Exclusive Interview With Cannabis Consultant Rhys Cohen

The Green Fund sat down for an exclusive interview with the Principle Consultant at Freshleaf Analytics, Rhys Cohen, to discuss his canna-centric career.

Cannabis industry-expert Rhys Cohen is the best possible example of being in the right place, at the right time, and having the smarts to grab that opportunity by the horns. He has become one of the leading voices in the cannabis industry and is the CEO of Cannabis Consulting Australia, and Principal Consultant at Freshleaf Analytics.

To learn more about how he found his voice within the industry, The Green Fund sat down with Rhys Cohen for an exclusive interview to be featured in our inaugural 'Top 5 Cannabis Thought leaders in Australia' list.

Rhys first delved into the cannabis space whilst studying at the University of Sydney, where he had the opportunity to write his honours project on a topic of his choosing. With a natural interest in drug policy, and with the legalization of cannabis in Colorado happening at the time, Rhys felt he had found his thesis path, and decided to focus his honours thesis on the politics and economics of cannabis legalization.

"I came into cannabis when I was in my early 20's at university, but before then I'd always been really interested in drug policy and harmonization and was really drawn to that discipline and that way of thinking, I guess," Rhys commented.

"Drug legalization is a pragmatic, reasonable approach. It seemed common sense to me but it was frustrating to see that around the world and here in Australia, legalization seemed to be a bit of a fringe way of looking at things."

And so began Rhys' journey into the constantly evolving world of cannabis.

5 Australian Cannabis Thought Leaders

Cultivating Cannabis Knowledge

While studying for his honours thesis, Rhys began to look at the countries that had successfully legalized cannabis, which quickly led him to the realization that the cannabis landscape wasn't how he'd imagined it to be.

"I asked myself, what could we learn from Colorado that could be used to reform drug laws in Australia and in other places around the world? So that's when I really first started getting stuck into cannabis and cannabis policy, and even more broadly into the economic, political, and social history of cannabis," Rhys said.

"In Colorado, I expected that a bunch of progressives got into power and pushed for cannabis legalization. I was surprised to find that actually, it was the opposite."

"It was a story about how people on the right-wing end of the political spectrum, who are very committed to personal liberty and libertarianism as a political philosophy, were really the primary driving force behind cannabis legalization" Rhys explained.

Though cannabis's unique ability to align people on both sides of the political spectrum wasn't limited to Colorado, and was, in fact, something that Rhys also noticed happening on his home soil in Australia.

"You can see this agreement between the Greens party on the far left and One Nation and David Lionel on the far right. We've seen this play out in other places as well. This sort of meeting of minds between the far left and the far right when it comes to cannabis."

Rhys attributes part of cannabis's unifying capacity to the decentralized nature of the plant, which places cannabis in a unique category when compared to other drugs.

"Because you can grow cannabis in any climate, indoors or out, and because it requires basically no host-cultivation processing, it means that cannabis cultivation is really decentralized – globally. That's very, very different from cocoa cultivation or poppy cultivation or other kinds of drug manufacture".

"It sort of means that cannabis is the most ubiquitous and versatile botanic drug source on the planet because it can happen anywhere, anyone can be doing it, and hence it sort of permeates society a lot more than other drugs do"

Budding Roots

Upon completing his thesis, Rhys realised it was time to "get back to reality," and focus on his non-cannabis career in business development. Though this "reality" would be short-lived for Rhys when his father stumbled upon an interesting newspaper article in 2015.

"My dad actually saw this news article in the paper and it said something like, 'Cannabis company to partner with business school at the University of Sydney to develop a white paper on medical cannabis in Australia.'

"And so my father said, "Rhys, look at this. Here's something that's relevant to you. It's happening at your university. You should get involved."

While initially hesitant, Rhys once again grabbed the cannabis industry by the horns, and eventually found himself leading the project to develop the first White Paper on medicinal cannabis in Australia for the University of Sydney.

The white paper was widely distributed by major players in both the media and the cannabis space, such as Huffington Post, the ABC and Deloitte Access Economics.

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The paper propelled Rhys into the epicenter of Australia's cannabis industry, where he found himself running Australia's first comprehensive cannabis education program for Cann10, creating the content and curriculum for their Australian medical cannabis education program.

"I found myself in the right place at the right time," Rhys mentions. "I put together this pretty expansive curriculum with 16 topics and 16 different speakers over four days and three evening events."

After a demanding six months, Rhys was able to take away valuable life lessons from his experience working on this project.

If you're committed enough to a project, it doesn't matter how much work there is to do or how little time you've got to do it in, you will make it work one way or the other.

Rhys Cohen, Principal Conusltant at Freshleaf Analytics

Though as serendipitous as Rhys' career seems, it wasn't without bumps in the road.

"It was just a full-on year. It took a solid six months of basically full-time work to get that program up and running. It was very, very stressful but it ended up coming through. The students found it to be really rewarding, and we ended up getting a 92% approval rate from the students".

"There were definitely times when I thought this can't possibly get together in time," Rhys mentioned.

"There's no way we can fill the seats or there's no way we can find the speakers or something would come up and I'd be like, you know what? It's not too late. We could pull the pin. But, I didn't give myself that option. I just slowed my guts out and it all came together" Rhys explained.

The Grass is Greener – Becoming a Cannabis Consultant

Rhys' involvement in the cannabis space placed him in contact with many fellow cannabis enthusiasts, which unfortunately painted a grim picture to Rhys about the state of Australia's medicinal cannabis program.

We've come so far since 2016 but are still barely out of the starting block. I just keep thinking to myself 'what's this going to look like in 10 or 20 years' time?

Rhys Cohen

This frustration at the poor rollout of Australia's medicinal cannabis program prompted Rhys to vent, via LinkedIn, in the form of a short article. Little did Rhys realize, the article would serve as another opportunity for him. And then came the call from Professor Ian McGregor from the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics, a philanthropically-funded research group within the University of Sydney "

Rhys then joined as Senior Project Officer for the Lambert Initiative, where he utilized his cannabis knowledge by providing project management, policy advice, and helping to coordinate project approvals and assessments within the research body.

After building a wealth of knowledge and experience within the cannabis space, Rhys decided to leave the Lambert Initiative in June 2019 and became a freelance consultant providing strategic advice to those working in the cannabis industry, and to those who wish to enter it.

"Unfortunately, for most people, it's hard to get a job in the cannabis sector in Australia. There's not much of an ancillary service industry. But so many people are excited by the possibility " Rhys said.

"That's one thing I've come to realise through my career so far. That there's this huge reservoir of passionate, intelligent people that's still untapped."

In a nascent industry with a lot of buzz surrounding it, few people have the credentials and knowledge that Rhys has acquired in a relatively short period of time. And with his latest role as Principal Consultant to industry-leading market intelligence company, Freshleaf Analytics, it's clear Rhys takes full advantage of the knowledge he brings to the table and will be doing so for many years to come.

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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