New Zealand, with a population reaching five million this year, is likely to be one of the next batch of countries to go legal with recreational cannabis.
We have become used to hearing stories about how the ‘suits’ from big business have been swooping in to capitalize on cannabis in the era of legalization. So, here’s a story that bucks that trend. It’s the tale of a social enterprise that is looking to cannabis to provide opportunities for an economically deprived rural community.
The Hikurangi Cannabis Company was set up with the aim of generating employment for the inhabitants of New Zealand’s East Cape region, the majority of whom are drawn from the indigenous Māori population. It’s the first medical cannabis producer to win a license from the New Zealand government and the first to be granted the right to cultivate high THC strains. After an initial investment round, the pre-venue company has an estimated value of US$30 million.
Not bad for a company that began life in a small village hall and has a board of directors made up of a grandmother, a person on invalid benefits, a cattle farmer and two old mates with a background in community development…
New Zealand, with a population reaching five million this year, is likely to be one of the next batch of countries to go legal with recreational cannabis. A referendum on the matter is expected to take place in 2020 and public opinion polls have been strongly in favor of legalization. In the meantime, new legislation was introduced at the end of 2018 to give medical users increased access to cannabis. The speed of these developments has been rapid and somewhat mirrors Hikurangi Cannabis Company’s own rise.
The company takes its name from Mount Hikurangi which is located on the East Cape of New Zealand’s North island. It is a region that is renowned for its beauty and isolation – not to mention some of the best weed grown in the country – but it is also a region blighted by economic deprivation and high levels of unemployment.
Since the early days of colonization by the British Empire (Britain annexed the islands in 1840) the rich natural resources of the region have been plundered in the form of a timber industry which gave locals employment but generated wealth for foreign companies. The legacy of this exploitation is a present-day environmental catastrophe in which the clear-fell harvesting of plantation pine forests has created serious issues with uncontrollable soil erosion, rendering a lot of the land unusable. The knock-on effect has been a lack of work and opportunities for the local Māori community, leading to rural poverty and diminished economic opportunity.
It is against this background that Hikurangi emerged, as a community enterprise seeking alternative solutions that can deliver opportunities and wealth in the region. Manu Caddie is one of its founders (and one of the above-mentioned directors) and comes from a background of community development and youth work. The idea for Hikurangi was hatched in the village of Ruatoria, when he teamed up with an old friend, PanapaEhau, whose background is in community organizing, to set up an enterprise that would be responsive to community needs.
But why weed? Here it’s necessary to delve a little into New Zealand’s history. The country has no cannabis landrace to call its own – anecdotal evidence suggests that cannabis came to New Zealand in 1860 courtesy of a Catholic nun, Sister Suzanne Aubert, who arrived with cannabis seeds in her luggage, and was renowned for producing medicinal remedies which were prepared from the plant.
Skip forward just over a hundred years and the East Cape became known for its sizeable Māori Rasta community. The Reggae music of artists such as Bob Marley and Peter Tosh and the religion of Rastafarianism became unifying forces that forged a new sense of identity for disenfranchised Māori young people in this remote part of New Zealand. During the 1980s, they vented their frustrations on the local community with arson attacks, shootings and a ritualistic beheading, in a period the national media dubbed ‘The Troubles’. A pivotal moment in bringing this time of conflict to an end was a concert of unity by legendary New Zealand Reggae band, Herbs.
It was at this time that cannabis became an integral part of life for the Rasta community, and inevitably they became adept at growing it. That growing tradition was passed down and the next generation took cultivation to the next level, illicit plantations being nurtured in this isolated area and fueling the East Cape region’s reputation for fine weed. Cannabis became a contributing factor to the local community, both a small-scale cash crop that supplemented seasonal work and a larger scale operation that supplied the weed needs of those living in New Zealand’s cities. Over the years the authorities have annually targeted the East Cape’s illicit cannabis fields, spraying from the air and ripping out plants.
It’s this tradition of growing good quality weed that Hikurangi is now tapping into. “From the beginning we were looking to find projects that utilized the land owned by the Māori community,” says Manu, explaining that this land is divided into blocks, each plot being jointly owned by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of separate owners and passed down through the generations, leading to management issues and precluding raising investment from banks.
With their roots in the local Māori community, Manu and Panapa’s mission was to set up a business that would sustain the environment, provide jobs for locals and bring income into the area. “So we called a series of community meetings to discuss options – the most promising ideas focused on utilizing natural resources to create high value natural health products. At the first meeting we had 30 people attend, at the second 10 people showed up, and by the third there were only five. We knew that if it went to a fourth it could die a death, so we decided to create a community-owned company, signed up everyone present in the room and made them directors of the board!” Hence Hikurangi has a board of directors which is unconventional even for a cannabis start up.
In early 2018 it launched a crowd funding program, holding a number of village roadshows in coastal towns and villages to explain the concept and invite the local community to become a part in it by investing, with a $50 NZD (£27) minimum stake. The crowd funding campaign caught the public imagination to such an extent that within days $2.4 million was raised (crashing the crowdfunding website twice in the process) and to this pot was added another $7m from two private investors.
The Hikurangi Cannabis Company is part of an umbrella group that also includes the Hikurangi Huataukina Trust, Hikurangi Bioactives and Hikurangi Enterprises Ltd. The idea is that the cannabis company makes money for the trust which then creates new enterprises to make more money for the trust and in the process it makes more jobs for local people – a benevolent, as opposed to a vicious, circle.
Its initial foray into the world of cannabis began with a license to grow hemp – working with local growers and a community college, providing the country’s first official cannabis cultivation qualification for tertiary students based around sustainable land management. When the first crop of hemp was planted the group didn’t know whether it would be for fiber, food or pharmaceuticals. However, eyeing changes in the political environment – supported a year later by a government change in 2017 that brought the Green Party in as a supporting coalition partner (with cannabis legalization on their manifesto) – Hikurangi decided to raise its ambitions and turn its attention to growing medicinal cannabis.
By becoming the first New Zealand company to obtain a license from the government to cultivate medical marijuana, the Hikurangi Cannabis Company has gone from being a provincial underdog to one of the biggest legal cannabis companies in the southern hemisphere. The company is currently working with the government to set up “world leading regulations for medical cannabis. Everyone agrees that this should be done before any official legalization takes place”, says Manu – a lesson learnt from the hotchpotch of regulations that is currently causing headaches in the USA.
As it sets itself up for production, Hikurangi now has a staff of 24 (50% of whom are Māori) and work has started on building a lab and an extraction facility to process the cannabis it is growing. The company is also working to develop a diverse cannabis gene pool with the aim of developing customized medicines for specific medical conditions in the future. In addition, there are clinical trials in place using cannabis for conditions like arthritis and methodone replacement.
In December, Manu was at the International Cannabis Policy Conference in Vienna to share the story of Hikurangi and also to share the experience of operating a cannabis business from a southern hemisphere perspective. As the world turns increasingly green friendly (and commercial), it is the established voices of Europe and North America which have dominated the conversation so far. The Hikurangi story serves as a reminder that while the new global cannabis industry is seen by many (especially the ‘suits’ of corporate business) as an opportunity to turn a tidy profit, there are others who see an opportunity for something else.
As Manu told the audience in Vienna. “We have an opportunity, one opportunity in a hundred years perhaps, to lay the foundations for an ethical industry. By building connections across continents, building a fair-trade cannabis industry through tech, environmental and labor standards, that includes the indigenous people of Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australasia, we have the chance to redress the imbalances of history.”
In short, cannabis proliferates in areas of the world where poverty and exploitation by ‘northern’ states have gone hand in hand. It would be a travesty if these nations of the ‘south’ were to lose out in the great green rush. As the global business grows, what the cannabis industry needs is plenty more people with the vision of Hikurangi that place the fortunes of people over the pursuit of profit.
By Che Capri
Originally published in Weed World Magazine issue 140