This year MJ Unpacked, an exclusive cannabis industry conference, debuted in Las Vegas to wild acclaim, and Honeysuckle was thrilled to get an inside look. Happening concurrently with MJBizCon, the world’s largest cannabis business trade show, MJ Unpacked put retailers and consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands in the spotlight for its premiere program.
Helmed by co-founders George and Kim Jage, the event was truly one of a kind. George Jage is a pioneer in the cannabis space who has served as both President of Marijuana Business Daily, helping scale MJBizCon to what it is today, and as CEO of DOPE Media, leading to its acquisition by High Times. A powerhouse of knowledge and advocacy, Jage created a revolutionary forum in MJ Unpacked.
We weren’t surprised in the least that Jage pulled off something special. Among the conference’s outstanding moments were Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd’s Blues Brothers concert, a fundraiser for the cannabis justice nonprofit Last Prisoner Project; a keynote address with Belushi, Aykroyd and business executive extraordinaire Christie Hefner; and an emotional introduction to BIPOC-owned companies through the accelerator Our Academy.
Jage shared some insights with Honeysuckle on what made this first MJ Unpacked a success. Word is that George will be taking the show to New York in May. All we can say is, the East Coast is waiting with bated breath for a little bit of Vegas to score a jackpot in the Big Apple.
HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: Congratulations on MJ Unpacked! Everyone seems to have loved the whole experience.
GEORGE JAGE: People were overwhelmingly happy. The comments were consistently about how high quality of conversations they're having. And then everybody that they talked to, those conversations had legs and they were valuable decision makers. Our goal was to create an event that really curated the audience at a high level, so that people could get deals done, they could have meaningful conversations, they didn't have to go to the big industry show and sort through 30,000 people and find the hundred people they want to talk to. They could just come to the event where the hundred people who they wanted to talk to were.
It’s interesting that MJ Unpacked is really the first CPG trade show for cannabis. There hasn’t been anything like it before, has there?
No, there hasn't been and this is something that I went to bed thinking about at night when I was building MJBizCon. A majority of the industry back in that time from like 2014 to 2018, they needed to find equipment and extraction machines, they needed software, the tools that they could use to stand up their licensed operating businesses. But the industry has gone well beyond that. People aren't going to a trade show to find light bulbs at this point; they already know what kind of light bulbs they want to put in their cultivation. They can go online and look at the different extraction equipment and determine what they want to use by the time they get the licensing, know what they need to set up their businesses.
But the bigger overarching thing is that cannabis is a CPG industry, and is built to be a CPG industry, just like alcohol is. The biggest and most important trade shows in those industries subtly create retail-focused shows across the board, like Natural Products Expo… And the only reason that we don't have one in the cannabis industry is because we don't have a national market yet. We started [MJ Unpacked] based on the premise that we are going to move in that direction. And we wanted to be in the best position to manifest out of that, and also to steward it properly and responsibly for the better, best interests, not just of our company, but of the industry.
How would you describe the overall mission of MJ Unpacked?
Our original business plans when we started the company back in late 2019/early 2020 was to actually run a series of state focused events to really consolidate the executive level brand and retail operators in the space and also integrate the investment community because we know that they need access to capital to grow these businesses. They don't have access to traditional banking that most operating companies would have. We know how important that is to the overall ecosystem. We obviously went through the pandemic. We saw an opportunity that the market's going to be moving very fast towards this national market. We probably have the most favorable chance on a national level to advance federal legalization. That's a complex issue.
We know [federal legalization is] an inevitability. There's so many states that have legalized cannabis, the opportunity to create interstate commerce packs, or a federal legalization program to allow companies to create those operational efficiencies across state markets is going to be huge. Now, in addition to that we also know that all of the big CPG companies in the alcohol space and tobacco space and other industries, mainstream CPG, all have plans to come in and start consolidating, rolling up these assets and dominating them. And part of our ethos is that we believe that the companies who have fought with their blood, sweat, and tears to build their brands and build their retail operations in the market that exists today deserve just as much of a chance to be the Seagram’s of cannabis that Seagram’s does. This is an opportunity where there's going to be brands created in our industry in the coming years that will have that type of generational wealth and global brand position that some of the alcohol companies, whether it's Anheuser-Busch or Bacardi or whoever, [have now]. There's really an opportunity for some of the people to own that opportunity and benefit from that success and growth through a market.
As cannabis expands into a more national and corporate market, there are so many conversations around equity, diversity, sustainability. How did MJ Unpacked address keeping the integrity of the original industry alive?
From an equity standpoint, we did a number of virtual events last year, and we did some diversity equity and inclusion panels. We quickly realized we don't need to have a session about diversity, equity inclusion. We all know what the right thing to do here is, that we need to create more of all of those things in our industry. Rather than having a panel discussion, talking about the problem, we're just going to make sure that those underrepresented voices have a place at our table. We're going to walk the walk instead of talking the talk.
I was pleasantly surprised with the number of people who just out of the blue came up and said that the level of diversity at our event was phenomenal. We took some strong positions... First, we did a partnership with Last Prisoner Project. I personally firmly believe as somebody who had a herbal distribution business that wasn't legal in the past, and certainly could have done time for that, that nobody should be going to jail over plant medicine. And if we have people that are incarcerated, we don't really have a legal industry till those people are all free. So our support of Last Prisoner Project is going to be ongoing and sustained. We believe that that's a very just mission for us to reform criminal justice around cannabis.
You also did a partnership with Hillary Yu of Our Academy, a workshop and mentorship nonprofit for social equity applicants and BIPOC entrepreneurs. What was that like?
What we do well as a trade event is we can help products go to market and help brands connect with capital in a very efficient manner. What we don't necessarily do is work with individual entrepreneurs and say, “Let's turn [your idea] into a business plan. Let's create an investor deck, let's practice your pitch deck and spend that time with those entrepreneurs to really get them ready to go to market.” But once they're ready to go to market, I can guarantee you that we can launch that. So we partnered with Our Academy where six of their cohort graduates had display cases on the show floor.
Four of those actually pitched during a special pitch session on our money stage. There wasn't a dry eye in the entire room when these people got up and talked about their authentic stories that brought them into the cannabis space, some of the hardships that they've had to endure and what they have at stake to create a successful legal business in this space. And the gentleman in the front row stood up and said, “I'm investing all your companies, period.” He didn't need to see all their decks or their financials. He just stood up and said, “This is the right thing to do.” People were in tears, bawling. And that, just to me, if we did nothing else right in our event and that happened, I would be ecstatic. I am ecstatic about the overall event, but we made a change in some people's lives that week, a really meaningful and impactful change. They're now going to have financial resources by investors who understand the compassion needed to support those businesses and do it in a way that these people are going to be able to create a path of success.
MJ Unpacked did a social equity scholarship this year. What are your future community impact goals?
We put the social equity scholarship together kind of late in our overall event cycle. So we're looking to expand that next year and see if there are other groups like Our Academy working with social equity and BIPOC businesses to create paths for them to be able to go to market at our event. And make sure that a very representative audience has seats at our table, which as an exclusive event that we're declining a lot of people to come to might seem counterintuitive, but the exclusivity around our event isn't around, race, color, gender, or anything else. it's around creating that exclusivity so that we have the right people in the room that increase the productivity and the value of the event and not having to sort through all of the chaff to get to the wheat.
You created a truly outstanding aesthetic for MJ Unpacked’s inaugural year. How did that influence the experience?
Everybody I talked to said the meetings they had were exceptional, the way we designed the event was awesome. They loved the fact that we created these brand showcases on the show floor, which significantly reduced the costs for a brand to have their product on display and freed them from having to sit in a booth, but allowed them to get to go out and network and still create lead generation from having this display case that also created our show floor. It felt like you were going through a retail discovery, like you walked into a department store and it was a Chanel counter here, and there's a Gucci counter here, the men's department over here. And then you just felt like you were shopping and looking at product because you need to be able to see what does this create?
I can get a sample and I can try the product, but what does the product look like on the shelf? Does it have that curb appeal that is going to make consumers come in and want to see my product?
In addition to all of that, this is the first time that we have brands from across the entire country on display, in a single location that the attendees were able to walk around and see who's innovating and what are the new products coming out? I think that that's so important for us as an industry to be able to see that. Some people are gonna be like, “My brand doesn't hold up very well… with all these companies,” and it forces everybody to self-improve…. The rising tide lifts all boats, right?
How would you say MJ Unpacked helped its exhibitors begin preparing for federal legalization? What do companies need for that future regulated landscape?
I had a fireside chat with Javan Bunch, who currently serves as CEO of Overton Capital. He's got 30 years of CPG experience working for [brands including] Donald Pliner and Coach. Then I had Steve DeAngelo, who's probably the most legit OG in the space, who's spent his whole life advocating for the legalization of cannabis. We talked about when these companies come in, what is this going to look like? What advantages do the current cannabis operators have to compete in this land of giants when these big companies try to squeeze out the smaller players in the market? it's that relationship with the plant and understanding the relationship with the consumer.
What we're doing is giving [brands] an opportunity to have their product on a national platform, to find partners in other states that they could possibly license to, to invest some capital for them to expand into new markets. And again, there's this tsunami coming of federal legalization at the tobacco, alcohol and other industries. They're going to wash a lot of these brands out to sea. We want to create an opportunity for us to be able to lift them up and make them sturdy so that when those companies do come in, they're either paying a premium for those businesses and acquiring them that way, or that those businesses are able to maintain their market share when the floodwaters come in.
We can use these opportunities for those businesses to flourish in advance of this federal legalization moment. And when it does happen, it's going to be a very exciting time. I think there's going to be a windfall of capital coming into the space. But what I don't want to see is that some of these companies that have endured punitive tax codes and onerous regulatory structures and changing regulations and, and challenges, not even having access to banking, that have fought that fight to create this industry to what it is today, deserve a chance to be a part of what it's going to be tomorrow.
The big highlight of the show was undoubtedly the Blues Brothers concert featuring Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, which raised $70,000 for Last Prisoner Project! How did that come about?
That was a good time… The House of Blues at the Mandalay Bay is such an iconic concert venue. It's intimate, raw and real, which I think all parallel what we were creating for our event and the feel of the cannabis industry. I think what [Jim’s] doing with [his docuseries] Growing Belushi, there's certainly an element of entertainment involved in that, but it also humanizes the struggles and the challenges of being in this industry. He does a very good job of that. And then subsequently, he's not just saying, “Hey, here's my name, license this.” He's putting his hands in the soil. He cares about this plant. He cares about the people it helps, and I admire him for that.
I grew up watching The Blues Brothers movie like 400 times and I'm like, this would be so awesome if we could pull this off. So I made a few phone calls and within a day we had the whole thing buttoned up. We wanted to make it all focused on raising this money for Last Prisoner Project. Jim's got a strong tie with LPP as an advisor. And it just seemed that to some extent we were on a mission from God, because all of these things that the universe kept putting forward, kept coming to fruition.
What's next for you and the MJ Unpacked team?
For us, it's about driving and creating value. We designed our whole event around creating conversations with the right people in the room, and the space for them to explore things, look at the product in a display case... and have some fun while they're doing it.
In the event space, you're only as good as your next movie. We did have a wonderful debut, but we've got to follow it up with another blockbuster... We'll be in New York on May 4 and 5.
Featured image: Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, and Christie Hefner present a keynote panel at MJ Unpacked in Las Vegas. Aykroyd and Belushi later performed as The Blues Brothers in the conference's signature fundraiser for Last Prisoner Project. (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.