British Columbia

Fertile territory: legal marijuana production blooms on Vancouver Island

With the recreational cannabis market a year away in Canada, another player in the B.C. marijuana industry is looking to cash in on Vancouver Island.

Licensed medical cannabis producer in Duncan, B.C., plans $25M expansion ahead of legalization

Production manager Mikael Rykes shows off some of the finished product at United Greeneries. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

A security pass, a protective white suit and a tolerance for the smell of marijuana are all requirements before stepping foot inside the tightly controlled United Greeneries production facility.

The licensed producer has been growing medical cannabis in a building just outside Duncan, B.C. for about a year.

But with the legalization of recreational cannabis expected by the summer of 2018, it's about to undergo a $25 million expansion.

"The retail market is potentially much larger than just the medical market alone," said Graham Whitmarsh, the chief operating officer for Harvest One — the company that recently purchased United Greeneries.

Whitmarsh, a former deputy health minister for B.C., says the legislation introduced by the Trudeau government has provided enough certainty for shareholders to line up behind the expansion.

"We expect there will be significant growth, particularly with respect to oils that are extracted from the raw product," he said. 

"That has certainly been the experience in the U.S. and I think Canada will be similar."

The dried product is packaged and stored in Ziplock bags. United Greeneries sells it to another legal producer who then sells it to medical cannabis users through the mail. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Budding industry

Production manager Mikael Rykes is one of 15 employees at United Greeneries.

He used to tend to work in a commercial greenhouse, and took interest in medical cannabis through friends and family who used it medicinally.

"There's a lot more specialization required with cannabis with the specific strains and how you grow them."

United Greeneries is not the first marijuana company to take an interest in Vancouver Island. Tillray — one of the largest licensed producers in the country — is based in Nanaimo.

Plants nearing maturity in one of the securing growing rooms at United Greeneries. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Expansion plans

Construction will soon start on a new greenhouse and facility near the company's current location. It will produce the various marijuana products that are expected to be in demand in the recreational market.

"Vancouver Island has a very sympathetic environment for growing these types of products. I think many of the communities are looking for economic development opportunities," Whitmarsh said.

Daniela Vaschi, the CEO for United Greeneries, says a few years ago it was difficult to hire for the industry, but interest is growing. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

When the expansion is complete, the workforce at United Greeneries is expected to swell to over 100 people, making it one of the largest employers in the city. 

Mayor Phil Kent says the jobs are welcome as the region tries to diversify its economy.

"That's a significant employer and I understand that they are going to be paying a better than living wage for the Cowichan area," he said.

Until now, hiring for the marijuana company has come with its share of challenges, says United Greeneries CEO Daniela Vaschi.

"We participated in a job fair here in Duncan. It was very interesting to see how different people reacted to what we were doing," she said.

"It takes a little bit of time for people to adjust to idea that we are the legal side of it."

But Vaschi says public perceptions are changing and interest in positions is picking up as the industry comes of age in an era of full legalization. 

Several strains of marijuana are grown at the United Greeneries facility. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

As good a place as any

There are still many questions about how recreational marijuana will be sold and consumed across Canada.

Under the proposed federal law, the provinces will have the latitude to set the rules for things like retail distribution and a higher age for consumption.

But among the tidy rows of budding cannabis plants at United Greeneries, Rykes says one thing is a certain with legalization: producers will need to grow more plants.

And he says B.C. communities, like Duncan, are as good a place as any to cash in on the boom.

"There's quite a bit of expertise on the island," he said. "Quite a bit experience growing at home for personal use."