Science & Social Justice: Talking Shop with Ashley Preece of the Ethical Cannabis Alliance
Besides the glitz, glamor, fear and the regulations that come with the cannabis industry; what is working in it really like? Some love it while others have found themselves overworked, doing their best to keep up with regulations and state government protocols. Here we sit down with Ethical Cannabis Alliance founder Ashley Preece to discuss what it means to be a worker in the cannabis industry and why it is important to keep a protective eye on fair labor and worker’s rights within it. Beyond social justice, we will discuss Preece’s experience working with Cascadia Labs and the Women Grow organization, in addition to ways the cannabis industry could potentially become more environmentally viable. In a fast paced, convoluted industry like cannabis, who knows what happens next?
Written by Maxwell Davis & Ashley Preece
Edited by Maxwell Davis & Jon Russell
Maxwell Davis, GreenSea Distribution: Ashley, I appreciate you taking the time to discuss the cannabis industry with me today. For those who may be unfamiliar with you or your organization, would you briefly introduce yourself?
Ashley Preece: I received my horticulture degree from Boise State and soon thereafter moved to Humboldt, California to start growing organic cannabis, both indoor and out. I worked for different cannabis farms and experienced a lot of different working conditions because of these experiences. I then moved to Oregon and co-founded Cascadia Labs, a cannabis-centric analytical lab with seed money from my family in 2013. I also did farm inspections for Clean Green Certification for 9 months; it was nice to get my hands back in the dirt after being analytic-centric for so long.
I helped launch Portland Chapter Women Grow which was pretty wild. I have recently resigned from this position and sold my portion of Cascadia Labs to commit full time in bringing transparent, robust yet accessible standards to the cannabis industry via Ethical Cannabis Alliance (ECA). The ECA is a nonprofit that is dedicated to 3rd party, voluntary certifications to both protect the environment and empower workers.
Maxwell Davis: Well, you have quite the background! Thank you for sharing. Now, why did you find it so important to create the Ethical Cannabis Alliance? I assumed you didn’t have a lot of time on your hands to create a new organization before finalizing your work with both Cascadia Labs and Women Grow.
Ashley Preece: After extensive research, I found that our industry had a gaping hole for transparent and robust industry standards that were cannabis centric. I love plants, people and the environment, so it was a natural draw to try to help bring these standards to the industry. It feels good to do good and, so far, the support has been intense. People really want this and they want to help make it happen. The quality of volunteers knocking on the door to help is amazing! People and groups are providing their services for free and funders are providing an insane amount of support. The ECA is on the brink of receiving 6 figures from one specific org! Additionally, Cultivation Classic has coined ECA as their 2017 nonprofit partner where proceeds from tickets go towards our efforts.
Maxwell Davis: That makes sense. You’re addressing an issue most cannabis entrepreneurs probably never even think to address. Continuing this discussion, what are some of the biggest problems cannabis industry workers face today?
Ashley Preece: Because cannabis is an agriculture product labor, issues in cannabis production are similar to other agricultural industries. We can start by looking at exposure to toxic chemicals, low or inconsistent wages, poor housing, little empowerment and lack of enforcement. Cannabis farm worker experiences can be as ranging as idyllic summers of harvesting and trimming crops on a family or friend’s farm to making great money to extreme abuse and exploitation. With legalization, trimmer wages have dropped from living wages to minimum wage with no job security or formal agreements. Dr. Elizabeth Bennett’s research revealed instances where employees in our industry were locked in a basement without phone access until the work was complete, examples of farm owners withholding payment until more work is complete, using dogs to keep workers from leaving, sexually abusing young women to blackmailing illegal migrant workers.
Maxwell Davis: Some of those examples are absolutely frightening! Would you say they are more or less protected than workers in say, tobacco, alcohol or comparable agricultural industries? Why do you think that is?
Ashley Preece: Less, absolutely. Our industry has come from a dark closet where we had to hide what we did, use only cash and stay as low profile as possible. Now we have the ability to advertise, network and educate. Labor standards have not caught up to this new licit market yet. It’s as if the working conditions are still ok because we are comparing it to the illicit market we came from. We need to stop doing that to ourselves. We need to raise the bar!
Maxwell Davis: That makes a lot of sense. This continues along the line of conversation I had with Dan Sutton of Tantalus Labs in Canada. Why grow indoor, he argues, when science shows the benefits of using a greenhouse? He explains the reason we, both as growers and consumers, continue to prefer indoor product is because of our former black market practices, now spilling over into legal industries, not because there’s any evidence showing indoor cannabis is better than its outdoor or greenhouse equivalents. I, like you and Sutton, tend to believe we need to stray away from all of our black market practices to ensure a vibrant new industry. Of course, to get this new industry healthy and secure, we have to experiment with many aspects of the industry and create new standards that simply did not exist in the unregulated black market. That’s where the ECA steps in. Not just to protect workers, but through a host of issues affecting our industry. Much of the ECA’s work, for example, focuses heavily on environmental factors. Tell me why your organization has such a focus on environmental factors in the cannabis industry and why that is so important.
Ashley Preece: Cannabis farmers don’t have the option to be organic and there are barely any discussions around fair labor, so we are initiating efforts to create our own “cannabinized” social and environmental standards. We need to ensure transparency within our industry and that starts first by understanding what we are hoping to accomplish. What I mean by transparency is linking, posting and making the standard available online. This ensures no conflict of interest as well and matching claims to actions. For example, when you go to the agriculture organic or fair trade websites, there is always a link where you can pull up the standard and read word-for-word what the requirements and standards are for that particular crop and farm location. Unfortunately, this doesn’t exist in the cannabis world. We can’t simply adopt existing agriculture standards available because we are different, in all aspects of the law, and we are growing a unique plant. Our processes are dynamic and we need to account for that in creating “cannibalized” standards. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here, but we need to pull from other industries to create our own set of standards. We can review existing standards and draw from them, but ultimately, we need new multi-stakeholder transparency standards that are both robust and accessible.
There are some wonderful other nonprofit originations such as Organic Cannabis Association, the Craft Cannabis Alliance and Resource Innovation Institute who are working diligently to bring proper standards to market. The ECA keeps good relationships with these groups to support, promote and collaborate our efforts. It’s important, it’s all tied together.
Maxwell Davis: How can we, as consumers or cannabis entrepreneurs, work together to create a cleaner, greener cannabis industry?
Ashley Preece: Great question! Consumers need to start asking, even demanding, ethically grown cannabis products. Employees (budtenders) need to know what ethically grown cannabis means and which products support these efforts so they can deliver the demand. It’s all about education and that too is one of ECA’s top priorities: to educate via all platforms.
Maxwell Davis: That makes sense. I think it will take the general public a little more time to adjust, but I can foresee that happening as it had in other industries. It all starts with education! I am glad you brought up the ECA’s commitment to educating cannabis consumers and workers. My next question is related directly to that topic: What do you feel we should know regarding the plant that we may not already?
Ashley Preece: Ha! Well, we actually don’t know much! What we know is that we need to know more. Particularly around our own endocannabinoid system, the plants diverse cannabinoid profile and how those two matrices interact. I leave that up to the scientists, where they can comment on peer-reviewed data, and to dedicated horticulturists like Dr. Adie Poe of Habu Health, Mowgli Holmes of Phylos Bioscience and Jeremy Plumb from Newcleus and the Oregon HUB.
ECA aims to educate both consumers and cannabis employees of why ethically grown cannabis is important and what questions they should be asking. We also attend, promote and organize panels to share our knowledge and learn from others. Never stop listening, sharing and collaborating. That’s a formula for a successful entrepreneur!
Maxwell Davis: That’s sound advice. Now, and I know this is a little off-topic, tell me about your role with Cascadia Labs. What was it like creating a cannabis laboratory for Oregon’s medical, and later recreational, cannabis industry?
Ashley Preece: Launching a cannabis analytical lab in 2013 was a roller-coaster ride. Myself and business partner Jeremy Sackett co-founded Cascadia Labs with seed money from my family. As you can probably imagine, it was really an intense experience. I learned a lot and am grateful for the experience, but I have to admit, I am happy to be seeking my true passion now.
Maxwell Davis: What inspired you to help create a cannabis laboratory?
Ashley Preece: I’m pretty daring and unconventional, so it was a no brainer. There was a rhyme, reason and three willing people, what else was I going to do? We were one of the first labs in the state of Oregon, so there was a lot of explaining to do. I had the administrative skills to help develop a business model as well as experience directly with cannabis horticulture. My business partner had the analytical skills from his pharmacology degree and professional background. Together, we were able to combine our experiences and knowledge base to create a quality lab ready for cannabis testing. Thinking back, we had no idea we were creating an empire when we painted the walls of our tiny 1,200 sq. ft. facility in little Bend, Oregon.
Maxwell Davis: That’s incredible. Do you have any comments on Oregon’s current cannabis testing system? Do you think there should be more or less regulation when it comes to testing? Why?
Ashley Preece: Of course I do! I believe that a substantial list of analytes should be tested before product goes to shelf, digested and/or decarboxylated. I also believe that, until there is substantial peer-reviewed data around these analytes, we shouldn’t allow them to play a role in our horticultural best practices. This includes research around individual analyte degradation in the Cannabis genus as well as how these decarboxylated analytes affect our bodies. How are we to say that the cannabinoid profile is helping cure epilepsy if the analytes still remaining in them are triggers for such ailments? That being said, all the red tape from Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) and Oregon Health Authority (OHA) around cannabis testing was detrimental to the Oregon cannabis market. The stories we all saw unravel were devastating. Beautiful craft brands were dissolving; castles burning. The answer to this is not quite as cut-and-dry as I may be making it sound, but until there is valid data, we cannot make any assumptions. Especially to the fact that concentrated medicine is being administered to sick children and geriatrics. It is up to the states where cannabis is legal to experiment with and adopt the best possible testing practices. The way we accomplish that goal is through research and experimentation. I hope by now that it is common knowledge that residual chemicals on the plant, once decarboxylated, are amplified. Unfortunately, there is no funding to help solve these issues and others like them as no governmental agency is testing and releasing chemical life cycle assessment (LCA) for the cannabis species.
As far as lightening the load for cost of testing, I think there could be some proper rewording around testing individual batches for potency and pesticides. The “permanent” rules as established by state agencies continue to change and fluctuate, which makes it difficult to manage. One thing I have always said is that potency on flower is silly, it’s a marketing tool that drives consumer demand for absolutely no reason. Instead, let’s talk about terpenes! And our endocannabinoid system. And our deficiencies of these profiles. There is so much unchartered territory we still have yet to explore.
Maxwell Davis: Exactly! Why don’t we talk about terpenes in the stores when purchasing our cannabis? Everyone is infatuated with high THC numbers, though that may not always be what’s best for you, or even give you the effects you are looking for. This has frustrated me consistently in my cannabis career as a budtender and cannabis sales director for wholesale distribution. I wish the general public was as up-to-speed as most of the people working in the actual industry are. Now, any producers and processors seem incredibly frustrated with the volatility of lab prices, much of which many don’t seem to understand come from the state-level, not the actual businesses themselves. As one of the original founders of one of Oregon’s original cannabis labs, what are your thoughts on the issue of products being held up, or bottle-necked, at the testing phase?
Ashley Preece: Ah, it was the perfect storm. Every sector of the industry was affected by the transition from OHA to OLCC, mostly due to the new requirements in testing. As for the laboratories, getting ORELAP accredited was an extremely challenging process. We took it very seriously and came (back) to market a bit later than some of our competitors because we had always stayed true to our mission; integrity first. A few things for producers and processors to try to keep in mind is that the process within the lab is much more extensive than you think; the personnel, COGS and time are not at all like other business models. It’s pretty crazy! And then trying to explain this to someone who has a beautiful small cottage grow that has supported their family for decades and now faces devastating repercussions due to new regulations and prices… it makes my heart ache.
Maxwell Davis: Yes, the transition was certainly a painful time for the infantile Oregon cannabis industry. The new testing regulations barred many companies from being about to participate in the new recreational industry at all. Now, moving on a little bit, what has your work with Women Grow been like? What is the goal of the Women Grow organization?
Ashley Preece: On a local level, it was really exciting. There was this community here in Portland that was just anticipating a cannabis networking vibe, we simply harnessed it and hit the ground running. I don’t have much to say about national organization or their mission, I’m still confused and monotone on the subject. But the community supported Portland chapter – wowza! – we really had something sweet there for a hot minute. I’m really pleased to see other groups such as Tokeativity, Prism House and i.Cannabis International taking charge and replacing Women Grow in my local community.
Maxwell Davis: That’s interesting. I’ve heard all sorts of comments regarding the organization which has left me curious to learn more. Well, thank you so much for sharing your opinion, Ashley, I very much appreciated speaking with you today. I’m sure all of our readers appreciate your insight and expertise in regards to these complicated issues. Thank you!
Ashley Preece: You as well Maxwell, thank you for the opportunity. Onward and upward!