Cannabis co-op coming to Kootenays

<p>Kaslo farmer Todd Veri (centre) is spearheading an initiative to create the Kootenay Outdoor Producer Co-op alongside board members Ken Zdebiak (left) and Tom Smith (right). Photo: Will Johnson</p> -

Kaslo farmer Todd Veri (centre) is spearheading an initiative to create the Kootenay Outdoor Producer Co-op alongside board members Ken Zdebiak (left) and Tom Smith (right). Photo: Will Johnson

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Todd Veri dreams of fields of marijuana.

The Kaslo farmer was reading a government report on cannabis legalization last year when he noted that there were plans to allow outdoor operations — which he's already perfectly set up for.

"I looked out my window at my fields, and thought to myself, 'I would love to grow a hectare of marijuana, that sounds great.' My next question was: 'How do I do that?'" the president of the newly created Kootenay Outdoor Producer Co-op told the Star.

"I had just attended a townhall about cannabis legalization with our MP Wayne Stetski, and through listening to question after question it became apparent that we're all for legalization, but we want to make sure we keep the Kootenays in business."

The way he saw it: "We've been doing this quietly here without any real problems for a long time. We don't want this business to go to the large companies, so how about a local co-op?"

After having a public meeting at Taghum Hall in May that was attended by 100 people, the co-op now boasts 120 members from 35 communities in the region.

Those numbers are way beyond what Veri was initially expecting.

"We've asked people, if you want to be a worker, an investor, a landowner, the way we're envisioning it we'll hold licenses on up to 12 farm properties in the Kootenays that will apply to enter a contract with the co-op to have cannabis grown on their property."

If everything goes according to plan, the co-op will provide the plants, the man-power and the infrastructure while the host farmer will make a cut of all profits.

Co-op council: 'This makes perfect sense'

Once Veri got the ball rolling with his co-op initiative, one of his first meetings was with Zoë Creighton of the Upper Columbia Cooperative Council.

She thought the concept was an absolute no-brainer.

"The co-op model is a perfect way to address the challenge of no one grower being able to satisfy the volume we're going to need going forward, and to secure job opportunities for existing growers," she told the Star.

"This is exactly where co-ops shine, pulling together a bunch of people with separate businesses to meet product demands and volumes."

Creighton worked closely with the co-op's compliance manager Kevin Megale, whom Veri had enlisted to help them with the government side of things. She was impressed by their approach.

"If anyone can do this, I think they can do it. They're doing a lot of research and they're taking small steps. They didn't come out of the gates racing to get incorporated, and they've been putting out feelers to make sure this is as successful an enterprise as it can be," she said.

"A lot of that involves the waiting game for things to change legally, but once the regulations are in their favour I think this will be smart and forward-looking. If they're able to retain some money in the local economy that would've gone to big folks elsewhere, that's fantastic."

Producing a desirable niche product

The driving belief behind the creation of the cannabis co-op is that locally grown outdoor plants are superior to the ones being grown in warehouses by large corporate producers. It was this element that inspired Megale to get involved with the co-op.

"Kootenay outdoor organic marijuana is superior in every way," he told the Star.

"First of all, the environmental costs are much lower. Outdoor grows use less water, less electricity, require less new infrastructure to build and won't use harmful agro-chemicals."

But it's retaining local jobs that he's most interested in.

"Our co-op business model can provide a sustainable community industry over the long term: supporting small farmers, sharing profits with hundreds of local workers and producing a desirable niche product that is marketable across the country."

Philip McMillan of the Nelson Cannabis Compassion Club, which has been providing the community with cannabis since 1999, told the Star that the co-op is a great idea that would be a boon to the local economy.

"I support systems that spread the wealth around," he said.

"Cooperative and craft models will do this. If the government over-regulates, taxes and monopolizes this new market then the black market will continue to exist."

A waiting game and a guessing game

As things progress towards anticipated federal legalization, Veri has been keeping a close eye on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and any news on cannabis coming from the government. He's heard a number of encouraging things.

"We don't know what their regulations will be yet, so a lot of it is a waiting game and a guessing game," said Veri.

"We're going off what little information we have, but from our point of view we need to get a lot of ducks in a row — we need to determine the farms we'll use, we need to find a central location, we need to get investors in order — so right now everything's geared towards getting the license."

He feels the next 30 to 60 days will be crucial, and through Megale and their communications with Stetski they've been able to get information directly to Trudeau. They need the regulations to be written in such a way so that they don't get excluded.

"The prime minister has a connection to the Kootenays, so we were hoping that would put us on the radar. Their report strongly states that small and medium-sized businesses, and outdoor weed, should be part of the regulations. We just want them to follow through with what they said they were going to do."

From what he can tell, there aren't many other outdoor operations like what he's envisioning.

"We thought we could own a good part of a niche market, but I think in the beginning if we get a license and all our competition is factory weed, then that bodes well for us."

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