by Geoff Poulton, ProjectM-Online (Allianz Global)

For five years, the 42-acre Hershey complex in Smiths Falls stood unused: a sprawling reminder of former glories, when the small Canadian town proudly declared itself the “chocolate capital of Ontario.” The US company shut down operations in 2008 to move production to Mexico. One of the region’s major employers, it was a bitter blow to Smiths Falls.

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A different smell in the air

But in 2014, that all changed. Things are looking up again at 1 Hershey Drive. The lights are on, the car park well populated and much of the 46,500-square-meter factory space is in regular use. Instead of chocolate, however, the site is now home to one of the world’s largest marijuana producers: Canopy Growth Corporation. After initially renting a small part of the site, in January 2017 the Canadian company purchased the entire plot. “We’ve come a long way in just over three years,” says communications director Jordan Sinclair. “And we’re really only just getting started.”

The firm, which trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange as WEED, shot to prominence in late 2016 when it became the first cannabis producer to attain “unicorn” status as its valuation leapt past the $1 billion mark. That was in the wake of the November vote by several US states to legalize either medical or recreational marijuana consumption. The drug is now legal in more than half of US states, although it remains illegal on a federal level.

In Canada, medical marijuana has been federally legal since 2001, giving it perhaps the most established legal market in the world. “The rest of the world is keenly watching what we’re doing. In many ways we’re blazing a trail,” says Sinclair. This was reinforced in April, when Canada introduced a bill to nationally legalize recreational marijuana by 2018 – after Uruguay, only the second country ever to do so.

The only way is up

These are heady times for the cannabis industry, which, according to the website of San Francisco-based Arcview Market Research, “… Will never be smaller than today.” The cannabis research firm says the North American legal market recorded $6.7 billion in revenue in 2016, up 30% from the year before. It expects an approximate 25% annual compound growth rate through 2021.

“The only consumer industry categories I’ve seen reach $5 billion in annual spending and then post anything like 25% compound annual growth in the next five years are cable television in the 1990s and the broadband internet in the 2000s,” said Arcview editor Tom Adams in a statement.

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