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How Cannabis Leaders Can Look To the Future

A lot has happened since we last gathered.


Anton Gvozdikov —

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

Last month, I attended what many call the “Super Bowl” of cannabis conventions: MJBizCon in Las Vegas. After the pandemic shut it down last year, this event, which for the last ten years has been the major platform for gathering industry leaders, returned in a way that surprised all. Over 35,000 attendees and many exhibitors flocked to Vegas for this three-day trade show abiding by mask mandates at the convention and all hotels. While many attend this show to party, this year seemed to mark a shift away from smoking 24/7 to actually discussing relevant issues as the number of states legalizing cannabis continues to grow.

This mentality has been reflected by the evolving industry in the past few years. As an MJBizCon veteran, I’d like to share some of my takeaways and insights for fellow leaders as the industry looks to 2022 and beyond.

1.  Focus on Diversity

A lot has happened since we last gathered. In the past, the majority of speakers and attendees at this conference were white guys, which is ironic considering the role that marginalized people of color have and continue to play in the industry, despite the disparity in incarcerations and other ways authorities have treated those communities. This time, the thought and effort that went into the speakers and agenda topics really showed to me our industry is evolving.

Focusing on true inclusion, so that everyone has a seat at the table, should be a priority for the industry as we head into 2022. Diversity breeds innovation, new perspectives and more opportunities for connection.

2. Help Bridge the Gap Between Legacy and Legal

One conversation that continues to persist lies in the “old-world” cannabis markets and newly legal state markets. Can big business (e.g., multiple state operators) and the legacy (formerly called the illicit market) ever find a way to integrate from opposing to collaborative business partners and what it would take to make that happen?

A panel on the opening day of the conference tackled just this, headlined “Clash of the Titans.” The diverse panel featured Joe Bayern, CEO of Curaleaf and Jennifer Drake of AYR, one legendary California cultivator, Swami Chaitanya, trailblazing legal operator in Colorado, Wanda James, and Vladimir Bautista of CEO and co-founder of the Happy Munkey. (Full disclosure: Bridge Strategic Communications represents the Happy Munkey.)

Bautista pointed to the event headline, stating it’s not about the “clash” but rather the “unity” both the legacy and legal markets must execute to maximize the dollars they combine to generate. However, the challenge persists in creating meaningful opportunities for all minorities to thrive in the space, as they did much of the heavy lifting for years.

From what I’ve seen, bridge-building has been a thread in these topics of conversation among those in the industry, and many are optimistic that it can be done. The challenge really is the willingness of the new legal market to embrace the work the legacy market has done. We need to address the inequitable incarceration levels POC faced, and give them equitable access to take their rightful spot in this emerging industry.

Many recognize the necessity of bridging this gap between legacy and legal. MSOs have discussed what their companies are doing to give minorities a seat at the table. While admirable, I believe if the legal market’s embracement of the legacy market comes in the form of tokenism (i.e., a minority company’s products in a poor location in the MSO’s dispensary), then we’ll never see the end of the legacy market. Leaders in the industry understand this is crucial to the growth of legal cannabis.

All we need is a realistic and actionable plan to make this happen. We need to keep having these conversations, but also champion real steps toward change.

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3. Empower the Cannabis Culture Shift

The past few years have marked a shift in cannabis culture, and a new event added to the conference’s docket, MJ Unpacked, showcased this shift. Many I know say it was a smaller, intimate, conference at the Mandalay Bay that made some noise with panelists Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, followed by a Blues Brothers concert. It shows how far our industry has come from backrooms at airport hotels to thought-provoking debates and concerts. I’m sure, that as with other conventions, it’s still about the celebrity factor.

I’ve always argued that cannabis is like any other industry. Being a part of this evolution into mainstream society is important as we move forward and continue our work to eradicate the stigma that many still propagate for political reasons.

5. Network With Like-Minded Leaders

Connecting and collaborating with fellow leaders in the cannabis space can only help us usher in a more equitable culture. I’ll admit that my drive in attending these trade shows is not the panels — it’s pressing the flesh, sharing a drink or joint and meeting new colleagues. To me, as a self-employed practitioner, there’s nothing more valuable as that one-on-one personal interaction can often lead to new business or new collaborators/partners and continuing our own education about this plant. It falls on us to shape the industry through making strong connections.

An added bonus to being at the conference was running into so many Rolling Stone Culture Council members who I had met either on the monthly calls or through their posts. (Hats off to fellow RSCC member Rosie Mattio who was the hostess with the mostest, as her firm hosted the cocktail party for industry leaders and media to share a few together.)

As trade shows start making a comeback, I would strongly advocate the continuation of these important conversations both in and out of cannabis conferences. If you can, I also recommend checking out any major trade shows in 2022. It’s a great way to expand your knowledge base and build a national network of like-minded souls, which is kind of what the cannabis community is all about.


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