Mary Ersig, founder of Ocean Cannabis Company, can best be described as a serial entrepreneur and passionate philanthropist. Born and raised in Michigan, Ersig has a long history of care taking. Before she and husband Patrick packed up their three kids to make the cross-country move to California, Mary could be found on the streets of inner-city Detroit feeding the homeless and providing meals and clothes to those in need.
Mary and Patrick Ersig love Southern California and their love for the ocean led them to pack up the kids and make the move out west. The Ersig’s California journey began with their work on LA’s Skid Row, running a homeless shelter called The Jonah Project for seven years. It was during that time that she and husband Patrick realized the power of cannabis as medicine and they left their nonprofit roles to produce a line of cannabis products for medical cannabis patients.
As they began expanding their medical cannabis company into a recreational brand, they knew that the ocean would be a part of that brand. At first, it was simply the logo. But Mary and Patrick soon realized that they could use their philanthropic background to create a more socially conscious cannabis brand. They wanted to do their part to rid the world’s oceans of plastics and decided to make recycled plastic a central theme of their brand Ocean Cannabis Company.
Ocean Cannabis Company is a family-run business and the Ersig family is a force to be reckoned with. Today, Mary and Patrick work alongside their adult children to build Ocean Cannabis Company into a world-class brand that builds customer loyalty through social and environmental consciousness and an initiative to clean the ocean.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the cannabis industry?
Thank you so much for having me. Ocean Cannabis Company is the brainchild of my husband Patrick and myself. Before entering the cannabis space, Patrick and I spent many years working to help California’s less fortunate. We provided childcare for low-income families and families of children with disabilities. We also founded and ran a homeless shelter and program called the Jonah Project for 7 years in skidrow that housed 100 people: 70 men and 30 women.
After the devastating closure of the Jonah Project due to the loss of our facility, we began the journey to find our place. It was imperative that we find a path of work that not only fueled our own lives but also the lives of others. Cannabis seemed like a natural choice for us because of its medicinal properties. It was also a new budding industry that we were able to easily and affordably access. Our love for the planet and the ocean led us to create a cannabis brand greater than ourselves with an initiative to change the planet and heal the people on it!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Our road to the cannabis space, like many others, has been fraught with challenges. It all began with an eviction notice! When the doors on the Jonah Project were shut, we literally had $500 to our name. Because of the nature of the non-profit work we were doing, we were left with nothing. We were able to take what little we had and take a chance on the new green-rush. Before cannabis became recreational, there wasn’t as much red tape to get through. It offered people like us a chance to start a business from nothing with the potential for real success. Thankfully, we were able to make our product and sell it ourselves and really make it happen. I learned that with patience, determination, and hard work anything could happen.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Our first venture into the cannabis space was in the edible realm with our cannabis-infused Farm Caramels, made by yours truly! I had only been making the caramels for a few months. I had a habit of dipping espresso beans in the hot caramel…it was so delicious! Needless to say, I ate way too much and got very distracted…occupational hazard! Each pot made about 250 caramels and called for 4 cups of white sugar. In my distracted state, I forgot that I had already added the sugar and added 4 more cups! OMG! I messed it up so bad. I couldn’t save the batch and the whole thing was ruined. This was a very expensive mistake! Looking back, it was really hilarious. I had eaten so many of those infused espresso beans I didn’t know which way was up! I suppose the lesson I got from that experience was to not do quality control while cooking!
Do you have a funny story about how someone you knew reacted when they first heard you were getting into the cannabis industry?
I have a lot of family and friends who are on the more traditional side and initially I was cautious about telling them my new business venture. There is such a stigma surrounding cannabis that I was afraid of how some would react. But actually, when it all came out, I was very surprised by the response. Some of the people I was most nervous about telling actually had known people who had used cannabis for health reasons. For example, my mother-in-law had a friend with breast cancer who used cannabis to help her get through her chemotherapy treatments. The funny thing is that every single person that I told had a similar story. They all seemed to know someone who’d had similar experiences with cannabis for its medicinal properties. It was amazing to see cannabis being normalized by people from all different walks of life.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Obviously, my husband Patrick is at the very top of that list. We have been in business together for over 20 years. He is an amazing business partner and I couldn’t do any of this without him. My daughter Zoe has also been a major player in the life of Ocean Cannabis Company. She has been there working side-by-side along with me since the beginning. Then, of course, there is Mike Cumby. He is both our financial and working partner. He has been monumental in his belief in us and his support of Ocean Cannabis and our mission. And we would not be where we are today without the help of Dan. Dan leads our sales team and his role has been crucial in getting Ocean Cannabis out there and on the shelves.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Everything that we have done professionally, we’ve done with a heart of philanthropy. No matter what venture we were on, it has always been so important for us to be making a positive impact on the communities in which we live and work. And our work in cannabis has been no different. When we started Ocean Cannabis, we knew we wanted to make a positive impact. But as we soon discovered, the regulations of cannabis compliance in the recreational market has one very negative side effect: PLASTIC…specifically, virgin single-use plastic.
Because of federal regulations, cannabis products must be sold in child-resistant packaging, which inevitably produces a massive amount of waste. All of the plastic needed for the volume the cannabis industry is producing was a huge problem for us. And we didn’t want to be part of that problem. So we decided to do something about it.
We have made it our mission to save the Big Blue by going “green”. All of our vapes, disposables, and pre-rolls are packaged in reclaimed and recycled plastic from the ocean. By sourcing our packaging from 100% reclaimed and recycled ocean plastic, each purchase of an Ocean Cannabis Company product recovers the equivalent weight of 15 straws or one water bottle’s worth of reclaimed plastic from our oceans. In 6 months, we have removed over 4 tons of plastic from the ocean. When you purchase an Ocean Cannabis Company product, you help save the ocean and change the world.
In 2020 we will also be rolling out our new CBD line. This is still in development, but we would like to be able to offer our premium products beyond state lines and provide medicine to those outside of California.
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview.
Despite great progress that has been made we still have a lot more work to do to achieve gender parity in this industry. According to this report in Entrepreneur, less than 25 percent of cannabis businesses are run by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a) individuals b) companies and/or c) society to support greater gender parity moving forward?
Gender disparity is obviously not something new, but we have more opportunities as women than we have ever had before. According to David Abernathy, vice president of cannabis investment and research firm Arcview Group, “it’s especially frustrating since women-run ventures make about three times as much as male-led businesses, among companies that successfully raise capital.” (Source: The Story Exchange “Women Are Getting Shut Out of the $12.2 Billion Cannabis Industry. Here’s Why”)
Abernathy goes on to say he “attributes that, in large part, to women having to work harder to establish themselves. One interesting thing we noticed is that, for women to succeed in this business — because of a host of realities — they may have gone through enough and proven themselves enough to be better than the average applicant.”
This is not to say that women are superior, but that we may have had to fight harder to get the same opportunities as our male counterparts. As individuals, we can find opportunities to invest in women. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean money- it can of course but also we can invest time, research and support.
If you are someone looking to invest in a cannabis business, invest in one run by women!
Companies have a unique opportunity to provide employment. When hiring, hire women! Women have the incredible gift of resilience and tenacity when faced with obstacles. We have proven time and time again that we are hard workers and have had to go above and beyond to prove ourselves equal. All the while, many of us have done this while raising the kids and running a household.
With all the world’s information at our fingertips, society has never had as much access to knowledge and knowledge is power. As a society, we have the opportunity to really know about the products we are purchasing, the company making those products, where those products are sourced, and the impact those products have on our communities. Gain knowledge. Put your money solely into the companies you want to support, and do your research. Pay attention to who runs the brands and businesses you like and make a point to support those run by women.
You are a “Cannabis Insider”. If you had to advise someone about 5 non-intuitive things one should know to succeed in the cannabis industry, what would you say? Can you please give a story or an example for each?
- Be patient– It was easy to get things done back in the medical market days because there was no regulation. It was relatively simple to make your product and get it into the hands of consumers. Now things take much longer, are completely regulated and are much more complicated and expensive than they used to be. What used to be so easy – especially deliveries, packaging, and tracking inventory are now definitely a challenge.
- Banking challenges– Because cannabis is still not federally legal, we are not able to utilize the banking systems like other industries do. And dealing with all cash can be difficult and honestly can be kind of dangerous.
- Don’t get overzealous!– Try not to get overwhelmed by too many opportunities. It is easy to do because this industry is so brand new and opportunity is everywhere. It’s easy to get off track by thinking ‘I can do this and I can do that’ – But to stay on track I would recommend doing one thing very well before you add on something else.
- Strategic partnerships– It’s so important to team up with others. Working with those whose strengths lie in your areas of weakness and vice versa will yield great results. A diverse team with a broad range of strengths and skills is paramount to running a successful business.
- Regulation hurdles– This is especially challenging because rules and regulations are constantly changing. Orders get rejected, packaging and labeling requirements change, etc. and all of that can be very expensive and time-consuming.
Can you share 3 things that most excite you about the cannabis industry?
One of the most exciting things for me about the growing cannabis industry is the destigmatization of cannabis use. People don’t have the same negative opinions about cannabis that they used to. It’s great to know that people from all walks of life and of all ages are looking at cannabis as something that is good and positive for them to use. It’s such an exciting time to see all of the diversity that the cannabis industry has illuminated.
Along with the normalization of cannabis, more and more people have been given the opportunity to access this powerful plant medicine. Cannabis has been healing people for as long as the plant has been in existence. And now, more than ever, people have a trustworthy source to access the medicinal properties of the cannabis plant. This has led to many people getting away from harmful pharmaceuticals and using a natural life-giving plant to remedy their ailments.
The opportunity for Social Equity is also a very exciting element of being part of the cannabis industry today. Giving those with past non-violent cannabis charges the ability to find quality work in the cannabis industry is so important. So many people, especially within communities of color, have been negatively affected by the ‘War on Drugs’ and deserve to have a presence in this ever-growing industry. After all, many of those individuals are largely responsible for the evolution of the cannabis industry today! It’s very exciting for me to see this progress considering in many states, people are still serving jail time for the same amount of cannabis I can legally walk into a store and purchase, right now!
Can you share 3 things that most concern you about the industry? If you had the ability to implement 3 ways to reform or improve the industry, what would you suggest?
The established illicit market is very concerning for a number of reasons. Taxes are very high on legal cannabis, which makes it difficult for many to obtain. This lack of accessibility continues to fuel the illicit market, driving business away from licensed brands and retailers. This is especially concerning because many of these unlicensed facilities are responsible for people getting sick and even dying from consuming unregulated and untested products.
In addition to high taxes, regulatory requirements have led to smaller businesses being choked out by brands that have lots of money behind them. This was a very craft marketplace and there were a lot of mom and pop companies (of which I am one). Unfortunately, there are not many of those small businesses left. Closing down all illicit stores and lowering taxes would fix a world of problems in the cannabis industry. If taxes were lowered, many more people would have access to legal cannabis and the benefits that it offers.
Due to compliance requirements, cannabis packaging waste is obviously a major concern, which is why Ocean Cannabis Company has made it our mission to combat these industry standards by seeking out alternative packaging. Today, there are many options for conscious packaging including the reclaimed and recycled ocean plastic that we utilize within our brand packaging as well as hemp plastic packaging. These alternatives may be a bit more expensive, but in the long run, we have a social responsibility to do better and that starts at the top. We’re spending more on our product packaging out of social consciousness but our customers will never see those costs. It’s our small part to help clean up the world’s oceans and rid them of plastic.
What are your thoughts about federal legalization of cannabis? If you could speak to your Senator, what would be your most persuasive argument regarding why they should or should not pursue federal legalization?
Absolutely for it! By now, most people in this country are starting to realize that cannabis is not the same as hard drugs like heroin, cocaine or crystal meth. It has no business being in that category when what it actually does is help us in so many ways- not hurt us. The medicinal uses of cannabis are amazing- healing severe forms of epilepsy, aiding those who have cancer, and for the recreational user, a way to relax that is safer than alcohol. I personally use cannabis to alleviate stress! There’s a great quote about that from Willie Nelson: “The biggest killer on the planet is stress and I still think the best medicine is and always has been cannabis”. I agree.
If I could speak to my Senators, I would tell them to educate themselves on the incredible healing power of cannabis. People should not be denied the medicinal properties of cannabis regardless of what state they live in. California, Colorado, and Oregon offer a multitude of examples of the positive impact of cannabis. Beyond medicinal use, cannabis consumption for recreational purposes is still less harmful than any of its counterparts.
Today, cigarettes are legal, but they are heavily regulated, highly taxed, and they are somewhat socially marginalized. Would you like cannabis to have a similar status to cigarettes or different? Can you explain?
I believe that cigarette smoking should be socially marginalized! Cigarettes are highly toxic and filled with chemicals. Cigarettes are poison, plain and simple. The smoke they produce kills those who smoke it and harms those around it. I lost both of my parents to cigarettes. This was a wake-up call for me as I also used to smoke cigarettes. When I was ready to quit, I got some CBD flower and smoked that instead. CBD helped me to quit for good. It was the best decision I ever made!
I don’t believe cannabis should be marginalized at all. When people smoke cannabis they are relaxed and healed- they didn’t just take 11 minutes off their life by smoking a joint. Today’s legal cannabis should honestly not even be in the same category as tobacco in any sense. Cannabis deserves to be recognized for the medicinal value the plant has.
Can you please give us your favorite Life Lesson Quote? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Be stubborn about your goals and flexible about your methods” Author unknown.
Of course, our goal is to have a great company and do great business. I’ve always had a single eye towards that, but being flexible on how I got there is what really got me to where I am today. I’ve had to wear several hats along the way! I started out doing manufacturing and packaging, and then moved on to sales and in-store events, then helped with design and collecting data.
It’s been a wild ride and flexibility has been super important to the life of our business. When you’re a family business trying to make it in this industry, you’ve got to be flexible and able to do it all. Also it’s imperative to be willing to learn, grow, and do things outside your comfort zone! You can find so many qualities you have that you may not have discovered if you hadn’t done something to really challenge yourself.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Environmental consciousness is so important to me. Ocean Cannabis Company is an extension of our love for the ocean and the planet. As we continue to grow, so will our platform for making a positive impact on the environment. Outlawing single-use plastic is building up such momentum! I can’t think of a better movement to get behind for protecting the Earth and cleaning up our oceans. I would like to bring more awareness to this issue.
We need other companies from cannabis and every industry to start using alternatives to single-use plastic packaging because as manufacturers, we have a responsibility to be conscious about what we are putting out there and how much waste we are creating in the market. As individuals, we need to be more conscious of what we are consuming and how we dispose of waste and support companies that are making a positive impact on our planet.
This spring we will be leading the charge for a huge beach cleanup along the coast called Cannabis Cleans: The Cannabis Community Coming Together to Clean the California Coast. This event will be open to the entire cannabis community – cultivators, budtenders, connoisseurs, and even the canna-curious! We will be breaking down the walls of brand identity and coming together as an entire community to clean the California coast from San Diego to Santa Barbara! It’s so easy for people to live a life of “out of sight…out of mind”. But we can no longer ignore the huge pollution problem that is destroying our planet.
We must step up, hold ourselves accountable, and come face-to-face with the reality of our own human impact on the planet. Because of the strict requirements of cannabis packaging, the cannabis industry has a responsibility to reduce the impact of single-use plastics wherever possible. Cannabis Cleans will allow the opportunity for the cannabis community to see the impact that plastic has on our environment and make a commitment to do better. Together, we “Cann” make a difference!
Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you only continued success!