Marijuana has become mainstream, and so has its Las Vegas trade show.
When the publication Marijuana Business Daily put on its first expo in 2012 in Denver, about 400 people showed up. Last week at the massive Las Vegas Convention Center, 27,000 attendees roamed the aisles to see the latest advances in cannabis science, products and marketing.
It was fortuitous timing. The industry was still buzzing from the news that Canada had become the first G-7 country to legalize marijuana, while more U.S. states eased regulations on the drug. Here’s a quick roundup from the convention center floor:
Bigger, More Professional
In many ways, this year’s conference was like any other trade show: a lot of corporate-branded golf shirts and hats, business cards and booths dedicated to products, machinery and investment opportunities. But instead of cars or organic food or electronics, it was all about cannabis, now the center of an investment boom.
There were some differences, of course, like the occasional pungent whiff of marijuana, particularly outside of the convention center, where the November desert air was pleasant and you could find food trucks serving up burgers and tacos. The event first came to Las Vegas in 2014, when the Rio hotel, located away from the glittering Strip, was the only venue that would host the upstart industry. Back then, many of the attendees were “enthusiasts,” the polite term used for people who love to get stoned. Now, with investors circling the industry, there are far more sports jackets than Bob Marley T-shirts, and you might find someone holding a sign that says “Ask Me About Cannabis Compliant Banking.”
‘Hedge Fund Cannabis’
There was a common rhetorical question at the conference, often laced with an expletive: What does John Boehner know about weed? It’s a reference to Acreage Holdings, the U.S. pot company that counts the former Republican speaker of the House as an adviser. Acreage, now one of the industry’s most valuable companies, went public while the convention was in full swing, and almost everyone had an opinion. For investors, the debate was over the relative merits of putting money into Canadian or U.S. companies. Acreage is part of a wave of U.S. firms with licenses to grow and sell pot in various states that have gone north of the border to raise capital. To industry loyalists, particularly those who have been operating since 2014 in Colorado, there was concern that the entrepreneurs who have helped do the hard work of making the industry more professional could be pushed aside now that Big Money has arrived.
“I call it hedge fund cannabis,” said John Andrle, who run an organic weed store in Denver with his wife.
A common comparison: the fate of a mom-and-pop hardware store when Walmart shows up in town. With Boehner in particular, there was some resentment that he had been opposed to marijuana while in Congress, only to flip his stance now that the groundwork has been laid for the legal industry, said Cassandra Farrington, chief executive officer of Marijuana Business Daily.
West Coast Weed
Sin City has become Weed Town. Cannabis stores have sprouted throughout Las Vegas after legalization in 2017, and they’re catering to the millions of tourists who stream into the desert mecca for gambling and entertainment. It’s not legal to smoke in the casinos or the hotels, so stores are pushing edible gummies and disposable vape pens for pot tourists looking to be discreet.
The desert destination’s high profile has made it an important spot for marijuana companies, who see it as a way to boost their brand recognition with the free-spending visitors. Cab drivers say the dispensaries are often the first stop on the way into town from the airport for the groups of bros who visit the city to party, and some stores even offer the drivers incentives to bring customers. It’s part of a broader cultural shift on the West Coast, which has long had a strong cannabis culture. But even at an event dedicated to weed, it can still be jarring for an East Coast resident to see someone pull out a jar of marijuana at a bar and launch into an extended explanation of why its the perfect strain to cure insomnia.
As marijuana becomes more and more accepted, the industry is looking for the next buzzy ingredient that mainstream consumers are going to incorporate into their lifestyles, whether its through food, beverages or vape pens. And there’s a persistent sense that the industry is on the cusp of getting really big. In that context, it was easy to fall into a convention conversation about the best way to use hydrocarbon to extract THC for edibles, or what strains of weed can be cultivated specifically for athletes looking to recover after workouts. Roy Bingham, the CEO and co-founder of BDS Analytics, a cannabis research firm, said the trade show reminded him of the early days of the natural-food industry in the late 1990s, when organic products were still fairly niche.
“One of these companies will become Whole Foods,” he said.
Optimism has never been higher for the end of federal marijuana prohibition in the U.S., a stumbling block that has kept large U.S. banks and institutional investors largely on the sidelines as the industry surges to about US$11 billion in sales this year. People in the industry think it’s a question of if, not when, pot is legalized. One of the most popular theories was that President Donald Trump will embrace the issue, which is popular across party lines, in a bid to boost Republican chances of keeping the White House heading into 2020. Trump, a teetotaler, hasn’t said much about marijuana since taking office, but industry observers increasingly believe he’ll be persuaded by the opportunity to capture pot tax revenue, or at least to allow Wall Street to participate more fully in the industry’s explosive growth. “He could pay for the wall,” said Brady Cobb, a cannabis investor and lobbyist from Florida.