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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

West Kootenay cannabis producers hope new facility will solve industry troubles

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Growers, processors and cannabis marketers all say a new business in the south Slocan Valley will be a “game changer” for the cannabis industry in the West Kootenay.

About 50 people showed up for an open house a week in December at Antidote Processing Inc., a new facility at the junction of Highways 6 and 3A in the South Slocan Valley.

“Antidote is really about highlighting craft cultivators, and our mission is to be completely dedicated to the success of small craft producers in the region,” says Antidote CEO Shannon Ross. “Our success is built on the success of all the craft producers in this region.”

Before the Dec. 17 open house, Ross gave tours of the facility – a non-descript warehouse they’ve been completely renovating to federal security and processing standards, at a cost of $1.2 million to date.

“This is the secure storage, our biggest room,” she says, entering one of the many clean, brightly painted rooms in the building. “It will be temperature controlled, with shelving and racks. We’ll have fridges and freezers to store hash and rosin – everything will be kept environmentally controlled.”

The cavernous rooms – none of the equipment, tables, or storage units were installed by the open house – only hint at the amount of cannabis Antidote hopes to process. Getting to this point has been two years in the making.

“This has been the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life,” Ross says, noting everything from the pandemic to supply chain issues got in her team’s way. “We could not have tried to build something in a tougher time. The fact we have been able to do this shows the incredible amount of support we have locally, and we’re really grateful for the faith in us that has been shown by owners and angel investors.”

Ross and her “small and mighty team” have completed the phone-book-thick pile of regulatory documents, and shipped out a final application video to federal regulators. While it’s not absolutely certain they’ll be approved, they’re confident they’ve met the federal standards.

And with all that work behind them, it was time to celebrate.

The event was timed to start at, appropriately, 4:20, the magic hour for cannabis enthusiasts. It’s a cold and dark December evening, but the group that’s assembled for the event mostly all know each other. And to a person, they are excited about what Antidote will do for the Kootenay industry.

“This is the next step for us to be vertically integrated,” says Che LeBlanc, a Salmo-area based craft producer and one of the co-founders of Antidote. He’ll provide up to 5,000 kilos of cannabis a year to the processing plant once it’s fully operational. “The reality is we are just small drops in a really big ocean. And our real opportunity is to work together and support each other.

“Today’s market margins are really tight, and to have an option like this is the difference between making it or not.”

“It’s been a long journey to get to this point, to say the least,” adds Gary Krempl of Winlaw-based Lono’s Garden Paradise. He’s another of the co-founders of Antidote, and came up with the company name. “This is a game-changer. I will have, all of a sudden, a very clean and direct path to market, which I have not had up to this point, even with having a licence since 2020.

“This gives me an opportunity where there was no opportunity.”

Krempl says he’s already seeing potential growth by participating in Antidote.

“With Antidote, I have the chance to develop a brand, and just through word of mouth I already have a dozen stores that can’t wait to have my product. For a guy like me to have a year’s supply for a dozen stores, that’s a great start.”

For people who just want to focus on growing product, Antidote’s sales plans are a godsend. One grower says they’ve been sitting on their first crop because the marketing demands were just too complex.

“It wasn’t just that you had to have good cannabis,” says Damien Kessell of Kootenay Microfarm, a Slocan Valley producer. “You had to be really savvy, know the right people, and you were still going to be ground down by the corporations. What we found was we were corporate nobodies. So as a community we said, ‘let’s make us our own middle person, so we don’t have to be involved in that game.’”

A better path

What Antidote seeks to do is provide a vehicle for cannabis growers in the Kootenays to navigate the complex regulatory process to get their product legal, and to take that product, process it and prepare it for market.

Growers have complained since before legalization that the approval process was complex, time-consuming and expensive; they said it was ill-suited to moving small black-market operations to the legal market – and even if they were able, large-scale producers had the economic muscle to squeeze small producers financially.

The end result was the growers of the world-famous Kootenay brand of cannabis were either being headhunted by larger, out-of-province producers or getting out of the business entirely.

“Antidote is dedicated to helping our local craft farmers get legal and sell their products, and there’s a lot of talented growers in this industry,” Ross says. “Providing the resources and services to help guide the craft growers and simplify the process and provide the fundamental foundation to get to market is a game-changer for sure.”

For several years already, Antidote staff have been helping small growers custom-tailor their applications to Ottawa for approval. Antidote’s processing equipment will turn raw cannabis weed into essential oils, hashish, vape cartridges, pre-rolled joints, and package raw flower. Stage Two will see the company certify a kitchen, to allow Antidote to move into edibles and other value-added products, and into international sales.

“The international market is huge,” Ross says. “The Kootenays could not supply enough cannabis to the world.”

“As soon as we open our doors, we are going to be taking craft flower and packaging it into containers and shipping it to retail stores and the liquor distribution branch, and be extracting at the same time,” says Ross. “We’ll be working with six indoor micros and a dozen outdoor [growers], so we have a lot of capacity.”

Ross says they can only take on a few craft growers at a time, but expect to expand services “once we get our feet underneath us.”

All that is still a few months away. The processing equipment was due to arrive in January. The building will be made secure, then will start accepting raw cannabis from its first half-dozen growers.

“Antidote is similar to a record-label company, so we’ll have an ‘Antidote’ brand, but we’ll be marketing each craft producer or artisan,” she says. “And when you go to purchase cannabis we’ll have their story on the packaging so you’ll know who grew it.”

By the end of the year, Ross says they hope to be processing at least 2,000 kilograms of cannabis from about a half-dozen craft growers. That will increase as their production lines develop, and they’ll hire about six staff initially, adding staff as they grow into the work.

And more than that, the community they are beginning to develop will grow stronger, she predicts.

“We’re almost like a family. We’ve helped them since the beginning of getting their licences; we helped them build their business; and now we’re helping them get to market. So what is coming out of Antidote is really representing their business. They’re getting the services they need, and they’re getting a good reliable product.”

That first product could be on local store shelves as soon as this April or May.

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