Mike Babins is on a mission to convince Canada's licensed producers to stop making cannabis oils using palm oil, an ingredient he abhors for its negative environmental impact.
Ingestible cannabis oils are typically made with a food-grade "carrier oil," used to dilute the concentrated cannabis oil to a reasonable strength for oral administration. In many cases, it is simply labeled "MCT oil" — short for medium-chain triglyceride, a term that describes chemical structure but doesn't reveal what's actually used to make it.
Babins co-owns Evergreen Cannabis Society, a licensed recreational cannabis store in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood. Recently, a brand representative from licensed cannabis producer Aphria Inc. was visiting his store.
"We were going over ingredients for some reason, and she said to me, 'Yeah, our MCT is made from palm oil.'"
That came as an unwelcome surprise to Babins, who cares deeply about environmental issues and knows palm oil's bad reputation among environmentalists. Palm oil cultivation, which takes place predominantly in tropical countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, has been condemned as a cause of deforestation and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions.
"When I reached out to everyone I worked with... I think most of us just thought MCT (oil) was only from coconut oil, and a lot of people didn't even realize that it was possible to get it from another source," he said.Advertisement
Babins told the Aphria representative he wouldn't stock the company's products as long as they contained palm oil. He gave the company credit for its response.
"They were really, really good about it. She went to her bosses, and it went up the chain really, really fast... Within a few days they said to me, 'We're re-evaluating this, we're going to deal with a new supplier. Once the current lot (of cannabis oil) that's available is gone, the next lot will be guaranteed palm oil-free.'"
As an independent store owner, Babins can decide what he sells. But without increased consumer attention to the issue of palm oil in cannabis products, he worries the industry won't be motivated to switch to more environmentally-friendly carrier oils.
"(If) we just pull it from the shelves and don't get the word out about it, I don't think the chain-owned stores are going to care as much," he said.
"People are going to come in and say, 'I've been using this oil, why don't you have anymore?' And we'll say, 'Well, it contains palm oil'... And then the store a few blocks away will be like, 'Well, we're still selling it."
"If everyone else is selling it but us, we're not making a difference."
A survey by The Leaf News found at least three major Canadian companies currently use palm oil in their cannabis oil products. That number includes licensed producer Hexo Corp., although a spokesperson said the company is switching to a non-palm MCT oil in the future.
Aphria, which produces the Solei, Riff, Goodfields, and Good Supply recreational cannabis brands, confirmed it uses a carrier oil "derived from sustainably-sourced palm kernels from a leading vendor certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil."
A spokesperson said the company is "actively exploring" alternative carrier oils. (Aphria subsidiary Broken Coast Cannabis Ltd. uses coconut oil instead of palm oil, the spokesperson said.)
CannTrust Holdings Inc., which can be found in recreational cannabis stores under the brand names Liiv, Peak Leaf, Synr.g and Xscape, also said it uses "ethically-sourced Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil certified palm oil" from "an ethical supplier with a 'no deforestation, no peat and no exploitation' policy."
However, palm oil certified by groups such as Roundtable may be a case of "greenwashing," according to Purdue University researcher Roberto Gatti, who has used satellite images to study the link between palm oil production and deforestation. In an emailed comment, Gatti said he suspects "palm oil certification is just a smokescreen that... instead of increasing forest protection, is allowing even more forest destruction."
"This evidence says that there is no reason to claim that certification actually improves the sustainability of palm oil and reduces deforestation," wrote Gatti. "The opposite is likelier, and public opinion must not be misled to believe in fake environmental reassurances so it can continue to sustain the business-as-usual, veiled by greenwashing".
A number of licensed producers that sell cannabis oil highlighted their alternative carrier oils in response to The Leaf News inquiries: Organigram Holdings Inc. uses sunflower oil, Vivo Cannabis Inc. uses grapeseed oil, and Figr Inc. uses olive oil.
Tilray Inc., WeedMD Inc., and James E. Wagner Cultivation Corp. all said they use coconut-derived MCT oil. Canopy Growth Corp. also uses coconut-derived MCT oil, although a spokesperson said the company "acquired a small quantity of cannabis-infused palm-based MCT oil" when it acquired Mettrum Health Corp. in early 2017.
Among the remaining licensed producers that sell cannabis oil, many didn't respond to The Leaf News requests to disclose what's in their cannabis oil. The list of companies who didn't respond includes: Aurora Cannabis Inc., AgMedica Bioscience Inc., Beleave Kannabis Corp., Emblem Cannabis Corp., Emerald Health Therapeutics Inc., RedeCan Pharm, Green Relief Inc., Maricann Inc., Peace Naturals' parent company Cronos Group Inc., TerrAscend Canada Inc., and Whistler Medical Marijuana Corp.