If you visit the Peace Naturals farm you’re in for a few surprises. The first thing is visual, you’d never know it was there; a standard old farm property standing in Clearview Township, just like any of the other surrounding properties. But then you’d see the razor wire surrounding the barn and you’d realize things aren’t quite what they seem. Then when the guys that are running the place introduced themselves, you’d be surprised to find them wearing suits.
If you’d been invited for a tour of the facilities, they’d make you sign multiple forms, remove your shoes, put on a lab coat, latex gloves, a hair net and an ID badge. After entering some double-fault security zones, you’d be in. And you’d be overwhelmed by the immensely bright lights of one of their grow rooms. And you couldn’t help but be surprised by the number of marijuana plants.
Mere kilometers from downtown Stayner, Peace Naturals is the first newly licensed, commercial cannabis operation in Canada. It’s an impressive operation. And the guys that are running it are equally impressive. Some have Phd’s, some have backgrounds in entrepreneurial endeavors, others are volunteer soccer coaches. In other words, they’re upstanding, successful members of their community. These aren’t a bunch of pot-heads growing questionable weed in their basements. These guys are at the forefront of the medical cannabis movement. They are pioneers. And they are in it for the right reasons.
Mark Gobuty, the founder of Peace Naturals got into growing medical cannabis when his parents were sick with arthritis and cancer. It was used for pain management and in his father’s case, helped reduce his alcohol consumption. It helped them cope with their illnesses and in Gobuty’s mind, it was proof that more research and standardization across the industry was needed.
In 2010, Gobuty teamed up with Kenneth Langford, a guy that has been an authorized designated grower for patients. He has supplied one patient for over eight years and has installed hydroponic systems in some patients’ homes to help them grow their own medicine. He has also run a successful hemp health and beauty product business.
Since founding Peace Naturals they have retrofitted their 150-year-old barn to be one of the most progressive grow ops in the country. The 70 video cameras that watch the property have infra red and night vision capabilities. The fence itself detects vibrations or noises, and the 7000 pound safe that holds the finished medicine is housed in it’s own security zone below ground. There are multiple grow rooms, a drying room and a laboratory. And there are greenhouses being built right now.
“Our total plans are for 60,000 square feet of green house by the end of summer,” says Gobuty. “We believe we’ll have up to 10,000 feet of green house before the first of March.”
Under Health Canada’s Marihuana Medical Access Program (MMAP), there are 30,000 people in Canada that can legally possess cannabis. Some of those licensees are also permitted to produce cannabis. Meaning they can have small grow ops in their homes to produce their own medicine.
MMAP began in 2001 and has grown exponentially. But access to cannabis has remained difficult. Some patients, too disabled to grow their own have had to resort to buying cannabis off the streets. Or they have relied on authorized designated growers like Kenneth Langford, who has been growing and giving medical cannabis away for free for 12 years.
But all that is changing on March 31, 2014. The new Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR) aims to provide quality-controlled cannabis for medical purposes, produced under secure and sanitary conditions.
What this means is that Health Canada-approved facilities will be the only legal source of medical cannabis as of April 1st, 2014. And Peace Naturals is the first organization to obtain one of those new licenses.
“Everybody knew a change was coming, but nobody knew what it was,” says Gobuty. “So we thought, what if we apply best-in-class food standards? If we start there, we’re not that far off.”
And starting there is exactly what they did. And it worked.
“We had all the fire marshals in Ontario come two weeks ago, so that was 27 people. Then all the inspectors came the following day, so another 50 people. They just looked around here making notes. Then they let us know this building and our safety protocols are now the standard in this industry. So anyone that wants to do this in Ontario, is going to have to meet or surpass what we’ve done.”
“Doctors up until now really haven’t known what they’re prescribing. Giving a prescription for marijuana, well, what is marijuana?” asks Gobuty. “It’s any variety of this plant. They didn’t even know where you’d be getting it at that point. Under the new system, we test everything. A doctor can go to our web site and say, I think this one is the one you should be trying. And if a doctor has no knowledge, at least he knows that we have the knowledge. So I think they’ll be a little more comfortable prescribing it, and the dosage. Up until now it’s been kind of a crap shoot.”
The benefits of medical cannabis are yet to be clearly defined. It is thought medicinal cannabis can relieve a number of symptoms from a multitude of illnesses. Generally it is thought to provide muscle relaxation, increase appetite, reduce anxiety, combat depression, and aid with insomnia.
“Medical cannabis provides a really broad spectrum of pain relief,” says Gobuty. “We know that cannabis is highly anti-inflammatory, so we’re using it for things like Crohn’s, diabetes, it’s really broad spectrum. Ultimately pain management is the best application we’ve found, and the most common use for it.”
Studies are ongoing but research is also suggesting medical cannabis could be effective for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, arthritis, Hepatitis C, cancer, HIV, AIDS and chemotherapy.
Cannabis’ active ingredients include more than 470 constituents called cannabinoids. THC is the best known of these and is praised by recreational users for its psychoactive properties. But the plant also contains Cannabidiol, or CBD, a substance that some researchers say has anti-inflammatory benefits. Unlike THC, it doesn’t bind to the brain’s receptors, therefore providing medicinal benefit without psychoactive side effects.
Peace Naturals is growing and developing strains of the plant that are high in CBD. But different patients require different medicine. Some patients require THC, so Peace Naturals is growing that too. They are currently offering 15 different strains, all with differing properties and levels of THC and CBD. Plus they have another 83 strains being developed. And the call centre at Peace Naturals ensures the line of communication is always open between patients and the people that are actually growing the medicine. Many of the strains at Peace Naturals are named after patients that benefit from that plant’s particular properties.
“For Mark [Gobuty] to invest his dollars and do this at a loss, and be able to bring people like me on, to be able to pay a PHD salary with the anticipation that we will one day hit a revenue stream; that’s Mark’s vision,” says Darryl Hudson, chief of research.
And on November 15th, 2013, that vision finally became reality. After nearly three years of research, development and licensing, Peace Naturals finally began shipping medicine to its patients. But it begs the question: how does someone that has been legally growing their own medicine for the past 12 years deal with suddenly having to pay for it?
“Our goal is to keep the price low and service as many people as we can,” says Gobuty. “Six dollars a gram is really great value and really fair. If you have a disability card, we subsidize your medicine by 50 per cent. So you’d be looking at three dollars a gram. And if you still can’t afford it we have other resources to help you pay.”
This compassion towards patients that need medicine is a company-wide philosophy. And the main incentive for the company isn’t profit, it’s helping people.
“This isn’t about supplementing my income,” says Gobuty. “Originally it was about helping my parents. Now it has morphed into something different. Put it this way, if you start off needing three grams a day, we’re succeeding as a company if we can get you down to two grams a day.”
So how do they ensure this medicine isn’t going to recreational users?
“We have a series of checks and balances,” he says. “We must validate every prescription. Then we further validate the doctor.”
The on-boarding process for new patients is thorough and intensive. And once a patient becomes a Peace Naturals client, medicine is shipped via registered mail with a signature required at both ends. The maximum they can ship is 30 times the daily prescription, up to 150 grams.
Whether you’re for or against medical cannabis it’s hard to fault the people at Peace Naturals. They’ve gone above and beyond what the law requires, and they’ve brought a progressive, forward-thinking business to our region. They’ve convinced local OPP and fire marshals that what they are doing is safe. And they’ve invested hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Everybody has made significant contributions, we’re well-capitalized,” says Gobuty. “Certainly two years ago, it was a great leap of faith and as we progress closer and closer to the finish line it’s become a smaller leap of faith. But even being in the business now, we can operate as a medicinal cannabis company, stay within the regulations, satisfy clients, make a contribution to our business so that everyone gets paid. Those are a lot of elements and a lot of risk factors. But I’m strongly confident that this business will be a strong net contributor to the community, both through indirect and direct.”
Currently employing 29 people in the region with 70 more set to come on board next summer, they are bringing an entirely new industry to the region and to the country. But changing people’s perception of cannabis may be their biggest challenge.
“The first inspector that came here, asked me, am I gonna get high?” recalls Gobuty. “And I said, what? Really?”
“We have to get used to that. We live in a bubble I guess. We’re very proud of what we do. We’re speaking to clients, we know we’re effecting positive change. There are some spectacular things happening here. We get here in the morning, and we talk about what good can we do today? How can we help more people? It’s a great place to be.”