Can Craft Cannabis Survive The Big Money Takeover?

ryan stoa craft weed

Can small-scale craft cannabis survive against huge corporations and the big ad practices they’re introducing to North America?

Here to help us answer that is Ryan Stoa, Associate Professor at Concordia University School of Law and author of “Craft Weed: Family Farming and the Future of the Marijuana Industry.”

In this episode, Ryan argues the need to keep cannabis “more craft beer than Anheuser-Busch” and proposes a Marijuana Appellation system that would support a sustainable, local, and artisanal farming model within the U.S.

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Key Takeaways:

  • Ryan’s background in law and cannabis and what sparked his desire to write “Craft Weed”
  • Why Ryan argues we need to support craft weed over big companies with large scale cultivation facilities
  • The extensive research that went into Ryan’s book and the information that shocked him the most
  • Smart farming and how it relates to indoor cannabis growing
  • How Ryan believes the newly passed Farm Bill of 2018 will affect the small American family farm
  • Why the desire for sustainable, artisanal cannabis fluctuates across the U.S.
  • Ryan’s positive outlook for the future of cannabis agriculture and how he believes legalization will benefit our culture
Click Here to Read Full Transcript

Matthew: Hi, I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday I look for a fresh new episode where I'll take you behind the scenes and interview the insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at that's C-A-N-N-A Now here's your program. Can small scale craft cannabis survive in the face of huge corporations bringing big Ag practices to North America? Here to help us answer that question is Ryan Stoa, Associate Professor at Concordia University School of Law in Boise, Idaho and author of the book "Craft Weed Family Farming and the Future of the Marijuana Industry." Ryan, welcome to CannaInsider.

Ryan: Thank you very much, Matt. It's a pleasure to be here.

Matthew: Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world today?

Ryan: I am in my cabin in the mountains outside of Boise, Idaho.

Matthew: Oh, nice. And I'm in Charleston, South Carolina today.

Ryan: Awesome.

Matthew: Can you share a little bit about your background and journey and what drove you to write this book?

Ryan: Sure. So, I started my career in Miami, Florida, Florida International University, and was studying at the time, predominantly water rights and water conflicts around the world. And I turned my attention to water conflicts domestically here in the United States and one of the conflicts that originally jumped out to me was occurring in Northern California. And it was between, you know, cannabis farmers, small scale cannabis farmers, many of whom were doing their best to practice sustainable and legal cannabis agriculture. But were not doing so with water rights that have been granted by the state of California largely because the state had not figured out how to develop a water permining system for cannabis agriculture. And once I kind of delved into water conflicts in the cannabis industry I realized that there was a huge number of questions that regarded cannabis agriculture and its future. And once I started digging in I realized that there was just so much fruitful information out there to uncover and discuss and ultimately write about in my book.

Matthew: Okay. So, your book is called "Craft Weed," can we have craft weed as big companies move into the space and focus on huge large scale cultivation facilities?

Ryan:Yeah, I really believe we can. You know, I'm not pretending that there won't be this sort of big marijuana model that'll come to become a reality. You're already seeing some really good investments by big tobacco and build out big alcohol players, you know, the owner of Corona beer has made a billion dollar investment in a Canadian marijuana producer in late, I believe, in August of 2018. And then in December, a few months later the owner of Marlboro made an even bigger investment in a marijuana producer...Canadian marijuana producer. So, you're seeing a lot of money coming in and certainly like other industries, there's likely to be consolidation and scaling up and perhaps even a commodification or commoditization of the product. But I think craft weed or artisanal model of marijuana agriculture and production can survive and even thrive. I think that's really what a lot of consumers have shown an interest in and a preference for in terms of diversity of products and strains.

I think people look for higher quality and sort of the products that they're consuming, especially if you look at other industries such as the wine industry and the craft beer industry there's evidence out there that a craft model can coexist alongside the sort of cheaper generic products. And I think that's just as likely to be true in the cannabis industry.

Matthew: Okay. Was there anything that really surprised you when you were researching this book that really jumped out that you weren't expecting?

Ryan: Yeah, you know, I was roughly familiar with the history of cannabis, and of course I knew that cannabis cultivation and use stretched back centuries. But I think what surprised me a little bit about the history of cannabis cultivation, I think sometimes we sort of assume that you know this war on drugs that the US implemented in the 20th century was something really novel and new. And that previously everybody had been in love with cannabis plants and that's really not the case. Cannabis cultivation has been controversial for centuries and it's been...and many cultures around the world have sort of had this tension between those that recognize the opportunities and potential of cultivating cannabis on the one hand and authority figures that were uncomfortable with it and try to prohibit it on the other hand. And so it provided sort of a useful backdrop and really surprised me in the sense that, you know, a lot of cultures and societies have tried to deal with cannabis cultivation and square that with our societal norms.

Matthew: It does not surprise me at all because I feel like the first time you consume cannabis you say, "This is not anything that I was told it was. It was demonized." And then the second thing is that you start to ask other questions. So, I could see while it's why authority figures don't want people asking a lot of questions, it makes a lot of sense.

Ryan: Yeah, and, you know, the cannabis plant as many of your listeners would likely now, you know, as a diversity of uses. It can be recreational, it can be medical, it can be therapeutic, it can be spiritual. And historically it's been used for all of those reasons and I think what can be especially threatening, especially historically where, you know, groups that were using it for spiritual purposes that sort of threatened the, you know, the status quo or the world order of the dominant society. And I think that those were cases where it was perceived to be especially threatening.

Matthew: Let's talk about smart farming. And how does that dovetail with indoor cannabis growing?

Ryan: So, there's been a rise in the last few years of this concept of vertical farming or smart farming, in other words, growing crops indoors. And by doing so you can optimize growing conditions and increasingly monitor those growing conditions to a very scientific degree. And so, a lot of smart farming operations will have sensors for the quality of the soil, and moisture content, and the climate, and the temperature. And you're measuring all these things at once and those technologies can inform you when, you know, those plants need more inputs or need a change to their growing environment. And you know, it's interesting that that concept is now increasingly being applied to grow produce indoors. And really a lot of the foundations of that indoor farming movement or the vertical farming movement are, you know, indoor cannabis grows, which sort of developed out of necessity in the 60s and 70s when the federal government and state law enforcement were starting to go after cannabis outdoor grows. It drove cannabis growing inside and the benefits of that are still numerous.

You know, you don't have to be subject to the whims of mother nature. Now you can control your environment and really dial in your system. And of course, there are also downsides and as I talk in my book, I think, you know, indoors farmers really need to reckon with the fact that the, you know, the cost and energy consumption required to grow plants indoors instead of under, you know, the bright light and free light of the sun it can be an enormous challenge.

Matthew: So, most licensed cultivators operate indoors as we've talked about, but how will the greenhouse model, will that be a catalyst here, you know, to be more sustainable? And how do you think that will look because politicians are still really nervous about this. They treat cannabis like plutonium. What do you think is gonna happen?

Ryan: Yeah, you know, I think one of the interesting developments in the cannabis industry and the legal cannabis industry is that you've got these two different communities growing cannabis. There are the indoor growers on the one hand and the outdoor growers on the other hand and both are really passionate advocates for their model of farming and just can't see how the other approach would have a viable future. And, you know, that's interesting. I think eventually it may be that one comes to become more popular than the other. You know, at the moment, you still have a thriving outdoor cannabis agriculture community, especially in western states and especially in Northern California. But certainly authorities in some states aren't even allowing outdoor cultivation largely for the reasons that you mentioned. They want it to be out of sight and out of mind. And so that certainly gives a leg up to the indoor growing community.

Ultimately, you know, I think there's probably going to be a happy medium in the form of greenhouse agriculture. It makes sense that you would create a growing environment in which you're taking advantage of the sun's light energy while at the same time, you know, not subject to all the whims of mother nature including storms and droughts and the like. And so, I think greenhouse, you know, that sort of middle ground or what some state license issuers or regulators are calling is sort of mixed light approaches are gonna have a bright future, no pun intended.

Matthew: Now, how will the Farm Bill affect the small independent American family farm? Will it be a new era of like these beautiful systems being built with small family farms being able to support themselves and without having to just scrape by?

Ryan: Well, I think that we can certainly hope so. I'm not sure I'm that optimistic that I would project that that's a guaranteed future but I certainly hope that you know, the Farm Bill can help support the American family farm. And with respect to cannabis agriculture, of course, the significant development was the federal legalization of hemp cultivation. And one of the things that's interesting about that is that, you know we have...I think a lot of folks kind of mistakenly believe that, you know, hemp and psychoactive marijuana are these two very distinct plants. Whereas, you know, really we're talking about pretty similar plants, one might be a strain that is low in THC and the other is not. And so, I think it'll in some ways help make communities and especially agricultural communities a little bit more comfortable with with farming the cannabis plant and seeing the potential uses of that. And hopefully as that develops and American hemp farmers become competitive in the global trade for hemp products will sort of loosen up our conceptions and fears around psychoactive strains or psychoactive crops and enable those to legalize and then thrive.

Matthew: So, wine lovers tend to think wine from Napa or Sonoma, California are better than other places. Will something similar happened with cannabis? And if so, what would it look like?

Ryan" Well, I expect and in some ways you can probably already see that if you spent time in California or Washington. Colorado, I think folks there and can be very proud of their local products. You know, you often hear people brag about, you know, the quality of Cali weed or Colorado weed. And I definitely think something similar will happen in the cannabis industry. And one of the ideas that I propose that has been gaining traction is using the wine appellation model for the cannabis industry. So, what I mean by that is that in the wine industry, if you're drinking a bottle of wine that says Napa County on it, you can be sure that the grapes that were used in that wine actually came from Napa County because a regulatory authority is verifying that that's the case. And that's called an appellation system. And there are many who are now believing and hopeful that such a system can be applied to cannabis agriculture as well.

In other words, farmers that are cultivating cannabis in Humboldt County can advertise and put Humboldt County grown on their cannabis and that will be verified and certified by an authority or governing body. That way, someone who's, you know, growing in, you know, their basement in Arkansas can't just put Humboldt County on that to take advantage of the solid reputation of Humboldt County and get away with them. And the same could be said of other growing regions Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Nevada, wherever. You could really use that system to diversify the amount of products that are available and help, you know, sophisticated in a way the cannabis marketplace.

Matthew: I think that works. It works but there in some ways there's still kind of these imposters. Like I went to Parma, Italy last year and I went through the Parmesan cheese tours and watch how they made that. And they have essentially like a cartel that is allowed to say, you know, Parmesan cheese but then you have these competitors that say like, Parmesan inspired cheese or Parmesan-style cheese and for a lot of people that aren't paying attention they're like, "Oh, just grab this one's a little bit cheaper or, you know, I like the packaging a little bit better." So it does work because the person that really wants, you know, the real Parmesan cheese will look for that seal, will say, "Okay, this is one the real deal." But for people that are not that into it, they still lose some market share. So, it'll be interesting to see how strict this becomes, you know, I know in California, they love making like laws and regulations so, maybe they will make it really strict there and it'll be difficult to do that.

Ryan: Yeah, I mean, it's a great point. And, you know, one of the major challenges of an appellation system is enforcement. Famously, it took, you know, over a decade and ultimately a US trade mission to China to get Chinese authorities to stop a Chinese wine manufacturer from labeling their wine as coming from Napa Valley and you could see the same thing happening with cannabis. The origin of the appellation system can be traced back to the Champagne region of France, you know, so champagne wine producers were developing this really high-quality product and wine growers from other regions were recognizing that and saying, "Hey, if we just say champagne people will pay more." And so that's, you know, really the origin they sort of, there were riots around this issue and ultimately, French authorities said, "All right, we're gonna have to verify this and allow these producers to develop their reputation." And also one of the questions about an appellation system, you know, there's sort of two different models in the US for wine.

All our appellation system says is where the wind came from, whereas in France, the appellations are also used as a mechanism to regulate what types of grapes you can grow, when you can grow them, how you can grow them, et cetera. So ultimately, there's some potential there for the appellation also to be a mechanism for farming communities to get together and talk about what type of strains they might wanna specialize in, or how to be sustainable on their agricultural practices.

Matthew: Yeah, that would be interesting. I mean, in one way, you could see why that would be a cool way to create like a heritage that passes down from generation to generation that consumers get to know but in another way, it might seem stifling. So, it'll be interesting to see what balance is chosen there.

Ryan: Yeah, and hopefully, you know, since legalization and regulation is taking place on a state by state basis, we might have a lot of different models to look at and investigate.

Matthew: Yeah. In your book, you talk about cannabis consumers desire to have their cannabis come from small, sustainable and wholesome places. But as I drive across the US as I have many times and I stop all over in the middle, a lot of times there's...I see people making choices about food that is there's not much thought put into the sustainability or perhaps the budget, so think about that as much. So, will this simply be a bi-coastal thing you think?

Ryan: You know, it's a great point and I think in the cannabis industry or cannabis consumers, they're still going to be a large subset or a significant portion that are, you know, their most important factor is price. They're gonna be price sensitive, and they're gonna be looking for that inexpensive, yet potent generic product that maybe the big marijuana purveyors can specialize in. But I still think there's going to be a robust market for the higher quality strains, the sort of boutique artisanal craft producers that are churning out and producing interesting varieties and strains that have interesting effects and taste and flavor profiles. And so, I think there's still gonna be a robust market for that. And what's interesting about the cannabis industry, you know, especially compared to the agriculture, the sort of broader agricultural industry we have in the United States today, I think a lot of people, you know, certainly some people aren't thinking about this issue or are more price conscious and, you know, the status quo is it works fine for them.

I think there's a growing community in the United States that sort of laments the state of American agriculture and the unsustainability of practices and the monoculture that we've developed. And yet, it's kind of hard to change because, you know, we have these entrenched interests. What's interesting about the cannabis industry is that it's brand new at least from a legal perspective. And so, there's a wonderful opportunity here for stakeholders, including growers and regulators and consumers to build from scratch the industry that we want.

Matthew: Yeah. How do you think the cannabis industry is going to change and evolve in the years ahead?

Ryan: I think we'll continue to see big moneyed interests entering into the marketplace. Ultimately, federal legalization could be a huge force and potentially a disruptive force but I think there's a bright future for the for the small scale farmer and for the artisanal producer. I think you're already seeing a sophistication of the industry as people, you know, walk into a legal dispensary and, you know, oftentimes the person behind the counter sounds an awful lot like a sommelier that you be speaking to at a fancy restaurant when talking about wines. You know, you can kind of go in there and say, "Hey, look, I'm having migraines. Is there a strain that can help?" And they can say, "Yeah, here's a few you might want to consider." And I think that that's likely to continue.

Matthew: Okay. One aspect, we don't talk about too much on this show but is culture in terms of how it affects culture, you know, different generations, the boomers, the millennials, Gen X, now also Gen Z, the homeland, or homeland generation. How is this affecting our culture and how we live?

Ryan: Well, I think, you know, America as a society is becoming more and more comfortable with cannabis and the cannabis industry. You know, we sort of moved from a model that, you know, really try to demonize the plant and especially demonize users and now sort of the war on drugs. So, I think that generations that lived through that might either, you know, still be buying that message or be scarred from that experience. But as we're moving away from that and more and more Americans are sort of aware, you know, in the 90s that California had legalized medical use and that throughout the 2000s you have more and more states that are legalizing. I think that we're becoming more comfortable with it and now starting to think about, "All right if this is going to be legal, what do we want it to look like?" And ultimately my book, you know, doesn't focus too much time on legalization or whether or not the plant should be legal. You know, really I think it's time to think about the future and the next steps. If this is gonna be legal, what do we want this industry to look like? We have an opportunity right now to really help shape that future.

Matthew: Okay. Just out of curiosity, what's the reaction been with your colleagues at Concordia University as you published this book?Because I know Idaho is typically pretty conservative, but also becoming less so now with so many California transplants and transplants from all over the country discovering what an awesome state it is.

Ryan: Yeah, you've got a good read on our state. Certainly, Idaho's rather conservative when it comes to cannabis legalization. I think we're one of three states that have not legalized medical use in any form or decriminalized small amounts of possession. So, certainly our legal infrastructure is still relatively unfriendly with respect to cannabis. But I think from a research perspective, my colleagues are supportive and I think there's still a lot of interest. You know, we're surrounded by states that are legalizing cannabis, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Montana, and of course, Canada. And so, it's certainly even though it hasn't been legalized here, a terribly relevant issue, even for Idahoans.

Matthew: Oh, yeah. And also it's coming in over state lines one way or another. So there's gonna be, you know, a reckoning in how to deal with it.

Ryan: Absolutely.

Matthew: So, Ryan, at this point in interview, I'd like to ask a couple of personal development questions to help readers...listeners get a better sense of who you are personally.

Ryan: Sure.

Matthew: With that, is there a book that's had a big impact on your life or way of thinking that you'd like to share?

Ryan: Sure. I think, you know, one book or series of books that have really influenced me were written by Daniel Quinn, you know, when he came out with his sort of Ishmael trilogy, including "Ishmael" and "The Story of He and My Ishmael." I just thought that was such an innovative and novel way to approach sort of a lot of philosophical questions that we have between humans and our natural environment. And the way that Daniel Quinn talks about that in narrative form, encourages us to reevaluate our relationship with the earth. I thought was really, really influenced me and helped shape my thinking. And I think another book that, you know, was influential in the way that I wrote "Craft Weed" is the "Unsettling of America" by Wendell Berry. And if you read the book the last chapter I sort of quote from several passages from Wendell Berry in that book talking about sort of the development of big agriculture in the United States and the impact that that has had on our rural communities. And I think that book will still have...leave a lasting impression on readers into the 21st century.

Matthew: Do you know anybody close to you that had a positive impact from cannabis or hemp that caused you to start to broaden your opinion of the plants' abilities?

Ryan: One of an indispensable figure in my life with respect to understanding cannabis and the cannabis industry is Jack. The sort of figure that I opened the book with and talk about throughout the book. He was a close friend of mine and, you know, moved up to Northern California and sort of got his start in the cannabis industry and is now a flourishing, you know, artisanal craft farmer. And I think, you know, being able to hear from him and hear his stories and his experiences and learn how the industry is changing and changing rapidly on the ground, you know, was a really invaluable experience in writing this book. And you can hear a lot about the cannabis industry from, you know, online media or sort of your larger publications, but it's really an industry such as this one that is sort of quasi-legal and still evolving and moving in a lot of different directions. Having contacts on the ground is really an essential aspect of understanding the industry and where it's going.

Matthew: Well, Ryan, this has been a lot of fun. As we close can you share with listeners the best way to find your book and connect with you online if you're on social media or like connections there?

Ryan: Absolutely. I'm on social media, I'm on Instagram and Twitter. You can find me at Ryan Stoa, or on Twitter @ryandstoa. I have a website R-Y-A-N-S-T-O-A .com, and you can find my book "Craft Weed Family Farming and the Future of Marijuana Industry" essentially anywhere you buy books online, whether that's IndieBound or Amazon.

Matthew: Ryan, thanks so much and best of luck with your book.

Ryan: Excellent. Thanks very much, Matt. It's been a pleasure.

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