Image: Clinton Hussey
Some of the many strains of marijuana
(legal or otherwise) in production.
Jean Chiasson, CEO of MediJean and my tour guide of the company’s sparkling new 35,000-square-foot facility, operated under the MMAR system “pretty much from its inception.” A compact middle-aged man, bristling with energy, Chiasson explains that he was first approached to grow by his late uncle Philip, who had epilepsy. Philip had heard about the benefits of marijuana for people suffering from his condition, and his nephew—a successful construction industry executive—had a bounty of land in the Okanagan to offer up. Chiasson became Philip’s designated grower, and soon what had been a sideline business flourished.
“I started experimenting with different cultivars for him and then other people, his friends, who started seeing noticeable improvements,” he says. Before long he was acting as a mediator between Health Canada and prospective patients who needed MMAR licences, some of whom had previously been self-medicating. “I was always focused on a future that would get away from basements and garages and move it into a biopharmaceutical industry.”
As we talk inside MediJean’s tissue lab, examining various strains of marijuana that could be used one day to treat everything from epilepsy to MS, Chiasson is joined by his business partners, chief strategy officer Anton Mattadeen and COO Chris Dollard. Dollard and Mattadeen had partnered over the years as IT consultants, working with the likes of Dell, IBM and Accenture. When Chiasson contacted Dollard about this new business he was envisioning, Dollard suggested that perhaps he bring his old friend Mattadeen into the discussion. A partnership was born.
The three men believe the key to their success will ultimately be in research and development, and that setting up shop in British Columbia—with its longstanding cultivation expertise (legal and otherwise)—is critical.
“Given the rich tradition and history associated with marijuana in the province, there exists a solid base of experience and knowledge particularly in the areas of horticulture, crop development and crop management,” says Mattadeen. “From the start, we realized that R&D was going to be the big differentiator between organizations that want to be what we consider ‘elite’ licence producers and organizations that are just looking at the financial benefit of this change.
“When we produce something, we really want to create the strains that are necessary to help people,” he continues. “If we do it properly and we have it at the highest quality levels possible, all the profitability will take care of itself.”
That said, there’s a ready expectation of profitability. Already, Chiasson—who, along with his wife, Beverly, is the principal shareholder—has sunk $10 million of family money into the operation. That includes $5 million to purchase and retrofit the former fish-processing plant that houses MediJean’s operations, with the balance going to pay for lab and production equipment, a slew of security cameras, monitors and vaults, and an ever-expanding workforce (as of late January, 25 staffers in Richmond, and another 10 in Toronto, home to MediJean’s IT and communications operations).
All this without having sold one single gram of the product, which they can’t do until they get a licence—but which they fully expect to early in 2014. “As soon as we get the licence, we’re ready to go,” says Chiasson. He believes he can recoup his investment within 18 to 24 months of launch day.
The biggest challenge for MediJean and other licensed producers will be getting the medical community on board. In the old system, Health Canada was the gatekeeper—reviewing patients’ personal medical information to determine who would get medical marijuana. As of April 1, that responsibility falls to a patient’s doctor and early noises from the Canadian Medical Association aren’t entirely positive.
Louis Francescutti, president of the CMA, described the new regime in a November 2013 interview with the CBC as “asking physicians to prescribe blindfolded.” He expressed concern about the fact that most physicians have little training with marijuana—how much to prescribe or how various strains should be used.
That’s why MediJean is putting as much of its early efforts into doctor outreach as it is R&D. Part of that is through traditional visits to doctor’s offices, talking up the virtues of MediJean’s product line. But the other part of it is building an IT infrastructure that anonymously shares MediJean patient info with doctors, so when a patient walks into the doctor’s office and lists his or her symptoms, the doctor—with the help of MediJean’s secure database—can see what other doctors are prescribing for what ailments, and how much.
“This is part of an ongoing clinical trial,” says Chiasson. “We’ll have the largest ongoing clinical trial, once we get our licence, not only in Canada but probably the world.”