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This tattooed Irishman couldn't advertise cannabis in Australia – so he started slinging cannabis-infused gin instead

Jack Derwin
  • While smoking cannabis recreationally remains illegal in Australia outside of the ACT, hemp food products have been legitimate business since 2017.
  • Cormac Sheehan started The Cannabis Company back then to capitalise on the huge unmet demand, eventually finding great success with cannabis-infused gin.
  • Selling out the first batch in three days, Sheehan said customers includes directors and CEOs from some of Australia's largest companies, highlighting the strength of the market.
  • Visit Business Insider Australia’s homepage for more stories.

"When a 30-something Irishman with tattoos on his hands tells you to try cannabis, people don't quite trust you."

While I've not tried selling it myself, it's not hard to empathise with Cormac Sheehan's predicament. While the entrepreneur says there's a thriving market in Australia for the green stuff, the cannabis business finds itself hamstrung by contradictions.

"Australia is the biggest consumer of cannabis in the world, with about one to 10 people a month regularly smoking," he told his audience at startup and business festival Pausefest, noting that recreational smoking is obviously still illegal everywhere but in the ACT.

"But while I'd been watching with fascination as decriminalization and legalization happens in the US, I was wondering how did we get involved in this in Australia. But everything going on in medical cannabis was really boring. If you're not already rich, you can forget about it. It's just a bad facsimile of the pharmaceutical industry."

It's a shame, Sheehan says, because he'd been converted to the medicinal effects of cannabinoids when he found oils alleviated his anxiety and depression.

It's why he co-founded The Cannabis Company to bring Australians "cannabis in a safe, legal and premium way", teaming up with Dr David Stapleton to present the misunderstood plant in a transparent way. It began selling legal Australian-produced hemp foods, which don't get people high, in 2017 when they became legal and began trying to educate people around it.

"We opened ourselves up to questions, wore our hearts on our sleeves, ad we answered emails and phone calls and had our biochemist explain the science behind it."

The problem, however, became how to market the company given go-to marketing tools provided by tech behemoths Google and Facebook block ads for cannabis.

"So we started looking around and tried to look at what other products we could sell," he said, admitting they were looking for a "trojan horse".

"Gin was having this moment in Australia with these great distillers like Archie Rose and Four Pillars, so we came up with our own cannabis-infused one."

"We didn't think it would sell particularly well -- it was expensive at over $100 a bottle -- but we got it ready to launch before Christmas 2018 so it might start a conversation at the family dinner table across different generations."

"It went viral. It went crazy. We sold it in three days 300 bottles, and we couldn't believe we' sold out so quickly."

"We then had to run around Victoria to get another batch ready for sale."

Getting down to the wire to make the Christmas deadline, the company began getting emailed about whether or not the second-batch was going to arrive in time to be wrapped under the tree and it was these that Sheehan says highlighted how far cannabis' appeal runs.

"We could see the signatures on these emails. And it was CEOs, managing directors, executives, people from some of the biggest companies in Australia. I obviously can't say who they are. But it was government agencies and not-for-profit corporates. From the top of society down to the bottom, every person was interested in buying cannabis products despite the price."

So the company kept selling it, expanding its range of gins to include different botanicals and parts of the cannabis plant, as well as expanding into other niches.

While Sheehan eventually divested from the company he started, along with Stapleton, to pursue other cannabis-related projects, The Cannabis Company has continued to grow and diversify its product line.

He says it's a reflection of how great Australia's appetite is for the plant, but also how great its use case is.

"We're at a point now in Australia and in the world where we need massive systemic change. And it's nice to like get rid of disposable plastic straws and so on. But it's not enough. These are PR exercises that don't change much of the fabric of reality,"

It's the fact that you can use every part of the cannabis plant for everything from food and body products to textiles and building materials that appeals to him. He's now started an online advocacy and education platform called Green Planet.

He says the use cases for the plant demonstrate hope for solving some of the world's most pressing issues if only governments and regulators would get on board.

"If you want to make money off it, you can do that, but that's not the point for me. I want to help people."