To the naysaying hippies, the criminally entrenched, and the serial doubters who said weed would become corporate and boring once it was legal, I have to apologise for my skepticism. You were all correct, and I was wrong. Legalisation (or at least pending medical legalisation) has already made this a much lamer scene. In New York, changing laws have attracted all manner of opportunists to the industry, regardless of their experience with the plant, their love for it, or any understanding of how enthusiasts might perceive it.
Last month, the International Cannabis Association held an industry expo in New York City's Marriott Marquis Hotel, drawing a crowd of 900 to peruse the wares and services of 40 vendors slinging everything from vaporiser pens to IT consulting services. Missing from this scene was any actual cannabis. One booth demonstrated grow lights with regular houseplants. A seller of vaporiser pens revealed that every box in his display was empty. An edibles company touted a large jar of their activated chocolates, but when I attempted to eat one, their representative stopped me. "There's definitely no weed, and there's also candle wax in there so that it doesn't melt", he said. "That'll give you the shits". A guy behind me turned around and says, "Are you serious? I just ate two of them".
Weed is still very much illegal in New York, and despite the recent passage of the state's medical marijuana bill – and a pending change in New York City's pot enforcement practices – we are a long way off from a functioning marijuana economy. The medical pot bill isn't going to be implemented for another year, and when it does, it will limit dispensary licensing to only five companies with four outlets each statewide. That's 20 dispensaries for a population of about 20 million people. Worse still are the severe restrictions on getting a prescription. Only those suffering from a short list of diseases like cancer, HIV, and ALS will get a prescription, and smoking it will remain completely illegal. New York is nowhere near ready to meet the public demand for medical cannabis in the state, let alone foster a healthy cannabis industry. So why would anyone in their right mind have a cannabis industry trade show here?
"New York has that kill-or-be-killed business mentality", the event's founder Dan Humiston tells me as hotel workers are breaking down the booths at the end of the second day. "This industry needs a dose of New York – let's get up and let's get going or somebody else is going to take it from me".
Humiston says that he is a complete cannabis neophyte. He doesn't smoke weed or drink, so I ask him why someone without any personal stake in cannabis would embark on such a venture. "There's one piece in the puzzle that's missing in the cannabis community, and that's the business community. Until we get involved, it's going to keep stuttering and stuttering because, well, um… well, it's just a missing piece".
Humiston is referring to the state-contained cannabis industries in Colorado, Washington, and California that grew out of medical marijuana dispensaries typically run by passionate cannabis users and advocates. Before recreational legalisation, the relatively high risk of the weed business kept the opportunists at bay. Now, as the barriers come down, anyone who can smell money is following their nose to weed.
For some, it's a chance for redemption in America's troubled economy. At one booth, I met a representative from Kassoy Jewelry Supplies, a maker of scales for the jewelry industry who turned her sights on cannabis dispensaries in the midst of a dive in the demand for bling. When I ask her if the illegal nature of the industry bothers her, she tells me, "Please. I'm a child of the 60s".
For others, it's about serving the gray areas of the new marijuana laws. In the next aisle is Blue Line, a security company that protects cannabis dispensaries and the large amounts of cash that they are forced to deal in thanks to flimsy federal guidelines on how to handle weed money. I ask one of their representatives, Sean Campbell, if his company supports federal reform of marijuana laws, considering that his business thrives thanks to a disagreement between the federal governments and some states. He tells me, "For our business that sounds positive, but we would prefer that the cash not be an issue. Our focus is to help these companies hit all the requirements of the Cole Memo".
He's referring to cannabis enforcement guidelines issued by the Department of Justice in 2013 offering scant assurance that the feds won't get involved in state-level marijuana. Based on the rate at which the federal government is easing up on cannabis prohibition, Blue Line's clients will be relying on heavily armed guards to move their cash and weed for years to come.
One of the more crowded booths belongs to HempMeds, which makes products containing cannibidiol (CBD), a marijuana compound thought to be therapeutic for a number of diseases. Medical CBD is usually extracted from marijuana, but HempMeds uses CBD oil extracted from hemp plants. "Today we're educating New Yorkers that they don't have to wait until 2016 to get CBD. They can get it from Hemp Meds today", Dr. Rob Streisfeld tells me.
He's standing next to a young man named Trevor who has a congenital brain disease called closed-lip schizencephaly, which causes seizures and partial paralysis. Trevor started medicating with cannabis on his own, finding that it alleviates his spasms and pains. Today, he's getting some guidance.
"This gentleman next to me has put me on the right track", Trevor says, pointing to Streisfeld. It's hard not to be moved as Trevor listens intently to dosage advice from the doctor. As delighted as Trevor is to have this new avenue for medicine, HempMeds' offerings might not treat his disorder. Amidst many companies advertising their legal hemp CBD extracts, the Hemp Industries Association was compelled to make a statement in July clarifying the difference between true CBD and hemp extracts mislabeled as containing CBD. As their director, Eric Steenstra, put it, "CBD is not a product or component of hemp seeds, and labeling to that effect is misleading and motivated by the desire to take advantage of the legal gray area of CBD under federal law".
When I ask Streisfeld about the efficacy of his hemp-based CBD product for Trevor's illness, the doctor tells me, "we're not saying that Hemp Meds or CBD will resolve it by any means, but if it can alleviate some of the symptoms or help with the neuroprotection or rehabilitations of brain cells, then it can improve the quality of life". However, if it's CBD that Trevor needs, he'll get far more of it from a bowl of weed than any supply of HempMeds products.
A few booths down, I spot a display styled in red with no discernible relation to cannabis. The man seated there is eager to tell me about his company's IT consulting services. I nod politely, realising that such conversations are much easier when I'm stoned. This convention missing something I've gotten used to at Denver marijuana trade shows I've attended – namely, fun. There's no weed, no cannabis products of any sort, and a severe lack of the loud, laughy goofballs in silly hats who know exactly how to sell good and services to stoners.
It seems like the introduction of the general business element, which Humiston sees as essential to its success, is crushing the original spirit of the cannabis industry, where passion for the plant always came before money. Humiston is unconcerned with harshing the mellow, telling me, "up until now the industry hasn't done a good job of opening itself up for the rest of the business community. I can understand why. If you're in business, why would you want competition? But it's shortsighted, because a rising tide raises all boats. The more business people we get in the industry, the better it will be".
Thus far, ICA's only participation in the industry has been holding two events – the first expo in Las Vegas over the summer, and the event I attended in New York. Unlike more established industry groups like the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the ICA doesn't offer memberships, which is usually kind of essential to using the word "association" in your title. "We really don't know anything about [ICA]", NCIA representative Taylor West told me in an email. "They popped up out of nowhere this year… I'm not aware of them doing any advocacy or community-building or lobbying or any of the other things that we do". Humiston later told me in a text that he plans to offer memberships next year, but so far the only tangible benefit of the event to anyone was ICA's income from the $449 (£283) per-day ticket price. If all the 900 attendees were at both days of the expo, that's a stack of over $800,000 (£505,760). Not bad for throwing a weed extravaganza with no actual weed.
The event crew is just about done breaking down, whizzing past us with tables and chairs, as Humiston and I wrap up our chat. I have little left to ask him, so I press him about his personal interest in marijuana. "You don't blaze, man?" I ask him candidly. I add, "Maybe you should if you're going to go into this business". He looks flustered with his inability to convince me that he's cool. Finally, he finds an analogy. "You weren't at Woodstock. Does that mean that you can't really participate in the music there? I wasn't at Woodstock. I still love music. Just because I don't use cannabis doesn't mean I don't love the business of it and I don't see opportunities in it".
I continue staring at him and say nothing, hoping he will resume rambling. Finally, he says, "I don't drink either. Doesn't mean I don't appreciate people that drink". I thank him and exit the building.
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