Summertime is tradeshow season for the cannabis industry, and like all industry participants, I spend a fair amount of my time on the road, carefully choosing from all the events that fill every available weekend between May and October.
This month, I made my way to the sprawling Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City for the second annual Cannabis World Congress and Business Expo (CWCBExpo), June 15-17. The Marijuana Business Association (MJBA) was honored to serve as media sponsor, exhibitor at CWCBExpo, and I was invited to serve as featured speaker.
My talk, “The ROI of Professional Cannabis Networking,” stressed the importance of cooperation and community. Using the backdrop of MJBA’s new trade campaign, “The Marijuana Business is Amazing,” which features tiny business folk groping their way through a giant garden maze, I emphasized that the marijuana business is amazing, but it’s nearly impossible to succeed in it without some help.
Speaking of mazes, the Jacob Javits is the granddaddy of convention centers – an enormous, sprawling facility on the banks of the Hudson River on the city’s west side, and there is a certain credibility and significance to hosting a cannabis industry trade show at the giant venue.
As a former New Yorker (I spent 20 years at places like Rolling Stone, SPIN Magazine and AOL Time Warner) who has been living in Seattle for enough years to consider myself a West Coaster, it is always a blast to come back to “the city.” New York is in constant motion and change, with new restaurants, stores and building construction remaking familiar streets into new experiences.
New York, the epitome of fast-paced, has entered the legal cannabis space slowly. The Empire State has “legalized” medical marijuana in a very restrictive and limited manner, with only a few doctors who will prescribe cannabis, and then only for the most severe of ailments. There are only a couple of dispensaries that provide very expensive, non-smokeable forms of cannabis, and no participating insurance companies. New York is years behind the legal cannabis marketplaces of Denver, Seattle or Portland.
But legal cannabis is coming, and there was a palpable buzz among attendees at CWCBExpo. Thousands filled the trade show floor to visit some 100 vendors – smallish by cannabis industry standards – and many of them playing in the CBD space. With more than a whiff of snake oil, many of the CBD products for sale at the show were derived from foreign industrial hemp, and dubious purity and utility.
Heavy on financial, professional services and media exhibitors, this is not the West Coast cannabis marketplace – where we have hundreds of legal cannabis farms producing thousands of branded products sold through hundreds of retail outlets. Out West, we have a vibrant marketplace, with fine flowers, oils, concentrates, edibles and topicals – while the East Coast still sees cannabis through a narrow medical window.
Evolution begins with education, and CWCBExpo featured a great lineup of speakers – including keynotes from former NFL superstars Leonard Marshall, who along with a panel of professional athletes discussed CTE and CBD, and NORML founder Keith Stroup, who walked us through the history of the marijuana reform movement, and Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Johnson.
Attendees tended to fall into one of four buckets – out-of-towners from emerging markets like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, who came looking for tips on how to start their own legal cannabis industry; investors, circling the room looking for undervalued opportunities; media, with everyone from Crain’s NY Business to PC Magazine covering the show, and the pot press – Cannabis Now, Dope, Freedom Leaf and MJ Headline News exhibiting; and newbie’s looking for the on-ramp to the Green Rush.
NYC is the heart of our contemporary American culture, and while in town I was able to meet with some of my former colleagues from big media and marketing. The conversations we shared, and their palpable interest in getting involved in the legal cannabis industry, were demonstrably different from the conversations we shared only a year or two ago. Marijuana was being openly smoked at all the private parties I attended this trip – and not just at CWCBExpo parties, but also at the private gatherings with my media/marketing friends – and everyone I spoke with was exploring ways to get involved.
There is a sense that federal prohibition is dying fast, and that the mainstream is finally ready to embrace legal pot.
For the past 4 years out West, we’ve been building a commercial marketplace, working out the kinks and logistics and laying the regulatory and tax foundations for a scalable industry. The keys to resolving our two remaining challenges – establishing financial and the cultural (e.g. mass media) normalcy – lie in the East, in the media and money of New York City, and the legislators and lobbyists of D.C.
I see it as my personal mission, and that of the MJBA, to connect the East Coast media and marketing communities – with their financial resources and business discipline – to the West Coast’s nascent but fast-growing community of entrepreneurs and subject matter experts. CWCBExpo was an excellent beginning to establishing these bridges. I look forward to building relationships, and the legal cannabis industry, one professional connection at a time.