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Can Cannabis become legal, and sustainable?

Toby Shillito, CEO of Sunshine Labs, a provider of legal Cannabis flowers and derivatives based in Europe, reflects on what it will take to make cannabis sustainable, as well as legal

Prohibition has prevented the normal growth of corporate social responsibility issues in the Cannabis industry.

With prohibition in retreat, there are emerging opportunities for companies to show – and mean – how their operations both address the threats to planet and people and also take advantage of the opportunities to do business in a considerate, conscious way.

Toby Shillitoe

To do this successfully, companies need to look beyond the traditional borders of the entity, to address their impacts on the wider environment and beyond this to their social responsibilities: to staff in the workplace, suppliers and customers in the marketplace and the communities that live around their areas of operation.

The environment
Prohibition pushed cultivation indoors, resulting in a mass scale substitution of man-made raw materials for the natural world. Sun was replaced by High Intensity Discharge lighting, earth by artificial substrates, manure by artificial nutrients, wind by extractors or air conditioners and streams by potential pollutants pumped through plastic pipes. Your bud may look green and smell of the forest, but it has been made entirely by burning fossil fuel.

In this Alice in Wonderland world of prohibition, even soil is not soil. Rockwool is a very effective substrate, providing channels of air and water to support extensive root growth, especially in the early stages of a plant’s life. It appears natural. It is made from rock. But it’s manufacture is environmentally devastating: the recipe is to mine rocks, heat them to 1,600 C, spin them into fibres in giant industrial chambers, encase them in plastic and transport them thousands of kilometres.

Anyone who has worked in enclosed grow rooms with dry Rockwool knows the irritation caused to skin and lungs. The agro-chemical industry can only produce such environmentally devastating products so cheaply thanks to Government subsidies on power and transport that mask their true value.

So, Prohibition turns us away from the natural resources that the plant has enjoyed for thousands of years: earth being used as earth.

Similarly, Prohibition results in excess nutrient dumped secretly into watercourses, fire safety precautions abandoned, solar panels attracting unwanted attention, the prevention of vegan nutrients being trialled scientifically.

Prohibition binds the hands of thoughtful cultivators, turning profits in the market in favour of those who seek quick, cheap and easy commercial inputs – regardless of the cost to the planet or the quality of the produce.

Many of the tasks in the grow room are mundane and repetitive, low in skill and low in reward. In an unregulated market, this leads to the use of an unrepresented labour force, working in unsafe conditions and paid little or nothing.

Today, as Cannabis becomes legal, employees expect rights to fair pay, safe conditions and time off. What about Diversity of opportunity in the workplace? Under prohibition, virtually every cultivator and pot dealer was male. These days, though still few and far between, there are individuals whose outstanding personalities and integrity allow them to stand out as powerful individuals in the industry.

Women, such as Hilary Black of Canopy Growth, are emerging as serious and skilled cultivators. Hilary started out delivering joints to medical users by bicycle and is now a key manager at Canopy Growth, Canada’s largest legal cultivator, listed on New York Stock Exchange with a Market Capitalisation of over US $ 10 Billion.

Ken Estes, of the Granddaddy Purp Collective in California, has used a wheelchair since a motorcycle accident in 1976. By some definitions, he is ‘disabled’. He is also one of the most respected advocates for medical marijuana and a world leading geneticist and breeder.

In the future, employees will take Health and Safety at work for granted – goggles when pouring toxic chemicals, safety gloves when operating trimming machines. This will become a basic threshold of a business’ moral and legal License to Operate.

Prohibition drives unfair, unhealthy behaviour in the market for Cannabis. Disputes are handled outside the Rule of Law, leading to tens of thousands of violent deaths each year in impoverished areas of the world where there are few legal alternative income sources. The produce’s provenance and cleanliness are obscured. The benefits of consuming in the most healthful way – for example, edibles rather than smoke inhalation – are not clearly communicated or understood.

Every illicit cultivator I have ever discussed this with would happily pay a fair share of Corporation and Income Tax in return for the license to cultivate openly. Indeed, The State of Colorado, with a population of only 5 million people, raised over US $ 250 million in 2017 from Taxes, Licenses and Fees from the legal Cannabis industry. That is about one third of total General Fund Net Tax Revenues.

The availability of empirical data leads to ever greater understanding of the benefits of this plant to society. Scientists are now seeking to understand which strains of the plant alleviate particular illnesses – including Alzheimer’s and Crohn’s Disease, Epilepsy, Glaucoma, Gastroenteritis, Inflammation, Multiple Sclerosis, PTSD and Anorexia.

Under the conditions set by Prohibition, Cannabis entrepreneurs shunned social interaction. They had very limited opportunity to contribute positively to their local communities and had no incentive to do so. So imagine the possibilities when the ‘bad guys’ turn out to be ‘good guys’, seeking to do good in society?

A higher form of achievement is to address the local community’s social issues into the heart of the business model. Damian Marley has recently highlighted this approach through his acquisition of the former prison, Claremont Custody Center in Coalinga, California and conversion into a 77,000 sq ft cultivation and processing facility to supply local dispensaries.

The plan is to employ many of the local population of this economically deprived area, thereby cutting public debt and providing jobs to the long-term unemployed. This is not only altruism. It provides a social benefit as part of a profitable, long-term business vision.

The future
In a pure sense, entrepreneurial companies do best when they embrace these issues into the DNA of the company from the start. In the finest examples, this leads not only to avoiding negative impacts, but taking advantage – competitive advantage – of the opportunities to differentiate themselves from their competitors in how they act in the marketplace.

Post-prohibition, there are opportunities to develop – and exceed – Industry Standards in environmental, product, people and philanthropy management.

In future, companies that work to reduce the Carbon Intensity of their supply chains will be able to demonstrate to conscious consumers their commitment to environmental sustainability. These that treat their staff and suppliers humanely will gain trust, loyalty and enhanced profitability.

Toby Shillito has been cultivating Cannabis for 28 years, holds his MBA from London Business School and is currently CEO of Sunshine Labs, a provider of legal Cannabis flowers and derivatives based in Europe which seeks to do business responsibly. He can be contacted on

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