This is an Endurance industry: As with any industry if you’re interested in establishing a business for the long term, the financial plan and investment needs to be sound. Realistic projections as to when operational targets can be achieved are important.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Joan Webley, President of Itopia Dispensary in Jamaica. She has an amazing story of her journey to working with the plant and how to cultivate her passion for the plant and Carribean culture. Jamaican Born, Joan Webley is making a splash in the Cannabis & Hemp industry. Joan is truly a jane of all trades and has a very versatile unique background. She is a cultural activist and intellectual property attorney. She is the former Manager of Copyright at the Jamaica Intellectual Property Office, and is certified by the World Intellectual Property Organisation in advanced intellectual property asset management. She has acted as an Adviser to the Minister of Culture, and served on the Boards of the Jamaica Reggae Industry Association, Manifesto Jamaica and the Creative Production and Training Centre. Joan spent several years as a yardie-in-exile, living in Grenada, Canada, Trinidad & Tobago and Australia, and brings this global perspective to Itopia’s Jamaican offering. “The medical cannabis framework of our dispensary allows us to tap into the rich cultural legacy of the Caribbean, forming synergies in music and the creative arts with a love for the sacred herb at the core of all that we do.” says President of Itopia Dispensary, Joan Webley. “Itopia is an advocate for normalizing cannabis and creating experiences that stay true to our Jamaican ganja culture.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
I am an intellectual property attorney, from a Blue Mountain coffee-farming family, who left music advocacy and working in Jamaican government as the Manager of Copyright, to found Nanook: a creative hub in Kingston, Jamaica. From 2013 -2016 I offered business and legal services to film, fashion, music and visual artists and created a physical safe space for cultural creators. Over the years ganja played a central part of activities, therapies and enterprise of members of the Nanook creative hub. In 2015 when the ganja laws in Jamaica started changing I started hosting “Cannabis Conversations”; info sessions aimed at destigmatising ganja and highlighting business opportunities. When I closed Nanook in 2016, I started doing consulting work with prospective ganja businesses, including completing Cannabis Licensing Association applications. In the case of Itopia Life, I was first invited to consult on the business plan, and then later offered an ownership stake and leadership position within the Company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The most interesting memory I often revisit is of the “Brand Jamaica & Ganja” talk in Ocho Rios. That Cannabis Conversation had been organised as a collaboration with the St.Ann Chamber of Commerce on the urging of Maxine Gawron a Polish immigrant to Jamaica who has since become a dear friend. At the beginning of the presentation one of the members of the audience was particularly vocal against ganja being sold in Ocho Rios. She w as the operator of a Bed & Breakfast and had a guest with a “near death experience” after eating a ganja edible. She very colourfully expressed her concern at the certain ruin of the nation if this “ganja thing” was promoted. The event featured presentations by: Ras Iyah V, an elder Rastafari ganja advocate; Yakub Grant and Varun Baker, young Rastafari tech entrepreneurs who had mapped traditional ganja farms across the island; Dr. Ikyori Swaby, a Jamaican born Rastafari doctor based in New York; and myself. My presentation focused on the positioning of St.Ann as the epicentre of recreational ganja legalisation, based on existing traditional cultural knowledge and other intellectual property pillars (home of Bob Marley, Collie Weed, etc), and precedent by the US state vs federal approach. By the end of the evening the same lady who had objected so strongly earlier in the evening was now adamant that those who were capable of getting this ganja business going needed to do so as a matter of national importance! It was amazing, and a little humorous, the magnitude of the transformation she had undergone after just 2 hours of information. I tell this story often as proof positive that awareness of ganja benefits overcomes the greatest of objections.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The funniest mistake I made was working in the storage room of the cultivation site one day. I forgot to use my nose guard while going through preparations for a sale. The material I was handling was all sealed so I thought a hairnet and gloves were sufficient. I did not however, consider the effect of the sweet smell coming from the racks of ganja plants which were hanging to dry on the other end of the room. I was only in the room for an hour or two but by the time I drove into Kingston that evening my sinuses were in a world of pain. From then on my vibe has been more, not less, safety gear for me!
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
I think people who knew me weren’t really that surprised; Nanook was a ganja safe space and I coordinated Rebel Salute’s Herb Curb right before joining Itopia Life. What’s funnier to me is the ongoing assumptions people make about whether or not I am a ganja smoker. You instantly learn a lot about their opinions on ganja and its use.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have been interested in national development for as long as I can remember and I have my mother to thank. She is a coffee farmer, and was the youngest woman to ever serve as a Member of Parliament in Jamaica. She has been a public servant in some capacity for my entire life and my childhood was spent planting seedlings and assisting in her various community projects. She also somehow managed to convince an 18 year old me, that becoming a lawyer would be a better way to achieve the goals of my original career choice: Peace Corp officer. I followed her advice for studies but my career choices have been my own. While traditional legal practice was a brief period in my life, my law degree (and subsequent intellectual property law specialization) has allowed me to be an effective advocate in music, film, coffee, and ganja business. She’s really just been a constant role model and source of support.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are finalising the Itopia Life processing lab and operational plan. Everyone knows we’re good at putting a unique spin on things and I’m looking forward to bringing Jamaican remedies to the world.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Despite great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to this report in Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?
In Jamaica, women traditionally occupy significant leadership positions. At Itopia Life our cultivation team and dispensary team are led by women, and our corporate office is 70% female. I think organisations need to ensure that the corporate culture is one that is not unwittingly or obviously discriminatory towards women. Creating a workplace where women are respected and valued is the simplest way to attract and retain great talent. I recently held a LIVE TRUE Talk (re-worked cannabis conversation) on the topic of Women & Ganja and we featured perspectives from a senior regulator, business consultant and growers, alternative healer and a Rastafari musician; proof positive that women are pretty widely represented in ganja matters in Jamaica.
You are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each.
- This is a very expensive business: I think most people focus on the “green gold” vision of ganja and fail to take into account the significant operational costs involved in medical cannabis. In Jamaica we are blessed to have sun-grow possible year round, but our high energy and security costs put us at a disadvantage to overseas counterparts.
- This is an Endurance industry: As with any industry if you’re interested in establishing a business for the long term, the financial plan and investment needs to be sound. Realistic projections as to when operational targets can be achieved are important. The level of regulatory compliance required can dictate the pace of your ability to achieve goals and being able to plan ahead and make contingency plans is critical.
- The level of documentation required: I think one reason great ganja growers would have a challenge in the cannabis industry because traditionally cultivation was not monitored with this degree of precision. In the Jamaican industry inventory is regularly audited and all plant and waste material is tracked from seed to sale. I remember early on spending two full days in a storage space with the regulator going through a particularly stringent post-licensing inspection. Not what I expected from ganja business.
- The level of supervision: I’ve mentioned documentation stringency but in general, and because Jamaica has a history of trans-shipment, our regulatory system is heavily focused on preventing diversion or inversion of products. The security requirements are stringent and all ganja movements and disposal can only occur under regulator supervision. I remember joining our cultivation crew to shovel mounds of dirt into a 6 foot hole on a disposal day when the backhoe didn’t show up, but the regulator did, and the disposal activity had to occur according to code under their supervision..
Can you share 3 things that most excites you about the cannabis industry?
Healing power of the herb is paramount to me so I am excited by:
- the opportunity to replace misinformation with education. Ganja is still socially rejected in Jamaica and I love that a part of my job is to find creative ways to inform people of the healing capacity of this plant and raise awareness of Rastafari and other indigenous uses of ganja;
- the ongoing discoveries of the active elements of ganja. The entire world is now deeply exploring the plant and endocannabinoid system and with each bit of information comes more benefits. I’m also really wanting to learn more about traditional uses of this plant medicine; and
- the wider socio-economic conversations and transformation that this plant is bringing about in Jamaica and worldwide. People and practices that were ostracised or criminalised are now legitimised and systems and societies are going through pretty exciting changes. Some more gracefully than others but…change is good.
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
I am concerned by the distinction being made between medical and recreational industries. I think all use of the plant should be respectful. Cannabis addiction is real and even “recreational” use should be guided to ensure that people are encouraged to engage in activities that facilitate positive physical and mental health. Ganja is not a party drug but can be used to enhance the quality of life; it is a subtle but important distinction.
I am concerned at the lack of regard for the spiritual practice connected to ganja and the spiritual science of plant medicine in general. I would like to see deeper respect for Rastafari and other indigenous practices that can teach us how the plant has healed in their communities.
I think the plant was perfectly designed and would like to see wider exploration of the entourage effect.
What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?
Jamaica has allowed cannabis cultivation commercially and for personal use. However US Federal prohibition of cannabis is one of the greatest factor inhibiting ganja research and development and business in Jamaica. Jamaican banks are reliant on reciprocal relationships with Federal banks. When one considers the importance of remittances to Jamaican foreign exchange income, or just the real threat to greater business considerations that operating contrary to US policy holds for a developing nation, it is no wonder that Jamaican banks are reluctant to deal with Jamaican ganja companies or employees until America allows it.
Today, cigarettes are legal, but they are heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they are somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?
I would not like cannabis to be treated like cigarettes…that is insane. Cigarettes have no known benefit or capacity to improve health. It causes sickness and death and can increase national debt through health industry burdens from treating users. Cannabis is the opposite. It can improve health and quality of life through oral or topical use and in fact there was a time when citizens were required to grow it because the societal benefits were well recognised and appreciated.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The Serenity Prayer was framed above my childhood bed growing up and my experience in this business has caused me to reach for it like never before. I take from this prayer that humility, adaptability and bravery are of equal importance in life… and ganja business. I joined the Jamaica Cannabis Licensing Association and have been an active part of the Bureau of Standards of Jamaica Technical Committee establishing national cannabis standards despite some of my concerns for the lack of focus on traditional Jamaican ganja medicine and healing. I’m doing this because I believe it is important to engage and contribute to a collective process. But also because it’s important to be fully informed when making decisions and advocating for an industry. I walk a fine line based on respect for my peers, the regulator and the potential of this industry. I am focused on remaining compliant while continuing to push for the changes that are necessary to see Jamaica benefit. I’m well aware of the fact that this is still frontier land and pioneers need to pick their battles and be wise in approach.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would like for Jamaica to be recognised as the “Healing Nation”…and Itopia LIfe as a complete healing station! I’d like to encourage more people to come to Jamaica to actually experience the healing power of our herb but I’d also, perhaps more importantly want to see Jamaican ganja and Jamaicans have more freedom to move around the world and really bring our healing to the nations. Jamaica’s music and coffee have travelled freely and are appreciated worldwide. I would love to see Jamaican ganja and Jamaican people be allowed to move as freely. Export regulations for cannabis are being finalised in Jamaica so one part of that vision will become a reality but only within a highly regulated expensive structure. I would like Jamaican Sacramental ganja to be capable of being sold as medicine internationally. Freedom of Movement is so critical to the development of culture and the world that it should be viewed as a human right.
Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success!