Farrell Miller | Toronto, Canada | 21.11.2020

Farrell Miller is the COO of Erbn Green, a female-founded company that wants to help you “discover how cannabis fits into your modern life and how it can help you fuel creativity”. She is also a board member of NORML Canada and has a JD in Law from the University of British Columbia. Twitter: @FeralMiller

When did you first develop an interest in cannabis? So, I first delved into cannabis when I began managing an accessories store in the mountains as a second job while I was teaching snowboarding, out west in the Rocky Mountains. And while I was working there, I met a fellow who had told me he was interested in opening the first medical access clinic in Kelowna, which is when the early medical access regimes were in place. The Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, which allowed patients to purchase cannabis from the government with a prescription. So that was something that interested me and that sparked my initial delve into the cannabis world. So it started off in Western Canada. The Okanagan region has been a leader on that front for some time now, so I was fortunate to be there in the sweet spot.

How long have you been involved with NORML [National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws] Canada? I first heard about them when I was doing small advocacy efforts out West and I made it a point of meeting the lawyers who were at the time on the board of 1NORML Canada; Kurt Tousaw, Paul Ewin, Jack Lloyd. And they were doing some really, really interesting work for patients. And they were fighting their legal battles, writing to the government and promoting regulatory change in that respect to allow patients to access better cannabis from the government, grow their own cannabis. Which is what led to the next level of medical access system, the ACMPR [Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations], which is what directly preceded legalisation. This allowed patients to both produce their own and purchase from the government. So there were some developments in the law that I was following. And I started doing my volunteer work with NORML Canada while I was in law school, so about 2015. And I really, really took a lot of initiative there and now I’m on the board. So it’s been quite a ride. Yeah, sounds like it! 

As a former law student at UBC [University of British Columbia], what is your overall opinion on the Cannabis Act of 2018? Are there any areas of Canadian cannabis legislation you’d like to see improved? Yes, so I’ll just go through the ten recommendations of NORML Canada. We decided to make these recommendations now that the cannabis act is gonna be up for review in 2021. Okay. Number one being to increase the public possession limit. So right now it’s only legal to possess up to thirty grams, which means that retailers.. And I’m the owner of a cannabis retail store in Ontario.. We have a limit of thirty grams, which means that we cannot sell a person more than thirty grams at one time. And that’s a lot of cannabis. But when you translate that into equivalency limits in the extra category, and beverages in particular, you see that a gram of cannabis is equivalent to five plus grams of beverage. Meaning that if you have more than five beverages, you’re over the legal limit. Making a six pack of cannabis beverages illegal. Farrell laughs Okay, I can imagine that getting pretty ridiculous. Absolutely! So, if you’re picking up beverages for a dinner party, you legally cannot pick up more than five at a time.

We can’t sell more than five and it’s absurd, so that’s number one. And number two is permitting the combination of cannabis products. There are some individuals who are advocating for the ability to put keef or hash inside joints, for example. And that is right now not permitted by Health Canada, but that is something that consumers have indicated that they want. And NORML Canada mostly being a consumer advocacy organisation, we really advocate for loosening the laws that really make it better for the consumer, ultimately. Number three is a little bit focused on medical patients, while we don’t focus exclusively on medical patients. We recognise and respect that the whole recreational legal framework was built on the legal challenges that patients had to fight to get to a regulatory space that made a little bit of sense to offer recreational.

Right now though, medical patients are kind of suffering because there is no store front opportunity for medical cannabis. And as someone who owns a retail recreational store, I get customers all the time who come in and want medical cannabis, they want medical advice. And my staff and myself, we’re not Doctors, we’re not authorised to give medical advice. And so that’s kind of just a hole in the legal regulatory landscape, where the medical patients have sort of been left out. They can order online from anywhere in the country, that’s one of the things that medical cannabis users can do that recreational users cannot.

They can order delivery. However some people really want to have that in-person interaction and talk about the cannabis a bit more. And so allowing medical sales licence holders for example to establish storefronts and act kind of like pharmacies for medical patients is something we’d be interested in seeing. So I suppose the next one from that is opening up a channel for natural health products that contain cannabis. So taking CBD out of the strict control of the Cannabis Act, which is where it is now. And if you compare Canada to somewhere like California, while Canada is federally legal right now, we’re very restrictive on who can grow (and) who can sell. We include every cannabinoid in the definition of cannabis and we include CBD in that.

In California, with the passing of the Farm Bill federally, hemp that contains less than 0.3% THC is considered just an agricultural product in the US. And so, especially in States that have legalised on the State level, you’re seeing these CBD tinctures, dietary supplements on the shelves of Whole Foods and traditional retailers, not just cannabis licenced retail stores. So, California is an example where both are able to thrive. You can sell wellness products outside of the restrictive framework of the cannabis licensing regime and there are those cannabis stores that are authorised to sell cannabis as well but that also are able to do well in that kind of mixed framework so… There’s minimal risk with consuming CBD, so we just kind of want the regulations to accurately reflect the risk value.

And we see the risk is relatively low, so we think the regulations on CBD right now are a little bit overkill in Canada. Sounds like it. Yeah. And I could keep going, but those are the main ones that I would like to see changed. There’s a few more and we have them on the NORML Canada website. But those first few are super important. How does your recently-opened 2Erbn Green store differentiate itself from the competition in Ontario? When the cannabis licensing regime first opened up, basically the only way of saying it is, there weren’t enough people working at the licensing office to process all the interest, right? So we had to restrict it to a lottery system.

You had to express your interest and you got entered into a draw and if you were fortunate you could win the chance to apply for a licensed retail store. And so in the early days, two years ago, those opportunities to get a licence were so coveted and so valuable that people who won this lottery, and I was not one of them, were offered major incentives from large organisations in cannabis. Both retail and organisations maybe loosely connected to producers that are out there, offered large amounts of money to basically fly under their banner in franchise-esque agreements. And so you started seeing a lot of that. A lot of franchise models.

Big organisations trying to purchase these licenses from these people who were fortunate enough to win the opportunity to do so. And it started to create a little bit of a monopoly, from my perspective at least, so it was important to me to be an independent cannabis store that is not operating under a big corporate banner that already has interests in other areas in cannabis. And we’re female-owned. So that’s another thing that was important to me, that overall perhaps, there was not enough participation from women in executive roles in cannabis and so that is something that I think makes us stand out a little too.   

You say on your Twitter bio that you are part 3Métis. Are there any interesting traditions among Métis cultures involving cannabis or other psychedelics? So I actually researched this a while ago, because I was really interested in the indigenous right to self-governance and their ability to create their own structure on their own territories. My heritage goes way back on my mother’s side. I am a 4Red River Cree, partially, and it’s very diluted, which makes me Métis. And when I looked into it and I spoke to my aunt on that side, she’s lived on some reserves in Alberta. She’s been somewhat of my teacher when it comes to discovering my own indigenous heritage and learning those traditions.

And between my research and my discussions with her, I determined that actually, cannabis had very little to do with indigenous cultures, in North America anyway, until colonisation. It was really brought here to us. But we did have a lot of traditions around psychedelics and tobacco as well. So tobacco ceremonies and spirit journeys, when it came to psychedelics. Have you noticed changes in the public perception of weed in the wake of the federal cannabis act? Slowly but surely. People are becoming more comfortable with the idea of walking into a cannabis store the same way they walk into the liquor store. However, there still are people who will not even work with us as a legal cannabis entity. We’re a licenced legal store. Anywhere from contractors to landlords you approach.

They do not want to deal with cannabis businesses. And I think that that comes from the stigma of being underground and elicit. And I think we’re still carrying the weight of criminalisation on our shoulders in that sense. So we’re just slowly trying to change the face of cannabis a little bit and show people that it is part of a modern way of living. And you can include cannabis in your life in a way that makes you comfortable. You don’t have to step outside of your comfort zone to experience cannabis. Recently disrupted global travel aside, have you noticed a significant increase in cannabis tourism since 2018? I suppose I would say a little bit. When I spoke about the early days of licensing a handful of those stores that were first open…

I think one of the first stores were out in Ottawa and I had a lot of people who drove out from Toronto to go check that out. It’s all been pretty close to home, relatively. Unless you work in the industry. Myself and other people in the industry that I know who are national sales representatives, who are going from Western Canada to here to tour facilities, check out retailers and see how things are done in other Provinces. So it’s really big within the industry right now. And I just think the regulations need to catch up to being a little bit more visible to the consumer. It’s very restrictive right now because of the promotions regulations. We really aren’t allowed to communicate the few opportunities that are out there, when it comes to cannabis.

So you reckon it just needs to be streamlined a bit better to give it more of a mainstream appeal, essentially? Yeah and then the licenced producers, the people who are growing and processing the cannabis, will be able to get their Farmgate stores up and running. They’re something that the government permitted; licenced entities that are able to process cannabis to open a facility on-site to sell their cannabis. Kind of like, a farmer’s market rather.. Farrell giggles Yeah. When those start popping up we’re gonna start seeing a lot more cannabis tourism. Excellent, hopefully I’ll get over there myself eventually. Yeah. 

Do you think the recent level of reform in the U.S is at least partially influenced by the benefits seen across Canada? I think so, maybe. But at the same time, what I mentioned earlier with the States really looking a lot better than Canada right now… I think they’re just looking in the mirror. They’re looking at California, they’re looking at Colorado and they’re seeing the success there. Let’s remember that the population of California is bigger than all of Canada. It’s easy to forget! Exactly! So while I want to believe we’re having an influence… I know that Canada, we’re full of all this expertise that we’re willing to offer and all of that, but we did take a lot of notes from Colorado too when we first created our licensing regime up here.

In Ireland, we’re still in the Stone Age when it comes to legalisation of cannabis, so we’re just looking across the pond in general to you and to America, hoping that any day now our government will make a little bit more effort with that, you know? Farrell giggles Yeah. What do you think the regulated market can do to improve its stakeholding in the industry and to diminish the gains the black market has generated? So, referring to those changes that we recommended on the NORML Canada website and also adding in… maybe loosening up the promotions regulations, bringing them a little bit more in line with the alcohol industry, so that we can stand a chance. Because right now with Covid and everything, it’s really difficult to communicate what makes your business different.

To communicate anything really special about it. It’s all limited to age-gated environments. Any places where legally minors are not permitted. So anywhere like… the back of a bar bathroom. But even then, if the bar is operational and open to families at all, you can’t advertise there. So you could really only advertise on the inside of cannabis stores, once people have passed beyond that age check, the age gate. Whether it’s in-person or online. There are some online environments as well with that age gate that you can advertise on, but that’s usually limited to adults’ sites, whether it’s cannabis sites, porn sites, you can advertise there. But it’s not a great way of capturing everybody. Of course not, you’re limited in what you can achieve there.

Do you think the price or quality of legal weed has influenced some consumers to seek out the black market to make purchases, or are there other external factors at play? Yeah, so that I guess ties into the previous question too. I’ve had people come into my store and say: “I buy my hash from an illegal retailer, an illegal dispensary.” And there’s one in particular in Toronto that’s just notorious. They’ve been busted tonnes of times and they just keep popping up. And I really cannot blame the consumers. I am on the board of NORML, which is a consumer advocacy organisation, and you can’t argue with logic. If people want to save money and they feel like they’re getting better value for a cheaper price at an illegal dispensary, it’s common sense.

They’re going to go there. So unless the government can amend the regulations and allow legal operators like myself to compete a little bit better… For example, I cannot open up a container of hash and show this person what it looks like. But he can go to the café and they have it right on display for him and he can touch it, he can feel it. I mean it’s maybe not Covid friendly, but he likes that experience a lot more. And with the legal space, everything is sealed, shut, contained, locked, child-proofed. So some people just don’t enjoy that experience as much. 

Do you have any interesting stats through NORML Canada perhaps, of the rates of people who buy it illegally versus people who buy it legally at dispensaries? I don’t have any hard statistics off the top of my head, but I will tell you that the number is shrinking. We’re getting closer to being able to win those consumers over and I’ve witnessed it myself. I’ve had a customer come in and say: “My shipment comes in tomorrow, but I’m here to have some tonight.” Farrell laughs And I saw the same guy in my store a second time. So maybe the convenience of being able to come to a store instead of waiting for his package might eventually win him over and I hope it does.

And I guess one observation I made when it comes to sales trends is that the sales at recreational stores like mine are much higher and are doing much better in smaller towns. I’m not sure if it takes longer to get packages there maybe, than it does in cities? Have any noticeable challenges emerged for people in the wake of cannabis legislation? Yeah. A big challenge right now is being able to compete with other retailers that are offering discounts. I’m biased from the retail perspective, because I am a retailer. So something that I’m running into right now is that our regulator on the provincial level has told us that discounts are permitted. However, the federal level has issued a bulletin saying that all discounts count as illegal inducements

So, I’m literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. Having a law degree, I don’t know whether I should be permitting this. I see other retailers giving discounts. I want to be competitive, I wanna compete with that, but I would also rather they get their hands caught first before me, so… I guess it’s a kind of an ongoing battle between federal and provincial laws. Yeah, exactly. Farrell giggles So long as common sense wins out, I suppose that’s the main goal at the end of the day. Yeah, 100%. All the best with Erbn Green and with all of your efforts. And thank you so much for devoting a little of your time to this interview. All the best moving forward. Thank you so much, cheers!

References:

1 NORML Canada website: https://www.normlcanada.org/home 

2 Erbn Green website: https://erbngreen.com/ 

3 Wikipedia information on Métis people: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Métis 

4 Wikipedia information on the Little Red River Cree:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Red_River_Cree_Nation 

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