There was a time, I'm told, when sparking up a joint was just about the most subversive move one could make. That hasn't been true for a long time—certainly not since celebrities from Wiz Khalifa to Whoopi Goldberg have started launching marijuana products the way celebrities used to launch handbag lines.
With five states voting to legalize recreational weed this November, and four more voting on medical marijuana, legal pot is expected to be a $7 billion industry by the end of this year, according to market research. And that means a new wave of corporate interest in Big Bud, with a whole slew of companies hoping to "get rich or high trying."
Nowhere was this more apparent than at last week's Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition in Los Angeles, where you can see firsthand what happens when you cross one kind of green with another. This wasn't a showroom of bongs, pipes, and weed candies. Instead, there were 100 or so booths selling agricultural equipment, packaging materials, insurance, and accounting software suites to the thousands of industry professionals in attendance.
In some of the booths, enormous stainless-steel machines touted features like "vaveless expansion technology"; giant glass flask and beaker rigs towered over their sales teams like props that would seem too on-the-nose in a mad scientist laboratory scene. They spun and whirred, demonstrating just how well they could, I don't know, separate molecules? They looked almost like enormous bongs, but very expensive ones.
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A number of the vendors had no direct connection to the drug itself, but were presenting related business services. Robert Carp, a Boston-area attorney, was selling how-to guides for would-be dispensary owners to "help them avoid getting into a mess, or get them out of one." American Security Products, a company that makes safes, was marketing to dispensaries that needed a secure way to store product and cash.
At another booth, Vangst Talent Network, the "nation's largest cannabis staffing agency," promised to match clients with jobs in grow houses, dispensaries, and everything in between.
There was even a Tax Defense Partners booth, encouraging attendees to come out of the closet with their earnings. States with legal weed are collecting loads of annual tax revenue—nearly $70 million in Colorado and more than $1 billion in Washington—so dispensaries need solutions to manage those relationships with Uncle Sam. As the woman working the booth explained to me, a lot of dispensaries use their in-house ATM receipts when filing their taxes, which probably isn't going to cut it for long.
Dispensaries themselves were also getting a full capitalist makeover at the expo. Xander's Green Goods, a dispensary in Washington State, had easily the most opulent booth in the room with its faux-foliage walls and handsome wood paneling. Xander's, one of three dispensaries in the portfolio of weed umbrella company Cannar, has been touted as the poster-child template for the classy pot shops of tomorrow and was presenting franchising packages for entrepreneurs who wished to copy its successful business model.
Despite the encroaching big business, a few holdouts from the olden days peppered the expo aisles. This included new-agey Buddha Bliss massage oil, cannabis-infused wine, and even a guy selling fake books with little lockboxes inside, an homage to the days when you actually had to hide your stash.
The real indication that weed has officially become boring was that the expo's keynote speaker wasn't a stoner hero like Tommy Chong or Snoop Dogg, but Montel Williams, your mom's favorite television personality. Williams, who's been a proponent for medical cannabis since he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, spoke to the crowd about his new medicinal company, Lenitiv Scientific, and his mission to legitimize CBD, the non-psychoactive part of cannabis that offers pain relief without getting you high.
"People need to remember that this whole movement was built on the backs of patients," Williams said. "Lot of people wanna be weed slingers and bud tenders. There're still patients out there that need taken care of. Get us off the battlefield first."
A number of expo attendees I spoke with were disappointed to learn I'd found the event so stuffy and boring. But in the bigger picture, that's not all bad. Sure, weed might not be as cool now that its cheerleaders are wearing suits and talking about tax revenue, but this sort of legitimacy is what many advocates have been working for all along.
The event's singular moment of raucousness came later, on a rooftop afterparty for the conference, when a guest stripped down to his briefs and cannonballed into a hot tub. The crowd briefly glanced over at the scene, assessed whether or not they'd been in the splash zone, and then turned back to their networking conversations.
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