Photographer Riun Garner

Drugs & Leisure

Dank Rebel: Inside the Stunning World of a Canadian Cannabis Entrepreneur

On a hot Saturday morning in July, I climbed eagerly into a glistening black Ford Explorer parked opposite my house. This wasn't the first time I'd stepped into a car on a quest for drugs, but this time it felt miles away from a sketchy dashboard exchange picking baggies from the base of a Lynx Deodorant can. This time I was being driven to the place Tantalus Labs' SunLab; a cannabis greenhouse and lab that is pioneering growing of the future, and the brainchild of Dan Sutton.

I was going to get an exclusive look at his grow operation where 600 sun-grown cannabis plants thrive. The advanced and exceptionally-designed facility, where Tantalus is able to test out studies, is dedicated to solving one question: How do we grow cannabis in a sustainable and affordable way? And more importantly, how do we make sure it’s the best bud out there? 

Next to me in this American tank of a car is the CEO and founder himself, his bearded-grin making me feel immediately at ease. Sutton is in his mid-30s with tattoos sleeves, including his own Tantalus logo. He wears a snapback with "sun grown" stitched on the front (where can I buy one for myself?) and has a look in his eye like he’s struck gold—and in some ways he has, because Sutton is cultivating cannabis like no one else in Canada. Although his boyish demeanor and overall cool might not scream CEO, Sutton is a hugely successful entrepreneur and has subsequently become a legal cannabis culture leader of British Columbia, the westernmost province of Canada.

It’s an hour drive to their facility in Maple Ridge, giving us plenty of time to unwrap how he got started in this unconventional, but highly profitable, corner of commerce. Sutton hasn't always been the vibrant cannabis entrepreneur—sucking on an unsweetened iced matcha latte with almond milk—next to me. In fact, he spent his 20s picking up business and financial experience in a variety of corporate environments, until he was unexpectedly let go. But instead of regretting his years as a suit up until about 25, he assured me that all that experience was just gearing him up and setting the cogs in motion for the realization that entrepreneurship was the only way forward for him. "It wasn't a cultural fit," he explained of his time under the corporate thumb. And if the T-shirt-wearing, friendly character sitting next to me was anything to go by, I seriously struggle to imagine his younger-self donning a suit and rubbing shoulders with the devils of corporate finance. 

In 2012, Sutton saw a consultation document which outlined what would then become the Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulation (MMPR), that explained there would be a commercial system for larger scale enterprises to cultivate cannabis, with extreme regulations around security and around quality assurance. Suddenly, this meant that there was more of a commercial market for cannabis than ever before and this was an opportunity that Sutton, just shook of the corporate jungle and with his plethora of entrepreneurial skills, took hold of with both hands. 
'It’s like a spaceship for weed' he told me as the door swings open and we step inside, and truly it is. 
He quickly came to realize that the ways other people were growing cannabis in BC was not efficient. “It was so fractured,” he told me, furthering that the economically viable industry had a commitment to standards and quality assurance that was shockingly low. Sutton went on to elaborate that for the majority of the grow operations in place in 2012, "quality was ranked last, so someone needed to go out and represent that.” Like all good business people, Sutton found a problem in the market and began to seek a solution, and from that the foundations of his extensive business plan were born.

Later that year, Tantalus Labs got the go-ahead to build their facility that had been designed meticulously to be "ahigh-tech lab combined with the sunshine of a gulf island summer” and once produced, it became the only tailor-built cannabis greenhouse in Canadian history, and that's quite the legacy. As we continued to drive I could tell by the way he was thrumming away on the wheel that he was excited by something, and this was when we turned off themain road and began driving up toward the facility. As the lab started to bloom out of the shimmering offing in front of us and I glimpsed at the size of it for the first time, I couldn't help but feel a little awestruck (Well,that and if Sutton's big plan was to murder me then this would be the perfect place to do it).

The facility is surrounded by barbed wire fences, and the gleaming bright white exterior walls of the structure looks like some sort of military base from space. This beaming tank of tech, with a huge bold Tantalus logo splashed across it, is just placed in the middle of a dusty road in Maple Ridge,fenced off from the rest of the world and unbeknownst to the spectacle happening inside.It felt very exclusive to be here, like witnessing the iPhone 17 years prior to its release. "This is the future, this is how cannabis should be grown," he gesticulated as we drove into the facility with CCTV cameras flanking the entrance, swiveling ominously as we drove past them.And when we got through the barbed fencing, we still had a couple of key card access doors between us and the inside of the facility.
The founder put me in a white lab coat as soon as we got inside and some blue shoe covers before taking me into the lab’s main office. Our movements echoed with each footstep as I gazed upon the wall of monitors showing the CCTV footage in shots of white and blazing green.I was taken out to the main greenhouse wherethe painted words “future weed” greeted me. Nice touch. This bright space is full ofmore motivational etchings, resembling what seems to be a millennial’s utopia; somehow a mix between an industrial coffee shop combined with our obsession with house plants. Sutton could see on my face just how much this place impressed me. Only 200 people had been inside and Sutton admitted that each and every person had had a similar out-of-body experience and existential moment; in part due to the high levels of THC floating about in the air, but also the sheer size, beauty and design of the place. “It’s like a spaceship for weed” he told me as the door opened and we stepped inside, and truly it is.

In front of were rows and rows of plants, with neat tubes and smart tech coating the walls and floors, with giant fans overhead circulating the air. The lab was designed to use sunlight and collected rainwater to feed their plants. All of the 600 plants in the greenhouse are hooked up to their own water and nutrient supply, which is monitored and controlled by a larger environmental control system that knows what each and every plant has had and what it needs. They call this the “brain” of the facility and its bloody clever, isn't it? "We know what each plant has gotten at each stage of its life cycle," he explained. I wasn't shown the brain but in my mind, it looks like the wizard in theWizard of Oz before we came to realize he was a phony (because that’s science, right?).

Their greenhouse technology itself is miles away from the majority of grow ops throughout the rest of Canada. In the project’s earliest days, the majority of cannabis cultivation in Canada was happening indoors—and not much has changed since the 1970s, after prohibition forced plants underground and away from prying law enforcement. Ninety percent of cannabis cultivation still takes place underground with synthetic light, despite BC having near-perfect conditions to grow. Even though licensed growing for medical use has become commonplace, there's a large amount of criticism for anyone who challenges this style of growing.“We test the status quo every chance we get,” he mentioned, clarifying thatby choosing to grow in a greenhouse back in 2012, he and his team were challenging the very culture that they were trying to penetrate, but the risk paid off.
SunLab’s cost of production is 90 percent more efficient than that of their indoor competitors. With the help of a team of Ph.D agricultural advisers, he realized that cannabis production was much better suited to a greenhouse environment, where water, light and nutrients could be optimized for a fraction of the price as in an indoor grow. Sweeter bud and lower costs mean higher margins and profitability too. On top of it all, the greenhouse has less of an environmental impact. “We are acting out of self-interest to act out of social interest,” he told me. "True in nuclear power, true in cellulose packaging; there's a cost efficiency that allows you to be way more economically competitive, but also lends itself to the social progress of more sustainable production." If I didn't know he was talking about cannabis by the great five fingered green leaves and fat stacked nodes that we were inspecting, I could easily imagine he was talking about the next big breakthrough in sustainable energy or agricultural science—it’s seriously impressive.

The plants are the greenest, happiest looking shrubs I’ve ever seen, and if they could talk I think they’d all just be sighing contentedly or singing “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. “SunLab doesn’t try and control nature, we merely nudge it in the right direction," Sutton told me as we both caress the leaves of one of the plants. So the whole greenhouse is a celebration of our natural environment and I must say the vibes in there were spectacular. Yes, I was slightly high from all those happy weed smells, but even without the THC you would struggle to not feel good in here, because it’s like watching mother nature do her very best job in the very best way–and that’s lovely.

The work Sutton and his team are doing at SunLab isn't just revolutionary for cannabis growers, but for agriculture as a whole as well. While the world is leaning toward more natural styles of growing for the foods we eat, with a natural aversion to GMO, pesticides and all the nasty stuff, agricultural science hasn't caught up with how to do it cheap. But the SunLab team’s leanings towards natural pesticide free cultivation—in a controlled, energy efficient and economically sound environment—could help expand a new field of agricultural style altogether. "We're talking about quality assurance without pesticides and a much more natural style of cultivation," he said. Essentially, it’s organic produce without the price tag.

“These are the ladies we work for,” the boss proudly announced as we strolled past the lush green leaves standing at 6 feet and above—arched like a canopy and brushing us gently as if reaching for high-fives. Sutton says “she” because every one of the plants here is female, and according to the expert, you don't really need male plants in cannabis cultivation unless you’re using them for breeding. Actually, the presence of male plant energy in this room of female thriving plants would result in smaller buds (that's the bit they harvest) so the men are kept in a different facility.

The way Sutton discussed his buds was like he’s talking about tending to a bevy of women at a day spa, sunbathing and drinking all day while they’re gently massaged by their growers. It’s all deliberate too, because Sutton believes that vibes are incredibly important to grow the best bud. “Maybe it’s because people in good moods produce better or maybe it’s because the plants are ultimately conscious of how we feel,” he hypothesized. “Tell the plant it looks good and thick,” he advised when I bent down to one to whisper sweet nothings into its nodes.Thick plants are healthy plants apparently and these babies are thick.The ones closest to the door were the densest, ready for harvesting, with the plants towards the far wall much greener and leafier. The smell was inexplicable; delicious and organic, but potent. “These plants are stoked,” he added as we said farewell to them.

Next is the nursery, where off-shoots from the mighty mother plants are taken and grown up until they're teens, mature enough to be upgraded to the big girl room. The mother plants are on the other side of this greenhouse, thick and beastly looking with gnarly trunks that look like they’ve experienced life—almost like the calloused hands of a particularly hands-on matriarch, you can see why these plants rule the roost. From all these "big mammas," the entire greenhouse has been grown, each mother plant roughly spawning two hundred other plants—that's a lot of children, and I feel an unwavering respect for these marijuana matriarchs (Did Itry to kiss the leaves of one? No comment.).

After 45 minutes with the girls, I was going a little loopy and potentially slightly emotional. Luckily, we were nearing the end of our tour. Sutton led me to the main part of the lab; what was becoming the trimming, drying, cloning and packing rooms (we weren't allowed to see their top-secret process though). There was also an empty space that he wasn’t sure what to do with yet, but he was flirting with the idea of having a place to make oil-infused chocolate…and then it hit me.:“This is like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory… but for weed." Suddenly, I was filled with a clarity that had nothing to do with the THC coursing through my veins. Sutton pondered on this for a moment. “No, I’m like Charlie after he’s inherited the factory,” he corrected. My god, the man’s a genius. So this was the great glass elevator. Wow.

With my mind well and truly blown, we departed the facility.

As we drove back to Vancouver, Sutton and I got the chance to discuss how cannabis legalization in Canada will affect Tantalus Labs this October. The legalization market is “100-times larger than the medical market” he informed me, meaning that cannabis cultivators now have to rapidlyexpand and grow to meet the new demand of the market place. Following legalization, BC will be opening public cannabis stores which will be similar to the way liquor stores are run and in fact will be regulated by the same distribution branch, the Liquor Distribution Branch. Tantalus’ plan is to diversify into these recreational stores over time, but first the launch of their online store is their main focus because demand will inevitably skyrocket come October's legislation. At the same time, legalization will also encourage more transparent conversations around quality, locality and security which is good news for a company, like Tantalus Labs, who prides itself on all those things.

Although new stringent controls on quality and more rigid supply chain transparencies are good for Sutton, like we’ve seen in California, many of Vancouver’s smaller dispensaries and illicit growers will not be benefitting from the legalization of cannabis. Legalization could mean the end of the smaller dispensariesthat have been so impactful to the cannabis culture in Vancouver especially. If these stores cannot afford or do not choose to go through the process to legalization (which involves upwards of $10,000 in application fees), then they cannot exist in the legal recreational market—a fact that Sutton describes as an “unfortunate reality of legalizing cannabis.”

But it’s not only his views on legalization that has left Sutton vulnerable to criticism. From the moment he conceptualized the project, he has been encountering different forms of rebuttal—whether from his peers or from other growers— because he is “a white guy from Vancouver” and he lives in one of the “most privileged places in regards to cannabis-related crime.” He added that a lack of an activism in his background or lack of any direct experiences of cannabis prohibition means he often experiences backlash from people who feel like he has no business doing what he's doing. “We’re not perfect” he added, furthering that his team are just out there to present the best bud they can.

Sutton is well aware that he is one of the lucky few; beyond the color of his skin, he was able to get the money and business contacts together to help him enter the legal cannabis market. For a lot of other growers, however, they have no choice but to grow illicitly; not having access to the kinds of funds or business experience it would take to get licensed and get a facility like SunLab off the ground. What for illicit growers is a prison sentence, for Sutton is an opportunity, and this perhaps is where the main unsettling reality of legalization will lie.

After the three hours we spent together, I’m coming away with a much richer understanding of the subject—of his methodology and of cannabis culture in general. “It's a sacred beautiful plant and you should use it to make beautiful situations better,” he said. For Sutton, the stigma around cannabis is unfounded, and part of his efforts as the founder of Tantalus Labs was to make sure his growing of the plant is challenging these stereotypes rather than perpetuating them. Again, this is a lot of pressure for agrower, especially as legalization comes into effect and more and more people will be looking to individuals like Sutton to pave the way for the legal recreational market, not just for Canada but for the rest of the world.

He suspects that in five to 10 years, 90 percent of growers will be growing in greenhouses just like him. If not for any other reason than economical because, in Sutton’s words, “Why would you pay more money to grow shittier weed indoors?” That’s a good question. But what about for his immediate future? When I asked him what’s next, I saw a shimmer in his eyes. He replied, “To continue the relentless pursuit of the perfect cannabis—an entity that will never exist, but we will pursue it none the less.”

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