Whakamana Cannabis Museum co-founder Abe Gray
Whakamana Cannabis Museum co-founder Abe Gray

BusinessMarch 16, 2020

The founder of a failed cannabis museum sounds a warning for similar startups

Whakamana Cannabis Museum co-founder Abe Gray
Whakamana Cannabis Museum co-founder Abe Gray

Cannabis legalisation could present a valuable opportunity for small businesses and startups looking to be part of a growing global industry. But will stigma around cannabis use stand in the way?

Around the world, cannabis is blooming. In the US, Canada and Europe, law changes have brought about partial or full legalisation of medical and recreational cannabis, allowing businesses to take advantage of new opportunities and provide a profitable product to a growing market.

With the medicinal cannabis scheme coming into affect in April and the cannabis referendum set for later this year, reform is on the horizon in New Zealand too. However, according to activist and educator Abe Gray, cannabis stigma here is among the worst in the world and could be suffocating commercial opportunities.

The founder of Whakamana: the Cannabis Museum of Aotearoa, Gray says countries that are generally seen as more conservative have come to terms with legalising cannabis while New Zealand has not. Even many hard line Republicans in the US have stopped talking about it, while our more conservative politicians are still actively campaigning against cannabis.

Whakamana was to become an extensive centre of “cannabis excellence” in Christchurch in which museum exhibits folded away to reveal an alcohol-free nightclub by night. However a recent bid to crowdfund the project failed, with the PledgeMe campaign reaching a total of $214,616 of its $2m target before closing a fortnight before Christmas.

While Gray admits that it was an ambitious target, and that the time of year probably affected their total, he suspects the stigma around recreational cannabis use is the main culprit for the failed campaign.

Originally from Minnesota in the US, Gray has lived and worked in New Zealand for most of his adult life. He has more than 20 years’ experience in the cannabis industry. He says the ongoing stigma is not only damaging to start-ups like his own but also to small businesses aiming to sell hemp products. Even though their products contain no psychoactive components, hemp businesses still have to spend time and resources educating the public before they can even get off the ground, Gray says.

This is the case when it comes to attracting investors too, with many hemp businesses having to temper their plans or adulterate their products in order to attract interest. That’s an approach which might work for the short term, but Gray is sceptical about its long-term viability.

“Some of [these businesses] are killing off potential avenues of profit and other areas of potential revenue by narrowing the focus to please investors,” he says.

In November 2018, New Zealand became the last country in the world to make hemp seed legal for human consumption – previously, it was only hemp oil that New Zealanders were able to consume.

The minimum target to set up Whakamana, or the New Zealand Institute of Cannabis Education, Research and Development, was $1m. The idea lives on as Gray and his partners search for private investors, but the museum will most likely take on a different form from that originally planned.

The planned site for Whakamana: the Cannabis Museum of Aotearoa in the Arts Centre precinct of Christchurch

Gray and co-founder Michael Mayell, of Cookie Time fame, had hoped to eventually grow the museum and add a cafe and hemp food eatery, a boutique shop selling hemp products, and an alcohol-free plant-medicine shot bar, if the upcoming cannabis referendum allowed for that.

Gray says in hindsight perhaps their lofty goal and unashamed promotion of cannabis use had pushed the envelope too far. The more simple goal now is to set up a series of Wellington-based pop-up museums in advance of the referendum and take it from there depending on the results. The first pop-up is planned for April.

The taboo around cannabis in New Zealand is surprising to many foreigners, Gray says. They come from overseas expecting to find a liberal utopia here, but discover it is nothing of the kind – at least as far as cannabis is concerned. He says the law makes the country look draconian and out of touch.

“Overseas it’s not an issue; it makes us look backward. [On the safety of cannabis] the jury is in, in terms of the science,” he says.

So will he tone down his museum’s focus in order to appeal to more conservative New Zealanders, many of whom might come to accept medicinal marijuana but may never condone recreational use?

Gray says no. “The difference between medical use and recreational use is not a hard line – a whole lot of medical users wouldn’t qualify under the new legislation.

“If you’re using cannabis every day and you’re still a functioning professional with a life and you’re getting benefits out of it, it’s not the same as if they were sculling spirits throughout the day, it’s a fundamentally different drug.”

“People are scared of the focus on recreational, but ‘recreational’ is just a word.”

Cannabis was completely outlawed in New Zealand in 1965 as part of a global trend to prohibition. But it’s estimated that over 450,000 New Zealanders still use it in any given year. If passed, the September referendum would make cannabis legal under a range of controls on its manufacture, sale, purchase and consumption. Polling has shown the country is fairly evenly divided with signs of slowly growing support for legalisation.

“We are at the front line of breaking down the stigma. We aren’t going to tone it down just to get more money. The rest of New Zealand will eventually catch up with us,” Gray says.

“I refuse to throw recreational cannabis under the bus.”

Keep going!