Marijuana wasn’t part of my life seven years ago when Fast Company magazine sent me to MJBiz Con. The story of this outlaw industry going corporate so enthralled me that I moved to Denver and started writing this newsletter. So, even beyond the isolation imposed by the pandemic, I was in a reflective mood before this year’s revelries.
In 2014, MJBizCon attracted about 3,500 people and took place at the neglected, off-Strip Rio hotel. Just like everyone predicted, there’s been extraordinary growth. In some respects, progress has been slower than Thought Leaders expected or at least predicted. Nonetheless, this week the industry was flush with confidence, and cash. It’s outgrowing the awkward phase. At the same time, white men of a certain age still predominate almost everywhere money is on the table. There’s more diversity than seven years ago, but also more “Chads”.
Of course, a new conference opened this year, MJUnpacked, which was significantly smaller than MJBizCon, but much more focused on brands. I heard it was teeming with investors. The insider frisson is that George Jage who leads MJUnpacked previously grew MJBizCon into the behemoth it’s become. (Disclosure: I write for Jage’s site MJ Brand Insights.) Anyone who’s been around this business for a few years has their own frissons. But with so many happy reunions, and grand expectations for what’s to come, it’s easier to set them aside.
The best part
The best part, of course, was getting to see people. Some folks I first met at MJBizCon 2014, others I’ve been emailing and Zooming but never got to shake their hands. Social media flattens so much of what we say and amplifies certain voices more than others. The cannabiz could benefit from some of those other voices. It was reinvigorating to meet so many smart and accomplished people — scientists, manufacturing experts, supply chain whizzes, technologists, artists, executives, lobbyists — and continue the project of figuring out how they all fit together.
The industry has become unwieldy. But everyone seems to agree on the big thing: that states will continue to legalize and open and eventually there will be enough pressure to pass major reforms. I expect them to take longer than some hopeful CEOs do.
There are also some things I wish the industry could get past. Companies should stop making claims about what their products do, if they don’t have the data to prove it. Of course cannabis research remains challenging, but perhaps some of the industry’s largest players could pool their resources. It would be good for credibility to have data to support the vaporous claims virtually every brand makes. Now, when a C-suite executive at a prominent MSO says their strains are a differentiator, they need a better differentiator.
Then there were the parties. Sensi‘s Zodiac Party invited sponsors to model their booths after a sign of the Zodiac. (Cultiva Law went with Libra, the scales of justice.) Leading MSO Curaleaf welcomed guests to its new dispensary with some seriously tasty passed hors d’oeuvres, a DJ named Duchess and generous giveaway bags. The team — from senior management to budtenders — couldn’t have been warmer or friendlier. I told one exec that it was a pretty good party for an MSO and he didn’t seem amused.
In the coming weeks, I’ll share more of the interesting conversations from Vegas. Mostly though, I left town recommitted to my belief that the rise of legal weed is a great story, one with profound implications for this country and its future. I’m privileged to help tell it.