The first thing that strikes you about MJ Biz Com is the size. It’s huge. As in, VAST. You know how any large area is described in terms of how many football fields it can hold? Well, apparently, the Las Vegas Convention Centre is the equivalent of 15 pitches. And there are two floors!!!
The second thing is, for a cannabis convention, you quickly notice the abcence of the distinct smell of cannabis. Which highlights the current paradox of cannabis in America - although it’s legal, there is still a large amount of confusion, bureaucracy and crazy laws to figure out. More on this as we go.
I started my trip in San Francisco, with two objectives in mind. The first was to visit as many dispensaries as I could & hopefully interview a couple of the owners. The second was drive up to North California and stay in Gerberville, Humboldt - made famous by Netflix’s Murder Mountain - and meet OG Kevin Jodrey.
San Francisco is cited by many (including me) as being one of the world’s greatest cities. Wonderful architecture, cosmopolitan, liberal and sunny (!) - it was the natural place for American counter-culture to develop in the late 60’s in ‘n’ around the city’s Height-Ashbury area. This, in turn, made it the obvious place for the emerging cannabis industry to flourish. The first dispensary, which no longer exists, opened in 1997. However, the oldest still-operational dispensary is Grass Roots on Post St, which I visited. They opened in 2005 and serve both medical and recreational customers. I asked them how they were able to open so many years ago, because California only made recreational cannabis legal in 2016. The answer is because within each State, individual counties could make independent decisions - in this case, San Francisco County legalised cannabis for medical prescriptions in 1996. I bought some “Chem Khardashian” flower.
I interviewed two dispensary’s, Magic Flower (Post St) and Bloom Room (Jesse St).
I heard similar stories from both owners. Times are tough. The Californian regulations and tax systems make it difficult to profit on sales. Tax is a combination of State Tax & Federal Tax and both take a significant slice. Meanwhile, an oversupply of cannabis means prices are driven lower. Great for consumers, but for a retailer it’s a challenge. They both told me the split between products is roughly 3/3/3, i.e. a third flower, third concentrate and third edibles. Beverage sales are increasing because they’re fast acting and give an accurate dose.
My trip to Humboldt County was primarily to meet Kevin Jodrey but also to see & experience the area made famous by Murder Mountain (Netflix). Humboldt remains the biggest cannabis growing area in California. However, when I arrived in Garberville, despite the astounding beauty of its natural surroundings, the large number of closed shops and vacant buildings made it apparent the town has seen better times. I was told by an illegal grower (Dan) this is a direct result of the economic challenges in the cannabis market. Many of the dispensaries have closed. The farmers (both legal and illegal) sold up and moved out meaning less money is being spent in the town.
When I met Kevin he took me on a trip to Eureka to see some of the recently opened dispensary lounges. The first was “Papa & Barkley Social” (Broadway St). This innovative business offers a stylish dispensary, a day spa and an outdoor smoking area containing sofas, swinging chairs & wood burners. The next, EcoCann, offered a dispensary on one side and, through a discreet door, a smoking lounge. This was fascinating. On the bar was a Studenglass rig with a customer taking a toke. Since these rigs cost $500+ this is a great way to try one. Next to him was an older customer having a dab prepared for him by the Budtender.
Finally we paid a visit to Kevin’s favourite dispensary, the ‘Proper Wellness Center”. It’s from here, Kevin told me, he buys a strong gummy before a long plane journey. “For $10 I turn an economy ticket into a $10,000 business class ticket, because I take the gummy, crash out and get exactly the same service”, he laughed.
Nevada legalised the sale of cannabis in 2017 so is a natural place to hold the world’s biggest cannabis conference, MJ Biz Com. The conference fills both halls of the enormous Las Vegas Convention Centre and delegates are expected to walk around 10km a day. The halls are filled with every type of company along the entire cannabis supply chain.
Starting with seeds, nutrients and planting pots, the lower floor is dedicated to the art & science of growing the best (or most!) cannabis possible.
Then you move through to the machinery that enables mass-market producers to scale. US companies are building huge competitive advantages in this area. The fact is, machinery is essential to scale. It gets designed to do a job then evolves due to innovators figuring out better, more efficient methods. This Intellectual Property is gold and the US has a significant head-start over the rest of the world. Efficient machinery to make water-soluble rosin, thousands of pre-rolls a day or consistent dosage cart oils, is vital for the industry and I suspect we’ll be buying US machinery for years to come.
On the second floor were the marketing, packaging and dispensary services, including MULL. Producers are trying to create a strong brand and jostling for position on dispensary shelves. To achieve this they’re using distinctive images, jars, packets and merchandise. In this area the dominance of Chinese suppliers is apparent. Although the design & IP may reside in the US, I estimate 90% of the actual product comes from China. It’s a similar situation with the cheap-end vapes and the one-off disposables. While there are literally hundreds of different models to choose from ultimately most of it is produced in China. The simple point here is that any company with aspirations to manufacture competitive product is going to have to find a Chinese partner!
Finally, but by no means least, we met a lot of service businesses such as insurance, legal services and banking. The cannabis industry has a lot of nuances that require specialisation, not least the amount of ‘form filling’ required!
Despite cannabis being legal in California and Nevada, it’s illegal to carry weed across State lines. So, I was warned beforehand to throw away all the quality flower and rosin I bought in California before flying to Nevada (as it turned out, we simply walked out of the airport without a glance from security, but smuggling is always easy in hindsight, right? 🙂 ). What this means for producers is a highly fragmented market with different brands available across States. What is popular in California may not be sold in neighbouring Nevada. I heard a similar story from various people living close to a State border who simply drive into the next State, buy whatever they want, then drive back home. I suspect this will be the future situation in Europe.
Specific to Las Vegas, the casinos are on federal land. Meaning that, while cigarettes can be smoked inside the buildings, cannabis is still banned. However, this didn’t stop us from discretely using disposable THC vapes to take sneak hits (although we were warned by a smiling waiter he could smell it a few tables away 🙂 ). We also couldn’t be in Vegas without a visit to Planet13, the world’s largest cannabis dispensary. On arrival you show your ID and give them your phone number. It’s like a ticket system. They have over 60 tills. When one becomes available they send a text with your till number. Walk up and a friendly budtender will ask what you’re looking for & the effects you want to achieve. He expertly recommended a couple of pre-roll strains that were ‘High in THC and uplifting’ - just what we needed after 4 days in Vegas!
Top Picks from the conference
- Agrify - making the machines that make top quality rosin processing, using freeze driers and presses.
- Blazy Susan - rolling papers and merchandise. Made a big splash with their distinctive look and great outfits.
- Stundenglass - stylish and highly distinctive dab rigs that take dabbing to new levels of sophistication
- Vapes - single-use vapes are unquestionably bad for the environment but the convenience of buying a THC vape that is easy to hide and hit pretty much anywhere is undeniable
- Alchemy Jars - yes, I know what you’re thinking. Just how good does a jar have to be to justify it being a highlight after 4 days in Vegas. Well, let me tell you, these jars feel and look gorgeous, making the experience of opening them and looking at your stash even more enjoyable.
- Hemp Wood - we unexpectedly met a genuine lumberjack at our booth, who handed us a lovely piece of hemp wood. Made from the plant stalks the ‘wood’ was quality, felt like wood and had a beautiful natural grain. The lumberjack, called Greg, told us it was a patented process to make it available to licence.
There is a lot more I want to tell you but unfortunately the conference was in Las Vegas, and Vegas being Vegas, I’m afraid it will have to stay there 🙂