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Celebrating Global Cannabis: An Inside Guide to Spannabis 2019

A view of the crowd 25,000 people strong at Spannabis 2019. (C) Bianca Mina

By James Longshore

When I was a kid, I enjoyed comic book conventions—they were my candy stores. As an adult, I have cannabis expos. And Spannabis in Barcelona is the mother of all cannabis expos, headlined this year by reggae royalty, Damian Marley.

These days, with the industry exploding, expos, conferences and trade shows are held all over America, and in fact many countries have their own versions, like Cannafest in Prague or The Cannabis Expo in Cape Town. France will hold its first ever 420 fair this month. But Spannabis started back when a legitimate cannabis trade was still a glass pipe dream. People from all over the world have been attending Spannabis since 2002. Each year, Spannabis also hosts the World Cannabis Conferences (WCC), which feature panels on topics ranging from cannabusiness to legal to medicine and this year, cannabis cuisine with Ana Rodriguez, manager of the Barcelona Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum.

Indeed, the U.S. may be driving the industry now, but one could argue that early innovation began in Europe, thanks to Spain and progressive countries like The Netherlands. Dutch companies like Sensi Seeds, the world’s largest hempseed producer and seed bank founded in 1985 by Ben Dronkers, or the Spanish Sweet Seeds, one of the oldest companies in the country and an innovator with genetics, are true pioneers. (Sensi’s Dronkers is so legendary he just got a shout-out on a recent episode of American Dad!) Last year’s Spannabis expo had only a handful of American companies with a booth. This year it took more than both hands to count how many companies hailed from the United States. Canada’s attendance seemed largely unchanged.

The author at the entrance to the 2019 World Cannabis Conferences. (C) James Longshore

And this year, the expo made clear that the industry has reached a certain maturity. The intersection of culture and business has come full circle. And with that comes regulations­—a hot topic at the fair. As cannabis law expert Omar Figueroa pointed out at the U.S. conference, which looked at issues specific to American policy and economy, from 2004-2015 California was a largely unregulated market where the number of dispensaries shot up from just 200 to over 10,000. Since adult-use legalization, the market has gone from containing “almost any product you can imagine to most being not allowed”. Many of the visitors and speakers seemed to be struggling with this issue.

The World Cannabis Conferences are well organized. One panel, “U.S.: From Leader of the Anti-Drug War to Cannabis Multi-National” presented a cross-section of the US industry – law expert Figueroa; Alex Pasternack, CEO of leading cannabis lifestyle brand Binske; and Adam Jacques, an expert grower from Oregon who has been researching the plant’s individual molecules and is responsible for legislation in Alabama that merges CBD and THC medical treatments for children under “Leni’s Law“. Bringing together these three interlocked sectors offered a multi-layered perspective.

Pasternack described how tumultuous the market regulations are, sharing a recent example where a small change in regulations caused a $180,000 expense for his company, and how this hurts small mom-and-pop operators who are not well-capitalized. Jacques echoed this sentiment that a lot of the people who built the movement are feeling left behind as companies rush to mass-produce cannabis, driving prices down to $20 per ounce and reducing quality along with it.

All three panelists ruminated on when legalization, both medical and recreational, will happen at the federal level and they seemed largely optimistic. Mr. Jacques was especially hopeful that this would result in improved research on the plant’s benefits. But the irony of America being a leader in the industry was not lost on the Spanish, and most of the Q and A was spent on this topic. Audience members took issue with even the titling of the conference, to which Pasternack responded, “There is a generalization, based on a few states, that people are cool with it. That’s not true.”

Figueroa chimed in defensively, “Yes, the U.S. overreaches. While there have been positive changes, half the country is still stuck in the Reagan era.” He then went on to note how when he visits Canadian expos, he hears people celebrating Canada as the global leader in cannabis legalization, and that a lot of the talk is about staying at the #1 spot.

But the trouble with multi-nationals stretches across boundaries. For example , as I heard at the cannabis media panel presented by the Spanish news service Marihuana TV and moderated by broadcast journalist Clara Sativa, Spain has just six companies with a license to grow, including one company that also manufactures morphine. An American ex-pat in Switzerland working in cannabis remarked, “Canopy Growth [the Canadian giant which is the largest publicly traded cannabis company in North America] must be like the Darth Vader of the cannabis industry.”

The Cannabis Televisions 2.0 panel hosted by Marihuana TV, with Clara Sativa, Dra. Weed, Boris Petis, and Undergrow.TV. (C) James Longshore

Besides the constant drift of sweet reefer smoke, the scent of capitalism was definitely in the air, evidenced by the sheer size of the crowds. In 2018 the atmosphere was more intimate and friendly. A personal illustration of this is the Weedmaps tent at the entrance, which last year had complimentary wine and beer and seating space on couches and beanbags, and was the social hub of the event. This year, their space had just a pop-up merchandise store and photo op area. The organizers reported a crowd of over 25,000 attended the fair over the weekend, with more than 8,000 visitors per day, and 300 exhibitors (3500 people on their teams), 200 journalists, and 4000 professionals among the industry throng.
Word around the concrete was that some of the bigger exhibitors were paying upwards of 50,000 Euros for their presence, anonymous yet trusted sources say. The success of Spannabis is perhaps best illustrated by the recent purchase of its parent company by High Times this January.

Another issue that grows out of regulations and the mainstreaming of cannabis that is somewhat divisive is that of changing the image of the cannabis user. Mr. Pasternack talked about this at the U.S. conference, using words like “vertically integrated” and “downstreaming” to illustrate how Binske, which is getting a lot of buzz right now, markets themselves as a “truffle” compared to a “potato” and is a highly curated brand which “happens” to be infused with cannabis. He also noted that they have begun franchising their products, because the market is so spread around different states and regions that to set up a national operation is logistically impossible, and in order to work around the obstacles presented by federal prohibition, they have been forced to adapt the franchising model.

Pasternack continued talking about the image problems Binske presently faces, namely people’s impressions and misconceptions of edibles. Most people associate edibles with that unmeasured brownie you ate in high school that sent you on a long, strange trip. So they are trying to educate consumers about numerical values and unique experiences using quantifying measures to overcome this negative association. On the other hand, there are people like one woman from Colorado, who hates the measuring process because her tolerance is beyond it and she can’t stand that states regulate the dosage. She then offers me her gummies, suckers, and homegrown flower from Colorado. I asked her: “You flew with that?” She said, “Sure, easy-peasy. I get off the plane and it’s like ‘Oh, excuse me, little old lady coming through!’” But image works both ways; at the expo, there were also a lot of stories of profiling and harassment at the airports.

Speaking of women in weed, with the industry taking off, the issue of equal representation is another hot-button issue. One of the centerpieces of the WCC was the Women in Weed Selfie, which included many of the most prominent female cannabis industry leaders. After the photo, an impromptu group of women who missed it, including Serena Caserio, creator of Italian cannabis brand Nonna Canapa, made their own pop-up selfie in the pressroom. The American expat in Switzerland remarked how she thought females in the industry in the U.S. actually were quite well-represented compared to the European industry, which is thick with masculinity.

The Women in Weed pressroom selfie. (C) James Longshore

The industry on both sides of the ocean face many of the same problems. The country-to-country difference is similar to The United States. You’ve got The Netherlands right next to France. Cross a border on either side and you’re looking at very different penalties, much like Colorado and Kansas. Everyone agrees that the regulations are too much in most European countries. Most people think it was better before, when we were a secret club. Some are accepting the new reality, others resisting it.

Any way you slice it, the industry is headed in a very capitalist direction, no more evidenced than by the High Times booth. The magazine of counterculture, of fighting the man, didn’t just have a High Times Magazine booth. Its marquee read High Times Holding Corp. Remember Janis Joplin’s first band, Big Brother and the Holding Corporation? Well, now the cannabis community has both: Big Brother looking over our shoulder, and High Times Holding Corp. In the end, Spannabis is truly the most globalized cannabis festival with great music and international perspectives united by a common passion. A ton of fun with great people who know the struggle is real but are having fun struggling nonetheless!

The entire view of the “Spannabis Village” in Barcelona (C) Spannabis

For more about Spannabis and the World Cannabis Conferences, visit spannabis.com/barcelona and worldcannabisconferences.com/wcc_en.

James Longshore is an actor and writer who has appeared in award-winning films and TV series which have played around the world. Mr. Longshore has written for the cannabis sector since 2014, but most importantly, he is the creator, writer and artistic supervisor of James Bong: Cannabis Crusader, the only comic out there starring a hero for the legalization movement! You can learn more about the James Bong series at
https://www.comixcentral.com/vendors/james-bong-comics/ or by following the comic universe on Facebook.

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