October 12, 2018 7:00 am
Updated: October 12, 2018 2:21 pm

New cannabis companies hope to grow by fighting ‘stoner culture’ labels

WATCH: In less than a week, using cannabis won't be against the law but in many people's minds, it remains against social norms. There's a stigma surrounding marijuana. Fletcher Kent takes a closer look.

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On a Thursday afternoon, just days before cannabis legalization, four friends sit at work talking about how none of them saw this day coming.

Each woman is a senior citizen. Each remembers growing up in a world that demonized marijuana.

“I was scared of my dad. I wouldn’t have taken marijuana for anything,” says Linda Moman, as Irene Sommer laughs knowingly.

Marion Huggins remembers talks with her kids. She says she told them: “don’t you bring that stuff around me. That’s not allowed in my house.”

READ MORE: Legal cannabis could mean new jobs and cash in Alberta’s economy

The four then rise, put their work gloves and hats back on, swipe their key cards at a secured door and return to work trimming cannabis plants at Acreage Pharms near Peers, Alta.

“Life’s a journey,” Huggins says.

Workers trim marijuana plants at Acreage Pharms’ facility near Peers, AB.

Fletcher Kent/Global News

The conversation represents both a long-held stigma associated with cannabis and changing perceptions that could also change many businesses’ fortunes.

READ MORE: Cannabis legalization means ‘new reality’ for Canadian health care: doctors

The four women, who call themselves the “Old Lady Clippers,” say their own families were surprised by their job, at first.

In a scolding voice, Sommer mimics what her grandchildren said to her. “Grandma, you’re not.”

Sommer says she replied by proudly saying, “Yeah. Grandma is.”

“My kids laugh,” explains Georgina Shelton. “They make jokes. Mom the pot grower.”

READ MORE: Canada could be a leader in the global cannabis market — if the rules loosen up: experts

How they came to work here also raises some eyebrows.

Trevor Dixon started Acreage Pharms, a licensed medical marijuana growing operation.

Dixon’s mother, Brenda, was part of the quilting group at the Peers seniors centre. As any proud mother does, Brenda bragged about her son to her friends.

Then one day, Brenda brought Acreage Pharms’ head grower to the seniors centre to speak.

Days later, the “Old Lady Clippers” started work.

READ MORE: 17 Alberta shops will sell cannabis on 1st day of legalization

The four women joke about the story. So does Trevor Dixon, but he adds it may not be humorous for long. In fact, his business is counting on it.

“That’s eroding away very quickly. The stigma is much, much less than what it was.”

Dixon knows the stigma is deeply ingrained. It has been cultivated for decades.

An ad for the 1930s film, “Reefer Madness.”

The trailer for the 1930s film Reefer Madness shows a man laughing maniacally while smoking a joint. The narrator then says” “Marijuana: The burning weed with its roots in hell.”

The trailer says smoking the drug causes “insanity.” Users will murder other people and kill themselves. Dozens more anti-marijuana movies and lessons have been rolled out over the years. It’s all led to a perceived pot culture.

READ MORE: How to buy weed in Canada when it’s legalized

In a different business, staff describe mounting an intentional battle against such impressions and for hearts and minds.

“That’s our focus, leaving that stoner culture behind,” says BRNT CEO Simon Grigenas.

He and some fellow graduates of the University of Alberta School of Business started BRNT to take advantage of cannabis legalization. The company makes high-end cannabis accessories like ceramic bongs and concrete pipes.

“We create these accessories that really accent visual appeal and almost look like a centerpiece for your coffee table or something that could sit out on your bookshelf,” says Grigenas. “It should be a product that you’re proud of.”

Business is good. As legalization approaches and new retailers clamor for products to fill their shelves, Grigenas said BRNT’s September revenues were 20 times higher than August’s.

But the cannabis stigma remains.

READ MORE: Canadians uncomfortable with the idea of consuming cannabis with their families

Kyle Murray is the vice-dean of the University of Alberta School of Business. He also taught Grigenas and is studying the economics of marijuana. He says the stigma surrounding pot remains.

Murray says Alberta’s cannabis industry could be worth $400 to $500 million on Oct. 17. However, more mainstream companies mean more changed attitudes.

“If that works, if it becomes de-stigmatized even to a large extent, then the market is much bigger.”

Watch below: With pot becoming legal on Wednesday, Global Edmonton reporter Fletcher Kent has been working on a special “Cannabis IQ” series. He joined Global News at Noon to talk about the first part looking at the economic impact of marijuana legalization, as well as preview the rest of the series.

Grigenas sees a time soon when it isn’t strange to wake up Christmas morning with a bong under the tree.

“I think over time, that transition will be there and it will be no different than receiving a beautiful set of wine glasses.”

Dixon, too, is thinking about a post-pot-stigma world.

Acreage Pharms has been open for just a year and a half. In that time, Phase 2 has opened. Construction on Phase 3 is underway and plans for Phase 4 are being drawn.

Dixon thinks if attitudes change soon, Phase 5 or 6 may target consumers directly.

He points to what vineyards have done. Wineries have tasting rooms and work together to attract tourists to the region.

Dixon would love to add a tasting room to his facility, if laws allowed for it.

“Show our wares. We take great pride in what we’re producing and we’ll continue to do so,” says Dixon. “Sharing that with others is really what it’s all about.”

READ MORE: ‘CBD is becoming kind of an ‘it’ word in cannabis’: Expert says demand for low-potency weed rising

The idea of growing cannabis markets and capitalizing on tourism has crossed the minds of those at Edmonton Economic Development Corporation.

Maggie Davison is the head of the organization’s tourism section.

“We’ve had some preliminary discussions with some of our operators who have had some thoughts – whether it’s facility tours or how it’s grown or processed,” says Davison.

She adds Tourism Edmonton will move slowly. There are too many questions right now and pushing pot tours may not fly.

“We’ll be pacing ourselves considerably, I think, until we understand how to be able to present an experience and have people enjoy it in a safe manner.”

There are plenty of people watching the cannabis industry who expect that pace will be brisk. They’re calling for more growth, more exposure, more acceptance.

And those workplace conversations about marijuana may soon seem not so unusual.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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