At Virtual Conference, Cannabiz Grasps for New Normal

By Dan Mitchell
Jun 11, 2020

During a virtual industry conference this week, comedians Ngaio Bealum and Doug Benson were chatting on a split screen when things got weird. As Benson took one bong rip after another, the audio suddenly went kablooey, producing a bizarre, otherworldly echo effect that seemed like it could have been engineered to cause seizures.

“Apparently, we’re sounding very psychedelic,” said Bealum, a many-hatted media figure in the weed world. They just kept talking for several minutes until the echo abated. 

It was one of many technical glitches that interrupted International Cannabis Business Conference’s Virtual Global Symposium. We’ve all become familiar with the phenomenon in the COVID-19 Era. But moments like this highlight just how much the industry and the world around it have changed since the beginning of 2020.

Of course, the online symposium was radically different from what the ICBC had originally planned. Before the pandemic struck, the company had been preparing for a days-long mega-conference and trade show in San Francisco, with thousands of exhibitors and attendees. While that didn’t happen, it offered a window into how the industry is adjusting to the pandemic and the new social justice imperatives inspired by the killing of George Floyd.

Despite the addition of a few interactive features, like the ability to text chat with fellow “attendees,” it wasn’t really like a business conference. It would be hard to strike a deal or meet anyone new. No products could be sampled. No parties could be held.

Even so, it might have been quite valuable to the kinds of people who go to conferences mainly for the panels discussions. In a way, that was better: Bealum and co-host David Downs, Leafly’s California editor, interviewed one person at a time. Anybody who wanted to come away with a decent snapshot of the global cannabis market likely got their $99 worth.


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A distinct awkwardness

There was a distinct awkwardness to some of the discussions, particularly those surrounding the new movement for racial justice. One major theme was the industry’s struggle — particularly in California — to reconcile social-justice concerns with the bottom line. Pretty much every California-based guest broached the subject, which — in broad strokes — pits old-school pot people against the newcomer moneybags.   

The sometimes dry, data-focused interviews with various experts and executives were interspersed with “breaks,” most of which turned out to be smoke sesshes with people like Benson and Tommy Chong. During one of those, Bealum asked “Guru of Ganja” Ed Rosenthal what he was working on. His response to the virtual crowd of businesspeople: trying to take some of the focus off business.  “I’m more interested in changing people’s heads than in making them rich,” he said.

The next guest, pot stock analyst and founder of New Cannabis Ventures Alan Brochstein, took exception. “I have a lot of respect for Ed,” he said. “But it’s OK to make money, in my opinion.”

The business-vs.-social justice theme also emerged in an interview with travel writer and longtime cannabis-rights advocate Rick Steves. Like several others, he linked the cannabis-rights movement to the protests sparked by the latest instance of fatal police violence against an unarmed African-American. 

During a recent visit to Washington state, Steves said he talked with church leaders about how cannabis laws have been used by cops and prosecutors for decades as a weapon against black citizens. “I’ve never been hugged by so many big, black, Baptist ministers,” he said, drawing grins and nods of approval from the bi-racial hosts.

Asked about the equity programs meant to support Black and Latino cannabis entrepreneurs, Steves said he doesn’t pay much attention to industry matters, or laws designed to regulate legal weed. “I’m laser-focused on civil liberties.”

Steves’ home state of Washington was among the first to legalize REC, he noted. But, “you can do hard time [for possession] just over the border in Idaho.”The disconnect between legal and illegal states, and between legal states and the federal government, “is just getting more and more glaring.”

“We lost all our cannabis”

The protests hit home for the industry beginning about two weeks ago when a wave of opportunistic burglaries targeted pot shops in the Bay Area and nationwide. 

Looters hit Magnolia Oakland hard on two successive nights.  Owner Debby Goldsberry believes they were motivated by more than money. The robbers smashed things and shot up the premises in many of the incidents, including at Magnolia, she noted.

“We lost all of our cannabis, all of our business, and all of our money,” Goldsberry lamented. “I’m pretty traumatized.” But she spent most of her time talking about the racial disparities in the industry, and the bubbling rage in the Black community generally. “As far as I can tell, we were robbed by people who would also like a permit” to sell pot legally, she said. 

Often, she said, Black entrepreneurs can’t get one, due to a lack of capital, a lack of social support, and the inadequacy of equity programs in Oakland and elsewhere. The underlying problem, she said, is that “the cannabis business has been taken over mostly by white men from outside industries.” She said they know little about cannabis, and don’t care much about it except for its potential to make them money. “People took our beautiful movement, and turned it into that,” she said. (A GoFundMe has been set up to help Magnolia reopen).

People with concerns about inequity in the weed business and issues like industry concentration can get guidance from the National Cannabis Industry Association’s web site, said Aaron Smith, the NCIA’s executive director.. He said his group is working with the Minority Cannabis Business Association, and, along with NORML, it provides an online guide to legislators’ stances and contact information. “You shouldn’t have to be a multimillionaire to apply for a license,” he said.

Tommy Chong, meanwhile, had just one comment on the financialization of the weed industry: “There’s no equality in business,” he said during his sesh. “There never has been.”