Six years ago, the Marijuana Business Conferences (MJBiz) drew 300 people to Denver to dream of a future that seemed unfathomable. Last year, 15,000 people came to Las Vegas amid shifting legislation. And this year—with recreational weed favored by more than two-thirds of Americans, CBD infusing everything from gummies and hand cream to medical sleeves and iced tea, and hemp now legal—36,000 attendees came to Sin City to share and showcase plans to prosper from the world’s next great commodity.
If you’re imagining marijuana-leaf T-shirts, bearded enthusiasts, a spate of 420-named products and companies, and a familiar ever-present odor in the parking lot of the Las Vegas Convention Center, you’re right—there’s enough eye-winking to support the stereotypes. But also imagine Canadian accountants, global software firms, biotech and pharmaceutical companies, multinational investment banks, major equipment manufacturers, industrial extractors, former Congressional leaders, Asian product developers, and major Wall Street investors.
In fact, the conference had the tangible feel of attending an Internet conference in 1995. There will be spectacular success and failure, and legislation will play a big role. But, make no mistake, there is money to be made, by the handful, and there is a mad rush to invest in, build, and own the infrastructure, from farm to lab to product to wholesale to retail.
And, as with any commodity, brand matters.
Full disclosure: I grew up in Humboldt County in the 1970s, which gives me instant cachet in the industry, but also means I saw firsthand a flourishing black market where good bud cost more per ounce than gold and anchored the economy of the Pacific Northwest.
But cannabis today is big business, and it’s only getting bigger. It’s recreationally legal in 11 states, and medically in 33. In 2018, revenues for legal recreational and medical cannabis in the United States were between $8.6 and $10 billion. This year, it will be between $39 and $48 billion, and should pass $100 billion per year by 2023.
The most recent farm bill legalized hemp (which is, of course, related to cannabis but, like CBD, does not contain enough THC [the psychoactive chemical in weed] to get you high), reversing the successful lobbying last century by Hearst and DuPont, which grouped the material with cannabis as a way to outlaw it (and promote their paper and plastics businesses, respectively). Hemp has a long history in this country—our constitution is written on it—and it’s another sign of the times.
Major investments from companies like Novartis are speeding scientific studies that will normalize a rapidly expanding health-and-wellness sector; producers are differentiating through quality, content, and effect; and retail stores are normalizing use and experimentation. As with coffee and wine, regions are developing terroir-based expertise and experience-based tourism, self-proclaimed artisans are limiting supply to drive demand, and infrastructure is being developed to build a global supply chain.
We’re seeing it already in our own work. We have clients who are selling CBD-infused face masks and hemp-based foods, and major retailer partners are introducing CBD products as beta tests for their own brands, which we’re developing. CBD is in pet food, topical creams, water, candy, juice—even clothing. And the fact that your conservative aunt is eating it in gummies to help her sleep, and your dad may be rubbing it in his hands to help with arthritis goes to show that this is a plant and product whose time has come.
It’s no longer a question of whether it will be legal, but of when, and the opportunities for business and brand—big and small—are as limitless as the strains of sativa on display. So put that in your pipe and vape infuse smoke it.