AE Global's Derek Thomas on Credibility and Sustainability in Cannabis
Derek Thomas is chief growth officer for AE Global. He has spent more than a decade developing businesses, focused on sustainable scaling, growth and strategy.
Prior to joining AE Global, Thomas served as VP of business development for Veritas Farms, a publicly traded, vertically integrated full-spectrum hemp extracts company that was first to be sold on Amazon. There he oversaw the company's growth as it scaled across the U.S. and developed critical retail partnerships with food, retail and drugstore businesses, including CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger, South Eastern Grocers and more.
Derek is also is an avid environmentalist, nature lover and explorer, volunteering his time with local and national organizations working to protect the environment. His most recent exploration was to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
We spoke with Derek for our Higher Calling series, where we chat with leaders in the cannabis space.
Derek, tell us...
Where you grew up and where you live now.
I grew up in Jupiter, Florida, back when it was a small beach and fishing town. After living in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Europe, I'm now back in South Florida, living in Fort Lauderdale.
Your current role in the cannabis industry and where you're based.
My current role is chief growth officer of AE Global, a comprehensive packaging and supply chain solutions provider focused on custom solutions for cannabis MSOs, SSOs and brand-holders. Our headquarters are in Miami, and we have team members in major markets across the country to best serve our customers.
A story about the positive impact cannabis has had on your life.
I was already an ardent cannabis advocate and worked in the industry for almost eight years when diagnosed with Celiac disease. The allergy and symptoms I was experiencing came on suddenly in my early 30s and occasionally were so bad that I had to work from home. It took a year of following a new restrictive diet and taking supplements religiously to get my gut back on track.
I had never been into edibles but decided to try them for the localized pain in my stomach and GI tract during this time. Most cannabinoid-infused edibles provided some relief, and I found gummies infused with a THC:CBD ratio of 2:1 or 1:1 reduced my pain and inflammation to almost unnoticeable levels and reduced my most severe symptoms. The edibles I consumed for that year returned my quality of life to what it was before my Celiac disease arose, and in the midst of my advocacy and cannabis career, I found a new deep connection to the plant.
A favorite flower, edible, product or brand.
Wyld makes a 2:1 THC:CBN elderberry-flavored sleep gummy. When I'm having a tough time falling asleep, those gummies are the best remedy I've found for a restful night without the groggy feeling in the morning. Plus, they taste great.
The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today.
There's a slew of challenges cannabis marketers face. Fluid regulations in each state can render a campaign ineffective or even illegal. Large media organizations in broadcasting and internet media—such as television and social media platforms—either don't allow cannabis content, shadow-ban content or arbitrarily take down entire campaigns. Not to mention this is a crowded space, so standing out even with these tools that mainstream companies have is monumentally challenging.
In my opinion, the biggest challenge cannabis marketers face is combating misinformation. It has been present from the beginning of our burgeoning industry and is byproduct of a century of disinformation, legal prohibition and cultural stigma. It has been compounded by bad actors in the industry who make false claims about the effects of cannabinoids, terpenes, their growing process, formulations, sustainability and social justice efforts. It's an unfair reality that cannabis operators who do everything above board must tackle, and it probably requires a collective effort among brands, regulators and cultural influencers.
One thing you're excited about right now in cannabis branding, partnerships or marketing.
We've seen a significant increase in awareness among brand managers and marketers who recognize the cannabis industry has a growing sustainability issue. The collective drive to look for solutions that will help resolve the waste issue and not greenwash over it is bubbling to the forefront of conversations more frequently. I'm optimistic that the cannabis industry can and will evolve into one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly industries in the world.
A cannabis trade/social justice organization that you support.
In 2012, I was arrested for possession of cannabis on Miami Beach. I only received a written arrest, so I quickly moved on from the ordeal with a check to a local attorney. But the experience opened my eyes to the vast disparity in treatment and outcomes that BIPOC encounter when arrested for possession of marijuana—and all drugs.
In 2020, I became aware of The Weldon Project, a grass-roots Los Angeles-based organization working to free prisoners convicted of non-violent marijuana crimes. Angelos Weldon's story is an infuriating example of the perversion of justice surrounding marijuana laws. After Weldon's release from federal prison and subsequent pardon from then-president Donald Trump, Weldon founded The Weldon Project. He began working to free other victims of cannabis' federal legal status. I love their grassroots approach and campaigns focused on direct results for prisoners.
A recent project you're proud of.
AE Global recently launched its Amplify beverage enhancer for water-based nano and emulsified liquids and oil-based tinctures. Amplify is a child-resistant plastic squeeze bottle that features a spout for controlled serving sizes, a leak-proof screw cap, and a crystal-clear "dose cap" with 1- to 5-ml markings for those who prefer a precision dose. Its colors and sizes are fully customizable, and it's the perfect size for travel.
Someone else's project you admired recently.
Curaleaf recently launched a new product for their Select brand called Select Squeeze, which AE Global helped bring to life. While the liquid in the product itself is excellent, I found the development of their latest delivery format to be particularly admirable. Select Squeeze is an entirely new delivery format for liquid and tincture products for the cannabis industry. The bottle has a precise dose mechanism in the cap, meaning you can serve the exact amount suggested on the label, and you can also still "free-pour" the liquid if you choose. It's a big evolution from the standard dropper used to deliver tinctures and other liquids. I find it impressive that they launched the new product format with 56 different SKUs simultaneously across 14 markets during the Chinese New Year and amid the Covid pandemic.
Someone you admire in cannabis who's doing great things.
I first walked into Simply Pure dispensary in Colorado in 2017 and soon learned about founder and CEO Wanda James. She has since remained in my mind as a thought leader, influencer and worthy of admiration for their work furthering the cannabis industry. Wanda is a total badass. She was the first—and for a long time the only—African-American dispensary owner in Colorado. She is a former Navy lieutenant, worked on President Obama's National Finance Committee, and was a part of the Amendment 64 Task Force that laid the groundwork to regulate cannabis in Colorado.
What you'd be doing if you weren't in the cannabis industry.
I would undoubtedly be involved in environmental conservation efforts in some way.