Her Mission: Getting Craft Cannabis Into Ontario’s Government Cannabis Stores

Published on March 14, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Last October, Constellation Brands Inc.—an international producer and marketer of beer, wine and spirits, and a behemoth in the alcohol industry—signed a $191 million deal for a 9.9% stake in Canopy Growth Corp., Canada’s first publicly traded cannabis company. The unprecedented deal broke new ground and created new possibilities for both industries.

“That deal had a huge ripple effect,” says Lisa Campbell, co-creator of Green Market pop-up events, which are essentially farmers’ markets for craft cannabis producers, and well-attended despite being illegal. “All these alcohol companies are now getting into cannabis in a really big way,” Campbell says. “And all these cannabis companies are trying to get into the alcohol industry because they have massive coffers.”

“The advantage of an agency in the supply chain is that agencies are tastemakers.”

Campbell has developed an extensive network of contacts in the cannabis industry through Green Market and her history of advocacy. She also has family connections in the alcohol industry, and for her next move, Campbell’s merging her cannabis advocacy with the family business and going legal.

Campbell’s father, Steve, is the co-founder of Lifford Wine & Spirits, a company that distributes alcohol products that can’t be purchased in Ontario’s government-controlled liquor stores (LCBOs). What started as a small agency now operates across Canada with products sourced from 18 countries. The LCBO will also be in charge of cannabis sales in Ontario, selling products in separate retail locations. Once legalized, Lifford Wine & Spirits will add cannabis to their portfolio.

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“I think a lot of the stuff I did with the Green Market is parallel, almost exactly, in terms of acting like an agency,” Campbell says. “Green Market is a portfolio of brands, and some of those brands we would have supply-chain relationships with.”

For Green Market, Campbell sourced craft products and brought them to market through her events and by acquiring shelf space in large dispensary chains. “The advantage of an agency in the supply chain is that agencies are tastemakers,” she says.

Step One: Educate

While Green Market is on hiatus, it may not be finished. “Initially, we thought it was over but now we like to say Green Market is snowbirding,” says Campbell. Her focus at the moment is on the future with Lifford and bringing more cannabis products to market for the emerging legal industry. Now, her business card says something else. Cannabis Portfolio Specialist. A new title for a new opportunity.

The first floor of Lifford Wine & Spirits will be transformed into a place to hold events geared towards cannabis education.

On a Thursday morning in March, light spills through large windows on the first floor of the Lifford building. For now, the space is mostly empty, with a few framed photos on the wall, a fold-up table in the middle of the room. Soon, the first floor will be transformed, Campbell says, into a co-working space and a place to hold events, specifically events geared towards cannabis education.

“Through Green Market, I’ve met all these folks, restaurant owners, juice bar owners, creative, talented entrepreneurs, but they don’t have a million dollars to acquire a licensed producer (LP) or build a facility, but they want to do things like edible dinners,” Campbell says.

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“These restauranters and chefs and food producers don’t necessarily have the knowledge to enter the industry, so there’s major interest but not any education geared toward them or their community.”

Before Lifford was founded in 1978, Campbell’s father was in the restaurant industry for 16 years. At that time, “it was really difficult to find wine here,” he says. “I really do see the LCBO, and their new role in selling cannabis, they are going to mimic their success in wine and spirits. They will look at the things from the past that have really worked and one of them is greater accessibility beyond what they were selling in stores. I can see, over time, that parallel happening with marijuana, as well.”

The first year of legalization is critical, Campbell says. “A lot of consumer tastes and preference will be solidified in that first year.”

The first year of legalization is critical, Campbell says. She is viewing it as a year-long national cannabis cup.

“All the LPs, big or small, are going to have their flowers on the market,” she says. “A lot of consumer tastes and preference will be solidified in that first year.”

Campbell believes, though legalization is coming soon, we are still more than a year away from “peak legalization,” which she says won’t be achieved until there is product diversity. “Once craft cannabis comes on the market, I think you’ll see a really high demand for that small-batch, small-producer product.”

As for how Campbell sees herself fitting into the equation: “If you have a strain that no other LP has but you’re just a tiny micro grow, you might want to team up with another grower and supply them with clones, and a company like ours will be able to take all that product, brand it, and sell it to a retailer.”

The Liquor Precedent

Recently, Lifford did just this with a wine. They brought a Canadian winemaker to Chile, who created a wine, while Lifford created a label and then brokered a deal with Quebec’s provincial liquor stores, who bought every bottle.

“The LCBO is the biggest alcohol buyer in the world. Soon, it will be the biggest cannabis buyer in the world.”

“Part of what we’ll be able to do in future, like we do for alcohol now, is take a network of producers that meet defined criteria, and create a brand around their product to sell to a retailer,” Campbell says.

“The LCBO has a huge appetite for products. It’s the biggest alcohol buyer in the world. Soon, it will be the biggest cannabis buyer in the world.”

It’s taken about two years of lobbying to get Lifford to this point of cannabis acceptance, Campbell says. “Two years ago, I wanted to move in and create a cannabis showroom and have a space where LPs could rent out shelf space for their products.”

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It wasn’t until December, and a threat to move to Colombia, when the idea really started to gain traction. “We had a managers’ meeting, all the managers across Canada, and they all agreed cannabis was an opportunity,” Campbell says. “If one of our biggest competitors is going to go all in on cannabis, it makes sense we would, too.”

Now, the liquor industry and the cannabis industry are converging coast to coast. It’s a far cry from the days when liquor purchases required background checks, an assessment of past consumption, and the discretion of the clerk to decide whether or not you’re buying too much. Campbell is hoping cannabis will follow a similar path of normalization.

“Alcohol is very much part of politics. When is it going to become acceptable for a public affairs company to take out their client and a politician, not for a beer, but to consume cannabis?

“We’re at the very beginning.”

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Sam Riches
Sam Riches
Sam Riches is a writer and journalist in Toronto. His work can be found in Vice, Pacific Standard, Wired, and many other publications.
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