I got a drink from a bar that was lit up green, the color of money, and went to meet Jane West.
West was hosting a party the presidential suite at the Rio hotel and casino in Las Vegas during this week’s National Marijuana Business Conference. The 38-year-old mother of two got started in the Colorado cannabis scene by organizing events where guests got high amidst food, art, and music. She lost her job putting together enrichment programs for promising young people a few months later after CNBC did a story of her. She has since launched herself into the life of an entrepreneur and industry gadfly.
The name Jane West is even part of her “midlife awakening.” “I’m not just branding cannabis, I’m rebranding Amy Dannemiller”–her real name–“into this fucking awesome party thrower.” Her company, Edible Events, organized a series of fundraiser concerts for the Colorado Symphony called “Classically Cannibis: The High Note Series.” Another event featured a functional bong sculpted out of ice.
There’s a lot of that kind of rebranding going on in Vegas this week, as the marijuana conference welcomes a festive crowd of more than 3,000. Everyone seems to have dreams as big as Jane West’s. Over the party’s roar on the 51st floor balcony, guests shouted about terpenoids, yield, CBD, and the other lingo surrounding the most fussed-over product ever. Smart sober-minded people, albeit deeply self-interested ones, say legalized cannabis is the biggest business opportunity since the early days of the World Wide Web.
It’s certainly a swiftly expanding market: Just last week, voters in Oregon, Alaska, and the District of Columbia legalized recreational marijuana. A medical marijuana bill in Florida fell just short of the 60% threshold it needed to pass, and California is expected to vote on legalizing recreational marijuana in 2016. “The genie’s not going back in the bottle,” said Adam Cohen, a former private equity man who now leads MJardin, a grow operation management company that aspires to McKinsey-like respectability.
Talking to the expo-goers–VCs, vindicated political radicals, at least one civil servant planning to open a homestyle restaurant serving psychoactive meatloaf–and its hard to not think of dotcom days of 1997. Then, people believed the way we live was changing–and they turned out to be right. But no one could predict Facebook, Google, or mobile life. Legal cannabis would change society too, but for now the fun or horror is in watching an outlaw trade pull on its pleated khakis and go corporate.
More than 20 states have legalized medicinal marijuana, but the federal government still considers it to have no medical uses. (Cannabis activists discuss this in tones suggesting the greatest injustice in our nation’s history.) As a result, almost no major American companies affiliate themselves with the product.
Instead, the cannabis industry is doing something that is probably unprecedented in the history of business: It has created an entire shadow economy in preparation for its central product. It’s as if Apple designed the iPhone before there was a chip to power it.
Walking the expo floor, there’s almost nothing you’d find in a head shop. Instead people are hawking social networks, specialized agricultural equipment and certification, cannabis-themed resorts, delivery apps, online marketing companies, and process management software. Financial and management consulting firms mimic their mainstream counterparts. Security devices aim to protect product from cops, criminals and, not least, employees.
Apart from lawyers and safes, not much from the mainstream economy can be carried over. Take something as seemingly simple as packaging: Clear plastic baggies are a time-honored way to transport pot. But Colorado requires cannabis to leave dispensaries—another new business—in opaque child-resistant bags. The rule created a market niche that at least three companies–Stink Sack, Smelly Proof, and FunkSac–now seek to fill.
No one told those brands, apparently, that the industry wants to polish and professionalize its image. Investors argue that cannabis won’t become the intoxicant of choice at garden parties or a respectable alternative to antidepressants if adults associate it with dirty hippies. Meanwhile, many cannabis types here are easily distracted from branding discussions, and prone to unprompted tangents on the evils of the (flawlessly marketed) alcohol and the pharmaceutical industries.
Another reason it feels like 1997: Legal cannabis is not yet a really big American business. Legal marijuana sales in Colorado in July totaled just under $59 million, split almost evenly between recreational and medical. This is roughly three quarters of what Coloradans spent on their pets. Meanwhile, California’s annual pot crop has been estimated at a “street value” of $14 billion.
But soon it could be everywhere: People in Vegas are pushing cannabis into products from gourmet baked goods to skin creams to, ahem, personal lubricant. Or you can create your own infusions. A man in aviators and a spiky green wig that made him look like a radioactive gnome launched into an infomercial-ready patter about Magical Butter, a device that facilitates “butter, lotion, tinctures, lotions, sauces, and more.”
Back in the presidential suite, the drinks were free and the deck boasted its own outdoor swimming pool, as if this were a movie about Las Vegas. Clearly, it wasn’t, because no one jumped in. Your diligent correspondent will be demanding hazard pay.
Looking around, West noted that the crowd is very white. She is the cofounder of Women Grow, a professional organization for what remains a male-dominated industry. This isn’t just identity politics. She sees acclimating adult women to cannabis as crucial for the industry. Mild use, she said, is “perfect for a busy mom.”
It’s a long way from Colorado, where a SWAT team once crashed her 420 party and she picked up a misdemeanor for distributing alcohol without a permit, she said. The lesson there: Legal doesn’t always mean welcome.