An unsuspecting visitor to the Third Annual Marijuana Business Conference in Las Vegas earlier this month might have thought they had wandered into a large and particularly gregarious conference of architects or lawyers. The outfit of choice was a business suit and a smartphone; the topic of conversation included business tactics, strategic angles, and cost-cutting improvements. But in fact, this was a conference on the booming contemporary business practices of what some are calling today’s dot-com bubble.
For two-plus days in Las Vegas, more than 3,000 cannabis industry leaders, entrepreneurs, policy wonks, investors, and hopefuls came together for training, networking, and to celebrate a plant that’s been making an unprecedented comeback in American life.
Put the stereotypes away: there was nary a tie-dye or blunt to behold that week. Instead, attendees in business attire sipped discreetly at vape pens in the designated outdoor areas, where they carried on insightful conversations started in conference rooms and hallways. In the crowded corridors between panel sessions (three tracks offering a total of 24 educational options), heads were bent over smartphones, not bongs.
Some further observations from the conference floor:
– Keynote speaker Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s fired up the crowd with the message that social responsibility can and should lead profit-seeking motives. This theme was reinforced in many of the panel discussions.
– In a development that hearkens back to the Gold Rush, ancillary businesses appear to be booming, with over 100 service providers on the exhibit floor offering everything from the latest greenhouse technology to child-proof packaging to seed-to-sale inventory tracking systems.
– Note to those with an interest in the ancillary business market: about 15 of the nearly 150 business exhibitors’ names include “Canna” or “Cannabis,” and over 50 use the color green prominently in their logos. Differentiate yourselves accordingly.
– Despite what some mainstream media sources would have you believe, regulation, education, and public safety are of primary concern to producers nationwide, with leaders of Colorado’s infused-edibles companies sharing sage advice on safe packaging, labeling, and consumer education.
– Of the 100-plus exhibitors and panelists, women in leadership roles represented a significant number. A few vendors used the clichéd “booth babes” tactic to sell their wares, but panelists from women-owned businesses and support from groups like Women Grow made a stronger statement. However, with very few exceptions, this was a predominantly Caucasian crowd, a criticism that industry leaders must find ways to address.
– In everything from exhibitor booths to panels on extractions, testing and labeling, and how to best serve the Boomer-and-older population, almost zero attention was paid to prohibitionists. The implicit understanding is that future markets will learn from Colorado, Washington state, Alaska, and Oregon, and create better-regulated markets. The momentum here clearly represents an evolutionary move toward a new social norm regarding marijuana.
So there are good reasons to celebrate, and good reasons for caution. In this emerging market, the “expert” who wants to sell you the latest marijuana business solution might have been involved in the industry for all of a year or two. Granted, many of these newcomers are cross-pollinating the cannabis world with helpful business experience and strategies from other successful industries, such as telecom, gaming, or human resources.
But even in Las Vegas, a place known for its commercialization of, well, everything, you could hear the laments of more than a few “old heads” – those with, say, a decade or more doing cannabis work. The veterans agree that many canna-newcomers take for granted the relative ease with which they are embarking on this fast-emerging industry. They aren’t aware of the groundbreaking contributions of the Jack Herers and the Tod Mikuriyas. Some aren’t respecting the risks and sacrifices of those who went to prison (and in too many cases are still in prison) for the green plant.
The mainstreaming of the cannabis movement causes deep distress to some, who fear the emergence of a legal, taxed, regulated cannabis industry. There are a number of reasons for that fear—cultural, political, and financial, to name a few, as illustrated by this Fast Company article about the impact of costly regulations on small businesses.
The event’s main sponsor, Marijuana Business Media, has a strong vision for the future. They have recently expanded their staff significantly, adding journalists with Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News experience. And next year, for the first time, they will host two Marijuana Business Conferences, in Chicago in May, and again in Las Vegas in November.
They expect turnout to be as good as, if not better than, it was in Las Vegas this month.