May - Tom Ulanowski, AAg, Fraser Valley Branch (District 2)

What are your areas of practice? What is your expertise?

My academic training is in Analytical Chemistry and the Environmental Sciences, specifically Hydrogeology and Biogeochemistry. In addition to my current status as an Articling Agrologist at the BCIA, I am registered as a Professional Chemist (ACPBC) and Chartered Chemist (ACPO).

For the last seven years, I have been employed in Canada’s emerging legal cannabis industry in various quality assurance and regulatory related roles. As the current Vice President of Quality Assurance and Regulatory Affairs, as well as the Quality Assurance Person for Nextleaf Labs Ltd. (a licenced cannabis company in Coquitlam, BC), my expertise is in navigating the federal and provincial cannabis regulations, specifically licence application and management, as well as quality assurance and control. I am involved with day-to-day production and research activities, but work closely with our product development, corporate, sales, accounting, and marketing teams to ensure that our company remains compliant as we operate within this highly-regulated industry.

As a former instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnique University (KPU), I have also taught hundreds of Canadian and international students about cannabis production and facility management, quality assurance, and laws and regulations, and I continue to participate in various professional and industry events as a public speaker and panelist.

Why did you choose the career in which you are currently?

My transition from the environmental sciences into the legal cannabis industry was mostly by chance – at the risk of sounding cliché, I was looking for work in the right place, and more importantly, at the right time. During my undergraduate and graduate studies, my plan was to work in the environmental sector, likely as a consultant, with a focus on water quality and quantity. At that time, there was no path to working in the legal cannabis industry, because such an industry didn’t exist yet! When the commercial production of cannabis in Canada first became legal for medical purposes in 2013, there was a significant demand for risk-tolerant scientific and technically-adept professionals to support this burgeoning sector.

In early 2014, my wife and I moved from Ontario to British Columbia for personal reasons (we love the landscape and climate of this beautiful province!), and it was around this time that I became aware of a number of opportunities in this new sector. I was excited by the prospect of joining a novel, fast-paced industry, and I decided to take a detour from my career aspirations in the environmental sciences, and pivot into the legal cannabis industry. The reasons to do so were numerous, but ultimately I felt that I would be able to have a much more significant impact on the sector (versus working in an established environmental consulting firm), and there was an opportunity to help shape this new industry from within. The novelty of Canada being the first country to legalize cannabis was simply too difficult for me to ignore!

Why did you decide to become a member of BCIA?

My wife, who also has an academic and professional background in the environmental sciences, actually joined the BCIA as an Articling Agrologist a few months before I did. Very quickly after she began her articling program, I became intrigued by the aspect of joining a professional association that was focused on agriculture and agricultural processing. I applied to the BCIA in early 2020, and was accepted into the  articling program, which I am just about to complete. Thus far, I have been very happy with my decision to join the BCIA. I have met many like-minded individuals, some of whom are also employed in the legal cannabis sector! I am thrilled to see so much appetite for knowledge from the BCIA’s members as it relates to the cannabis sector, where I suspect many current and future members will end up finding employment in the years to come.

What do you do in a typical work day or week?

The legal cannabis industry moves at an extremely fast pace, and working for a relatively new company within this space ensures that every day is different. On any given day, I may be involved in any one of the following activities:

  • Writing, revising, and approving Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
  • Coordinating samples; reviewing and approving analytical test results
  • Approving finished product quality prior to release for sale
  • Investigating complaints, deviations, and out-of-specification results
  • Working with our Production and Research and Development Teams to support their work from a quality and regulatory perspective, and to optimize processes and develop new products
  • Supporting our marketing and communications departments to ensure compliance with the Cannabis Act and Regulations
  • Liaising with regulators from Health Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency, as well as Provincial Distributors
  • Speaking with suppliers and clients about our company’s products and services
  • Scientific, technical, and regulatory report writing
  • Developing Intellectual Property for submission to national and international patent agencies
  • Public speaking at conferences, industry events, professional associations, and various government agencies

Please share some favourite bonus "perks" and/or experiences of your work.

I guess this is the part where I make a joke about receiving many “perks” from work! ;)

Unfortunately, the legal cannabis industry is highly regulated, and other than paperwork, emails, and spreadsheets, I don’t get to “bring my work home with me”… but we do have a Research licence, which allows us to conduct sensory evaluations with cannabis, which has been quite a perk for our team and clients!

Perhaps the biggest benefit of working in this industry, for me, is being able to engage with people from a diverse assortment of academic and professional backgrounds. Over the years, I have worked alongside many talented and open-minded scientists, engineers, cultivators, product developers, and security and business professionals, from whom I have been able to learn a great deal to strengthen my own work. I really don’t think that I would have been so intimately exposed to such an array of disciplines had I not joined this industry and stayed on a more conventional career path.

Another perk of my work is being able to view and work with cannabis through a scientific lens; something that has only become recently possible with the legalization of cannabis in Canada. It’s far from perfect, but researchers in Canada are now able to work with this amazing plant, and study its potential benefits (and harms) to both the individual, and society. In addition, speaking with people that use cannabis for medical purposes has been rewarding and eye-opening. As a skeptic and scientist, I tend to rely on peer-reviewed evidence when questions of cannabis’ efficacy come up. Still today, data supporting the use of medical cannabis for various conditions or to treat specific symptoms is rather scant. However, being able to listen to hundreds of anecdotes from people that rely on medical cannabis to better their lives has given me additional perspective to reflect upon.

Finally, being able to share my experience with an assortment of audiences has been extremely rewarding. It seems that there is tremendous appetite, even from regulators and various government agencies, to learn about this industry and its challenges. Watching this industry change and mature over the years has been exciting, and I look forward to being involved in its continuous growth!