On Bruce Linton, Legacies and Capitalism
The cannabis industry underwent a seismic shock yesterday with the news of Bruce Linton, co-CEO and board member of Canopy Growth being ousted from his position, or ‘terminated’ in his own words. The exact reasons will be speculated on for some time to come, but in the words of one article : Constellation got tired of Canopy losing money, and there was no one with stronger ties in the public eye to Canopy Growth than Bruce Linton.
Much of cannabis Twitter is already opining on the legacy of Bruce Linton, with activists and the legacy market deriding him as an uncaring profiteer, stockholders lionizing him as a visionary pioneer and the industry itself seeming to land somewhere in the middle, depending on which notable license holder personalities you might follow. More strategic analyses are indicating that the cannabis industry now has to focus on delivering, or in other words that lofty promises will no longer keep ships largely beholden to public investment and shareholder opinion afloat.
Legacies are a strange thing, they are something not defined by who they refer to, but the public perception, which can be inaccurate. There are political legacies, cultural legacies, military legacies, and many more. If the cannabis industry had not been so recently birthed, Linton’s legacy would likely have been an autobiography, a few articles written in business journals and perhaps receiving some civic awards somewhere in the future.
There is little that irritates me more than seeing claims of Stephen Harper being the one to thank for medical cannabis in Canada. The Conservatives thumbed their noses at the courts at every turn, famously declaring on Health Canada webpages that cannabis is not medicine, and that the government is forced by the courts to provide it. There is a kernel of truth in this statement however, Stephen Harper’s government did create what we now know as the Canadian cannabis industry.
The seeds of this industry were present in the MMAR, with Prairie Plant Systems enjoying a government enforced monopoly as the only licensed producer. Successive court battles eventually gave patients the ability to grow their own or have someone do it for them, and the cannabis grown in a mineshaft by PPS was largely eschewed by medical patients. Under successive medical cannabis regimes, this monopoly was opened up to anyone who had the resources to satisfy the onerous regulations, and one of those people was Bruce Linton.
Founded by Bruce and Chuck Rifici, Tweed later became Canopy, which became the largest cannabis company in the world. Through the lens of business, Bruce’s legacy starts with taking an abandoned chocolate factory in Smiths Falls and turning it into a corporate behemoth. This is also the portion of his legacy that will engender the least debate.
Linton’s impact on the culture of cannabis is where most of the conversation lies. As the public face of the company, he was solicited for comments on several notable developments of cannabis policy. After the Allard trial gave patients back the ability to grow their own cannabis, he derided the move as bad policy. He lobbied against outdoor cannabis growing, famously mentioning to Senator Ratna Omidvar that outdoor grows would be vulnerable to theft via unmanned drones. To call him a polarizing figure is an understatement, and the most blatant example is probably his comments during an interview with Fox Business regarding unregulated CBD products being contaminated with Fentanyl.
On the positive side, Canopy revitalized the municipality where it was born, and has provided industry jobs in many other locations in Canada. They have elevated prominent activists such as Adam Greenblatt and Hilary Black to leadership roles in the company, and has begun the process of cannabis normalization by initiatives such as research projects, partnering with household names such as Martha Stewart, and accelerating the process of medical cannabis proliferation across the globe.
Bruce has said that Canopy doesn’t care if you have a cannabis related criminal conviction, but they do want applicants to be up-front about it. The issue of criminal records interfering with transitioning from the legacy to the regulated market is a substantial one, and when a company as large as Canopy can have progressive attitudes towards employment equity, it sets a precedent that (hopefully) the rest of the industry will follow. As Constellation takes more operational control however, it remains to be seen if this policy will remain in place.
To make a definitive statement on what Bruce’s legacy is though, we have to be honest about the nature of the industry. It is rooted in capitalism, more specifically in publicly traded corporations who have a fiduciary duty to shareholders, which is to say to deliver as much value as possible. The industry is a free market in a sense, but with heavy regulatory burdens and government involvement from supply to distribution, winners and losers have been picked.
Issues such as poor product quality, and perceived ethical lapses such as being misleading about the RCMP seizure of a shipment of cannabis material described here are issues that have raised the ire of the cannabis community. Their impact on the industry is marginal, however. Bruce was ostensibly not terminated for quality issues, or public opinion, but because of less than impressive earnings reports. Such is the nature of corporate capitalism, and is largely the system that most large companies operate in.
Corporations lobbying for regulations, rules and incentives that benefit them and not their competitors is not new or particularly surprising. The battle between Amazon and progressive politicians, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has several familiar aspects to it for those that have followed the Canadian cannabis industry. Linton’s Ted Talk entitled ‘In Defence Of Barriers’ goes over the opportunities that presented themselves under prohibition, and how barriers to market entry could be a valuable thing. Repugnant to some, but not news under capitalism.
There have been many examples of mega-corporations in pop culture, from Omni-Consumer Products in Robocop, the Trioptimum corporation in System Shock, to the Tyrell corporation in Blade Runner. They are typically painted as holding profit as a primary value, to the detriment of their workers and society as a whole. The former may be true with Canopy Growth, but I would argue that the latter is definitely not, despite the caricatures of Canopy currently making the rounds in the news cycle. For all the negative aspects of the industry as we know it today, a large reason why legalization cannot be easily undone is the degree to which license holders have grown as corporations.
Bruce Linton’s legacy is ultimately that of a serial entrepreneur who saw an opportunity and took full advantage of it, using any and all means at his disposal to grow Canopy into what it is today. In the process, at times he was less than respectful to the legacy market and has facilitated the entry of ‘Big Alcohol’ from the US into the Canadian industry, with Constellation having the option to own a majority stake in Canopy Growth. Offsetting this encroachment however is the fact that the Constellation investment has allowed Canopy to rapidly expand, and was referred to as ‘Rocket Fuel’ by Linton himself.
Many cannabis advocates view the ‘industry’ as some sort of horrible mutation of the potential of cannabis, with the benefits flowing to those with privilege and being withheld from those marginalized communities that have borne the brunt of the negative consequences of cannabis prohibition. Some other jurisdictions are thankfully not repeating these mis-steps, and are baking social equity into their legalization frameworks. Linton played a large part, and even advocated for some aspects of this inequality, but his legacy need not be that of enshrining inequity if other jurisdictions prioritize equitable legalization.
Finally, unless you are a business publication or writing a think-piece such as this one, you should not allow Linton’s legacy to occupy too much cognitive space. If you like the industry as it is now, others will drive Canopy forward, albeit in a more institutional rather than entrepreneurial manner. If you hate the way it has evolved, work to change it here or in other jurisdictions. Critiquing those we perceive as having negatively impacted our particular culture can be cathartic, but taking action to right perceived wrongs is far more productive.