I’ve Seen the Future of Legal Weed, and It's Cool But Weird
The green economy is about to boom.
Left photo, from Canna Tech, by the author.
The scene could come straight out of Dragon's Den. A woman wearing a smart-casual dress and microphone headset makes her pitch. She is slightly nervous, but masks it with that chirpy, skittish sort of positivity that people affect at business meetings. The pitch itself is delivered in fluent corporatese: revenue streams, growth marketing strategies, 10 percent equity stakes, second round funding opportunities. There are slides with pie charts and graphs.
When the woman is finished, the four men on the judging panel fire off a round of questions about her proposed business model, the audience applauds and the next hopeful entrepreneur is ushered onstage.
This could be any slick, well-financed investor road show in the world. What marks this event out, however, is that all the products under discussion are derived from cannabis. Products here are discussed in terms of "revenue growth" and "developing human capital". Outside, in east London, possession of some of these same products could land you in the back of a police car.
This is Canna Tech, the leading conference for the global legal cannabis industry. Held at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane, it's a slick operation. There are Ted Talk-style presentations, individual stalls for cutting edge companies, an open bar and a buzzy international crowd of American, Canadian, Israeli and European business folk. This event is aimed specifically at potential investors in the emerging cannabis market. It is sold out, with each of the 400 or so attendees having paid £299 to hear about potential opportunities ahead of the game. The organisers take pains to remind the audience that this is a strictly non-smoking event. You can't score any weed here, but you can collect a lot of business cards.
Canna Tech is the brainchild of Saul Kaye, an Israeli cannabis entrepreneur and founder of the company iCan. I caught up with Saul to ask him about how this event came about, and what significance it might have on the global stage.
"My interest in this sector started from something very personal," he begins. "My background is as a pharmacist and my mother had Crohn's disease. She tried all the known therapies, which didn't work and were incredibly expensive. Cannabis worked better than anything else we found, and it wasn't expensive at all. This is a 70-year-old woman who's never smoked a day in her life, and this is a therapy that's helping her. That was the start. When you've seen – all around the world – mothers of very sick children and terminally ill patients demanding these treatments, it's very hard to ignore."
Saul is clear that Canna Tech is exclusively set up to deal with the medical uses of cannabis, which are separate from recreational use – even though the two worlds obviously affect each other and are governed by related legislation.
"We wanted to move the conversation from legalisation to medicalisation," says Saul. "It's about access to therapeutic products. If you've got a population of grandparents who are using cannabis because they have a prescription, then the stigma goes away pretty quickly. I think this will be the next step – cannabis is going to branch into fully recreational stuff, which is flower-based, and therapeutic cannabis, which is not going to have any flowers at all. People will stop smoking joints as a therapeutic solution; they'll take a patch, or a tablet, or an inhaler that is targeted at that specific condition."
WATCH: How Weed Laws Are Failing the UK
But Canna Tech isn't particularly set up to talk to grannies seeking dabs for their cataracts. This is specifically about investment opportunities – and Saul is extraordinarily bullish about the industry's prospects. "This industry is just starting out. In order to reach its potential it needs a billion dollars of investment. But, at the rate it's growing, it could be worth $50 billion over the next ten years – and that's only on current trends; it actually could be so much more."
This confidence about cannabis as a huge opportunity for venture capital is echoed throughout the conference. Chuck Rifici of Nesta Holding Co., and former CEO of the Canadian cannabis giant Tweed Marijuana Inc., puts it very clearly during his talk: "This is a product with a huge, already proven user base; regulations are changing in country after country. Of course big capital wants to get into this space."
When one thinks of legal cannabis today, the image is often of bearded artisanal growers in Colorado talking at length about their special bespoke strains – the craft beer geeks of the stoner universe. This is not the future predicted by Rifici.
"This market is going to commoditise", he continues. "The last thing you'll want as an investor is some master grower with years of cannabis experience in his loft. What you want is the big commercial tomato farmer who knows how to save you three cents per kilo, because he's got that market efficiency."
Amid all this frothy neoliberal excitement, you do occasionally have to stop and remind yourself that cannabis is still actually illegal. Jason Reed of the campaign group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition speaks at the conference and I chat with him after. "The social justice element to this is essential," he insists. "You still have medicinal cannabis patients simply trying to treat themselves having their doors kicked in. These are incredibly vulnerable people right on the frontline of prohibition. The industry does seems aware of these issues, but as they grow they need to support the frontline campaigners. Because without these campaigns bringing legislative change, there is no industry."
Thinking about this, it's a little odd that Canna Tech chose to come to the UK, which is far behind many other European countries when it comes to access to medical marijuana. Then I remember: Canna Tech is about money.
As Saul Kaye says: "London is still the financial hub of Europe, even with Brexit. We're looking to educate an international investor base, so that by the time regulators do come around, the industry is already ready. By the looks of the conference selling out weeks in advance, I think we made the right choice in London.
"Also, the UK may be behind the times legislatively, but the biggest medical cannabis company in the world, GW Pharma, is British, and a lot of the key research is being done at British universities. The business world realises what's going on, most people on the street realise what's going on – the lawmakers just need to catch up. And regulation is good – we need regulation! I predict, within 24 months, medical cannabis will be available here as well. Once the right medical argument is made, there will be no logical reason to deny it."
Back at Canna Tech, the Dragon's Den-style Live Pitch event winds up, and the crowd drifts off to a cocktail party laid on by Nesta Holdings, a private equity firm moving into the marijuana biz.
One imagines Canna Tech was probably not what Peter Tosh had in mind when he sang "Legalise It" back in 1975. There is undoubtedly a quest for positive ethical change amid all the money talk – and let's not kid ourselves, the weed business is already run on utterly brutal capitalist principles, generally by men wielding machetes and shotguns. The guys in suits are a step up – but this is definitely less Wiz Khalifa's own-brand rolling papers, and more Dre selling Beats to Apple for a cool three billion.
Canna Tech is very likely the way of the future, and the future rarely turns out how you once imagined it.