Jamaican ganja is a US$250-million industry

BY ALEXIS MONTEITH
Observer writer

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

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BLAINE Dowdle, CEO of Itopia Life, a Jamaican-based cannabis operation involved in cultivation, processing, retail as well as research and development, estimates the local cannabis industry to be worth in the region of US$219 million while he values the island's cannabis tourism industry at over US$33 million.

The Canadian CEO has been involved in the cannabis industry since 2003. He has consulted with various governments on medical cannabis policy and he founded MedCannAccess (MCA) in 2015 which he sold to Canada's first publicly traded medical cannabis company, Canopy Growth Corporation (CGC).

Before joining Itopia Life in 2018, Dowdle became Head of International Development and Special Projects at CGC and was involved in the establishment of a research and development partnership between CGC and Beckley Canopy Therapeutics to clinically validate cannabis-based medicines.

According to Dowdle, his calculations of the size of Jamaica's cannabis industry were arrived at from general statistics using methodologies previously utilised to assess the cannabis industries of Canada and the USA.

In those analyses daily consumption users were thought to make up five per cent of the population, which is the same number that was used to arrive at the Jamaican figures.

He notes, however, that the percentage representing daily users could be higher in Jamaica resulting in the industry being worth more than his present assessment.

The calculations were also based on individual cannabis usage of 2 grams per day in Jamaica at US$2 per gram. For the cannabis tourism industry the price of US$9 per gram was used with an estimated 20 per cent of tourists believed to consume daily at a rate of one gram a day during their visits.

“With people's exposure to higher quality herb, the overall price in Jamaica that people have been willing to pay has been increasing,” Dowdle notes in explaining another factor that could increase the value of the industry. “There is one herb house that is selling it for US$20 per gram.”

Dowdle believes that an increase in cannabis use can be generated in the future through education about its medicinal benefits.

“There may be a cohort of people with a variety of medical conditions who may not have contemplated using medical cannabis before,” he explains. “There are a myriad of reasons for that including it being illegal, there not being a safe supply and maybe they aren't comfortable using it without physician supervision. In this current reality one of our goals is to provide physician education so that physicians can possibly identify someone who didn't respond well to conventional therapies they had tried and maybe cannabis can be an option for them.”

Dowdle also points out that many users are already self-medicating and they can be converted to being legal, medical users. For instance, they may be using cannabis for getting to sleep without realising they have an insomnia problem and that better options are available to them through medical cannabis.

“If using cannabis is helping them to get to sleep then that is a therapeutic use,” Dowdle states. “In that instance it would be better for the person using it if they knew they could have access to a consistent product, one that had been tested and was produced in a legal way and that can be purchased in a legal way. With all those benefits we would hope that an educated patient would see the benefit of being a legal, medical user.”

The Itopia Life CEO believes a lot of this education could be industry-driven through evidence-based public health campaigns. However, he claims that education is already happening organically in other countries such as Canada where patients and users are sharing their experiences with other people on how they have treated their illnesses.

“In Canada MS patients, cancer patients, HIV patients, they were all exchanging information in stories about how they were using it to improve their health,” Dowdle reveals. “It was really in the face of all this anecdotal as well as scientific evidence that the court in Canada granted some of the right to use it medically.”

Dowdle claims other sectors of the Jamaican economy are already benefiting from the current developments in the cannabis industry and additional opportunities for growth are possible. Farm supply companies are increasing sales as cannabis producers set up “grow spaces”. Farms and production facilities require fencing and 24-hour security so security companies and distributors of security systems stand to gain, as well.

“I would say JPS is going to do OK because most of these projects are fairly power-intensive,” he added. “I know for our greenhouse our monthly electricity bill is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for all the fans and air conditioning that we are running and we are definitely not the biggest facility.”

In the tourism sector Dowdle proposes that spa facilities providing cannabis treatments could be developed. Small or boutique hotels built around the provision of therapeutic treatments is another area that can be explored while an increase in cannabis-related tours is likely. Coffee shops providing various cannabis products and edibles represent a possible avenue for growth in the tourism sector while retirement living with access to medical cannabis could be attractive to foreign retirees.

Dowdle points out, however, that tourism has not yet started to take advantage of the current developments now taking place in the cannabis industry.

One issue that the CEO has with the current Jamaican laws related to cannabis has to do with the sacramental use of the product. Rastafarians are allowed to grow cannabis for sacramental use related to the rastafarian religion but they are not allowed to sell what they grow. According to Dowdle, the permission for them to grow cannabis was supposed to be an economic benefit but a problem now exists because they are not able to recover their farming costs by selling it within the community.

“I had been working on a project with the rasta group when the law was announced to bring a big corporation to Jamaica to partner with them to do production,” he revealed. “When that corporation read in the law that there was no economic opportunity the project was abandoned.”

Dowdle believes the government needs to address this particular issue for the rastafarian community but overall he is optimistic about how Jamaica can profit from the future development of cannabis.

Itopia Life recently received approval of its retail (with consumption) licence and will be opening the Itopia Life Herb House at 10A West Kings House Road, Kingston, soon.

Further down the pipeline their business model includes revenue generation through tours and attractions at their 80-acre property in St Ann which has the company's farm and processing lab.


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