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World Cannabis Week: Big Marijuana Industry Show

Meet the people trying to win big in Colorado's legal cannabis market.
2014 april 18, 6:00am

Whether they’re for weed or industrial adhesives, all trade shows are part business and part carnival. There are always rows of booths packed with fast-talking salesmen, free stickers, slutty girls, and that one place that sprung for a guy in an animal suit. The difference at the Big Industry Show at this year’s Cannabis Cup in Denver, Colorado is that the market is completely new, and natural economic forces have yet to separate the successes from the tragedies. Eighteen months after legalisation and only four months since recreational sales began, everyone with a little seed money and an idea is rushing to enter the cannabis accessories market, and not all of the ideas are good ones. In a market so new, there is still a fine line between a great product concept and a lame one. Before long, 80 percent of the companies here will be out of business, but right now we get to see them all swinging for the fences.

A lot of entrepreneurs have come up with novel solutions to typical stoner problems. Idiot-proofing seems to be a market unto itself, addressed with products like Bargain Ballz, a spongy necklace that holds your lighter, and the Doob Tube, a long, thin plastic container to store joints. While these inventors are standing in front of you demonstrating their products, you can totally envision the stoned epiphany that led them to this particular career move.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are plenty of entrepreneurs who had no prior interest in cannabis but gravitated toward it for the business opportunity. Michael Freelander, creator of a vaporiser called the Indica, used to design toys for a living and wanted to apply his expertise to something cannabis-related. He never really smoked weed until he got into the industry with his Zippo-inspired flower vape. Though he may be a noob when it comes to being a weedhead, Freelander actually designed a unique piece of hardware. That’s something most vape-pen brands at the Big Industry Show haven’t managed to do.

After browsing booth after booth of vape pen brands, you start to notice that most of them are exactly the same. Except for the logo, the colour, printed-on patterns, and packaging, they are all identical, purchased wholesale from a handful of Chinese manufacturers and brought to the US to be branded and sold. Seeing the explosive popularity of pens and the cannabis concentrates they are typically used for, they are a pretty surefire way to enter the accessories market, and dozens of companies at the convention had them as part of their product lines.

So many new companies are emerging in weed-friendly states like Colorado and California that they are beginning to form conglomerates that offer up a range of products, capitalising on the varied expertise of their members. I spoke to a collective from Los Angeles led by Nam Tran, founder of The Smoker’s Depot, which distributes its own brand of vape pens, weed containers, rolling papers, a vape bong called the Sublimator, and an ice mold that makes a perfect ice bong called Eyce. He’s about to add an employee’s edible-baked-goods line, Dank Donuts, to the roster as well. Cara, the founder of Dank Donuts, told me, “We’re more likely to succeed as a group of companies working together. We’re all heads and we all understand our products.” Once the dust settles, they’d all like to see real weedheads in the winner’s circle rather than those who jumped in just for the monetary opportunity.

But sometimes, weed chooses you. Walking through a corner of the convention, I spotted an out-of-place booth advertising industrial hardware by a company called Blazer. Surprisingly enough, Blazer has absolutely nothing to do with cannabis at its core. It’s a company that has been making soldering irons and blowtorches since 1985. In just the last year, one of Blazer’s portable blowtorches became the choice torch for people who dab, and suddenly the company is in the weed-accessories market. “I didn’t even know what dabbing was six months ago,” says Mark Lugo of Blazer. “We sell a number of items, and when you see that something that used to sell maybe 90 units a month is suddenly selling in the thousands of units… Well, I googled it and saw videos of people dabbing using our torches and I knew we had an opportunity.” Despite his YouTube education on the topic, Lugo still had very little understanding of the trend that made his torches huge. He scratches his head while eyeing a dabbing pipe that sits front and centre in his booth. “Can you explain how this thing works?” he asks me.

At another booth, a middle-aged man enthusiastically demonstrated a trimmer that his father designed specifically to prune cannabis buds. A second after he walked away to give someone else the spiel, his brother comes over to me and said, “That’s my brother, and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I work for this company. He’s just a banker. He had to lie to his boss just to come out here.” Without asking, I got a glimpse into the seed of a sibling rivalry that will one day tear apart the house that weed trimmers built.

After several hours and hundreds of booths at any trade show, you start feeling a little bit gross. Brands and products begin to run together in your mind, and it starts to seem like nothing else will impress you. Going on my fifth hour at the convention, I came across a familiar sight.

This guy embodies the legal cannabis-accessories market that I grew up with. For the duration of my weed upbringing in the 1990s and 2000s, I got all my glass, papers, and butane lighters from a guy just like this one, with a table full of pipes and a bewildering bargaining ethic. I spoke to this guy in Punjabi for about a minute before he realised how stoned I was and bowed out of the conversation. Not too many people were stopping at his booth. Pipes or no pipes, this dude was from a past age. Maybe that’s why they set him up down the aisle from the guy selling 3D psychedelic tapestries and another guy selling black-light-responsive sweatshirts.

Cannabis accessories are evolving at a rapid pace, but even though the market is in total flux, it’s strangely comforting to see vestiges of the old guard holding their ground at a convention like this one. From here on out, the face of weed business will change, spreading to every age group and every social faction before becoming completely mainstream and finally being named the state flower of Colorado.

Once that happens, the 3D posters and skull bongs will become relics of a past weed era and we’ll fondly remember them while we hit one of these things.

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