From trailblazer to global influencer, an interview with Hilary Black, Chief Advocacy Officer, Canopy Growth
Heads Lifestyle first interviewed Hilary Black for our feature aHead of their time (Heads Magazine, Issue #8, May 2002). As a medical marijuana activist and founder of Canada’s first medical cannabis dispensary, she was at the forefront of the movement. Today, she is the Chief Advocacy Officer at Canopy Growth, Canada’s largest licensed producer and the world’s most valuable cannabis company. Heads Lifestyle caught up with the very busy C-suite cannabis activist to get her insight on the battle for recognition, post-legalization's evolution and her vision for the future. With her depth of compassion and burning sense of justice, Hilary Black embodies the very best of the cannabis community.
HL: You founded the BC Compassion Club in 1997. Now that you are the Chief Advocacy Officer at Canopy Growth, what is your involvement at the Compassion Club?
HB: I volunteer there and I do my best to help them when they need me. Though I am not an official consultant, I have helped them find their way through several different regulatory processes. And I will always be its mother. So while it has grown up and it has many other people that are living the work of the Compassion Club day-to-day, I will always stay connected to it.
The BC Compassion Club Society storefront in the Kensington–Cedar Cottage neighbourhoods in East Vancouver, Canada.
HL: Heads featured you in our column aHead of their time in 2002—17 years ago!—and you truly were a trailblazer in terms of your prophetic vision for medical marijuana. What is your impression when you look back at those days?
HB: Oh my God! That article is so precious. You know when I look back at media from the very, very early days, it’s almost like I’m looking at a different version of myself, like I’m looking at my little sister or something. It’s amazing how much things have changed since then. And also it’s been a long journey. You know, that interview was really lovely to read. I was quite proud of that young woman in that interview actually. She’s pretty feisty.
I was quite proud of that young woman in that interview actually. She’s pretty feisty.
HL: What originally sparked that feisty young woman to embark on a cannabis crusade?
HB: Well, I learned about hemp on Grateful Dead tour—hemp for fuel, hemp for fibre, hemp for medicine, hemp for food, hemp for fun, hemp to save the planet. When I came back to Vancouver, Marc Emery had opened his hemp store and I very quickly started volunteering and working there. I had some very powerful experiences with the people who were coming and looking for cannabis as a medicine. I felt a great responsibility land in my lap. I felt this mission grab me and it’s almost like the spirit of ganja reached down and claimed me and said, You are now in service of me and your destiny is to spend your adult life working to free me from the chains that bind me. And the last 25 years of my life proved that to be true in that I have chosen to be dedicated to this path, to this mission. So my path was kind of laid out for me. And on the one hand, I can think about the sacrifices, but on the other hand, what a tremendous gift from such a young age to have a very clear sense of purpose and to have a path in this world that is meaningful. It’s not something everybody gets to experience and I feel incredibly privileged to have had that feeling from such a young age and it’s never faded.
I felt a great responsibility land in my lap. I felt this mission grab me and it’s almost like the spirit of ganja reached down and claimed me and said, You are now in service of me and your destiny is to spend your adult life working to free me from the chains that bind me.
HL: In our original interview, your primary focus was on meeting the needs of your medical patients. You detailed a long list of conditions the Compassion Club members suffered from including HIV/AIDS. Can you tell us about those days?
HB: In 1995-1996, when I first started distributing medical cannabis, and then opened the Compassion Club in 1997, Vancouver had an epidemic of HIV and hepatitis transmission rates. The public health authorities literally called it an epidemic. And the epicentre of it, of course, was in the Downtown East Side. There was a group of HIV-positive gay men that wrapped themselves around me and said, You go, girl. You just come out of that cannabis-distributing closet of yours, go public and we’ve got your back. So I had this infusion of courage from these very politically engaged men. That was the landscape of the health crisis that was happening in Vancouver at the time, which is very much reflected, twenty-five years later. Same neighbourhood, same community, but now we have an epidemic of the opioid overdose crisis. The connections and the mirrors of it—it’s a sad, tragic synchronicity. And cannabis has a role to play in both of those crises.
HL: The W.H.O. has acknowledged the “possible therapeutic application… of CBD to treat drug addiction.” Do you believe cannabis will play a critical role in bringing the opioid crisis under control?
HB: Let me tell you a story. Two years ago, my best friend’s daughter whose name is Gemma, when she was 18 years old, died of a fentanyl overdose. I have supported a lot of death and sickness and tragedy in my life, but never like a best friend losing their daughter. So I took a couple months off work and moved in with the family to just get them through.
When I went back to work, my boss, Mark Zekulin, was looking to do something meaningful in terms of social purpose work in British Columbia, and he said, Obviously, B.C. is the epicentre of the opioid overdose epidemic, what should we do? So I reached out to the brilliant Dr. Evan Wood from the B.C. Centre of Substance Use and said, I want to do something that is going to have a systemic impact. Not just a one-and-done. I said, Evan, you are the expert. Give me a project plan of what you would do if you had a big chunk of money. I had no idea how much money Canopy would give me to do the project, but I just wanted to dream big.
The proposal they came back with was to fund an endowment that would support a professorship at the University of British Columbia and that Professorship of Cannabis Science would be solely focused on creating clinical data and running clinical trials around the role of cannabis and cannabinoids as part of the solution to the overdose epidemic. The B.C. Centre of Substance Use had half a million dollars in the bank from the B.C. Ministry of Mental Health and Addiction, and they were waiting for a philanthropic donation to match it against before they could spend it. So we put in $2.5 million and created an endowment at the University of British Columbia. They went through their process and selected a wonderful man named Dr. M-J Malloy to become the Canopy Growth Professor of Cannabis Science. They are now engaged in clinical trials, researching the role of cannabis as a part of the toolkit for helping people addicted to opioids. It’s not focused on pain patients; it’s focused on people who are addicted to fentanyl. Through Canopy’s support and faith in me, I created a legacy to Gemma, which is creating a body of clinical evidence that in the years to come will be what healthcare professionals around the world can rely on to understand that cannabis is one of their tools as gateway out of addiction. And these are the kinds of things that I can do working with the country’s and the world’s largest cannabis company.
They are now engaged in clinical trials, researching the role of cannabis as a part of the toolkit for helping people addicted to opioids. It’s focused on people who are addicted to fentanyl.
HL: You are now the Chief Advocacy Officer for Canopy Growth. What motivated you to join forces with the largest producer in Canada and the world’s most valuable cannabis company?
HB: I was one of the early adopters from the activist community who chose to work in the legal market. When I decided to make that move I knew that the Compassion Club model was never going to be successfully replicated across the country. I wanted to work in a systemic way. I believe that one of the fundamental principles of being a Canadian is that we have equal access to healthcare. At that point, patients across the country did not have equal access to medical cannabis. So I wanted to work with one of the early licensed producers, work in the new legal regime even though there were problems with it—it wasn’t my perfect picture of what legalization would look like even on the medical side—but to work with the system that exists and to work from the inside to be able to speak to more physicians and to be able to unlock this medicine for more patients across the country.
Hilary Black touring one of Canopy Growth's Canadian facilities. Photos: Canopy Growth
HL: Did you get any backlash for your decision?
HB: I was very, very heavily criticised, shamed even, for making that move. Traitor. Sellout. Shillary. But I was very clear about my strategy, even if people hadn’t caught up with me yet in terms of understanding what my strategy was. I knew that I was on point. And I never really faltered. I believe that it’s my responsibility as a trailblazer and as an activist and as a patient advocate to have as much power as I can and have a seat at the table. That’s exactly what I’ve done. And I have a tremendous amount of influence. My position is meaningful and I am incredibly well-resourced to now take my work global.
I believe that it’s my responsibility as a trailblazer and as an activist and as a patient advocate to have as much power as I can and have a seat at the table. That’s exactly what I’ve done.
HL: What advice would you give to women who want to participate in the cannabis space?
HB: The advice that I would give to women is: this is a brand new industry and it’s becoming global, and there’s huge opportunity. Huge opportunity! I’m the first female member of the C-suite in Canopy, which hopefully, one day, gender balance within the cannabis industry won’t even be a conversation anymore. But I am proud of my company for that. I don’t have that seat at the table because I’m a woman, but being a woman is great in terms of starting to create some more diversity at that level of the company. And Canopy is really committed to our evolution around diversity and inclusion. So that’s one of the many exciting parts of my mandate.
HL: How do you feel now that legalization has been enacted? Triumphant? Tired? Like there is still so much more work to be done?
HB: Really, all of those things are true. But mostly I’m just supercharged. There’s work that we have to do around the evolution of the legal framework in Canada to make it more inclusive and to make it friendlier for small businesses. That’s going to come when we prove that this version of legalization is working and the sky didn’t fall. Kids aren’t addicted. People aren’t driving off the road. We don’t have a huge spike in mental health concerns. I really believe we need a year or maybe longer of really good data showing that this is successful before we’re going to be able to push and open things up. Like the restrictions around advertising and marketing—they’re way too restrictive. It limits some of the education that we need to be able to do.
HL: Now that Canada has taken a major step towards changing public opinion regarding cannabis, what’s next?
HB: Parallel to knowing that we have more work to do in Canada, I am so incredibly proud of my country. I am so proud of us. The legalization of recreational cannabis is not just about the right to get high; this is a social justice issue. It’s about access to healthcare. And it’s about righting a tremendous wrong that is creating so much harm around the world. That’s why I’m passionate about this work. Because freeing this plant is an opportunity to address access to healthcare, a paradigm shift around how we deal with our health and a social justice issue in a way that is a really rare opportunity.
So now my new position is about working globally. It’s about social purpose globally. And it’s about patient advocacy globally. I’m just incredibly thrilled and I’m ready for the next decade. I’m ready to help the patients in the U.K. I’m ready to help the patients in Australia. I see Canopy as this unicorn; it’s an incredibly powerful economic machine that I get to ride around the world tearing down prohibition.
The legalization of recreational cannabis is not just about the right to get high; this is a social justice issue. It’s about access to healthcare. And it’s about righting a tremendous wrong that is creating so much harm around the world.
HL: Do you foresee a time when cannabis will be legalized worldwide?
HB: Well, I think that the whole globe is starting to move in bits and pieces. You know, we have medical regulations in Australia and in Germany and coming along in the U.K. And there are some countries in Latin America that are moving towards medical regulations. So I really feel like many countries around the world are starting to reform their cannabis regulatory framework. It’s not necessarily because the world is realizing that cannabis prohibition was based on lies and racism and that it’s a great wrong that has been done upon the world, but actually because there is a global economy emerging and now there are economic drivers pushing the evolution of the regulatory framework.
HL: You’ve stated that the current cannabis legislation is version 1.0. Was anything overlooked? Where do you believe we need to make adjustments?
HB: I’m thinking about First Nations. How are our First Nations communities going to benefit financially from this booming industry? I don’t have the answer to that question but that’s what I’m thinking about. I think that yes, we need more gender balance but of greater concern to me is how our First Nations are going to benefit. I think that the government has a bit of shifting to do around where the taxation and economic benefits from the industry are being spent. I would like to see that as something the government takes some action on. I also think about the disproportionate amount of marginalized and people of colour who have been incarcerated because of working in the cannabis industry. Not just about possession charges. So when the industry starts opening up in America, I want the whole industry to really have as top-of-mind prioritizing the employment and the retraining of marginalized and people of colour who have been incarcerated for working in the cannabis trade. I think that’s a great place of healing that’s needed. We need to make sure that the people who have been harmed by prohibition are part of the prosperity of a legal industry.
We need to make sure that the people who have been harmed by prohibition are part of the prosperity of a legal industry.
HL: Do you believe the “grey” market will ever really disappear?
HB: The point of legalization should be bringing everybody out of the dark and into the light. Hopefully we can bring all of the grey market into the legal market. But as long as the legal market is way more restrictive than the grey market, the grey market will always have an advantage—around packaging or advertising or marketing or potency of your edibles or all of these kinds of things. The answer is dependent on what happens with the evolution of the regulatory market. But I think more and more, people are really thrilled to get their cannabis—their medical cannabis and their cannabis for adult consumption—through legal, regulated channels. I was pretty excited the first time I ordered cannabis from a website operated by the government of British Columbia. That felt like a pretty momentous day.
Tweed's ( A division of Canopy Growth ) 10:1 Cannabis Oil is a popular choice amongst Canada's medical marijuana patients. Photos: Canopy Growth
HL: Let’s talk taxes. In Canada, prescription medications are not taxed and yet medical marijuana is subject to the same taxes as recreational. Why the disconnect?
HB: The tax courts, when challenged on this, have basically said that the legislation needs to be clarified. There’s this kind of loophole because cannabis is not an official prescription medication; it does not have a drug identification number. It’s accessed through the authorization program under the medical cannabis legislation. That’s how they’re continuing to tax it even though it’s technically not an over-the-counter medicine. I think it’s unjust to be asking critically and chronically ill Canadians to be paying sales tax on a medication that is not available over-the-counter, that is only available through the authorization of their physician. I believe it’s contrary to the spirit of the Excise Tax Act. Then they loaded basically what is equivalent to a “sin tax” on top of that. So it’s one of the places where it’s clear that we still have stigma around the legitimacy of cannabis as a medicine, otherwise we would not be taxing patients in this way. I have worked against these taxes for a very long time. It’s one of the few places where I feel patients’ needs weren’t properly protected as we went through the legalization process.
I think it’s unjust to be asking critically and chronically ill Canadians to be paying sales tax on a medication that is not available over-the-counter, that is only available through the authorization of their physician.
HL: You have always encouraged a more holistic approach to wellness. In addition to medical marijuana, the BC Compassion Club offers affordable natural healthcare services such as acupuncture, clinical counselling and clinical herbal medicine to name a few. How does cannabis work in synergy with these types of services? And what do you think of the new breed of “medibles”—therapeutic cannabis products combined with other medicinal herbs?
HB: Well, it’s a complicated question. In our apothecary at the Compassion Club, the only cannabis product that was in there was a topical one. Our clinical herbalists were not administering cannabis in compound herbal medicines. I would really have to take a look at the labels to give my judgment around if I have concerns or not about what those herbs are that are in there. Like if they need to be consumed with the support of a clinical herbalist. At the Compassion Club, I definitely believe for patients, cannabis, as a part of a comprehensive healthcare package, is what helps people with deeper healing. When people came in the door to try cannabis and then we got them seeing a counsellor, a nutritionist and a massage therapist, or an acupuncturist, that’s when tumours shrank and viral loads dropped and addictions were managed and trauma was healed. Cannabis was part of the toolkit. I wish everybody had access to combined healthcare services like that.When it comes to edible cannabis products, I’m always very cautious about dosing. I don’t really know anybody other than Dr. Russo and Dr. Caroline MacCallum who produced a beautiful paper last year on dosing: MacCallum-Russo Practical Considerations in Medical Cannabis Administration and Dosing 2018. This is a place, when it comes to edibles, that we have to be so careful in making sure that people don’t have adverse events as they say on the medical side, or don’t have uncomfortable bad experiences. So that’s always my top-line concern when it comes to edible products.
Canopy Growth's softgel capsules are a popular format with patients new to cannabis. Photos: Canopy Growth
HL: Now that cannabis is legally accessible and the stigma is decreasing, are you witnessing more interest from elders seeking it for therapeutic reasons?
HB: There are so many more elders who are starting to use cannabis. When it comes to patients and elders making sure that their dosing protocols are starting off in such an incredibly mild and gentle place. One of the things that Canopy is doing that I’m super stoked on is the softgel capsules. Part of why we developed them was to get cannabis into long-term care facilities. In our culture, we store our seniors away in these long-term care facilities and there’s no way to get cannabis in unless it’s administered the same way other medications are. So we actually have a clinical trial running with a long-term care facility company in Ontario. It’s another place where we’re investing and gathering data and evidence to show the benefit of our seniors and elders having cannabis as part of their program. What often happens with seniors is polypharmacy. So they may be on a pain med, they might be on a sleep med, they might be on an anti-anxiety med. Often with seniors, if they’re using cannabis under the care and with careful communications from their physicians, they can slowly start self-titrating off some of those other medications. You know, with seniors there’s things we have to be really careful about watching out for like euphoria and the possible impairment from THC because we do not want our seniors having falls. The consequences from a fall can be devastating.
Hilary Black enjoying British Colombia's breathtaking nature and the pure love of canine companionship. Photo: Hilary Black
HL: You’re a kind of cannabis superhero. What do you do when you’re not breaking down prohibition and saving the world one patient at a time? How do you unwind and recharge?
HB: When I’m home and the weather’s decent, I go outside and let nature support me. I exercise as much as I can because I spend a lot of time in airports and planes. I have a beautiful nephew who I hang out with. And up until last summer, my answer would have been, My dog. I hang out with my dog and we go hiking, and we play and we goof. But I buried him in June. So now I steal my neighbour’s dog. I’m having a total love affair with a year-and-a-half-old Border Collie mutt named Jake from the neighbouring farm. Pretty much every morning he comes over to say hello. On Sundays, if I’m home, I take him for the day and we go hiking and hang out and snuggle and pretty much nothing makes me happy in the way that dogs do. The stress goes away. They are just pure love. Really nothing brings me pure joy like hanging out with dogs.
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Originally published May 2019