Medical cannabis is a rapidly expanding industry, providing symptom relief for everyone from children to seniors when nothing else works. The team at WeedMD is on the ground floor to help this inspiring new industry grow to its full height.
If you had the chance to make the world a better place, would you? It’s an easy question, especially when considering your answer could potentially alleviate the pain and suffering of hundreds of thousands of people. And that’s not even being dramatic.
Medical cannabis has a long history, one that can easily be traced back thousands of years within several different cultures, including those in ancient China, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Egypt, India, and Greece. Its effects during those times are not unlike its effects today, as it was and continues to be used to manage ailments like chronic pain, seizures, the reduction of nausea and vomiting, and increasing appetite.
These days, people suffering the effects of diseases like cancer, Huntington’s Disease, and epilepsy have seen vast improvements in their symptoms by utilizing medical cannabis as a treatment option. Still, there are those who are very much against medical cannabis use for anyone, and especially when it comes to treating children.
Yes, you read that right: there are children who use medical cannabis. Shocked? You shouldn’t be. Spend a few minutes on YouTube, watching just one of the thousands of stories about children with Dravet Syndrome, a rare but particularly violent form of epilepsy. Children with Dravet’s experience seizures sometimes as frequently as every 25 minutes, every day of their lives. Those seizures can last anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, and can be life-threatening.
Try to imagine living like that, just for a moment. And then try to imagine a substance that could reduce or even eradicate your seizures and help you lead a normal life.
It’s not a dream. It’s medical cannabis.
WeedMD is run by people who, by necessity, have morphed into leaders in a field where everything seems to be a new frontier.
Bruce Dawson-Scully is Founder and CEO of WeedMD, a licensed producer of medical cannabis in the small town of Aylmer, Ontario. Bruce has never grown a cannabis plant in his life but finds himself a pioneer when it comes to the study, growth, and distribution of medical cannabis in Canada. So where did he get the idea? “I come from three generations of owner-operators of long-term care facilities,” says Bruce. “I’ve always been interested in how we operate the long-term care and retirement business. It has always been about ways to enhance the quality of life for seniors. And medical cannabis, to me, is a pathway to achieve that.”
Bruce started WeedMD in 2013 with a goal of not only growing and selling medicinal cannabis product on a commercial level, but also alleviating some of the biggest problems facing the most rapidly growing demographic in this country. “What are the top problems for seniors? Overuse of opiates. Overuse of antipsychotic drugs. Managing behaviours in Dementia patients. Managing sleep, depression, appetite. Even conditions like Huntington’s Disease, where someone can’t even move from a table to their wheelchair. These people can be treated and we believe that the use of medical cannabis can help to control those things.”
Keith Merker is the Chief Financial Officer and, like everybody else in the world, had no experience in industrial cannabis when he started working in the industry. “I have a background in finance; I come from Bay Street. I’m a chartered financial analyst. Four years ago, I was doing consulting work for small private and public companies when this opportunity came along. I started out just doing some contract work as the business was starting, and that turned into… well, I was the only guy who could add, so I was nominated to become CFO,” he laughs. Keith is excited about the potential for growth in what is a very new and oftentimes misunderstood market. “It’s a time of transition, for sure. There’s a lot of misinformation and confusion out there. Even though this is a federally legislated program, there are still people who get their backs up and are not fully comfortable. And we understand that. But those things are changing, definitely.”
Dr. Luc Duchesne is the Chief Scientific Officer and Quality Assurance Person. He holds a PhD in Plant Biochemistry, with 85 peer-reviewed publications and 30 years of experience in the research, production, and commercialization of natural products. But even though he has arguably the coolest job out of all 40 employees at WeedMD, he is constantly on edge. “The real challenge is that there’s no recipe for growing medical cannabis at the industrial level. We are putting something in someone’s body and we must be absolutely certain there’s nothing harmful about it. So, we are developing a precise agricultural system; we must know the chemical profile of every plant we grow to ensure consistency of our products for our customers. This is our frontier as far as science is concerned and a tremendous challenge that compels us to develop new processes every single day. But we have built a team of highly dedicated people who understand that we have to be vigilant.”
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
Even though medical cannabis has been used for thousands of years, it’s no secret that its reputation has been unfairly damaged by prohibition. There are many people who neither agree with its legalization nor condone its use medically or recreationally. Yet there is no denying that its value as a treatment option is near priceless. The biggest hurdle, it seems, is opening – and even changing – the hearts and minds of the general public on the properties of medical cannabis, and how its use differs drastically from recreational cannabis (which is not yet legal in Canada). Bruce remarks, “Time and time again, we hear patients say that medical cannabis is all about symptom management. There are thousands of reasons why cannabis should be considered a proven drug. But people say there aren’t enough clinical trials or there haven’t been enough studies. But then I say, same goes for aspirin. Did aspirin go through clinical trials? No. But people use it because it works. It definitely takes an open mind to consider cannabis as anything other than a recreational drug. But when people open their mind, they realize that this is a legitimate business that can have a life-changing, positive impact on the patients who utilize it.”
Securing a licence to grow and sell medical cannabis is not for the faint of heart. Being heavily regulated by Health Canada can be frustrating at times but it may also open the minds of some critics of the industry – or at least, of those who are curious about it. “We want to give the regulator absolute confidence in our grow system,” says Dr. Duchesne. “We collect massive amounts of data so we can be as perfect as can be. For example, we have a very complex inventory system, using both paper and computers, to keep track of the movement of every plant from one room to the next during the grow cycle from seed or cutting to medicine. Also, we perform chemical and microbial analyses on everything that comes close to our plants. We strive to have perfect control and we test and poke and check it all the way along until we get the finished product. [Medical cannabis] is an immensely complex organism that keeps growing. So, we are always asking, ‘How can we do better for our patients?’”
Challenges and roadblocks come in all forms in the medical cannabis industry. Keith believes that the industry itself can sometimes be part of the problem. “We do our banking at a very well-known institution, yet I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gone through a compliance review in the last four years,” he says. “Sometimes I think someone just looks at our file and doesn’t really understand what our industry is about, and so we get flagged. But the good thing is, that’s all really starting to change for the better and they understand the depth of our commitment to the public and to our shareholders.”
MANAGEMENT, BOARD MEMBERS AND FAMILY OF WEEDMD OPENED THE TSXV ON APRIL 27/2017. WEEDMD IS NOW TRADING UNDER THE SYMBOL TSXV:WMD.
The sun is definitely shining on WeedMD’s future. Currently in Canada, there are 43 licensed medical cannabis producers, WeedMD being one of them. Of those 43, only 21 are licensed to sell their product. WeedMD achieved the enviable position of being one of those 21, receiving their license to sell in April of 2017. As well, they have recently been listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange as a publicly traded company, something that only a few of their competitors have been able to do. “On the second day of trading, we had to actually halt stock,” says Keith. “We had material news to disclose, which was that we’d just been granted our sales license by Health Canada. So, having those two big milestones come through just a day apart was extremely exciting for our shareholders.”
The facilities at WeedMD are state-of-the-art, with the ability to produce up to 1,500 kilograms of cannabis per year by growing the plant from infancy as a seed all the way up to large plants that flower and produce the coveted medicine. Their facility is 26,000 square feet but has the capacity to expand to over 200,000 square feet, an expansion they’re planning to start this year – growing to keep up with growth, as they say. “The industry is growing at such a rapid pace,” says Bruce. “The need for more medicine among a widening group of patients has actually been a challenge from the production perspective. Growing from 26,000 square feet to 200,000 square feet is a huge hurdle for us, and a huge risk. But it’s what we’re targeting. And we have a fantastic team of people in place to help make it happen.”
Bruce’s vision for the future of WeedMD involves developing a program specific to serving seniors and the long-term care and retirement facilities that house them. “It’s not just that we’re trying to sell them products,” Bruce explains. “It’s about actually implementing a program into these institutional facilities so that medical cannabis is widely accepted – where patients, their families, and their health teams understand the use and the benefits, and the patients see progress with their symptoms.”
Helping people genuinely understand what medical cannabis is and what it is not is a big responsibility but is part of the job, and one that the WeedMD team takes very seriously. “I just got back from lecturing in Winnipeg,” says Dr. Duchesne. “Imagine sitting in a room with 100 patients, telling them all about medical cannabis. It went very well, but it’s dangerous because you never want to raise expectations. We understand, very much, that we have a responsibility to our clients.”
The fact that medical cannabis is so heavily regulated by Health Canada seems to help people understand that this is a legitimate business, and that the product could potentially improve lives. Regulation helps to ensure the market grows steadily and that there is as little opportunity as possible for negative impact. “Certainly, it’s not easy. It’s not as if just anyone can do this,” says Keith. “The science behind what we do is very intense and you need to know that the product you’re creating is safe and ethical. Health Canada will only allow you to produce and, ultimately, sell as much as they see fit. One of their biggest concerns has always been diversion, where too much product is being created and the extra goes out the back door. Strict inventory control like what we have helps avoid that.”
For Bruce, it’s very humbling to be playing a role in easing the suffering of those living with life-altering illnesses. “It’s a really rewarding experience,” says Bruce. “Just to be part of this and continue to do good work and work with different genetics to profile our plants so we can find different ways for people to manage their different symptoms… people are crying in my office, thanking us for the difference it’s making in their lives. I’m just so thankful we’re doing this.”
Often, we shy away from or even fear those things we do not understand. The medical cannabis industry is an entirely new world for most. But the opportunity it brings to patients is real. The incredible story of WeedMD demonstrates the long but necessary way to making medical cannabis a broadly accepted medical alternative.
Written By Jess Campbell