Green gold
St Vincent goes after cannabis industry
Inside the greenhouse at Cana SVG's farm in Georgetown, St Vincent and the Grenadines (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

ON January 18, 2022, the first shipment of medicinal cannabis left the shores of St Vincent and the Grenadines for Germany as part of the archipelagic nation's push to diversify its exports while building a wellness industry it hopes will generate wealth for its people. It was the first medicinal cannabis export by a member of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, made up of 11 nations and overseas territories on the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea.

The export was small, just 50 kilogrammes (110 pounds), but for St Vincent and the Grenadines, a nation of 110,000 people and a gross domestic product of US$810 million, it was a huge first step in a drive to cut its dependence on bananas, which account for 50 per cent of its merchandise exports. While tourism has supplanted bananas as the main foreign exchange earner for the country since 1993, the banana industry still employs up to 60 per cent of the workforce. The country wants to change that.

"What we are doing in St Vincent and the Grenadines is developing a modern medicinal and wellness industry of which cannabis is only one pillar," Saboto Caesar, the charismatic minister of agriculture and fisheries for St Vincent and the Grenadines, told the Jamaica Observer during a brief visit in July.

"We are also going to be investing in the psychedelic industry and also the local herbs and spices that we have in the country. We have an excellent piece of legislation, which includes the traditional cultivators, which also addresses the banking issue and it is coming from the standpoint whereby we decided very early that we are establishing a medicinal industry and not one that is recreational." It means that unlike here in Jamaica, people are not legally allowed to grow cannabis in their yard.

A worker waters plants in Cana SVG's greenhouse in Georgetown, St Vincent and the Grenadines. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

Caesar was speaking to this reporter while on tour of a cannabis farm, Cana SVG, which is operated by a Canadian couple in Georgetown, a small village of 2,000 people in the parish of Charlotte on the north-eastern section of the island. The town lies in the shadow of La Soufriere volcano about 35 kilometres using the Windward Highway, which skirts this volcanic island of lush beauty and mountains which rise sharply from the sea.

At the farm, we met Renae Blackhall, a Canadian citizen who functions as Cana SVG's operations manager, though she admits readily that her background is in culinary arts and hospitality. She said she hails from a community of traditional cultivators in Canada. The farm we visited was 1.5 hectares (about 4 acres), but Blackhall told us the company has already secured a further 24 hectares (60 acres) that it will develop in the future.

Cana SVG does not cultivate its cannabis plants outdoor. In Georgetown, the crop is grown in a single greenhouse in pots from seeds supplied from Jamaica. The greenhouse holds about 6,000 flowering plants which are transferred from a nursery on the same property.

"We have received significant support from the Government and people of Jamaica from the time of drafting the legislation to the recent support we received in getting seeds when we were impacted by the 32 volcanic eruptions [in April 2021] and we are going to continue along that path of cooperation and solidarity. We look forward to great things between St Vincent and the Government of Jamaica," Caesar added.

CAESAR...What we are doing in St Vincent and the Grenadines is developing a modern medicinal and wellness industry of which cannabis is only one pillar. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

Pearnel Charles Jr, Jamaica's minister of agriculture and fisheries, who was also on the tour, was pleased at what he was seeing especially given Jamaica's role in the redevelopment of the cannabis industry in St Vincent and the Grenadines.

"The reality is that we have to have greater exchange," Charles Jr told the Caribbean Business Report. "That operational style of going towards greater industry is something we have to do across Caricom," he added, noting that he is always willing to lend a helping hand where he can, to Caricom countries looking to diversify their agricultural base. "We will extend our hand to help St Vincent to develop livestock, to develop crop industry and to develop the cannabis industry." The help, Caesar said, is welcomed.

Medicinal cannabis only

Caesar said St Vincent and the Grenadines was careful in how it went about defining the cannabis industry under the laws of St Vincent and the Grenadines. He said when the legislation was being worked on, the Government took the unpopular position very early, to recognise that international law states that cannabis can only be used for medicinal purposes and/ or scientific research.

The greenhouse at Cana SVG's farm in St Vincent and the Grenadines (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

"So we have not decriminalised cannabis for recreational purposes neither is it legal for recreational purposes. Cannabis is only legal for medicinal purposes and scientific research and our laws clearly state that, so that is perfectly in line with international law. What we did though is that we de-penalise for small quantities, if you are caught using it recreationally. So the man caught with very small quantities would not go to prison and again what the International Narcotics Control Board said that this is the way to go, because they are saying, if you arrest these young people for a spliff, and you send them to prison with hardened criminals, then you lose them to society."

He said taking that stance — restricting the industry to the medicinal purposes and scientific research — "opens many doors for us".

"We have been able to attract foreign direct investments proceeds with the technology and know-how and able to advance the industry. So, where we are today at Cana SVG, we are seeing where local stakeholders, they are investing jointly," he continued.

In 2018, St Vincent and the Grenadines created a State agency to oversee licensing and ensure its medicinal cannabis is available to local patients.

From left: Pearnel Charles Jr, Jamaica's minster of agriculture and fisheries; Saboto Caesar, St Vincent and the Grenadines' minister of agriculture and fisheries and Renae Blackhall, operations manager at Cana SVG; inspect cannabis flowers that are being prepared for export. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

"St Vincent and the Grenadines is ready for global business in the medicinal wellness industry space," Caesar said, adding the Government hopes to develop other wellness products including traditional medicines and the emerging field of psychedelic medicine.

"Let us not forget that we have many other herbs and spices. We have turmeric, we have the nutmeg, the cloves. We also have all those herbs we use for teas for many years," he continued.

Outside of Jamaica, Caesar said he is working with other countries to help him achieve his dream.

"We have already done significant work with the Government and people of Ghana because many of these [herbs and spices] were brought from West Africa and some from South America as far back as the period of the Ciboney, and then the Caribs and the Arawaks, and then the psychedelics industry, that's a whole different thing with the magic mushrooms being utilised for psychotherapy by trained medical professional."

Cannabis seedlings in the mesh house at Cana SVG ahead of being transplanted to the greenhouse where it is grown for the export market. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

He said in developing a diversified modern medicinal wellness industry, an investor coming into St Vincent and the Grenadines can look at all the possibilities and opportunities "because to set up a pharmaceutical company is expensive and to do it for only one commodity, may not be feasible. But when you have the legislative framework for a multiplicity of commodities to be extracted and turned into pharmaceuticals and neutraceuticals, it lends itself for greater profitability and productivity for the investor."

Exports

For Blackhall, the target is clear, exporting the product.

"We would like to see our market in Europe developed, so we would like to ship internationally. I think that is where the biggest market lies for us. Obviously we would like to participate in the local market as well, but we are right now searching out for those buyers internationally. So hopefully, places like Germany, Portugal, Malta; wherever they will take Cana SVG products, we're willing to at least try to get it there," Blackhall told the Caribbean Business Report.

At the moment, Cana SVG only produces the flower from the cannabis plant, but Blackhall says she's working on developing cannabis edibles for the company. "We do have another lab in Arnos Vale [St Vincent and the Grenadines] which will be working on the extractions to create other products," she continued. Getting a licence to export to the EU is, however, the holy grail.

A worker at Cana SVG strips the cannabis flower ahead of preparing it for the export market. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

"We are working on that right now. We are actually right in the middle of the process...in trying to meet the regulations in order to export," she said.

But being able to quickly scale up production to achieve that aim is challenged by banking.

"Banking is still a very large issue here. Even getting money from Western Union, myself working in the cannabis industry, I am not allowed to take money from Western Union. So simple things of that nature are very difficult, even for me to get a local banking account as someone working in the cannabis industry is also proving to be very difficult. So there are many challenges with transferring internationally, with getting local accounts, and I hope that in the future as things loosen, that maybe that will change."

On the matter of investment, Blackhall would give nothing away, only saying it's "in the millions". While she refused to comment on the investments because that is not her role in the company, she was clear, "We just hope to see a return by doing a great job on the cultivating and having good crops coming through and that's all we can do."

Cana SVG, she said, is still somewhat experimenting and doing research. On site everyday are about 15 staff members and indirect another 45 others. Local traditional cultivators are also employed.

She said she grows in the greenhouses to reduce the impact of pests which in turn reduces her use of pesticides, which is critical to getting the product into Europe. "We found the only way to mitigate these issues, at least 75 per cent of them, was to build this greenhouse and it has actually proven to be worthwhile, because even though we are still seeing some caterpillars and some small things, it's dramatically reduced," Blackhall explained.

Caesar acknowledging that issue, said his country took steps to stop aerial spraying of its banana crops in favour of teams using mist blowers.

"We have to also appreciate that the European is diverse and a significant percentage of products going into any European country will be used for neutraceuticals and some for even pharmaceuticals. And if you are to carve out a niche for yourself, the higher the standards that you grow the cannabis, the greater the viability for your industry, because you will be able to get not only better prices but also greater market share," Caesar added as he explained why reducing pesticide use in his country's banana sector is critical to the growth of its burgeoning cannabis industry.

The global medical cannabis industry is valued at US$13 billion and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 21.06 per cent from 2022 to 2030. The industry is experiencing growth due to the rising awareness regarding various therapeutic applications of the product, such as pain management, appetite enhancement, and reducing eye pressure.

BY DASHAN HENDRICKS Business content manager hendricksd@jamaicaobserver.com

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