Cannabis company hopes to strike oil in Saint John

Saint John has been an oil town for a long time. Cannabis oil, though? That's a new one.

New details emerge about lab that is expected to create 70 jobs, ship oil overseas

Cole Cacciavillani, a co-owner and the head grower, at Aphria in Leamington, Ont. Nuuvera Corp, which is opening a cannabis oil lab in Saint John, has agreed to purchase up to 17,500 kilograms of cannabis from Aphria over the next two years. (Evan Mitsui)

Oil production has been big business in Saint John since the 1960s.

Cannabis oil, however? That's a new one.

Made-in-Saint John oil products could be destined for international markets as soon as this spring, according to Lorne Abony, the CEO of Toronto-based Nuuvera Corp.

Earlier this month, the company announced it will open a 25,000-square foot cannabis oil testing lab in west Saint John pending the approval of the company's rezoning application. 

Nuuvera Corp. CEO Lorne Abony. Nuuvera bills itself as a 'global cannabis and industrial hemp conglomerate.' (Wikipedia)

The company will ship the oils to "Germany, Italy, Malta and Israel, and greater continental Europe as well as Canada," Abony said  Wednesday.

Much of the product "will be exported from our Saint John facility — for a number of reasons," Abony said, "one of them being that Saint John is more proximate to Europe than Ontario."

But a significant amount will be staying closer to home.

On Monday, the government announced that Nuuvera Corp. has signed a memorandum of understanding to supply cannabis products in the province after July 2018.

It's the fourth cannabis company to sign such an agreement with the province. The others are Organigram, Canopy Growth Corp. and Zenabis.

A spokesperson for Nuuvera said the company has not received any subsidies from the provincial government for the establishment of the Saint John facility. 

4th-largest supplier

Nuuvera expects to sell New Brunswick 2.5 million grams of cannabis, or its equivalent in oil, in the first year, according to Abony.

That puts Nuuvera Corp. behind Zenabis, which will supply four million grams with a retail value of $40 million to $50 million, Canopy Growth, which expects to see four million grams worth $40 million, and Organigram, which will supply five million grams worth $40 million to $60 million.

In addition to its agreement with New Brunswick, on Jan. 16 Moncton-based Organigram signed a tentative agreement with the P.E.I. government for at least one million grams of recreational marijuana per year. 

Greg Engel, CEO of Moncton-based OrganiGram talks about the company's memorandum of understanding to supply cannabis to P.E.I. 5:15

Abony wouldn't discuss the retail value of Nuuvera's agreement.

Although per-unit prices were not discussed in the memorandum, "it's anticipated that the general view [of the retail price] will be around $10 per gram," said Abony. Two per cent of Nuuvera's gross sales will support the Cannabis Education and Awareness Fund, which was set up by the province to "educate people on safety and the like around cannabis," Abony said.

Nuuvera Corp has purchased 384 Lancaster Ave., pictured, where it plans to open a lab this spring, pending the approval of its rezoning application. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The lab will create jobs in Saint John, he said.

"We are looking at 40 to 70 jobs going into the facility in Saint John," said Abony. "I want to underscore that these are high-end, scientific, lab-like jobs."

Abony, who owns  a summer home on Lake Utopia listed for sale at $6.9 million, said he has a personal connection to the province.

"I love New Brunswick and I think it's one of the best-kept secrets in the world," said Abony,

Blocks of white powder

Cannabis oils — which will make up the majority of Nuuvera's anticipated business in Saint John — can be smoked, vaporized or consumed in edibles. The concentrated products are made by extracting and refining chemical compounds from raw cannabis.

"When we talk about oils, we're talking about oils for vape pens and the like," said Abony. "We anticipate that most of what we sell in New Brunswick will be oils or oil derivatives."

Cannabis oil during the manufacturing process. Nuuvera will be manufacturing oils in Saint John for distribution in New Brunswick and in legal markets overseas. (Wikipedia)

But that doesn't mean west siders will see bales of weed being loaded into the new Saint John facility.

Instead, Abony said, Nuuvera will manufacture CBD, THC, and hybrid oils using isolates — super-refined compounds stripped of all residual plant material.

The result is effectively "blocks of powder," he said. "Isolate is the product extracted to its rawest powder, crystal form."

On Jan. 11, Nuuvera announced an agreement with Isodiol International Inc. to import up to 30,000 g of CBD isolate per month into Canada from the United Kingdom. In 2018 and 2019, Nuuvera plans to purchase up to 17,500 kilograms of cannabis from Aphria Inc., one of Canada's largest cannabis growers.

Aphria Inc. is working with Nuuvera to build and operate a one-million-square-foot cannabis-growing plant in Leamington, Ont.

A cannabis plant at Aphria, in Leamington, Ont. Aphria is one of Canada's largest growers of cannabis. (Evan Mitsui/CBCNews)

The cannabis grown in Leamington will be distilled into isolate, then shipped to Saint John and made into oil products.

How much isolate and plant material will pass through to the Saint John facility remains to be seen. And Nuuvera isn't ruling out distributing dried cannabis.

"In some cases depending on [...] how fast we can get this lab built," Abony said, "we may ship quantities of flower or bud — the actual plant — and do the extraction and the isolate in Saint John."

The T4G building at 384 Lancaster Ave. is being proposed as the site of a lab for 'cannabis testing, extraction, and cannabinoid purification.' (Julia Wright / CBC)

Tours, walk-throughs

Unlike some other provinces, said Abony, New Brunswick is an appealing place for cannabis companies to do business because of its "very forward thinking" approach to legalization.

Abony said Nuuvera reached the memorandum of understanding after eight months of meetings with the premier, who he referred to as a "thought leader" in cannabis legalization, and representatives of the Crown corporation that will oversee recreational cannabis.

Abony described New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant as a 'thought leader' in the area of marijuana legalization. (Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press)

"We really want to do business with New Brunswick and think that New Brunswick will lead the industry forward," said Abony.

Nuuvera anticipates the Saint John lab could be up and running as soon as this March, or a few months later, depending on the rezoning hearing.

We are looking at 40 to 70 jobs going into the facility in Saint John. I want to underscore that these are high-end, scientific, lab-like jobs.- Lorne Abony , CEO of  Nuuvera  Corp

The company will make a public presentation to city council on Jan 29. The public will have 30 days to provide comments before the process is referred to the planning advisory committee in March.

If all goes according to plan, "we're hoping to start operating this quarter or if not early Q2 of this year," Abony said. "We plan on being as open as humanly possible, and allowing the public to tour it and walk through it."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Julia Wright is a reporter based in Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.