six months ago.”

The 120-employee Tilray has had good support from the City of Nanaimo and the province of British Columbia, which has been a real plus, said Engel.

“We are a company that has a very broad range of staffing needs. On the one hand, we are a production facility, so we are growing, producing and packaging medical cannabis, so there’s a mix of different requirements. So our team is really a very broad range of people from PhDs, biologists, botanists, horticulturalists, production staff, packaging staff… we have an ex-RCMP officer for head of security and real strong commercial team, and legal counsel.”

Recruiting employees was not easy, at least to start, said Abellan of NAC.

“There’s been a big challenge to find people who are educated on cannabis,” he said, adding his staff are working on accreditation to be cannabis specialists. 

“The industry is huge,” said Abellan. “There are so many opportunities right now because of the medical marijuana industry, right from the seed to the growers to the farmers, the trimmers, the packaging, derivative markets… it’s a new industry that’s being created and there’s going to be a lot of jobs created.”

There’s also a need for transportation and security experts and, of course, pharmacists.

“Target just closed down in Canada; we’re expecting to pick up most of the pharmacists that lost their jobs… as soon as National Access Cannabis opens up its doors,” said Abelland.

The company hopes to set up new locations in Ottawa over the next few months, he said.

“We’re taking baby steps because… this is a new ground, it’s a new business, a new industry and with a new industry, you need a lot of help, a lot of support and right now we’re just looking for champions to be a part of NAC.”

CannTrust just received its license in February and in setting up the company, Paul has reached out to people he knows from previous workin the field, including pharmacy and lab technicians and nurses.

“I’ve assembled a team of people who are very, very experienced in patient-centric care, knowing what to do and how to relate to the patients in terms of ordering a drug or, in this case, medical marijuana, and relate to that patient and their needs,” he said. 

“It is a huge challenge, if you’re serious about the business, and you need to be because it’s very regulated… then you better get serious about finding the right people — that is absolutely everything in terms of making the business successful. Without that, it won’t happen for you.”

It was more difficult, however, to find experienced growers, said Paul, but the 30-employee CannTrust now has three master growers who were licensed under the old MMAR program, he said.

“In addition, they have degrees from university in things like agriculture, one has a master’s in microbiology, so very science-orientated.”

Security concerns
All employees at CannTrust are first fingerprinted and cleared with the authorities, said Paul. 

“The intent is to build this into a safe and manageable industry where the consumer ends up with the benefit.” 

Security and safety are also priorities, with plenty of cameras on-site along with personal protective equipment to prevent contamination.

“You can’t come into my place and go anywhere throughout the facility unless you’re completely gowned exactly like a pharmaceutical company, so that means you’re wearing covered boots, a complete body suit, a mask, a hat, latex gloves,” he said. 

“The disciplines of pharmaceutical manufacturing and disciplines of growing medical marijuana are no different — it’s a sterile environment so that you can control what you’re growing. People are consuming that.”

Tilray also does a very extensive background check on all staff, said Engel.

“There’s also, for certain positions, another security requirement where Health Canada is part of the security review, depending on the level of the position,” he said.

But the biggest winner in all this — “as we continue this dialogue and start to educate ourselves and find the benefits of medical marijuana” — will be, of course, the medical marijuana users themselves “because it truly is a medicine,” said Abellan.
“People are just not aware of how big this industry is really going to get.”

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