Alexandra Chong is the first to admit that she seems to be ‘drawn to projects with some controversy’. In 2011, Jamaica-born Chong was 30 and living in London when she launched Lulu, an app that enabled women to review men they had dated. It was as successful as it was provocative. ‘Boys were complaining, some wanted the App Store and Google to bar us, and I was trying to save the company every five minutes,’ she recalls. (It continued to thrive nonetheless, and was sold to dating-app behemoth Badoo in 2016, for an undisclosed sum.)
‘I don’t have much fear,’ she says today. ‘But I think there are just certain things that need to change, whether that’s making the online dating world safer for women, or it’s destigmatising cannabis.’
The latter is part of her newest endeavour: Jacana, a sustainable, organic marijuana brand. Having launched at the beginning of last year in Jamaica, she’s aiming to build an international reputation for the country’s cannabis akin to that of French champagne or Cuban cigars.
In her dispensary in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, she sells cannabis ‘flower’ (the dried plant that is traditional, smokable cannabis), pre-rolled joints, vape pens and cannabis cartridges, as well as CBD oil and balm (CBD – a compound in cannabis – promotes relaxation and can reduce symptoms of anxiety, but unlike THC, the main psychoactive element of cannabis, it does not cause a ‘high’). She is also working on a range of wellness-focused cannabis teas, gummy sweets, lollies, chocolate bars and body oils.
She’s definitely picked the right time; last month, the United Nations reclassified cannabis, officially removing medical marijuana from its list of the most dangerous drugs, ‘in line with the scientific evidence of its therapeutic benefits’, a strong sign of changing attitudes. And it’s undeniably lucrative – the global legal cannabis market is predicted to be worth $74 billion by 2027.
Chong, 39, is likely nobody’s first idea of a cannabis entrepreneur (if they even have an idea of a cannabis entrepreneur). For a start, she’s female, in what has, over the short time in which cannabis has become a booming business – in those countries and US states that have legalised or decriminalised the drug, at least – become a male-dominated industry. She’s also a privately educated former professional tennis player and LSE law graduate, and no stranger to the society pages. Her British husband, photographer Jack Brockway, is Richard Branson’s nephew – their 2015 wedding was attended by Google founder Sergey Brin, while Brockway’s brother is married to Kate Winslet, and friends include Princess Eugenie.
Jacana also has the clout of Silicon Valley behind it, with investors including venture capitalist Bill Tai and former Microsoft marketing officer Mich Mathews-Spradlin. ‘This is not an easy industry to be in, because of its history of prohibition and the ongoing struggle for legitimacy, so it really helps when influential people, who understand the opportunity, back us,’ says Chong, who raised $20 million to found the firm.
We’re speaking on Zoom on a Tuesday morning, Chong from her office at the Jacana farm in Jamaica, whose white walls are covered with coloured Post-it notes. She takes her laptop to the window to show me the view: ominous clouds cluster above banana plants, with cannabis fields and tropical jungle beyond. The home she shares with Brockway, their two children, Isla, four, and Indiana, two, and several members of household staff, is close by, on the same street she grew up on in Ocho Rios.
The 100-acre farm is on a 100-year lease from old family friends. ‘I had to pitch to the whole family about starting this cannabis business on their property,’ she laughs. ‘Grandma, grandkids, aunts, uncles, everyone out on the family porch.’ The site encompasses not only the farm, which can grow and harvest up to 68,000kg of cannabis flower a year, but also a factory facility producing oils. Chong has plans to open six further dispensaries on the island within the next year.
Jamaica decriminalised the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use in 2015, making it possible to sell it legally for medical and ‘therapeutic’ purposes. So, along with those seeking relief from cancer-related pain or chronic arthritis, it’s also available for those wanting to reduce stress or improve their sleep. ‘Patients do have to have a doctor’s recommendation to be able to buy the products,’ says Chong. ‘In our store, you can FaceTime with a doctor and they can go through your medical history and recommend things.’ The doctors do not write product-specific prescriptions, or approve or turn down patients; their role is to offer guidance and information to help patients find the products best suited to their needs.
But challenges remain. While cannabis is legal for medical purposes in 35 US states, and for recreational use in 15, because it remains a federal crime, American banks refuse to grant accounts to cannabis companies. As a result, banks in smaller countries such as Jamaica, fearful of their relationships with US banking giants, deny cannabis businesses accounts. ‘It’s a cash-only business, and that’s a big challenge for any company attempting to grow,’ says Chong.
In the UK, cannabis has been legal for medical use, with a prescription from a specialised registered doctor, since November 2018. But access is limited, to the chagrin of campaigners fighting for those who would benefit, including children with severe epilepsy.
What is legal, in the UK, the US and many other countries, is CBD, which is booming in popularity as a wellness aid in creams and oils, as well as capsules, pills and gummy-style sweets. Jacana sells its CBD oil online in the UK (via savagecabbageltd.com), and Chong hopes soon to have it stocked in Fortnum & Mason, Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. The UK already has the largest CBD consumer market in Europe, worth over £400 million and expected to grow to £1 billion by 2025.
Chong never touched cannabis in her youth – ‘I was an athlete, so it was a no-no,’ she says – but began using it in her 20s to deal with stress. She doesn’t drink alcohol: ‘I’m Chinese-Jamaican and I’m missing a gene in my liver called P450 that produces the enzyme that helps to break down alcohol, so I go red and get drunk really fast. Having a glass of wine with my friends was never pleasant,’ she says. ‘In the really stressful times as an entrepreneur, cannabis was the only thing that would allow me to switch off and relax.’
As an asthmatic, though, Chong doesn’t smoke it, using a vaporiser instead, and part of her mission with Jacana is to get away from smoking as the primary means of consuming cannabis, towards healthier and more wellness-focused alternatives like the teas, gummy sweets and body oils.
However, she is quick to respond to concerns that destigmatising cannabis and creating more accessible products could inadvertently encourage its use among young people. ‘The evidence is clear that young people, until their brains are fully developed, shouldn’t be using cannabis at all,’ she says (medical marijuana is legal at 18 in Jamaica, while in Canada and the legal parts of the US it ranges from 18 to 21 – depending on province or state, and medical and recreational rules – though much research suggests our brains are not fully developed until 25). ‘There’s a duty on cannabis companies, as they promote the good, to also communicate the risks to young people. We’re hoping to work with the Ministry of Health in Jamaica on that.’
Meanwhile, for adults attempting to navigate the world of legal weed for the first time, it can be a bamboozling experience, with myriad products of varying, dizzying potencies. Jacana attempts to demystify things, with products categorised by the effect they have: Joy, Peace, Passion and Relief. And every item is rigorously dosed, tested and regulated, thereby avoiding the unpleasant incidents some might recall from run-ins with black-market cannabis in their youth. Chong also aims to make cannabis – still associated with a stereotype of boys in smoky bedrooms with bongs – more female friendly. She uses the term ‘mamajuana’ – low-dose cannabis products as a helpful, natural relief for stressed-out mothers. ‘It’s a lot better for you than alcohol, has no calories and won’t give you a hangover,’ she reasons.
This summer, I inadvertently became a regular supplier of weed gummies (via friends in California) to the high-flying New York women in my book club, the majority of whom have been struggling with homeschooling children in lockdown while editing newspapers, writing plays and running publishing empires. Also catering firmly to a female market is Jacana’s sustainable packaging, featuring floral designs by Chong’s mother-in-law, the artist Lindy Branson.
Of its 70 employees, a large number are women, along with a group of Ivy League educated Jamaican men. Inclusivity is a key company strand, and Chong wondered whether, ‘as a light-skinned Jamaican woman, I should even be the face of the company’, concerned it could be seen as contradicting her own diversity policies. Her executive board believed that yes, as a proud Jamaican, as well as the founder, she should be its face.
Chong’s Canadian mother and Chinese-Jamaican father met on the tennis court of a hotel in Jamaica, where her mother was on holiday – a holiday that got seriously extended. Her father, who was, she says, from a ‘humble’ background, won the lottery and used the money to found a villa and car-rental company: ‘It was before the era of the all-inclusive super-hotels, and the island was full of movie stars, and people would rent villas and cars and drive around the island, not just stay in their hotels.’ An only child, she went to boarding school in Oxford until, at 15, a competitive tennis player, she begged her parents to let her transfer to the Saddlebrook tennis academy in Florida. A year later, she was representing Jamaica in the Federation Cup and the Central American & Caribbean Games, and training and travelling with the Jamaican Olympic team.
After college in North Carolina, she went to the LSE. She harboured ambitions to enter politics in Jamaica, but fell into the burgeoning London tech scene. ‘That gave me the entrepreneurial bug, and made me realise I wanted to start something of my own.’
‘You have success, you also have a lot of pushback,’ shrugs Chong today of the controversial Lulu. ‘When nobody’s talking about you, it means your product is totally irrelevant. We had challenges and lawsuits, but the feedback I always got was: “You’re relevant.”’
Brockway’s businessman uncle has not invested in Jacana; as an advocate for the legalisation of all drugs, and sitting on the Global Commission on Drug Policy panel, it could be a conflict of interest. ‘But he gives us incredible advice,’ says Chong. ‘He has taught us so much – even just simple things like getting all of our team to always bring a notebook to meetings; he doesn’t like having meetings with people who don’t take notes.’
Jacana has been able to continue operating during the pandemic, and its dispensary was able to stay open as it’s deemed an essential business. Chong believes cannabis could be a boon for countries struggling to raise revenues in the ongoing health crisis. ‘Global recession is upon us, countries and governments are desperate to find money, and cannabis regulation is a good shot,’ she says. In Colorado, for example, an excise tax of 15 per cent is levied on recreational cannabis, on top of a 15 per cent sales tax. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said recently that he expects the state to legalise marijuana ‘soon, because now we need the money… We’re going to be searching the cupboards for revenue.’
Many speculate that if the US Senate comes under Democratic control after run-off elections in Georgia this month, yet to take place at the time of going to press, national legalisation will become a reality. And ‘if America legalises, then money will flow into this industry, globally, very quickly’, says Chong.
‘The cannabis industry is going to be massive, not just as a recreational competitor to alcohol, but to pharmaceuticals too – it has the ability to disrupt big multibillion-dollar industries,’ she says. ‘The only question is the speed at which it will happen – will it be five years? Ten years? One year? The question is not if but when.