Canada’s Marijuana Millionaires Surprised By Stock Surge

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Terry Booth didn’t expect his life would come full circle, thanks to marijuana.

He sold pot in high school, peddling quarter ounces for $25 to help out his dad. He spent the next two decades working as an electrician and entrepreneur, and planned to semi-retire to the golf course after taking a step back from his construction permit firm. That idea went to pot, literally, when his business partner Steve Dobler said his brother-in-law was looking for investors on a marijuana play.

“Steve’s a pretty conservative guy; I thought he was kidding,” said Booth, 53, sitting in a hotel conference room in Edmonton, not far from where Aurora Cannabis Inc. is building a greenhouse the size of almost 14 football fields. “But he wasn’t.”

Booth and Dobler are the largest individual holders of Aurora, Canada’s second-largest marijuana firm. Their combined stakes are now approaching $200 million, making them among the wealthiest shareholders in Canada’s growing crop of newly-minted marijuana millionaires.

As Canada moves to legalize recreational cannabis, the value of the nascent market has ballooned to more than $25 billion, swelling the ranks of affluent pot investors who have significant holdings in companies such as Canopy Growth Corp. and Aphria Inc. The U.S. legal market is expected to reach $75 billion (U.S.) in sales by 2030, almost as large as North America’s soft drink market, according to research firm Cowen & Co. Canadian sales could soon be worth between $7 billion and $12 billion a year, Beacon Securities estimates.

Even after a recent sell-off, many marijuana-related stocks have more than doubled in the last year. Never mind that recreational marijuana won’t be legal until later this year and some publicly traded companies have yet to make a sale.

“Insiders have created a huge amount of wealth for themselves and even early investors,” PI Financial analyst Jason Zandberg said in a telephone interview. “It reminds me of back in the dot-com days. You always heard of a friend of a friend who got in early and got their company bought out.”

Companies initially began piling into the sector in 2013 after Canada changed the rules governing medical use to allow access through licensed producers. Still, before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wooed voters in the 2015 election with a promise to legalize recreational marijuana, publicly listed medical pot firms were trading for pennies. In mid-2015, Aphria traded for less than $1 (Canadian), while PharmaCan, which later renamed itself Cronos Group Inc. and listed on the Nasdaq Stock Market, hovered around 30 cents.

The industry took off in 2016 as more investors rushed to bet on the country’s move toward legalization, with the BI Canada Cannabis Index more than quadrupling in value since then. Aphria now trades for almost $10, and touched a record high of nearly $25 a share in January. Cronos trades at more than $7.

For John Cervini, the co-founder of Leamington, Ont.-based Aphria, the magnitude of the market surge came as a surprise. Cervini had already left his family’s greenhouse business that sold tomatoes and peppers when he and friend Cole Cacciavillani started looking into marijuana as a possible crop. Neither had any experience with cannabis and initially thought one smoked the leaves of the plant (in reality, it’s the bud).

Aphria was one of the first publicly traded marijuana growers listed in 2014, and its value has surged more than 1,000 per cent. It’s now worth $2.1 billion and Cervini’s stake exceeds $96 million.

“I think we had an idea that in Canada it had some good potential but I think the real surprise has been the change in tide around the globe,” Cervini, 47, said in a telephone interview. “We did not expect to have a multibillion dollar company.”

It’s a similar story sector wide. Bruce Linton, the CEO of Canopy Growth, the country’s first marijuana unicorn with a market value topping $1 billion, has a stake worth nearly $73 million. MedReleaf Corp.’s largest shareholder, Zola Finance, controlled by Tarik Ouass, owns shares worth $227 million. Linton grew up on a hobby farm in Ontario and previously worked in the telecommunication sector.

Some early investors are already taking money off the table given the soaring valuations, with some stocks trading at more than 100 times sales.

Dobler, president of Aurora, sold 900,000 shares last month worth about $10.3 million, according to regulatory filings compiled by Bloomberg. Booth, the CEO, sold 464,183 shares in the same period, data show. They still own more than 24 million shares between them.

While the burgeoning new industry has spurred massive gains for some marijuana insiders, newcomers will face more competition. At least 89 enterprises have been given the go-ahead to grow pot since Feb. 1, and another 244 applications are under review, according to Health Canada. There’s also been a shift to more institutional investment as the sector moves toward legalization. Corona beer seller Constellation Brands Inc. is now the biggest holder of Canopy Growth, and the largest shareholder of Cronos Group is Chesapeake Partners Management, a Baltimore-based fund.

“You’ve got to set your expectations to not assume they’ll do as well as the Aphrias and the Canopy Growths and the MedReleafs in the past,” Zandberg said.