(Originally written for Lift Cannabis 8 December 2016)

Lift sat down to talk with Emblem’s CEO, Harvey Shapiro, as the company prepares to start trading publicly.

This week, Emblem Corp (formerly Kindcann) will become the latest Canadian medicinal cannabis company to become publicly traded. I sat down with co-founder and CEO Harvey Shapiro to learn more about what motivated him to take a risk on the cannabis industry, as well as Emblem’s innovative approach to vertical integration in the Canadian cannabis market.

I met Harvey Shapiro and his GrowWise partner Adam Saperia at their mid-town Toronto office to discuss Emblem, GrowWise, and White Cedar Health Care Centres – Shaprio’s contribution to the growing Canadian cannabis landscape.

Shapiro has a long history in the medical technology and services field. A lawyer by training, he began his career in earnest with Dynacare, North America’s third largest provider of clinical laboratory services. In 2013, he entered the pharmaceutical industry through Northern FN Health Care Services in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Like many cities in north western Canada, Thunder Bay struggles with high rates of addiction.

This exposure to the public health challenges facing isolated communities is what first inspired Shapiro to enter the medicinal cannabis industry. After seeing the volume of products like methadone pass through his pharmacy, he wondered if there might not be alternative forms of harm reduction that could both benefit the community and prove financially profitable as a business model.

In August 2013, he and his business partner Gordon Fox purchased an old chicken processing plant just outside of Paris, Ontario and applied under the MMPR to become a licensed cannabis producer. Like many who have entered the industry, they quickly realised that it would be a far more costly and arduous process than initially imagined. The capital needed to meet the Canadian government’s growing list of requirements was steep. With a three year wait time minimum before their product would be approved for sale, Shapiro knew they needed to generate profit sooner, or risk losing their early investors.

Shapiro was also acutely aware of one of the bigger challenges facing licensed producers across the country – patient acquisition. While public perception of cannabis has shifted significantly in the past years, most health care providers were trained under a system that viewed cannabis as a harmful drug, and many doctors still remain reticent to prescribe it.

Shapiro and his team set out to find a way to bridge the gap between patients who may be interested in the trying medicinal cannabis, and the product itself. The solution? White Cedar Health Care Centres.

White Cedar Clinics employ registered nurses to walk new patients through all aspects of cannabis acquisition and use they may not be familiar with. Their offices have displays of everything from dried flower to infused sunflower oil, an array of grinders, vaporizers, and other tools patients may need.

White Cedar’s services are free of charge to patients – a piece that was key for Shapiro – and the business receives the bulk of its funding through the Ontario Provincial Government’s health insurance plan. They boast over 1000 patients, with 300 already receiving their cannabis through the post from one of the many licensed producers with whom White Cedar has partnered.

GrowWise is the final piece of Shapiro’s growing cannabis network. GrowWise is an education and advocacy hub. They provide educational workshops and resources for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.

With Emblem products now officially on the market, I asked Shapiro what was next. He said they have plans to open White Cedar clinics across Ontario, Alberta and Western Canada. They have also begun working with military bases to provide services for veterans. And while they await updated legislation like everyone else, Shapiro is confident that pharmacies will soon be allowed to distribute medicinal cannabis, and so Emblem has a chain of specialised Cannabis Apothecaries in the works for when that becomes a reality.

Talking to Shapiro reinforced what has become clear since the election of Justin Trudeau in 2015: the cannabis industry is normalising. The role of activist is being replaced by government relations advocates, and business experts with legal degrees and MBAs are stepping in where the black market once had control. While Shapiro cited many warm fuzzy reasons for why he is interested in the Industry — harm reduction opportunities, particularly for vulnerable
communities like veterans and First Nations; its role in pain management for those living with chronic pain, PTSD, cancer, and more; its potential to improve the quality of life for those at the end of their life – he also made it clear that this was not a wholly altruistic move. There is money to be made and value to be added to the health care system as it stands now. Given the recent performance of cannabis stocks on the TSX, he is clearly not alone in his thinking.

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