DC Cashes In on the New Weed Industry

Days after marijuana became legal in the nation's capital, the industry flocked to Capitol Hill to claim its new territory at DC's first-ever cannabis convention.

by CJ Ciaramella
Mar 3 2015, 7:45pm

Photo by Flickr user Mountain/\Ash

Just days after marijuana became legal in the nation's capital , cannabis connoisseurs arrived in the city to claim their new territory, flocking to a Holiday Inn on Capitol Hill for the city's first-ever cannabis convention. I was sitting on a bench in the lobby of the hotel, drinking a can of Canna Energy, a hemp oil-infused energy drink, when a tall, slender middle-aged woman with dangly hippie earrings and long hair sat down next to me and started up a conversation.

Dhyani, who gave no last name, told me she had driven from her home in West Virginia to attend the convention. "It's going to be the new gold rush," she said. "Let me ask you, would you have gone out West? I would have saddled up my horse and gone. It wouldn't be easy being a woman in a frontier town, but I would do it."

Dhyani, 52, said she worked for 20 years as an economist at the Department of Labor before retiring, and now she wants to become a financial analyst in the marijuana industry. She was just one of many entrepreneurs, weed enthusiasts and potential investors who flocked to the expo in the hopes of cashing in on the "green rush" that has boomed as the legalization movement gains ground across the country.

Down the hall, around 150 people had shelled out at least $89.99 to attend the sold-out "cannabis academy," a series of lectures on the ins and outs of starting a "canabusiness" hosted by ComfyTree, a company that provides business guidance to those looking to get in on the growing legal marijuana industry.

Attendees had good reason to show up with dollar signs for eyes. The legal market for marijuana ballooned to $2.7 billion last year, up 74 percent from 2013, according to ArcView Group, an investment and research firm. Colorado, which in 2012 became the first state to fully legalize and regulate recreational marijuana use, reported last week that the industry has created 9,400 new jobs in the state. Another recent report predicted the legal weed market could generate $35 billion a year by 2020 if current legalization trends continue.

Nestled among a cluster of government agency headquarters and just blocks from the Capitol Building, the expo was an unsubtle "fuck you" to Republicans in Congress, who have attempted to block the city's new legalization law. While possession is legal in the District as of last week, Republicans in Congress have barred city officials from regulating and taxing sales of marijuana, preventing the local government from reaping benefits from the estimated $130 million local market.

A sleek smoking accessory for the "un-stoner. Photos by author

Tabling outside the expo hall, Davis Clayton Kiyo was rushing to keep up with demand for his high-end smoking accessories. Kiyo started his local company Myster a few years ago and described it as a "un-stoner brand." These are accessories for the business-class smoker, Kiyo impled, the sort of thing a Goldman Sachs employee with a taste for bud would buy. There's the Stashtray, a sleek metal rolling tray with an equally stylish trio of stash jar, grinder, and ashtray magnetically attached. The deluxe version can be folded up and discreetly placed in a bookshelf, right next to The 48 Laws of Power and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Or there's the FogPen, a vaporizer that at first glance could pass for a Montblanc pen.

Outside the entrance of the expo hall, a man in an orange safety vest handed out pamphlets on responsible use of marijuana, with guidelines to help prevent users from pulling a Maureen Dowd . About 20 feet away, Maggie Volpo was selling a series of educational books for children about marijuana, narrated by a cartoon skunk named Stinky Steve. "Stinky Steve Explains Grandma's Growroom" and "Stinky Steve Explains Daddy's Dabs," for example. "Stinky Steve Explains Why Papa Is In Prison" is coming soon.

Volpo said she was inspired to create the series because she saw so many parents lying to their kids about smoking. "You know, closing the bathroom door and stuff," she said. "Stinky Steve will help show that we're self-policing and responsible parents."

"Stinky Steve," a child's guide to "casual cannabis."

Inside the expo hall, some old stoner stereotypes persisted. Although smoking was not allowed, an unmistakable dankness saturated the room, amid the obligatory tables of goofy glassware. But among the packs of curious Virginians who drove up ("I was just hoping there would be free weed") and painfully obvious dudes canvassing the room for a hookup ("You guys have any tree?"), were couples with infants in BabyBjorn carriers and investors in suits.

A sign at one booth advertised job opportunities in "accounting, administration, budtenders, chefs, consulting, delivery, education, entertainment, extraction, growing, inspectors, investing, laboratory, management, marketing, sales, security and trimming." There are currently hundreds of publicly listed marijuana-related companies, although most of them are penny stocks and not one is listed on a major exchange. Monitoring all this activity are analysts like Michael Swartz, who stood dressed in a sharp suit behind a booth for Viridian Capital & Research, a boutique banking and financial advisory firm. Viridian tracks 75 of the weed-related penny stocks and said its index gained 38 percent last year, despite major shakeups in the last quarter.

Viridian's 2015 outlook is bullish. Swartz said that institutional investors have begun dipping their toes in the marijuana industry, and that he expects more will get on board in 2015, along with increased merger and acquisition activity. Still, there are some uncertainties for the industry, and the firm predicts several publicly listed companies will delist in 2015. Understandably, given the newness of the market, there is a lack of seasoned management among legal marijuana firms, and core business practices have yet to be established.

Kayla Brown, right, and Whitney Morgan, want to be on the ground floor if and when Texas loosens its drugs laws.

On the whole, though, the industry is poised for massive expansion. Where pot isn't legal yet, activists are laying the groundwork for what they see as an inevitable relaxation of drug policy. Whitney Morgan and Kayla Brown, two second-year law students at Texas A&M University manning the booth for the Texas Cannabis Industry Association, have taken that approach—cannabis isn't legal in Texas yet, but being prepared couldn't hurt.

Brown and Morgan said the organization launched in November and now has 18 members. The duo put together a law seminar on marijuana at Texas A&M, the first of its kind in the state, ever. While legalization isn't on the horizon for Texas in the near future, Morgan called the state "the sleeping giant."

"We want to have a foundation where everyone who wants to have a cannabusiness can come to us," Brown added.

As the day's events wound down, I stopped to chat with Tia Gilbert, 22, a member of the ComfyTree staff responsible for social media work. If local activists are laying the foundation one brick at a time, ComfyTree is like an airlift operation, dropping in experts, guidance and resources. The company is hosting another convention in Dallas in March. Gilbert said she found the position on a marijuana jobs website, and has spent the last year travelling around the country for the company. She said she wants to pursue a career in digital marketing for cannabusinesses, and when she gets on a roll, she sounds more Glengarry Glen Ross than Pineapple Express.

"There's no stopping [legalization]," she told me. "You're either going to make a million dollars off it, or you're going to sit on your couch eating Cheetos and wondering if you could have."

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