Force of Nature

by Calum Armstrong


Cannabis is on the cusp of becoming the next great commercial enterprise of social change, or so you would believe coming off the phone with Dan Sutton, the Managing Director and all-round force of nature behind Vancouver’s Tantalus Labs.

Such is Sutton’s enthusiasm for au naturel ‘sun grown’ cannabis – which is cultivated in, and nourished by, British Columbia’s best and brightest sunbeams, that, Tantalus are currently constructing a state-of-the-art outdoor cultivation facility in the evocatively named Maple Ridge, British Columbia. Once they get the governmental go-ahead, Tantalus will be free to grow and distribute commercial cannabis across Canada.

Profiled by our Editor-in-Chief during the Cannabis Science and Policy Summit that took place last month in New York, Sutton’s passion for social enterprise shone through, both on stage and off:

If the policy makers and public health community need to quell their anguish about new regulated markets then Sutton is the guy. Fast talking, fabulously articulate and impassioned about sun-grown medical cannabis, his manic energy and hyper sociability mark him out as future star of this new industry

Dan Sutton (Tantalus Labs)

Dan Sutton (Tantalus Labs)

As exciting a prospect as sustainable, ‘sun grown’ cannabis is, even more so is where Sutton’s entrepreneurial zeal could lead cannabis in the near future.

For some, the impending commercialisation of cannabis threatens to quash the romance of prohibition, and replace it with an impersonal, sinister gatekeeper in the shape of big business. For Sutton, this couldn’t be further from the truth, outlining the social cause that underpins Tantalus in conversation with vancitybuzz:

The legitimisation of this contentious plant will be the single defining societal shift of this decade

Earlier this week, the ‘Sun King’ himself spoke to VolteFaceto update, elaborate and advocate his bold, entrepreneurial vision.

What is your background, and why did you get into the world of ‘CannaBusiness’ – starting Tantalus Labs?

I cut my teeth in the energy sector, with a focus on the corporate finance side of a nuclear fuel design firm. I went on to work on the finance side of several public and private entities, spanning from high field magnetics to software.

I love building stuff, and in around 2012 myself and my greenhouse-specialist uncle, Dr. Ben Sutton, became interested in the early iterations of commercial medical cannabis cultivation in Canada. We built a team of leading Canadian horticulturalists, biologists, engineers, and designers which eventually evolved into the Executive and Advisory Board of Tantalus Labs.

How would you describe Tantalus’ signature ‘sungrown’ cannabis, and what role does sustainability have in commercial cannabis?

Our vision is sungrown cannabis that stands with the best indoor in the world. This is a lofty goal, and we are ready to evolve and grow for years before we achieve it. Tantalus Labs designed our prototype greenhouse facility, SunLab, from the ground up. Its purpose is to provide the ideal environmental inputs for the cannabis plant, facilitating production of a top shelf product line. When designing this environment, first principles reasoning led us to the modern, industrial greenhouse.

Our focus has always been to utilise the power of the sun, leveraging radical reductions in energy use. Sun-grown cannabis is good for the environment, and good for our bottom line. As the cannabis industry moves to commercial production, sustainability of our industry and planet sits as a top priority. Environmental stewardship is a responsibility we all share, and #sungrown cannabis will help us get there.

In your opinion, what social impact can commercial cannabis enterprises have?

People who build new enterprises build the future. While legislators have an important role to play in facilitating sustainable enterprise, entrepreneurs make the decisions that guide implementation of production infrastructure and user experience. The greatest example of this is the intersection of economic and social value inherent in sungrown cannabis cultivation.

Beyond sustainable production practices, the social impacts of regulated cannabis enterprise include reducing access for minors, reducing the flow of untaxed revenue to the black market, and offering supply chain transparency that benefits end-users, policy makers, and researchers alike.

How was your experience at this year’s Cannabis Science and Policy Summit at NYU?

It was a riot! I have never seen so many high IQ brainiacs in one building talking about cannabis. I learned a huge amount, and validated my hope that drug policy reform is a key theme of the next decade in academia and policymaking.

My main criticism is that there could have been more representation by the private sector, but we need to prove our worth. Not all entrepreneurs are motivated solely by profit, and Tantalus Labs will demonstrate to governments and academics that we are an ally, not a threat.

How does Justin Trudeau’s slow-and-steady project for legalising cannabis in Canada affect your plans and processes for Tantalus?

Right now we are also focused on being slow and steady. If anything, it adds pressure to ensure we are doing things the right way with every decision we make. The world is watching Canada, and the successes, both social and business, of this national industry will set the tone for global adoption of more rational cannabis policy.

At Tantalus Labs, we act in the service of a sungrown, sustainable future for our industry. We hope that peer firms and consumers alike identify with this value system.

How does operating in Canada compare with the cannabis market in the USA, where things are a little further forward on the legalisation front?

I disagree with that premise. Canada facilitates the highest quality assurance requirements for medical cannabis in the world today, and despite a few test populations of legal adult-use sales, the US still experiences major complications that we don’t see here in the great white north.

Examples of this include lack of institutional financing, cash-only banking policy, and a dysfunctional take on supply chain management. I am a proud Canadian for a variety of reasons, and a cohesive take on cannabis policy is rising to the top of my list!

Justin Trudeau (Source: Flickr - John McCallum)

Justin Trudeau (Flickr – John McCallum)

What are your thoughts on the current state of drug policy, in particular regarding cannabis, in the UK and Europe?

International Drug Policy is not my area of expertise, but I perceive a higher degree of social conservatism in the UK associated with cannabis consumption. Consumption is still widespread, but many outsiders view it as akin to hard drug abuse. Cannabis users in the UK are far less likely to advocate for policy reform, for fear of being branded as stoners or burnouts, which we can see by the numbers is simply not true.

The tens of millions of North American cannabis users include doctors, accountants, designers, and entrepreneurs. I believe this is likely also true in the UK; however these individuals are far more reticent to be outspoken about their non-abusive cannabis consumption. This is less true in some jurisdictions in Europe such as Spain or the Netherlands.

What do you see in the near future for commercial cannabis, and also the medicinal cannabis movement?

I think the first step is rational policy that balances social harm reduction with industry facilitation. There are many intelligent entrepreneurs looking to enter this nascent industry, but they are justifiably daunted by the prohibitive costs associated with security and quality assurance.

If we truly wish to displace the black market, excess taxation and red tape inhibit the participation of bright young minds who want to build social enterprise. We need sound parameters that prevent runaway special interest lobbies, marketing to children, and unsafe products. We also need policymakers to set those limitations and get out of the way of sungrown, sustainable cannabis.

Dan Sutton is the Managing Director of Tantalus Labstweets @TantalusLabs @DSutton1986 Instagram: @tantaluslabs

Watch Dan’s talk for TEDx below:

Interview and words by Calum Armstrong tweets @vf_calum

Read Going Dutch, our profile of Arno Hazekamp, Chief Scientist at the largest medicinal cannabis distributer in Europe

For more on the long and winding road to cannabis legalisation in Canada, read our feature: Governing in Prose

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