With a cash bar next to the front entrance of the convention room and the South Shore's queen of cannabis, Myrna Gillis, billed to deliver the keynote speech, this year's Lunenburg Queens Business Awards ceremony was set to end on a high note.
As usual, representatives from 18 businesses squared off against each other, cheered on by family and friends, bank and government officials, for the awards presented at the Best Western Plus Bridgewater Hotel and Convention Centre.
But before the plaques were handed out, the attendees downed a protein-packed sirloin steak dinner and enjoyed an intoxicating talk about the possibilities of the cannabis industry for rural Nova Scotia by Gillis, who is the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Aqualitas.
Based in the former Bowater Mersey premises outside of Liverpool, Aqualitas is the largest licensed producer of cannabis in Nova Scotia and becoming a recognized leader in cannabis research, product development and international import and export.
"By 2024, BMO has projected that the international cannabis industry will be a $200 billion a year industry.
"And we are poised here in Canada," Gillis told the audience, adding that the country is leading in the industry.
Aqualitas's CEO said she expects the United Nations to de-schedule THC to a lower category of restrictions, and to "entirely de-schedule CBD because of the overwhelming support for its benefits and non-addictive properties."
Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects; cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-intoxicating marijuana extract used medicinally.
Gillis says that if the UN moves in this direction, "it will unlock an unprecedented opportunity to ignite international cannabis industry with value-added products in pharmaceuticals, nutriceuticals, beverage, food and human and animal wellness."
It's a scenario with potent potential for rural Nova Scotia, according to Gillis.
She notes there are five cannabis producers in Nova Scotia, with nine more "in the queue," and all but one are in rural communities.
"This is a really tremendous opportunity that we've never seen before where we can have such broad opportunity in rural communities in this particular industry."
Under Gillis's leadership, Aqualitas has raised $22 million in non-brokered funds in the exempt market and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in research grants.
She was named Bronze business leader of the year by the Halifax Chamber of Commerce at its 2019 business awards for leadership in rural economic development, innovation, and environmental sustainability.
Gillis explained to her audience that it was after spending 25 years as a disabilities lawyer that she became "compelled by the opportunity and the benefits that I saw of medical cannabis with my clients."
She banded together a couple of dozen like-minded professionals, and as a team they developed the lofty goal of becoming "a leading producer of organically grown all natural products, and value added products, in cannabis throughout the world."
She described the aquaponic growing technology Aqualitas uses, which combines aquaculture and horticulture while consuming 90 per cent less water and 50 per cent less energy than traditional grow methods.
She notes the company is the first Clean Green certified cannabis company in Canada and only one of five producers in all of the country that are organically certified.
The company is finalizing its good manufacturing practices (GMP) rating through the European Commission and anticipates having its first international shipments out by the end of this month. However, it is still waiting for its fully unrestricted sales licence for the domestic market.
In the meantime, it's also processing oils, which are necessary not only for the medicinal market but what Gillis called the "second wave" of the cannabis industry - edibles.
To that end it is working with Acadia University at the agri-food and beverage lab on value-added cannabis products and intellectual property.
And seeing the growing opportunities for research and development and innovation, the company has established Sindica, a global institute for cannabis research and innovation which it hopes will become an incubator for ancillary services in the cannabis industry.
"Our goal is to expand beyond our footprint in the park and bring it back to the level of productivity that it had in its heyday," said Gillis.
It appears well on the way to doing so. Aqualitas employs scientists, both full-time and as advisers in the areas of quality control, extraction, food science, aquaculture, agriculture and animal sciences.
"We are happy to say we currently have 50 employees and we literally are on boarding every day. During the course of the construction we had more than 120 construction workers and trades that have been employed on a continuous basis since 2017 in June."
Gillis said Aqualitas also is working with the local community college to address the issue of skilled labour in extraction and value-added processes, "to make sure that we are able to utilize the local work force, and where the skills may not be there that are specific to the industry then the training will be."
More and more, Queens County's queen of cannabis is helping create a local economic high.