Canadian “Godfather of Cannabis” Lorne Gertner is on a Mission to Normalize the Plant
Few other entrepreneurs in the cannabis space have their hands in quite as many ventures as Lorne Gertner. Currently dubbed the “godfather of the Canadian cannabis industry,” Gertner told Civilized, “If we could live through normalization, we could change the world.”
Hailing from the fashion industry, this Toronto native says he’s on a mission to “make the world a better place through cannabis and design excellence.” The only catch is, well, normalizing cannabis — and that’s where Gertner’s keen eye for style comes in.
“In the old days, you were going to be different or you were going to be normal,” said Thom Antonio, Gertner’s friend, creative director, and collaborator of 35 years. But, Gertner chimed in, “we’re saying different and normal is the new combination.” For some people, cannabis is different, but that doesn’t mean integrating the plant into your lifestyle is abnormal.
Gertner’s father escaped to Canada from Poland before the Second World War broke out. He’d been in the clothing business back in Europe, and upon immigrating, found work in a manufacturing plant. “My father had gone from being a sweeper in the factory to owning the factory,” Gertner said. And soon, both father and son got into design, with Gertner’s father having been inspired by the fashion coming out of Paris.
In 1963, Gertner’s father traveled to France, where he witnessed a fashion show highlighting a young designer named Yves Saint Laurent, who dressed up women in men’s clothing (read: pants). “It was the beginning of a revolution because up until that time, women stayed at home and if they went out, they wore skirts,” Gertner said. “It was the first time anybody of the fashion designers showed women dressed as men, and [so] my father started to make menswear clothing for women.”
It was radical for the time; and that revolutionary spirit stuck with Gertner throughout his entrepreneurial ventures into the cannabis space.
As a child, Gertner purused fine art, spent time painting in Florence, went to summer school at Harvard, and eventually earned a degree in architecture from the University of Toronto. After graduating, he spent 15 years working for his father in the women’s clothing industry — until a conflux of local and global politics pushed Gertner out of fashion and hence, into cannabis.
“In 1989, three things happened that changed my family, my life, and the Canadian clothing business,” he explained. First was NAFTA (the expansion of free trade in North America), the second was the retail recession (“it was the first time they stopped building malls,” said Gertner, “and the first time someone talked about selling retail online”), and the third was a zoning change in downtown Toronto, whereby a factory-only zone was now opened up to residential and business properties, while prohibiting manufacture.
“We thought we would be in the clothing business for the rest of our lives and generations,” said Gertner. “So I needed to find something else to do with my life.”
In 1998, Gertner read about a class action suit that forced the Canadian government to provide medical marijuana to a patient in need. “I thought, fuck, that’s something I love,” Gertner said. “Cannabis had been a big part of my life. I thought there was something more to cannabis than getting people stoned.”
Gertner’s foray into legal cannabis began in 2004 when he and some partners founded Cannasat Therapeutics — a company that developed alternative delivery systems like vape pens, patches, listerine strips, and gums — and then acquired 25 percent of another company Prairie Plant Systems, which had a cannabis cultivation license from the Canadian government.
After eventually selling Cannasat, Gertner re-entered the industry in 2014 with a holdings company called PharmaCan (now Cronos Group), where he now holds the position as “significant shareholder.” He’s had his hands in a number of other companies, as well, including Green Acre Capital, Hempco Food & Fibre, Emblem Corp., and Nest Brand Co..
But perhaps, Gertner is best known for his contribution to the cannabis space with Tokyo Smoke, a brand he co-founded with his son Alan, who left his job at Google to establish the company in 2015. A cannabis accessory retailer, Tokyo Smoke has redefined the aesthetic surrounding the plant, imbuing it with caché in mainstream culture.
The premise was that “we were going to create a cannabis brand that was going to use coffee as a trojan horse.” The father-son team opened their first Tokyo Smoke in Toronto’s West Queen neighborhood as a coffee shop (one that Interior Design Magazine listed as among the Top 4 coffee shops in the world). It appealed to the cannabis curious, those who never had smoked before or who otherwise couldn’t fathom integrating the plant into a busy family or professional lifestyle. The idea, explained Gertner, was to show 50-year-old moms with teenage kids that there was a natural alternative to sleeping pills, pain killers, or other pharmaceuticals; that you could infuse some olive oil with THC or CBD to pour over your pesto pasta, just as you would drink a glass of wine with the same meal.
Ultimately, Tokyo Smoke — with its high-end design aesthetic, informed by Gertner’s background in fashion and modernism — repositioned cannabis as a sophisticated lifestyle product that would command just as sophisticated accessories and home décor goods.
But Tokyo Smoke, now part of Canadian cannabis company Canopy’s portfolio, isn’t the end-all-be-all of Gertner’s engagement in the space. Today he serves as board chairman for a consumer packaged goods company called CannaGlobal, which he co-founded in 2018.
Alongside the Canadian licensed cannabis producer Supreme, he’s also invested in a cannabis company called Medigrow, located in Lesotho, a country where only 200,000 of its two million citizens are employed, with the world’s third poorest economy and second largest age population. “In pursuit of building a global cannabis company, in pursuit of normalization, and being a low-cost, high-quality producer, we chose Africa as a place we wanted to invest in,” Gertner said. “Today we employ over 500 people who had never worked before, and so in building economic company in the cannabis world, that was an important investment.”
And lastly, Gertner is also developing yet another venture called ByMinistry, Canada’s “first high-end premium cannabis culture lounge.” It’s the first major product by MoCanna, a globally focused platform at the intersection of cultural, educational, and retail experiences, he explained. With ByMinistry’s brick-and-mortar in Toronto as the flagship location, due to launch late this year, it “will feature an experiential lounge, culinary school, and cultural spaces,” Gertner said. “The state-of-the-art property will provide a refined environment where high culture meets with elevated experiences in food and drink, design, health and wellness, music, art, fashion, and innovation.”
Gertner still feels like he has so much to do to help advance the industry and the normalization of cannabis. He continues to be an active contributor to many ventures and you can often see him speaking at conferences around the globe. When asked for a final thought about his role in cannabis today, he said “making the world a better place is hard work and I can’t do it alone, so I’m hopeful that this will become a powerful movement that many will help deliver.”