By Brandon A. Dorfman
“I got into the [cannabis] industry because I was trying to grow plants to save my life,” Mike West told me over the phone recently. A farmer, researcher, and entrepreneur, West has an encyclopedic knowledge of cannabis that’s matched only by his passion for helping people.
“Nothing that the government’s going to do is going to prevent sick patients, sick parents from producing medicine for their children,” he continued.
I had asked West if legalization and the subsequent corporatization under the ‘Big Cannabis’ model had taken away from the art of growing, a constant lament of many of the old-school folks from the black market days. An accomplished academician that also considers himself a “gentleman farmer,” West was hesitant to see the issue in anything but shades of grey.
“We’re seeing a ton of technological innovations,” he told me. “Twenty years ago, there was traditional hash, that was about it. Over the last 10 years, we’ve come out with a couple different types of solvents — alcohol, butane, propane…” From there, he rattled off several significant steps forward taken over the past two decades, benefits that can only come from a legalized industry as opposed to a black market.
“Patient access ends up improving, [and] the cost in a lot of the recreational states has significantly decreased,” he said, ultimately making his point.
And West isn’t wrong. Aside from some high-priced craft flower, the benefits of legalization, and, in turn, corporatization, have been enormous. They include price drops as high as 80 percent in some states, making it extremely hard for groups like the cartels to stay in business.
The benefits to a scientist like West are immeasurable.
“[Access] improves, not only to more economical flower but a broader range of herbal supplements and nutraceuticals,” West told me. “And as a scientist, it opens up the door for doing that research that could potentially lead to future pharmaceuticals.”
But as much as the scientist in him loves to hear the machines purr, as he told me, the gentleman farmer understands that cannabis, legal or not, has always been about people. As legalization efforts in states like Washington opened the door for business, and really for scientific progress, patient’s rights began to fall to the wayside in many ways.
“I’ve been, pleasantly surprised the way that legalization has had and America being that laboratory of democracy,” West told me, adding in one caveat. “I love to talk about and constantly joke about … two steps forward one step back with when legalization happened.”
His main gripe, though perhaps that’s too stubborn a word to use, has to do with legislative bills that strip patients of their rights to homegrown medical cannabis. As the old-school black market crowd might say, it’s the death of the art of growing — only instead of science winning out; it’s for-profit patient care.
“As part of some of the bills, they took away some patients rights,” explained West, discussing corporate creep in the growing legalization movement. “Now there’s lots of home growers that are exporting illegally. And those are the ones that are getting clamped down on and having lots of people’s houses get raided.”
Despite his years of entrepreneurship — or, perhaps, guided by them — West has always been a patient advocate first. And I could hear that in his voice as we spoke. Even in states where home grows are allowed, patients still run the risk of being harassed by law enforcement, a terrible situation for all involved.
As for my original question, though, had forward progress spelled death for the so-called art of growing cannabis?
Mike West is positive if he’s nothing else.
“It’s something,” he told me, “you got to take the good with the bad.”
“I love the science side of it…”
West first took an interest in cannabis sometime in the late 1990s. With an epileptic sister and other family members suffering from various ailments and illnesses he became what he referred to as a ‘cannabis refugee,’ traveling from Texas to Colorado — in his case not just looking for the plant, but looking to study the plant.
“I ended up seeing a research study looking at treating epilepsy with cannabis,” he told me, speaking of his earnest beginnings that would go on to launch a now 20-plus year career. “[I] tried to go to school to study cannabis, but they didn’t allow us to study cannabis at the time. So we ended up studying kind of a mix of molecular biochemistry and international law, and I ended up focusing on trying to research biofuels.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to studying cannabis, not much has changed today. At one point in our conversation, West mentioned a few universities are now teaching horticultural classes or showing students how to run analytical testing equipment for use in the cannabis industry. Due to federal law, none of them can offer hands-on experience with the plant.
For West, however, the hands-on experience came easy. Whether he was working at dispensaries or hydro shops in college, or even, as he told me, doing a small stint at a law firm helping medical growers become medical collectives, West was always learning.
“My passion — I more than anything consider myself a research scientist,” West said. “Obviously [I] can’t do that research science at universities, currently very few allow any cannabis research. The federal government makes university research hard.”
“I focused on trying to do as much research as I can in the private sector,” he said, reminding me of the path that most people with a science-focus have to take in this industry.
To-date, according to West, he’s built medical labs in around 13 or 14 states, hemp labs in six states, and recreational cannabis labs in four states. He’s currently working with a Canadian company that’s building labs in Kansas, outside of Vancouver, and outside of Toronto — not to mention the fact that they also have some operations going on over in Australia and Europe. Then there are the hemp labs in Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, and the teams he’s training in Kentucky too.
“I love the science side of it,” he told me in the most laid back voice possible.
Since those early days in Colorado as a ‘cannabis refugee,’ Mike West has established himself as one of the preeminent researchers in the cannabis industry. As a researcher, entrepreneur, author, and adviser to numerous companies in the medical, adult use cannabis, hemp farming, extraction, and products industries his bio reads like a crossbreed somewhere between Raphael Mechoulam and Jack Herer.
But he’s never lost his initial drive nor forgotten what turned him to cannabis in the first place.
“Having family members that were medical patients really got me interested in developing products,” West said as we continued our conversation. “Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to do that research under the same methodology that’s done with traditional pharmaceutical research.”
When he’s not helping to set up the next great laboratory or medical collective or hemp farm, Mike West is focusing on phytocannabinoids and working with patient-driven studies. Again though, the inability to do research at university labs makes the process difficult for West and the industry at-large.
So, he told me they use workarounds. A lot of that involves bringing university professors, doctors, naturopaths, or herbalist to him. For example, he told me, he’ll hold educational seminars, and bring these specialists into the dispensaries, saying to the patients hey if you have this medical condition these are the products that may or may not work better for you.
It’s a way to collect user surveys; to collect data.
“Being able to collect user surveys, you can start to make those correlations,” he said.
Beyond the issue of university research, West and I discussed the difficulty he and others like him have when it comes to finding an adequate product to use in testing. For those in the academy fortunate enough to work with cannabis, the quality is — well, it’s schwag.
“If you want to do research at the university, you have to get approved by the FDA, by the DEA by NIDA — the National Institute on Drug Abuse,” said West, explaining the harrowingly frustrating process. “NIDA contracts out their cultivation to currently one producer, [the] University of Mississippi and University Mississippi doesn’t have passionate cultivators.”
West told me how his team wanted to use the government schwag for a PTSD trial in Colorado. They obviously wanted to test the product to make sure that they were not providing anything dangerous to the patients first.
Under Colorado’s regulated market, the federal government’s cannabis didn’t pass the test for microbial contaminants.
“We’re seeing this weird juxtaposition where the black market or legal market or medical market is able to produce a higher quality product than the U.S. Government,” West lamented. “[It's] nothing more than ignorance, in my opinion.”
He continued: “A lot of the universities are forced to take a hurry up and wait approach because they’re forced to wait for the federal government to hurry up and change the laws.”
“…teach them as much as we can.”
A few days or weeks before our conversation, Mike West was sitting in a classroom learning his trade. After 20-plus years in the industry, the one thing he’s learned is that he has much more to learn.
“That’s the real key to success in this industry is learning how to be as efficient as possible and as responsible as possible,” he told me towards the end of our conversation. “And if you can throw in a dash of big corporate social responsibility, ultimately, I think that a lot there’s a ton of opportunities in the cannabis industry for entrepreneurs.”
Which brought us to CANNAVAL, the first educational medical cannabis and hemp conference and expo in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The event, which will be hosted by former senator and now Agriculture Commissioner Positive T.A. Nelson, along with 420MEDIA in association with NT Media Productions looks to be one of the key gatherings of industry professionals this summer. And Mike West is scheduled to speak.
“We organized a tour of a couple of farms and retail shops and processing labs and testing labs so they can the see the steps in the political process that it goes from the time you plant the seed to the time that it goes to the retailer,” West told me, explaining how he first met then-Sen. Nelson. Without the agricultural commissioner, the Virgin Islands may very well not have medical cannabis today. The effort he put in towards helping that law pass was crucial.
“Nelson spent the last couple of years getting that law passed,” said West. “That opens up the Virgin Islands to start allowing the farmers to get licenses to do what they’ve been doing for decades.”
“We want to be able to make sure that the farmers start off on a good foot,” he continued.
Unlike other cannabis events, CANNAVAL is designed to educate and empower. It will give all those who attend, including companies and organizations an exclusive opportunity to network with government officials, entrepreneurs, medical and seasoned professionals in an open and welcoming environment that will cultivate and inspire.
And the guest list is top notch as well, including some of the cannabis industry’s biggest names such as Sierra Riddle. Dan Herer, Adam Dunn, Roz McCarthy, and, of course, Agricultural Commissioner Positive Nelson.
And Mike West.
“I think there’s a dance Friday, Saturday’s the conference, and then Sunday — what’s going to beat a networking day hanging out on the beach and enjoy some of that beautiful Caribbean sun,” West said, clearly excited to be a part of the event.
But for West, he’s going to do what he always does.
“We’re looking at trying to set up a conference,” said West, echoing what Positive Nelson told him. “To educate the consumers, educate potential business people in the Virgin Islands, teach them as much as we can.”