The Kootenays have become a hub of cannabis production and distribution, with the city of Nelson at its heart. Cannabis is integral to its identity, and is a major contributor to the local economy.
The impending legalization of recreational cannabis heralds significant change for the area, both positive and negative: there’s a huge opportunity to further expand and grow this homegrown cottage industry, but the changes also put the area in a vulnerable position.
David Robinson is one of Nelson’s cannabis experts. Known as the “Garden Sage”, Robinson came to Nelson in 2003 and opened a location of Pacific Northwest Garden Supply, a BC-based chain of hydroponic retail stores. Robinson has been with the group since 1996, previously managing their head office in Surrey. He’s the director of the Craft Cannabis Association, a non-profit advocacy group working on behalf of the rights of small cannabis growers and producers. He also published a book in 2010: The Grower’s Handbook: Teachings of the Garden Sage.
Robinson has watched Nelson’s cannabis industry evolve significantly over the last 15 years. “This is a very unique place,” he says. “There are third generation growers here. It is 100% part of the identity of the area.”
The Rise of Kootenay Craft Cannabis
There were a handful of hydroponic stores when Robinson first arrived in Nelson, but his store is the only one remaining. He attributes this to the level of professionalism and expertise that he brought to the marketplace. “They were charging a lot for the products, really too much, and they weren’t giving good service,” Robinson explains. “They weren’t really professional. It was one of those circumstances where you could just put anybody behind the counter and still make money… When you come into a situation where the public has not experienced that level of professionalism and service, it really gets the public’s attention.”
70% felt that retail cannabis stores in Nelson were appropriate.
Nelson has an extensive network of producers and processors: Robinson estimates that upwards of 10% of the area’s population is employed in some aspect of the cannabis industry. “When I came to this town, there were a lot of gardening methods that were being used that were not necessarily the most sustainable and consistent ways to produce high quality crops without the use of pesticides and fungicides,” he says. “So I coached the community into some more solid, practical and productive gardening practices, which then slowly seemed to multiply and multiply over the years to the point where Kootenay craft cannabis is highly demanded.”
A Plan for Processing
Outdoor growing of cannabis has its advocates in the form of the Kootenay Outdoor Producer (KOP) Co-op. Todd Veri has been its President since 1997 and was a small grower of cannabis from 1998 to 2001. Since 2017, he’s been the President of the KOP Co-op Board of Directors, which includes representatives from Kaslo and Salmo as well as Nelson. The Co-op seeks to promote economic development in the area, and create well-paid seasonal jobs.
Veri describes, “Our larger farms are about a hectare with about 1,700 plants with the potential to reach over three meters in height. We’ll send in our people with clippers, scissors, and scanners. They’ll break the plant down into large buds and small arms that they can pack up into containers in the field. The stalk will be left. The large fans—the classic pot leaf—don’t have much THC so they’ll be composted on site. What will be left are the branches with the buds so we “debone” them, or disconnect the buds from the stalk and drop them into a tote. This will be scanned then taken back to trimmers waiting at the facility. They will physically separate the large buds, trim them with scissors then dry them. They’re then weighed.
“At that point, the crop is separated. Anything hand trimmed goes to the “smokables” side. Just before it’s almost dry, we “sweat it”, or bring the last of the moisture out in a way that increases the smokability. The “extractables”, the trimmed leaf and small buds, are dried out completely.
“We’ll now have our small buds and containers of trimmings. Most of that goes to CO2 extraction.
“After extraction, you’re left with cannabis oil, but that’s not the finished product. If you use indoor bud then that oil is close to 100% THC. If you use bud grown outdoors you have 50-60% THC per gram of oil. There are other things in it such as wax, which doesn’t have to be cleaned if you’re going to make edibles, but they do if it’s for smoking. Now you have the base ingredient for processing oils or other extracts. If you want to sell the oil, it can be no more than 30% THC, so it has to be blended with a carrier oil.”
“There are also some other products such as bubble hash. With that, you freeze your dried product then extract it with water.
An Accepting Community
Kevin Cormack, Nelson’s city manager, confirms that the city is not accepting any applications for recreational cannabis retailers until the BC government establishes their provincial regulations. After that, Nelson will finalize its policies and rules concerning business licensing, zoning, and other bylaws.
A number of medical cannabis dispensaries have popped up in Nelson, to the point that the city put a moratorium on any new locations opening. The city also instituted a bylaw for those dispensaries and charged them a $5,000 licensing fee, which is significantly higher than the average business licence (Robinson pays less than $200 for his). Technically, these dispensaries are operating illegally; it takes considerable time and expense to shut such operations down.
“Council decided to put in some temporary regulations and put a lid on any additional expansion until it was legalized and we could go through a proper public consultation and hear from the public on what they would like to see happen, where these stores should be located, and all those type of questions,” Cormack explains.
The citizens of Nelson are quite amenable to the cannabis business. The city sent out a survey to every household and brick-and-mortar business a few months ago asking for input on the issue. Cormack notes that the response rate was 30%—phenomenal for surveys of this type—and the majority of people were in favour of cannabis retail stores.
“There was a strong community desire for it and that included people who used or didn’t use cannabis,” Cormack says. “The tolerance was there that they accept it and it’s not an evil… 70% felt that retail cannabis stores in Nelson were appropriate, and probably about the same amount also felt that, similar to liquor stores, there should be a cap on how many are allowed.”
There’s a huge opportunity to further expand this homegrown cottage industry.
There are currently four liquor stores in Nelson. While he emphasizes that nothing has been decided yet, Cormack says it seems likely that there will probably be about the same number of recreational cannabis retailers. There has been no decision yet on what will happen with the medical dispensaries.
Allowing Transition to the Legal Market
While legalization will open up new market opportunities for retailers, Robinson also feels that Nelson’s cannabis industry is in a very vulnerable position right now.
“What I’m really about is supporting the transition of the industry pioneers to the newly emerging licit market,” Robinson says. “The reason that we’re under threat is [that] if provisions are not made to allow these pioneers to transition to the licit market, there could be some really serious economy crashes in small towns like this.
“The licensed [medical] producer designation is really something mostly for big business,” he continues, noting that it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to become a licensed grower. “That’s why I volunteer my time for the Craft Cannabis Association as the director. We feel that we have made a difference because the government came out with the micro-producer regulations.”
Cannabis is intimately connected to the history and economic prosperity of Nelson and the surrounding area. As the industry transitions, individuals and organizations on both sides will need to work together to ensure prosperity for all.
“We’re hopeful that this is going to be an inclusive marketplace,” Robinson says. “But we still feel that there’s a good chance we’re going to need to continue letting them know what we need, and what’s right, and how to shape the future so that the right people can be involved.”