Comparatively eventful: The cannabis circuit

Early winter is the prime season for big cannabis events in North America. There are three events that happen closely together—two in the United States and one in Canada—and I attended all of them over the last couple of months.

The two U.S. events actually happen a mere day apart, with MJBiz Con in Las Vegas ending the day before the opening of The Emerald Cup in Santa Rosa, California. The Canadian event, Lift & Co. in Vancouver, happened almost a month later during the second weekend of January.

These three events represent the biggest business-to-business cannabis conference, the biggest remaining consumer-centric event with roots in the illicit market, and the west coast edition of the biggest Canadian cannabis event. While Lift presents itself as a bit of everything, it is a corporate-focused business event at the core. The bigger Lift event happens in Toronto later in the year, though the Vancouver event is pretty much the same thing.

While the value provided by these events depends on the attendees’ perspective, these events also remain somewhat of a mystery to many regular cannabis consumers.

The trade shows

Every industry has trade shows. Most are focused on industry interacting with industry, also referred to as “business-to-business” (or “b2b”). Think scientific conferences, or industries like oil and gas, where there is a level of expertise and speciality required to understand the products and services.

Some are public facing, known as “business-to-consumer” (or “b2c”). Think boat shows or wine festivals, where companies are both revealing new products and hawking goods to attendees in hopes of making sales.

There are a select few that manage to walk the line of both. Perhaps the best known example of this is the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), where technology companies reveal what is new in the world of high-tech innovations. This runs the gamut from video gamers looking for the newest games and consoles, to companies looking for partners and equipment for technology-heavy industries like natural resources, manufacturing, and health care.

The legal cannabis industry is a young one. Yes, there has been legal medical cannabis for some time, but the emergence of trade shows around legal recreational cannabis is pretty new, and they are largely focused on business-to-business items like grow equipment, extraction technology, packaging, and processing solutions.

Despite the relative youth of the industry’s conference circuit, it now seems like there is a show every few weeks. They all tend to feature the same panelists talking about the same subjects. Show after show, we hear comparisons to booze and tobacco, talks about capital and stocks, and sponsors with pay-to-play panels preaching their product’s virtues behind a veil of information.

The Lift & Co. Business Conference on January 9 (handout)

There is a big gap in business-to-consumer shows, however, despite community events and protestivals being a big deal during prohibition. In the illicit market there were numerous events that allowed consumption and vending on-site, some of which became the gathering places for the biggest illegal brands in cannabis.

These events were often presented jointly with some form of competition. Growers, coffee shops, and seed banks would submit cannabis samples to be judged, and awards were given to the best of the bunch.

The most notorious of these was High Times’ Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, which is no longer active. For years, it was the event that cannabis professionals made sure to attend. Spannabis in Barcelona is another big destination event. Unlike the Amsterdam Cannabis Cup, Spannabis is still surviving, having taken the mantle as the premier European event.

The competition era

This era of the ‘cannabis cup’ events was, and sometimes still is, glorified as being the pinnacle of industry accomplishment. Companies proudly state they have won ‘a million cups’, with the hope it lends to their product credibility.

Founded in 1988 by Stepen Hagar, the early events in Amsterdam allowed only local coffee shops and seed banks to enter. It was a regional competition that included cannabis legends and their foundational cultivars (Skunk #1 won the inaugural cup).

It gradually became more commercialized, with High Times pushing further and further in that direction. The then-popular cannabis magazine saw some big money could be made with these weed competitions, and their events grew into international gatherings for seedbanks around the world, many of whom would smuggle their entries into the Netherlands.

While it wasn’t all bullshit to begin with, the bullshit quotient increased over time due to a flawed entry and judging system. Often seed makers would claim victory when they didn’t grow the sample themselves. For example, sometimes a sample wouldn’t get through the border, so entrants would just buy a replacement entry on the show floor, regardless of origins, and claim it as their own.

Eventually, it became what appeared to be a pay-to-win competition, with only major High Times advertisers winning the cups.

When American states started legalizing medical cannabis in the early 2000s, High Times expanded their event plans, and in 2010 they started doing cup events in California, Washington, Colorado, and any other jurisdiction they could. They even held an event here on Vancouver Island in 2017, which was not very well attended.

It wasn’t long before these small events diluted the value of the big one in Amsterdam. Not only was the value of the prize waning, but the regional events quickly lost momentum. Today, High Times is in financial trouble, incurring a net loss of $11.9 million USD in its most recent earnings report, and their events have apparently ceased to exist after losing much of their lustre.

While the marketing machine that was High Times took these events in a direction that did not work out very well, they were never the only gig in town. As I mentioned above, Spannabis is still going strong. It has a very different vibe, with more of a focus on growers, and peripheral private events that include the famous Legends of Hash.

Spannabis was purchased by High Times last year, though, so let’s see where it goes.

In my estimation, the most important of these competition events today is the Emerald Cup, which is why I attended that particular event in December.

The kickoff

As a cannabis professional (grower, business owner, and consultant), I don’t always get value from trade shows. Tickets are often expensive, and there isn’t all that much on the conference floor that isn’t also accessible away from the conference. Expert panels and presentations happen every half-an-hour or so, making it important to plan for what you want to see.

So, in general I avoid most conferences. The large-scale event scene in Canada is finally fading, and niche events around living soils or quality assurance have claimed most of my attention.

There are two big ones in the western U.S., though, in two areas that I enjoy, so I figured I should take a trip and hit both of them.

The first stop on my mission was Las Vegas for the MJBiz Cannabis Business Conference.

The home of the MJBizCon International Cannabis Industry Conference (Travis Lane photo)

This event is the leading business-to-business conference for the cannabis industry, and it is held in the epicenter of conferences. Vegas acts as a conference hub for so many industries, likely due to a combination of available space, hotel inventory, and fun distractions for the attendees and exhibitors.

This last point is crucial to understanding the environment of the event. Most business gatherings are dull, but fun extracurriculars are a staple of Vegas conference life, making it a more desirable trip for attendees.

(Full disclosure: I am a gambler. I played pretty high-level poker in my 20s, and I love Las Vegas.)

While most cannabis events have little to offer me inside the event themselves, the fact that so many industry folks are in one place is very cool. Dinners, games, and sesh circles serve as just a few of the locations where I met prominent professionals from all over the world.

The event itself is huge. It takes 20 minutes to walk from the food to the speaking halls. Trying to catch all the panels would require more physical endurance than one might think.

The display floor (where exhibitors set up booths) is equally expansive, and was packed the whole time. When standing out front smoking with a mob of other smokers, there was a constant flow in and out of the doors.

This is a serious industry event that mirrors what other industries do, and it appeared to be very well attended.

On the floor there is everything any cannabis business could need: Companies specializing in packaging, testing, extracting, drying, curing, marketing, vaping, growing, and supply chain are all represented. Booths focused on living soil, pest control, and climate control technology caught my eye. I managed to meet suppliers face-to-face for the first time, and briefly read about tracking software from multiple jurisdictions.

Despite this, the floor is also a special kind of unpleasant. There are just so many people, and no booth representatives have time for an in-depth conversation. I was left feeling that I could have simply called these companies directly, with nothing special coming from meeting them at a big event.

Most of the panels were even less interesting to me, with a heavy focus on the corporate side of the industry and state-specific policies. While there was some interesting information to be gathered, particularly around power usage and business strategy, the vast majority of talks covered four topics: state-by-state evaluations, international business opportunities, supply chain with a retail focus, and corporate strategies around scale and capital.

Don’t get me wrong, those that I caught some of were well done, I just didn’t have much interest in the subject matter as Canadian cannabis grower.

Personally, I found myself spending minimal time at the event, and more time in meetings with smaller groups. Vegas being what it is, there was a constant pull to go do something fun.

This conference itself, however, has nothing to do with fun, and that is the primary downside for me. It is all work, no play. Socializing is done away from the venue. It is about equipment and market considerations, not growing and smoking cannabis. They even have signs that make it clear they don’t actually allow weed on site, though there were hundreds of joints burning out front at times.

The floor at MJBizCon (Travis Lane photo)

An aside

MJBiz ended on Friday (Dec. 13), so I hopped on a plane to San Francisco. I got in several hours earlier than the rest of my travelling companions, so I hit up Haight Street for some craft beers.

The Emerald Cup in Santa Rosa is about an hour north of San Fran. By the time all of us had gathered and had a bite to eat it was evening. We had one more stop to make at a local dispensary.

We grabbed some pretty decent smoke, and set out towards Santa Rosa by car. After a few minutes I realized that I didn’t have my cell phone. I had dropped it outside the dispensary.

Of course, I use my phone for everything, and was immediately pissed off and upset. We tried to track it, driving around for a while until it ended up in park.

It was gone.

Giving up, we headed north. In the meantime I had locked my phone, sending it a message that I would pay $100 no questions asked in exchange for its return. I left a phone number, and we left San Francisco.

Halfway over the bridge, my friend’s phone rang. Lo and behold, Travis Lane was calling.

So I answered it. The conversation went like this:

“I have your phone, you have $100?”

“Yeah man, I do.”

“No questions asked?”

“Yup, as long as I get the phone.”

“Ok, where are you?”

“About half an hour out, but we can come back.”

“Oh. That will take time.”

“Where should we meet you?”

“Do you know where the freemasons sign up? The new ones?”

“Uh, no I don’t.”

“Ok, meet me at the masonic temple across from the big church.”

“Um...ok, what is the church called?”

Once we got the name, we looked it up and confirmed the location. We turned around and headed back to the city to pick up the phone.

We got there about 45 minutes later. It was a rather humongous masonic temple across from an old church and a park. It took us some looking around, but I found the guy with my phone at the top of the church stairs. He was clearly homeless, sitting barefoot and ringing out his wet socks. My phone was on the bench next to him.

I approached him, and offered up the $100 bill for my phone. He turned to me and said “I need to tell you about the diamonds. They are the masonic diamonds. There were federal diamonds, but they are now international.”

I smiled, handed him the money, and took my phone. As he started to rant a bit, one of my buddies came up and pulled me away. We left for Santa Rosa, again, a few minutes later, phone in hand.

I still can’t believe I got it back. San Francisco has a homelessness epidemic similar to my home town of Vancouver, and I feel for those stuck on the streets. We don’t do enough as a society to help those folks, particularly those with addiction and mental health issues.

Hopefully that $100 helped in some way.

That said, what a bizarre situation. We couldn’t help but laugh at the masonic references, like it was some kind of big phone stealing conspiracy.

The way it should be

We got into Santa Rosa late on Friday and got some sleep. The next morning was the opening of the Emerald Cup at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Emerald has been going on for a long time. It was founded by Tim Blake in 2003 to serve as a celebration of California sungrown cannabis. It hosts the most prestigious cannabis competition around, which was among the first to institute lab testing in their competition. It now focuses on legal product, but happened for years under the cloud of prohibition.

The feeling of Emerald was the polar opposite of MJ Biz. Everyone was laid back, no one in a hurry. We got there just as gates opened, skipping past a line of joint smokers to grab our media passes and head in.

The site was an open outdoor area with multiple buildings. There was a stage with live music playing. There was a beer garden, and food carts were set up along the walkways. The food was excellent, and one of the surprise highlights, which stood in stark contrast to the food court in Vegas.

The Cookies tent at the Emerald Cup (Travis Lane photo)

There were people smoking all over. Weed was for sale at dozens of booths. I felt at home here.

Where MJ Biz was almost angst-inducing, with crowds and business and hype, Emerald was still busy but less chaotic. It was a breath of fresh smoke.

Sure, there were some big lineups at the seed vendors, and the Cookies vending tent had a lineup for the whole first day. They also had some killer smoke, offering something infinitely more exciting than product sheets. Everything I smoked at Emerald was at least good. Some was excellent.

The experience is so vastly different when vending and consumption is allowed. Where Vegas was work, this was fun.

The Emerald speakers’ series was very solid, too. There were several speaking halls, each with their own focus. While I hovered around the organic growing panels and talks, I also found myself wandering from place to place, getting stoned, listening to people I recognized, like Dr. Ethan Russo, Jeff Lowenfels, and Martin A. Lee, or finding interesting panels of strangers at random. Yes, those I mentioned are three white dudes, but compared to Canadian events diversity was obvious everywhere and baked right into the panels. It didn’t feel contrived.

Of course, there were plenty of questionable assertions too. The Emerald Pass tent was a bit of a hotbed for this, and the organic talks had some biodynamic stuff that I wasn’t a fan of. Overall, it was much more engaging than MJ Biz, though, and if I didn’t like something I could just wander over to the next hall while smoking a doob.

By chance, I ran into friends, and many joints were smoked. I sat down with a craft beer in one hand and a dab pen in the other. At one point we were standing in a circle, smoking some hash with some real old schoolers, hearing them tell some of the stories behind Chemdog and OG.

It was obvious from the crowd that there remained a counter-culture backbone to this event. Beards and dreads were everywhere, and decades-old seed companies were hawking their wares.

According to friends that have attended many Emerald Cups, there were some things missing from previous iterations that took place during prohibition. One thing I noticed was a lack of grow-focused booths. I had heard, as living soil grower, that this was the best event to attend, but I didn’t really feel like I saw anything new or innovative on the floor. (Considering there was an arcade, music, delicious food, and great weed, I feel like I am nitpicking a bit here, though.)

The event wrapped up on Sunday (Dec 15) night with the awards presentation. I can’t really comment on the winners myself, as I only got the opportunity to try a little smoke from one entrant, but my impression was one of a professional presentation that local stoners like me would care about.

In the end, Emerald was a cross between a festival, a competition, and a trade show—and it was tonnes of fun.

The Emerald Cup featured an arcade (Travis Lane photo)

Another aside

The event wrapped on Sunday, and on Monday morning we set out on our journey home. I won’t go too far afield here, but our trip was a cool one, as we decided to drive home from Santa Rosa.

On the way we visited CannaCraft (where Lagunitas cannabis beverages are made) and Emerald Pharms, a dispensary in Hopland with a huge garden property focused on regenerative practices. We stopped in Mendocino for a wine-assisted lunch and a visit with FlowKana’s VP of community operations, Amanda Reiman, an American drug policy reformer and cannabis expert. We visited Humboldt and checked out One Log dispensary, where we were warmly received by its humble and brilliant proprietor Kevin Jodrey.

We walked among the giant redwoods, then drove up the coast until we hit mid-Oregon and cut across to Portland, where we visited two great breweries in Cascade and Hair of the Dog.

I would recommend this drive heartily.

By the time we got back to Canada I was exhausted yet refreshed, just in time for the holiday season.

The way it is in Canada

A few weeks after getting home, the holidays were over. January had hit, and that meant it was time for the Lift & Co. event in Vancouver, which is an industry-focused business conference for the legal Canadian market.

I have attended a few of these, and was even a panelist on one occasion. I know the event well enough that I know what to expect, so I was sure it would be a letdown after Emerald.

At the risk of revealing myself as a victim of confirmation bias, it turns out I was right.

Industry day at the Lift & Co. Conference on January 10 (handout)

To be fair, Canadian regulations make these events a slog. Marketing restrictions, along with a lack of sales or smoking, make events in this country a tougher sell.

That said, Lift is an odd duck, at least in my opinion.

Where MJ Biz is all business, and Emerald is fun mixed with education and actual weed, Lift tries to be all of this. It doesn’t really work.

At its core, Lift is a business-to-business event. There is a business day, an industry day, and a consumer day, but it is all about sponsorship and showing off. Booths are either larger federally licensed producers with ridiculously pricey displays, or smaller, sparser booths for equipment vendors and associations.

There is no weed being sold. The speakers are nearly the same every time, with most given stage time as an incentive to buy booth space. The topics are largely the same, too, mirroring the style of MJ Biz but with staler content.

Even the attempts to have culture and product-focused panels devolve into pay-to-play marketing bullshit that serves to misinform naive consumers who might attend.

The value of even attending is hard to find sometimes, and I think that was more apparent this year. While the booths did seem to be sold out, the attendance was lower than the previous events I have attended, the walkways seemed wider, and the crowds smoking weed outside were much smaller.

I am not sure why, if someone sabotaged the event intentionally or something, but the conference floor also smelled like feces this year. Not very appealing.

In all, there are actually a couple of good reasons to be at Lift, regardless of my ranty negativity above.

Firstly, Health Canada and the Canada Revenue Agency both had booths at the event, and put on a joint outreach session for aspiring licensees that was both informative and well attended. With half of the three-hour-session dedicated to questions, I was able to get some important details around successful applications for cultivation and the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) licence.

I have found the Health Canada staff that handle this file to be open and helpful during my mission to get licences, even when I disagree with the existing policy. This was once again the case. Joanne Garrah and Jacqueline Oddi replied honestly, and did a great job. More outreach like this can only help, and I applaud them for being available.

The other big reason to attend is that many of the cannabis industry’s participants are in one place at one time. It provides an opportunity to have big dinners or gather for beverages with tables full of experts and colleagues. Conversation can be stimulating and contentious outside of the conference, and it is awesome to see friends from the rest of the country.

The comparison

With Lift done, my month-long conference bonanza had come to an end. It snowed a little in southern B.C. on that last day of Lift, so it took me a couple of extra days to get home to Vancouver Island. Here in B.C., a few inches of snow means that ferries and planes are cancelled, for about 24 hours in this case.

When I did finally get home, I took some time to compare my experiences at the three events.

In the end, I would say my experiences met expectations in all three cases. MJ Biz was a business trade show, Emerald was a festival and competition with weed everywhere, and Lift was a lesser version of the same event I attended last year.

For the average cannabis consumer wondering what all this means for them, I would suggest that Emerald is the only one of the three worth attending. It is the only one with vending and consumption, and I can not state how much of a difference this makes. The entire feel of the event is almost the opposite of the other two, with a harkening back to the best of the prohibition era. Combine great weed, world-class seeds, knowledgeable cannabis growers and researchers, a legitimate competition, and live music—it’s kind of a cannabis mecca.

The other two are less appealing for consumers. If you are not already in or trying to get into the industry, they are kind of a waste of time and money. At least MJ Biz knows this, but Lift still seems to want to continue marketing to consumers.

MJ Biz will continue to be the big business conference in North America, in my opinion. No other event has the hustle and bustle. No other event puts so many trying to get rich off of cannabis in one place.

Lift is just a lesser version.

If you are in the cannabis business, however, there are good reasons to attend both. That said, MJ Biz is so much bigger and better, making it worth the trip.

MJ Biz is an American event, though, so if you are a Canada-only business there are lots of useless booths. Still, I can’t really think of anything that Lift does better.

This year’s Lift was also the least busy I have seen it. If not for Health Canada, I am not sure I would have spent the time at the event that I did. If this is the new standard, then many of the smaller yet similar events are likely struggling even more. Lift still has the Toronto event to come this year, which has always been the biggest Canadian conference.

The future

Here in Canada, we have a bunch of similar events. Outside of a few smaller events, they are all corporate, weedless, and largely characterless.

It is so early in the legalized era that a great deal will change in the next few years, but the biggest gap is obviously on the consumer-facing side.

When I contemplate how Canadian cannabis companies brand themselves, and how little celebration there is of the plant and product, I can’t help but feel left out. It is all so sterile. There is no edge, and when companies do try to present themselves as edgy they generally miss the mark.

Personally, I think that many of the business-to-business events are doomed. There is only so much demand. Lift could survive, but as the bigger companies that have kept these events going turn away from the hype, focusing on operations and revenue, the impetus to attend these events will dwindle. Those that offer more spin and marketing than they do facts will also need to consider making adjustments to appeal to micros and private businesses that have no interest in blowing a bunch of money on a fancy installation or buying stage time.

We can see what happens in Canadian cities on 4/20 every year, when cannabis consumers gather to spend money on mostly illicit products, then have a big smoke out. Say what you like about whether they are still protests; they are highly popular.

Regulations play a significant role here, with vending being difficult to arrange. If I learned anything at Emerald, it is that there is no way to imitate open vending and consumption. It is either allowed or it is not, and this defines the event.

What we need in Canada are Emerald-style festivals, that bring the illicit-era people and ideas to the legal market. We need legal gatherings for cannabis consumers, not just cannabis businesses.

Entries at the Emerald Cup (Travis Lane photo)

This is important for many reasons. By putting vending in the same place as real educational content, and not a bunch of self-serving marketing misinformation, we would accelerate the education of the average Canadian purchaser. Retail is so often the touch point for information, and events like Emerald offer a condensed crash course in the culture, history, and consumption of cannabis.

Inclusion of current consumers is something else that is missing. I have serious trouble understanding why so much focus seems to be on new users and product types, while companies try to cleanse themselves of any association with the old culture. There are so many cannabis smokers in Canada who might attend one event like Lift and make a negative judgement of the legal space. It is easy to get good illicit weed in most of the country, so it is important to provide a positive experience when trying to convert them to buying legally. Massive marketing displays won’t necessarily impress this crowd, especially with no on-site cannabis or consumption. If anything, it looks absurd when they can get one hour delivery outside the event.

To me, the biggest reason we need a consumption-friendly, culturally relevant event boils down to fun. We need to celebrate cannabis, and cannabis legalization, not hide it behind monotone labels at sterile gatherings of people in suits. Legalization is a good thing, but Canada’s events continue to be indifferent towards cannabis smokers and growers like me. I just want to smoke a bunch of joints, talk a bit of shop, and listen to some tunes.

Doing this in California is a pretty good option, but our Canadian industry will not be whole until I can also do this in East Vancouver.

Writer’s note: I didn’t mention my fellow travellers and friends by name. I didn't ask everyone if it was cool, and I didn’t want to include a list of names. To all of you, a sincere thanks. Whether I have known you for years, just met you, or you pulled some strings to make introductions, your contribution is much appreciated.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misidentified Santa Clara, California as the host city of the Emerald Cup.