Taking Canada’s Cannabis Expertise Abroad
Two and a half years ago, three partners founded Starbuds International with an initial focus on medical cannabis while also paying close attention to the soon-to-emerge retail market in Canada. The first Compass Cannabis Clinics were developed for patients looking to access cannabis through a physician in underserved areas of western Canada, and the medical branch of the company expanded to serve patients in Australia approximately one year ago.
Once adult-use recreational cannabis was introduced in Canada last year, the company was prepared to create a brand in the retail market called Starbuds Canada. The company has two locations, in Dawson Creek and Lake Country, and the plan is to grow its footprint to other provinces and abroad. Ultimately, Starbuds International is positioned to play both sides of the cannabis field and serve both consumers and patients across the world.
The transition to the retail cannabis market was particularly smooth for Starbuds International as a result of its January 2018 partnership with a Colorado based-company. The American company was one of the first recreational operators in Colorado, giving the Canadian company what amounts to a decade of experience in this new, uncharted industry.
There are currently four operating Compass Cannabis Clinics in Canada, and there is one in Australia, with a second opening soon. In Canada, the clinics serve roughly thirteen thousand patients, while in Australia, that number is over seven hundred. On the retail side of the business, there are two Starbuds bricks and mortar locations open in Canada with another eighteen either under construction or somewhere along the process of licensing. Across these locations, Starbuds International employs forty people, and it empowers the staff to grow with the company and earn equity.
The industry in Canada has become more corporate in the last six to nine months, whereas over a year ago, most in the field were considered eclectic individuals who were very passionate about the product and had the courage to enter the unknown. Cannabis continues to legitimize itself as a profitable market, and it has attracted a variety of talented individuals to the industry.
Starbuds International chooses to partner with cultivators with similar values. In retail cannabis, the focus is on carrying local products and supporting the growers of B.C. For medical cannabis, it looks for growers concentrating solely on medicinal products. It welcomes companies that put effort into research towards which strains are best for specific ailments or the possible delivery methods ranging from rapid onset to delayed onset.
The ultimate goal is to improve medical cannabis in Canada and to provide this high standard of product to markets such as Australia where the cultivation is more limited. “We’re trying to find the best partners out of Canada to bring their products into a new market because we know they’ve had a positive effect on patients,” says of Starbuds International President and Co-Founder Dave Martyn.
The three founders of the company each have backgrounds in service industries ranging from food and beverage to big-box retail. Starbuds International is clearly dedicated to the service aspects of cannabis and has received a high amount of positive feedback from its patients and consumers. The older demographic in particular appreciates its educational focus that empowers newcomers to make better decisions about the various products that are available.
Soon after its second anniversary, Starbuds International won the ‘National Startup of the Year’ award at the 2019 O’Cannabiz cannabis awards. Other notable benchmarks include opening the first cannabis retail locations in the Dawson Creek area of Northern B.C. and in Lake Country in the Central Okanagan.
Government, particularly in Canada, has become more accepting of the cannabis business. Two years ago, Starbuds International found itself speaking to dozens of municipalities about why cannabis may be beneficial and why retail sales should be permitted. It encountered a high amount of scepticism from governments and some opposition based on false ideas that did not match with reality.
“We heard about the potential for overdose deaths and things that typically don’t exist, but the knowledge from governments just wasn’t there as to what kind of effects legalization would have on their community. That stigma was certainly one of the bigger challenges that has definitely dropped off over the last eight or nine months in Canada,” explains Martyn.
Canada is in a unique position; it is the first country that has fully developed the framework for adult use, medical use, and banking services for cannabis. The access to banking services should not be taken for granted in Canada since it is still very restricted elsewhere. Very few countries permit cannabis companies to open legitimate bank accounts, and this limits their ability to operate smoothly and access capital.
In the last year since cannabis legalization in Canada, the effects have been primarily positive for the economy and society as a whole. As a result, Canadian companies like Starbuds International have been approached by governments in other countries looking for information about the cannabis legalization process and the effects.
Starbuds recently brought the Government of Australia officials on a tour of various manufacturing facilities, extraction facilities, as well as its retail locations and clinics. The hope is that other governments will be inspired by the potential of cannabis, particularly in the healthcare and the judicial systems.
“We found recently in the UK, Colombia, and other places we’ve travelled to, that governments are seeing cannabis in a more positive light. It’s still not viewed as entirely positive abroad from Canada, but it’s definitely improving for their desire to have cannabis as medicine and cannabis as a business.”
As more countries come on board with medical cannabis, Starbuds International is looking forward to witnessing the impact of legalization on a global scale. “The criminalization of it was based on unfounded facts and propaganda, and now that we’re seeing medical benefits and positive social aspects to it, I think that [legalization] is going to happen at a historical rate, probably unlike anything we’ve seen since either the end of alcohol prohibition or the internet,” says Martyn.
There are numerous anecdotal examples of medical cannabis improving healthcare. One example is a patient who entered a Compass Cannabis Clinic in a wheelchair and was taking medication for sleep, pain, and anxiety. Three months after receiving a cannabis prescription, the patient was able to walk into the clinic using a walker and no longer required an opioid or sleep aid. This significant change in quality of life after ninety days shows the possible benefits that are now available to patients suffering from a variety of ailments.
The economy has profited from cannabis by creating jobs and developing a new type of entrepreneurial spirit, and social justice has taken a step forward as well. “We’re seeing a significant decrease in cannabis-related criminal proceedings. We think that’s a very positive framework because generally cannabis-related charges were typically against minorities and low-income households,” says Martyn.
Starbuds International plans keep up with its retail expansion and expects to have twenty locations open one year from now. “It’s exciting to see stores continue to come online and service adult-use consumers. We think that market is just scratching the surface of its potential, and we think it will ultimately displace alcohol in Canada in the next five years,” expresses Martyn.
The company’s medical expansion abroad is uncommon in the industry. With its Compass brand, Starbuds International is one of the few companies that have chosen to expand into other countries. With its opportunities growing as an international company, Starbuds International will venture into new countries that have a need for leadership, knowledge, and experience.
“We’re in a good position to bring Canadian expertise into new countries and help them set up medical cannabis programs that we know work, and we believe will have good success in those countries as well,” says Martyn. All over the world, people are looking to Canada to help guide and establish a successful foundation for the new industry.
“Ultimately we want safe cannabis access for anyone, anywhere, if they are of legal age,” says Martyn. “We think cannabis is a net positive for the vast majority of people that use it, and by being educational and offering access, we think that it’s going to help the lives of those that we touch.”