Before you see the cannabis, you smell it. Our pickup truck is rolling down a very dusty, very long driveway on the outskirts of Willcox, Arizona—a town that itself feels like the outskirts of anywhere—when the pungent scent floods the car. “I smell cannabis!” exclaims Sunday Goods CEO Randy Smith as we pull up to the “Pharm”—the company’s massive Dutch greenhouse and grow facility. The desert sun glints off of it; the mountains pose behind it; the lush cannabis plant fills it.
It is beautiful.
Smith and his team are committed to that forest of stems, leaves and flowers and seeds. “It all funnels back to the plant,” he says, when I ask about his company’s core values. “And when you look at it that way, it becomes about ‘What is the most pure way to produce that plant?’ ‘What does the plant want?’ ‘What does the plant need?’” The answer they’ve arrived on: Sunlight.
It seems intuitive, growing plants by way of the sun for the happiest, healthiest possible results. But it’s actually counter to the industry norm. Cannabis, of course, has been, and in many places still is, illegal. That history has led to a practice of growing indoors, and despite being allowed to move outside in places where legislation has loosened, it remains the standard operating method—at least, for the time being. “You’re going to see it all come back to [sun-grown],” says Smith. “People care about what goes in their body.”
For now, it will remain the governing procedure at the seven-acre Pharm. Sixty different varieties of cannabis are growing at any one time under the greenhouse roof, tended to by a staff of between 125 and 175 people. (Sunday Goods is one of the largest employers in the town of roughly 3,700.) They are led by Director of Cultivation Sjoerd Broeks, who Smith describes as “the heartbeat” of the operation. “He brings so much soul to what we do,” he says. “There are some nameless, faceless companies out there—he brings authenticity.”
Broeks, a lanky and long-haired Dutchman who’d just as soon pass for a seasoned indie rocker as he does a cannabis connoisseur, has been around the plant his entire life. He hails from the Netherlands, but has now grown cannabis on five continents. His parents harvested crops in his childhood backyard and by 19, he’d begun his first trimming job. Not too long after, he became the head breeder at the fabled Flying Dutchman seed company and now, he finds himself at the forefront of a clean cannabis program in the country he considers the leader in the global legal marijuana movement.
“It becomes about what is the most pure way to produce that plant? What does the plant want?”
He summarizes his attachment to the plant succinctly: “I always knew that there was basically zero toxicity and that the whole feeling around the plant was good.”
Smith’s motivation is multi-faceted. There is the angle at which he sees Sunday Goods and other medical cannabis purveyors as the ultimate, necessary alternative to Big Pharma in the United States. “As [the cannabis industry] becomes more mature and information becomes more readily available, people are going to care more about what goes into their medicine,” he says. “And [one day] everyone is going to be able to put a natural product into their body and be able to do away with you name it because this plant is so versatile. That’s why Pharma is so scared.”
He likens the anticipated shift to one that recently occurred elsewhere in America: Organic produce.
“Picture a grocery aisle of tomatoes,” he says. “There’s a thousand hot house tomatoes that are perfectly orange, and, at one point, that’s what people thought a tomato was, this flavor-less, taste-less, round, orange, orb. And then all the way at the end was this tiny shelf from this hippie organic farmer who had this thing called an heirloom tomato that wasn’t perfect—it had spots on it, stripes—but you tasted it and you were like, oh my god, this is delicious. We’re the heirloom tomato.”
Smith’s passion for his people and products is obvious. Also, infectious. He uses only the grandest adjectives, “the absolute best,” “the coolest,” “the epitome of who we are” to describe each employee we meet, quickly running me through their backstory and their relationship with the plant as they quickly return to their tasks. Some are cannabis crusaders, others are career-farmers with backgrounds in tomatoes and cucumbers. As we stroll the facility’s 320,000 square feet, he’s near giddy looking at plants in all stages of harvest. “Is your brain short-circuiting?” he asks with a rueful smile as we snake between storage rooms full of Sunday Goods product.
In some ways, it is. I remember being cautioned about the ultimate “gateway drug” during my childhood; being taught to think of those who smoked weed as slackers and losers and, worst of all, drug addicts. All downward spirals, it seemed, started with just one joint. It was a lie. All of it. And now, cannabis is the future—of medicine, of industry, of culture. Can I be forgiven for gawking? It is a glorious, necessary, warm, dusty return to the earth by a people who have spent far too long away from the dirt.
That lie is where another facet of Smith’s motivations began, as well. Smith’s older brother spent the bulk of his adult life in federal prison for multiple, nonviolent drug offenses—something that, as the laws change, will become increasingly rare. “Granted, those were poor decisions that he made, no one is denying that,” he begins, “but I have seen the havoc that that’s wreaked on a family.”
He’s collected plenty of similar testimonies since entering the industry. It fuels him. “You can’t help but want to be a drug warrior, at that point,” he says, “to end the hypocrisy and shine a light on a complete injustice—a fraud—that has been committed upon us. If you can do something good that helps people while also changes that, then why not?”
When Smith and his team were first looking for a home for their agricultural operation, Arizona proved the obvious choice. “We [wanted] to build our company in what we consider to be a very stable and predictable regulatory environment,” Smith explains. “We wanted to have all of our learnings, make all of our mistakes, do all of those kinds of things in an environment that was understandable to us—and that was in Arizona.”
Another importance choice was having a proprietary agricultural facility. Sunday Goods could operate without one, buying product from an outside producer, as many other brands do. But Smith & co. wanted a full vertical integration. “The thing we see that’s a little disheartening, is that sitting between the producer and the consumer is the retail,” he says. “Many times, the retailer does not have the same moral compass as the consumer. They’re willing to shield the consumer from the integrity of certain products to make a few more bucks.”
Growing your own product is also, Smith notes, the only way to guarantee your product. “What we saw was that even well-known brands were ultimately faulty because their product and their supply chain were quite variable,” he says. “That created a very difficult situation for a brand like us who wants to say, ‘Hey, this is what we stand for and this is what we are going to deliver.’ We had to control production.”
Enter Broeks. Since beginning operations, he has cycled the Pharm through three or four hundred varieties of cannabis plants looking for ideal strains. “It has to hit on everything,” he explains. “It has to hit on how well it grows in the greenhouse—we need fairly large plants with not very many leaves, high resin content, not too dense—and it needs to be a product that’s good for the extract market as well as the flower market. Plus, it has to keep up with all of the trends.”
As she always has, Mother Nature proves a formidable opponent. “The structure of the plants, the resistance, the vigor, and the quality of the end product—that’s what you’re putting up against Mother Nature,” says Broeks. “If you don’t have those criteria, you’ll never win, because [weather] is definitely the biggest challenge in a greenhouse, whether it’s heat or too much humidity or too much light.”
Constants, you see, are hard to come by in the cannabis space—and not just when it comes to what you’re selling or the conditions you’re growing in. Due to ongoing changes in legislation, the industry rests on almost constantly shifting sands. On the local level, the recreational use of marijuana is on the ballot again this November in Arizona. Passing it could mean a rapid expansion. On the national level, the conversation around cannabis is still progressing, despite what those who follow Attorney General Jeff Sessions might think or hope.
“They can’t continue to lie to us the way that they’ve been lying to us. People are too smart.”
“There wasn’t a minute where I was like, ‘Oh god, doomsday!’” Smith says, recalling when the former Alabama Senator accepted his posting. “And then when he started saying crazy stuff about marijuana and how bad people use cannabis…it was just like, ‘Dude, you are so out touch!’”
The legitimate business cannabis is here to not just stay, says Smith, but also to grow, in the United States. “The genie is out of the bottle,” he says. “And, look, is what’s sitting in the White House what we wanted? No. But did we think that it was going to have material adverse effects on what we’re doing? No.” He continues: “We live in an information society; they can’t continue to lie to us the way that they’ve been lying to us. People are too smart; they’re asking the right questions, and they know this is a fallacy—that we’ve been lied to.”
Broeks is optimistic: “It gets a little better every year,” he says, referencing the non-psychoactive compound in cannabis that’s currently being explored for a wide swath of medical treatments. “CBD has a big part to that. If a medicine is used with children and it’s healing them, especially with epilepsy, then what is everyone even going on about? It’s getting more normalized.”
Both men are also aware that many of the recently-converted are flocking to the industry. “Getting into cannabis” is the new, on-trend thing to do. Go anywhere—it’s hard to avoid the feeling that everyone is talking about the opportunities. As a result, money is flooding in. Companies are being founded with lightning speed and many are earning high—like one billion dollars-high—evaluations. “You hear some of these people talk and they don’t know anything about anything,” says Smith. “It takes really great people to do what us and some other companies are trying to do. And, listen, the more success that everybody has, the better it is for the overall situation, but you’re going to see a lot of fool’s errands with these people who think ‘it’s just a plant.’”
The greatest challenge Smith faces, he says, is neither the evolving legislation nor the rapid proliferation of competitors. Instead, it’s within his own operation. Sunday Goods plans to open at least three, but probably four, brick and mortar stores in Arizona this year. They have five applications in in Ohio, five in Michigan, six in California, and they hope to expand into 25 dispensaries in Florida. They are also constantly expanding their online delivery service into more zip codes. So, what’s the problem?
“When you reach the size that we’re at right now, you’re just getting outside that bubble of that tribal mentality that we were founded with—where everybody is on board and came here because they saw something special,” he says. “The challenge is in making sure we don’t lose sight of why we do what we do, how we do what we do, and that we continue to bring people into the organization that are in complete alignment emotionally, spiritually, and philosophically with what we are doing.”
If that all stays to the course, the future, he agrees, is bright and, well, wholesome. “We are not corporate cannabis,” says Smith, regarding his company’s unique position as a well-funded and large-scale, but not sterile, company. “We are just a large family farm. The principles of family farming and true agriculture are what we live by. There has to be soul in it! There has to be love. There has to be hands in the dirt.”