Question – What do 10, 881 people, 450,00 square feet of floor space, Las Vegas and a passion for cannabis have in common?
Answer – Marijuana Business Daily’s 5th Annual Marijuana Business Conference & Expo that was held November 15-18, 2016.
As a person who has recently discovered the wonders of cannabis, both as a plant and as an industry, I was intrigued by what a cannabis trade show would be like, so when my wife got an urgent text from her Canadian business partner saying we needed to get to Vegas for MJBizCon, I was in! When I realized I could cover this event for Marijuana Free Press, that was even better. I had a mission.
Happy to be briefly escaping muddy, rainy Portland, Oregon to bask in the sun and warmth of Las Vegas, my wife and I didn’t really mind that the only reasonable airline tickets we could find made the flight time twice what it should have been. They were easy flights. I studied my pre-conference materials, and we touched down in time to make it to the pre-conference events on Tuesday. Only we didn’t.
Let’s just say not all Uber drivers are created equal. Our Uber experience thus far, and ever since, has been excellent. This day, however, we ended up with a guy who apparently believed we wanted to join him for his road trip. After politely putting our bags in the car, he promptly proceeded to roll all his windows down, crank his tunes, and lean his seat so far back he was essentially laying in my wife’s lap. Really?! The trip was fairly short, but not short enough that his cardboard vanilla air freshener didn’t give me a banging headache and make me want to hurl. Here’s a tip for our driver – don’t take the little tree all the way out of the plastic sleeve.
We were unable to get rooms at The Rio, where the conference was being held, so by the time we were actually able to check into our room and rest a bit, I decided my attendance at the pre-conference activities was not that important. We had a quick dinner at our hotel, then made our way over to the Rio for drinks and catching up with friends. We ended up at a small “pre-launch party” being held by a high tech lighting vendor. The excitement in the air was palpable, as was the smell of marijuana. Though Nevada voted to legalize recreational marijuana on November 8, 2016, the laws won’t technically change until January 1st, 2017, and even then, it is unlikely to be legal to consume cannabis in any hotels in the foreseeable future. So, maybe I was smelling something else…
Anyway, those gearing up for the the next day, the first full day of the trade show, were super excited to have so many people gathered in one place, all focused on advancing the cannabis industry and their own businesses. I met people who had made their cannabis business a family venture with the adults engaged with their particular lighting technology and their teenage son learning the ins and outs of running their website and doing video production. I heard people talking about how much this conference had grown. The 2015 MJBizCon was attended by just over 5500 people, pretty much half the size of this year’s event.
It was a late night for us because, well, it’s Vegas. I managed to make it to bed around 4:00am and back over to the conference around 10:30. Wow, did I ever wish I had picked up my press pass the afternoon before! The registration lines snaked back from the convention center into the casino as far as the eye could see. The lobby was packed shoulder to shoulder as those with and without passes tried to maneuver to the correct line, hallway, session, expo room or coffee shop. Word was the convention was sold out every day except Friday, by which time many would already be making their way home. People were begging for passes, swapping them in the halls, trying to figure out how to get friends and business associates in. This was a record-breaking crowd, and therefore, a record-breaking event in the cannabis industry. The biggest cannabis trade show was officially bigger than ever – much bigger.
Once I had my pass in hand, or rather, on a lanyard around my neck, like the other 10,000+ attendees, I quickly made my way through the throngs of people networking in the halls to where one of the keynote speakers, Penn Jillette, of Emmy Award-winning duo Penn & Teller fame, had already started. Prior to the conference, I had wondered what a non-industry, Vegas entertainer was doing as a keynote speaker at a cannabis conference. Turns out, quite a lot. As I sat down, he was addressing how the war on drugs is still a huge problem that was never effective and should be stopped. He pointed out that this “war” has needlessly clogged our prison system and that from a moral standpoint, is just wrong. Jillette wisely said, “ I barely know what is good for me. I certainly don’t know what is good for anyone else.”
The conference was held the week following the US Presidential election, so was still at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Jillette is saddened by the Trump supporters going after Hillary supporters and vice versa, and encouraged us all to be nice to one another.
The message of being kind to each other was also reflected in his overall message to the cannabis industry. He explained that Vegas lost a lot of its unique personality when corporations took over what was once a city run by the mob. Jillette expressed hope that we, the leaders of the cannabis movement, would not let corporations turn what has always been a fun, funky culture, run by outsiders, into one that is “beige.” His final plea,“Let’s be good to each other. Let’s keep the funk.”
Following the keynote address, I was able to get a picture with Mr. Jillette (fun!), and then fight my way through the crowd to get lunch before the doors closed. A strong wind had caused the outdoor areas of the casino to be closed, so we were all standing around with our food, overcrowding the standing tables that had been set up, and sitting any place available. I found a space on the floor along the wall of the main hall. I have to admit, the noise level on the ground was much quieter than standing. It felt like I had already been talking with people all day, even though it was mostly only the time I was in line getting my pass and later waiting for the photo opp with Penn Jillette. Still, for an introvert, that was already a lot of peopling! I enjoyed my meal quietly, scanning through emails on my phone and texting my wife who was involved in other business dealings. There was a man sitting on the floor about four feet from me who also seemed to want a respite from the crowd. We smiled at each other, but did not speak, content to eat in relative silence as we watched shoes and legs pass us by.
After lunch, I dove in to the crowd, ready to start meeting people on the expo floor. So, what is a cannabis industry trade show like? Is everyone passing around joints and looking for the best bongs, air thick with pot smoke? Not at all. This was a very professional event with 321 exhibitors, 80 speakers and 2 ½ days of sessions on topics ranging from marijuana retail sales trends and challenges, to reducing energy usage in our growing facilities and understanding extraction processes, to tax workshops and debates about renaming strains. The vendors represented seven main industry sectors: dispensaries and recreation retailers, wholesale growers, professional and financial services, infused product makers, private equity investors, ancillary products and tech, and testing labs. This was a trade show, business to business only, with very little geared towards consumers. This means people were trying to sell their products to growers, dispensary owners and other industry professionals. Not really belonging to any of the target groups, I made my way through the masses and engaged with vendors primarily as a member of the press and secondarily as an information gatherer for my techno-geek wife who is involved in parts of the cannabis industry that I hope I will never have to fully understand.
The groups that interested me the most were the social policy groups – those dedicated individuals fighting for legal and social reform. I met amazing people working for The Minority Cannabis Business Association, Drug Policy Alliance, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Among the many, many vendors that I visited, I was especially intrigued by IDro.me, (“the world’s first plug and grow home hydroponic gardening system”), Incredibles (edible chocolates and more), Bud Bar Displays (Seriously, have you ever wondered where dispensaries get their display shelves?), HempStaff (medical marijuana recruiting and dispensary training) Cannabinoid Creations (edibles derived from CBD extract) and Accuvape (They had a show price special on their vaporizers.) In the coming weeks, I hope to do some follow-up interviews with some of these dedicated, fun, smart people, so watch for those.
The following days and nights sort of blur together thanks to the 321 booths and not enough sleep. My wife attended one full day with me, feeding her interest in all things tech. We partied some more with friends, including some time spent up in the VooDoo Lounge, feeling like we were at the top of the world from their rooftop dance floor. A lovely woman from Sensi Magazine, one of the sponsors of the party (held in honor of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy), along with Women Grow, Mason Jar Event Group, LiveNeos, Cannabrand and Endoca came up to me to make sure I was having a good time and meeting all the people I hoped to meet. I assured her I was getting everything I had hoped for, and then some. Networking with other cannabis supporters, each with a piece of this beautiful, multi-dimensional puzzle of what a pro-cannabis world can look like, was the goal of most attendees. Goal met, and easily exceeded. Thank you MJBizCon and Marijuana Business Daily.