A factory that once churned out millions of cigarettes each year, Imperial Tobacco’s shuttered former plant here will soon be producing a different cut of smoke.
After a three-year approval process, Health Canada has given Aylmer-based start-up WeedMD the green light to grow medical marijuana at the former cigarette factory.
“We were overjoyed to say the least, it was great. We were almost crying,” Bruce Dawson-Scully, chief executive of WeedMD, said of the go-ahead.
The company will be doing a lot of growing in the near future — sprouting seedlings within the next three weeks and increasing its workforce to 20 by year’s end.
Though the cultivation clearance is the news WeedMD had been waiting for, its quest for regulatory approval is far from over. The company needs a federal licence to sell its product — a process that could take another nine to 12 months.
“It’s very challenging. We are prepared to have to operate full-swing without revenue. It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Dawson-Scully.
This isn’t the first leap of faith Dawson-Scully and his staff have made to get WeedMD off the ground. The team has poured more then $3 million into the company to date, building a state-of-the-art, 25,000 sq. ft. medical marijuana grow op, long before they received any Health Canada approvals to grow or sell the drug..
Once production is underway, the facility will get surprise monthly visits from Health Canada inspectors who will examine every aspect of the operation. Only after that will Health Canada grant permission to sell the marijuana to prescription holders.
“Getting approval is all dependent on how your inspections go,” he said.
“The first year of business is really sort of getting our feet wet, but it’s also Health Canada’s opportunity to review our experience and commitment to this program.”
The company is one of the 18 producers in Ontario, and 31 nationwide, granted a federal licence to grow the controlled substance for medical use. WeedMD is one of a handful of producers in Southwestern Ontario, joining Aphria in Leamington, MariCann Inc. in Delhi and AMMCan in Kincardine in the medicinal marijuana market.
Tobacco giant Imperial closed its Aylmer plant in 2007.
The WeedMD facility can produce up to one tonne of medicinal marijuana each year and has space for capacity-increasing additions. Dawson-Scully is taking a wait-and-see approach before committing to future expansion plans, but said the new federal Liberal government’s push to legalize recreational marijuana use could be a game-changer.
“The market would go from 50,000 patients to 36 million Canadians. The potential for that market, and for us to capture that, would have an astronomical impact on our business,” said Dawson-Scully, adding recreational legalization wasn’t on his radar when he started to build WeedMD three years ago.
“Maybe, we got into the industry at just the right time.”