The 2015 Cannabis World Congress Was So Square It Was Accidentally an Anti-Drug PSA

Nothing is more suspect than a man in a suit talking about drugs.

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Sep 25 2015, 6:40pm

The new faces of the marijuana industry. All photos by the author

Nothing is more suspect than a man in a suit talking about drugs. Unless he's your attorney, he's inevitably police. And even if he's not literal law enforcement, he'd flip in an instant if you got caught with a brick of cocaine, weed, or insider information about Sour Diesel futures.

Enter the 2015 Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition, which turned out to be the trade show equivalent of watching hedge fund managers cover Sublime songs for hours on end. If you're old enough to drink, you probably remember public perception of "chronic" before it became possible to purchase organic green juice infused with psychotropic greens. You can still find the High Times wookie stoner at HempCon or a String Cheese Incident concert, but we're living in a future where imminent legalization has incubated a gold rush mentality among the nascent marijuana industry, and the suits have inevitably followed the money.

It's been nearly 20 years since California passed its landmark Proposition 215, allowing people to grow and obtain marijuana for medical purposes—a law easily manipulated by fly-by-night Dr. Nick Riviera types so eager that they'd dole out a prescription to grapple with the agony of a ruptured carburetor.

I've had a cannabis "recommendation" for years, but whenever it's time to get renewed, I forget what I told the doctor in the first place. Excuses have included: anxiety, insomnia, back problems, arthritis, and the neuroses incurred from being Jewish. On the morning of the Cannabis Congress, my excuse for smoking was that I needed to cope with men in suits talking about drugs. So in the interest of pain relief and professionalism, I incinerated a roach while walking up to the venue.

Before I entered the actual conference floor, I thought I spotted Tommy Chong looking dapper in a tailored suit, but quickly realized that it was George Zimmer, founder of Men's Wearhouse. He'd flown down to give the final keynote address of the three-day expo. The decision to recruit the silver-bearded New York native with a gnarled voice and nine-figure net worth as the conference's keynote speaker says volumes about the cannabis industry's re-branding efforts: they'd like you to like the way you look (while consuming cannabis).

The actual floor of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the CWCaBE was held, looked like a combination of an agribusiness convention, TechCrunch Disrupt, a beauty expo, a medical marijuana dispensary, and a political rally. Fast talkers in suits (presumably from MW, courtesy of Zimmer) stalked the chlorine-blue carpet, greeting passersby with pitches about the illimitable promise of the marijuana industry. If the shills didn't persuade, the conference slogan emblazoned everywhere offered greedy reminder: "Cannabis is business."

Firms like Potbiotics, Cannabis Climate Solutions, and CannaCeuticals Luxury Skin care (which, yes, brands itself as "a green company") joined the old guard from NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project. There were esoteric tech start-ups like Amercanex (an "electronic cannabis marketplace), MJIC ("The Marijuana Investment Company") and GenTech, which makes cannabis testing equipment. As one of the exhibitors told me, "good luck finding anyone here who has been open for much more than a year."

The conference room was mostly full. Behind me, two nondescript women in their late 30s and a bald bro chatted; one of the woman started talking about her Wall Street husband and how "we're so boring all we do is Netflix and chill." They briefly discussed an app they'd heard about that makes dates for people too busy to think about a loved one, but all agreed that it's a little "too tech" for them. If you ever needed an anti-weed PSA, this was it.

The pony-tailed geriatric

In the hallway, a pony-tailed geriatric talked on his cellphone on a Segway. I asked for directions from a man with feathered earrings and a dreaded queue of hair that extended to his calves. The sides of his head were shaved to reveal crop circle tattoos (presumably, they depicted an ancient agricultural formula to yield the highest THC.) That these people were even in the same 4.20-mile radius—let alone the same convention—as all the venture capital goombahs boggles the mind. Worlds are converging and you must like it, because George Zimmer will guarantee it.

In his keynote address, the ex-leader of the world's largest chain of modestly priced suit emporiums displayed the requisite charisma to rally the troops. He ran through his life story: smoking weed in the 60s, dodging the draft, and his rise to schmatta king. The message was clear: you can smoke weed and still run a billion-dollar enterprise.

Zimmer unspooled a valid rant against the war on drugs. For next year's California ballot, he advised a moderate approach and sensible legislation, saying this is the only way that legalization can occur without incurring the zealous wrath of "soccer moms" and the police.

If you've ever had a conversation with a weed activist who's also a policy wonk, you've heard a version of this speech. They want fair and uniform state taxes, with the money earmarked for education. The principal difference is that this specific speech was being delivered by a guy whose net worth has been estimated at anywhere from $150 million to $800 million, who delivered lines like "I'm proud to be a capitalist," alongside his endorsement of MDMA for therapeutic use.

The convention floor was raucous. The weed wore off so I cased the booths to see who was handing out free samples. Roughly 18 people told me something to the effect of, "this ain't HempCon" and proceeded to shoo me away.

I struck up a conversation with a good citizen manning the Kushy Punch booth, who handed over an illicit gummy candy that I quickly gulped. A salesgirl at another way station offered me a spicy yellow salve which I put under my tongue without asking many questions.

Passing by Norm's Edibles and Cannabis.Com, I approached the sales directors from Elemental Digital—a company from Torrance, California, that makes digital display signage for weed dispensaries.

One underlying question I sought to answer was whether weed has entered the realm of the tech world—at least in the eyes of this odd congress. According to the first person I spoke with at Elemental Digital, yes, weed is "tech." His partner, Anthony Vernaglia qualified the statement.

"In the current state of the world, you can't avoid technology. Cannabis is still in its infancy. You get a lot of enthusiasts trying to do tech stuff, which works sometimes and doesn't work sometimes," Vernaglia said. "It's going to come, but I don't know if we're there yet."

For Elemental Digital, most business has come from dispensaries trying to break out of traditional stoner archetypes.

"We don't like to work with people who use dirty and nasty stoner images. We have people who want their dispensaries to be more like a Starbucks or a Tiffany's," Vernaglia said. "Everyone smokes weed. We should kick those old images out the door and kick their ass on their way out."

The booth for CMATES, which helps those in the cannabis industry learn about compliance

A God-like voice boomed from the loudspeakers, paging people to get seated for the "Sports Pain Management and Cannabis" panel. So up the stairs I went, ducking into a packed room filled with doctors and former NFL players, including ex-Pro Bowler Kyle Turley, who's found an unlikely second career as a cannabis activist. He was there with one-time Denver Bronco Nate Jackson, who wrote Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile.

For all the dumb weed jokes and thirsty cannabis exploitation on display earlier, the ex-NFL players offered a humane and sharp advocacy for marijuana. In particular, Turley legitimized the legalization movement in a way that no one in expensive wool ever could. He discussed his addiction to pain pills, fostered by team doctors swayed by pharmaceutical companies and hidebound logic.

"I don't want to be high all the time, but I like to get high and talk to God occasionally," Turley said with a smile. "I've been married for 13 years. I'm a father of two, and this was the only thing that helped me break my pain pill addiction. Athletes are increasingly getting addicted to pills at younger and younger ages. This is a morality issue."

The Hulk-sized lineman walked with a cane, due to the myriad injuries suffered on the field. He indicted the hypocrisy of team owners, who refuse to soften marijuana testing due to the drug's unpopular public perception, echoing the cultural pushback in the face of marijuana's demonstrable benefits in the field of pain management. Turley mentioned the coaches he used to regularly burn with. He lacerated the yes-man culture and automaton obeisance expected from a player in the league, and the recent autopsies of dead NFL players, which displayed the brain damage inflicted by brutal hits. This is the new face of legalization: Not some decrepit hippie, but a rational thinker with a story one can empathize with, who just so happens to be capable of bench-pressing a tractor.

When the panel ended, I floated back into the suit and tie fiasco. By this time the Kush Punch had hit like Kyle Turley had just flattened my brain. I kept seeing the Men's Wearhouse CEO at every turn, until he became a rattling psychedelic vision in an affordable two-piece. His raspy voice started getting louder in my head, telling me, "You're going to love this edible. I GUARANTEE IT."

I passed by liquid gold cannabis, infused with real cherries. My focus turned to the dizzying, oily business card-swapping surroundings and I was struck by the urge to start yelling at everyone to cease this sham. Even weed smoking, once the refuge of the pleasantly heathen, has become sterile and corporate. It's only a matter of time before Phillip Morris and Altria buy up everything and spoil all the fun. A recent USA Today investigation confirmed that Big Tobacco has been looking into becoming Big Marijuana ever since the 1970s, meaning my fears weren't just paranoid delusions induced by the gummies.

The man on the left is responsible for the legacy of Jimi Hendrix

A booth for Purple Haze Properties slurred across my line of vision, and soon enough I found myself speaking with a guy who looked like Subway Jared. He explained how a few months ago, his firm launched a line of edibles, genetics, and pharmaceutical products branded in Jimi Hendrix's name. Their inspiration came from the Bob Marley estate and Willie Nelson, who have expanded their brands into buds. "Imagine Purple Haze lounges," he said. "$15 million dollar clubs opened by the owner of Hard Rock Café and House of Blues... but this has Jimi Hendrix everywhere and you can puff our Foxy Lady weed in them." What a time to not be alive.

I meandered into the booth of Apex Super Critical, an Ohio firm that sells a complex phalanx of complicated steel pipes and levers that allow for the extraction of cannabis oils. This machine is how wax and dabs are made. The model on the floor retails for the low low cost of just $88,500, but if you want to spring for the $185,000 option, you can extract 10,000 grams a day. Once processed, you've got 1,000 grams of pure oil a day. At $15 a gram wholesale, that's $15,000 a day. Assuming we're not counting the money you'll make when you sell your life rights to fuel Showtime's inevitable Weeds meets Breaking Bad one-hour drama, you'd break even in two weeks.

MJIC, proving that blondes do indeed have more fun

Next I hit the booth of MJIC, aka the Marijuana Investment Company, an investment firm based in nearby Newport Beach. The firm has been open less than a year, its booth staffed by two men so blonde they looked like they were manufactured by Mattel. They told me how they've made 13 investments in the last year, and equated themselves to a smaller Berkshire Hathaway—but for weed.

They showed me some sort of chart and index that looked very "professional," like a kid putting a marginal book report in a clear plastic folder to get a slightly higher grade. Then the older blonde man came clean.

"I didn't know cannabis at all a year ago... I'm not a user. I don't really get it. I still prefer a beer or a glass of wine, but so many people have so many benefits from it," this Orange County prototype said. He's been at the company roughly six months, following a quarter century in corporate finance.

"But when it finally goes from illegal to legal, we'll be in a position to make a lot of money off this."

Another encounter occurred with a nattily dressed Australian man who spoke at a clip that only a con man or square dance caller could match. He worked for something called Americanex and started throwing out alphabet soup acronyms that I couldn't have fathomed even if I wasn't stoned. Something about CFTC compliance but they've got a full KYC and they've "approached it like a financial technology."

When I finally unraveled what he was saying, I discovered Americanax is a cannabis exchange that helps link growers with dispensaries around the world, as well as listing the actual strains themselves. The phrase "we do flower and trim" was uttered.

"We're pure tech," he told me. "We want to bring the future to futures." Then he launched into the need to make the product mainstream and how important regulation will be. My brain glazed over as he said a sentence containing the word "connectivity."

We shook hands and he scrutinized me, as though I was not in CFTC compliance and never will be. This was his world, not mine. Dollars are the drug of choice for many here.

As I skulked out of the venue, I saw the Men's Wearhouse founder once more (for real this time). It was just me and him, walking down a hallway towards the exit. He gave a slight nod, looked at me for a second, and probably thought to himself, "That guy could really use a suit."

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