From glass display towers to dynamic presentations and a slew of surprises, MJ Unpacked brought an incredible rush of energy to the City That Never Sleeps. As the cannabis industry’s exclusive consumer packaged goods (CPG) conference, the event opened its debut New York show to great success, proving that the East Coast is truly a power hub for the plant.

MJ Unpacked's "Coast to Coast" panel. Left to right: Moderator Annie Davis, founder and CEO of Growing Impact; Chris Abbott, founder and CEO of Botanica; Kim Rael, President and CEO of Azuca; Thomas Winstanley, Vice President of Marketing at Theory Wellness (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

What Is MJ Unpacked?

MJ Unpacked definitely isn’t your typical cannabis trade show. For one thing, the crowd is curated to consist solely of cannabis brands, retailers, and accredited investors, because the event’s organizers are serious about pioneering a diverse and accessible space where deals can be made. George and Kim Jage, founders of Jage Media, created MJ Unpacked because they realized that while many cannabis conferences offered information on subjects like cultivation and processing, there was no forum to showcase retail and CPG-focused brands. Enter Unpacked, where branding is the star, and storytelling and community-building are the lights, camera, action.

For a first-time visitor to MJ Unpacked, there was a heady rush from the moment one stepped foot off the escalators at New York’s Midtown Hilton Hotel and into the bustling atmosphere of the event. The show floor buzzed with activity, and people networked freely among the eye-catching setups where brands let their wares speak for themselves. Instead of rows of booths, MJ Unpacked highlighted brands through a series of towering glass cases, opening the way for attendees to be drawn to product design and ingenuity. Each display included a QR code with background on the business and contact information for company representatives.

The MJ Unpacked show floor from above (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

What's It Like For CPG Cannabis Brands to Exhibit at MJ Unpacked?

“I personally enjoy MJ Unpacked’s unique brand showcase format,” said exhibitor Brian Cona, founder of the award-winning healthy edibles company Fruit Slabs. “It allows for companies to show off their style and brand identity, and lends to a more organic form of mingling than traditional behind the booth operations. The instant scan and schedule a meeting feature is an A+++.”

Cona’s display, featuring a wacky waving arm-flailing inflatable tube man atop the glass case, beckoned many a curious onlooker to peek at the range of delicious real-fruit edibles inside. “The floor was populated with a myriad of brands, cannabis community advocates, social justice warriors, legal professionals, journalists, suppliers, techies, growers, processors, investors, and more. There were folks from not only the New York and tri-state area, but from California, Arizona, Texas and even Florida! Everyone wants a bite of the ‘Big Apple,’” Cona observed with a grin, summarizing the event as a “high-scoring, well curated cannabis industry mixer.” “The concept is fantastic, and the delivery not only met, but exceeded my expectations from Unpacked Las Vegas.”

Having fun at the Flower Mill display (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

Numerous exhibitors and attendees praised the approach, which notably saved space and helped brands impress at first glance. Impressively varied displays introduced the crowd to companies such as women of color-owned brands Queen Mary and Black Buddha Cannabis; Mr. Moxey’s artisanal infused mints; the innovative wellness brand Frigg (which uses cannabinoids, mushrooms, and adaptogens in functional dry beverages); Stone Road Farms, known for “the most beautiful joints in the world” and gorgeous marketing campaigns highlighting LBTQIA+ talent in cannabis; and so many more. Consumer categories were well represented, with visitors taking in all kinds of edibles, beverages, topicals, cosmetics, accessories, lifestyle products, and even full-scale experiences.

Legendary creative director David Korins with Cannabition's display at MJ Unpacked (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

MJ Unpacked Breakthrough: Broadway Meets Cannabis as David Korins Joins Cannabition

That’s right, full-scale experiences. Those present at MJ Unpacked witnessed a significant breakthrough for cannabis and mainstream culture when it was announced that legendary creative director David Korins, responsible for designing everything from countless Broadway hits like Hamilton and Beetlejuice to the Oscars to New York’s viral Van Gogh exhibit, would be joining the Cannabition team. As co-founder and CEO Alex Brough explained on the event’s Money Stage, Korins will play a crucial role in coordinating Cannabition’s immersive exhibits when the interactive museum opens in its new location at Las Vegas’s Planet 13, the world’s largest dispensary. The news of Korins’s partnership with Cannabition is a huge indication of how other major industries are changing their attitudes toward cannabis, a marker of how the plant is breaking boundaries and integrating into the multilayered tourism and entertainment arenas.

Hibnb, one of the companies participating in the Money Stage’s Pitch Presentation competition, shares the same big-picture ethos. The name suggests exactly what the brand has made waves doing – its Stay Hi platform functions as a cannabis-friendly travel booking service, a plant-focused Airbnb. However, as founder and CEO Elizabeth Becker pointed out, Hibnb actually contains four platforms: the travel booking service, an event ticketing service (Play Hi), a product and retail recommendation forum (Get Hi), and a news and culture hub (Read Hi). Becker and her team believe in a world where the cannabis enthusiast’s own experience can be as full-spectrum as the ganja herself.

The MJ Unpacked Money Stage, curated by Deborah Johnson (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

Pitch Presentations on the MJ Unpacked Money Stage

Jon Wiederhorn, Hibnb’s lead editor, found MJ Unpacked a wonderful way for the brand to expand its network. He reflected, “Just a few years ago I never would have thought that a high-profile establishment like The Midtown Hilton would host a comprehensive cannabis convention and that everyone in the business, from start-ups to entrepreneurs, would be treated with the respect and friendliness afforded to more mainstream corporations. MJ Unpacked provided an excellent opportunity for Hibnb to network with other professionals in the cannabis business, and the support we received from the community was encouraging and uplifting. We felt right at home, whether wandering through the presentations in the exhibition hall, attending the speeches and presentations, pitching on the Money Stage, or attending the parties. And the connections we made during the week will no doubt help us thrive as the industry continues to grow.”

Curated by MJ Unpacked’s Investor Program Manager Deborah Johnson, an expert investment/business development strategist and cannabis pioneer, the event’s Money Stage saw an amazing array of Pitch Presentations. A majority of the 15 brands featured were women or BIPOC-led, including Bada Bloom!, Big Dipper Brands, and WISECO. It was exciting to see how companies are taking cannabis in new directions, such as the accessible safe banking solutions provided by Infused Banking; the music-themed marketing of Engager Brands; the fun and educational approach to sexual pleasure offered by oOYes.

Tanya Griffin, founder and CEO of oOYes, explained how her cannabis-infused sex products and online platform brought consumers a vital resource for communication about sexual health. Noting the need to normalize sexual pleasure in American culture, she designed oOYes with a 1960s-70s rock’n’roll aesthetic and encourages people to take the sex quiz on the brand’s website to know which products will work for them.

“We have to talk about sex in terms of orgasms and pleasure and the value of it [for ourselves],” Griffin commented. She added that the openness of MJ Unpacked to showcase brands like hers, which go beyond the typical infused categories, set the show apart from other cannabis events. “[They understand that] if the cannabis industry doesn’t start learning to be original and authentic and differentiate themselves, how are we going to build it? We need to develop it by using the plant to say, hey, there are new ways to feel and experience things… That’s how we reach people through this incredible plant, to better our lives.”

Cannabis industry pioneer Kristin Jordan emceeing the Money Stage Pitch Presentations (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

The Money Stage also presented introductions to new social equity brands through MJ Unpacked’s continuing partnership with the accelerator Our Academy (Our Dream). Eight businesses developed through Our Academy were able to share their stories directly with investors. Just like in the inaugural MJ Unpacked in Las Vegas last October, the participating brands were granted the MJ Unpacked Equity Scholarship at the end of the conference’s first day, so they may further develop the funding and expansion of their businesses. Scholarships went to ButACake, Good Smoke, Mary & Main, Neighborhood Essentials, Next Level, Queen Mary, Dose of Saucy, and SF Roots.

Near the end of the conference, it was announced that Barbari, the woman and BIPOC-owned brand specializing in low-dose cannabis experiences and herbal blends, had won the Pitch Presentation competition. Deborah Johnson presented Barbari CEO Meryl Montgomery with the grand prize: $5000 from MJ Unpacked and ten hours of consultative work from Canna Advisors.

Tina Gordon, founder and owner of Moon Made Farms, speaks on the "Legacy Storytelling" panel (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

MJ Unpacked Hosts Industry Experts for East Coast Cannabis Conversations

Throughout MJ Unpacked, industry leaders gathered on panels to discuss topical themes, gearing them toward East Coast and bicoastal viewpoints. One panel, “How Do CPG and Retail Brands Translate Coast to Coast?” examined how the disruptive powerhouse of East Coast markets can work together with established West Coast operators to build a nationwide industry. (It can be done, but understanding marketing and licenses is key!) Another discussion centered on how to “Meet Your Customers Where They Are,” and how to acquire customers more directly in a sector that’s often blocked by mainstream marketing channels. Featuring Darnell Smith, founder and CEO of MXXN; Meredith Mahoney, co-founder and CEO of Lantern; Brett Heyman, founder of Edie Parker and Flower by Edie Parker; and Danny Gold, CEO of Zoltrain, the talk provided lively insight into creating a viable crossover brand.

“Talking to customers no longer works,” said Smith. “It needs to become a two-way conversation. Collaborate with the consumer on your roadmap.”

On Day Two of the conference, the “Father of the Cannabis Industry” Steve DeAngelo was on hand to moderate the panel “Legacy Storytelling: Creating an Authentic Brand from the Unregulated Market,” where experts from both coasts weighed in on their experiences operating in markets pre-legalization. In New York, the cannabis consumption capital of the world, there has been much emphasis on integrating seasoned legacy operators into the regulated industry. The Empire State is learning from West Coast examples, where unregulated cannabis remains a problem that undermines the integrity of the legal space.

“We need to be at the table when laws are made,” stated Alphonso “Tucky” Blunt Jr., owner and CEO of Blunts and Moore. “We can’t be on Zooms; we need to be in rooms. It takes people like us to educate people and talk to legislation before they ink anything.”

“I can’t recall any time I have seen this much wisdom dropped in one panel than right now at a cannabis conference,” DeAngelo remarked of the panel.

MJ Unpacked founders George and Kim Jage (left, center) celebrate with New Jersey leader Leo Bridgewater (right) (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

New York's Social and Economic Equity: Cannabis Law Insights at MJ Unpacked

Later, New York Cannabis Control Board Chair Tremaine Wright sought to address that very issue. In conversation with New Jersey leader Leo Bridgewater, partner at Heart Community Capital, Wright detailed New York’s social and economic equity provisions. She urged new entrants into the cannabis sector to learn from their veteran peers.

“If you would like to be a licensee in New York, look at what we are already doing,” Wright asserted. “Our legacy folks are business operators. They know and understand what they are doing and they need to know what they can be doing in the regulated market. I think there is space for all of us here in New York – there are no limits to licenses that we are able to offer. This is a moment of opportunity, there is no scarcity here.”

But while Wright and Bridgewater agreed that cannabis offered an immense opportunity, they also mentioned that there’s historically been a disconnect between the public and government, particularly when it comes to regulation of industries. “People need to remember the government works for us,” Wright enthused. However, she admitted, “We realize we have an education problem on how the government operates. We don’t do a good job sharing what we are doing. In this moment we have the benefit of being in this happy space to know that we are building something together. We are able to build, grow, and restore communities and we are taking advantage of that and having comprehensive conversations with people throughout this state. We couldn’t have done it without learning from other states.”

Iconic rapper Ghostface Killah onstage at Terminal 5 during the MJ Unpacked Benefit Show for Last Prisoner Project (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Media, Inc.

MJ Unpacked Benefits Last Prisoner Project: Ghostface Killah, Hempress Sativa, Roy Rogers and Friends in Concert

In between the conference hubbub, exhibitors, sponsors and attendees partied the night away at various unofficial shindigs. (As one exhibitor noted, an official afterparty outside of the Hilton would have put the perfect button on the show.) Of course, no cannabis soiree could be complete without a fundraiser for the restorative justice nonprofit Last Prisoner Project.

Held at famous concert venue Terminal 5, MJ Unpacked’s benefit for Last Prisoner Project was themed around blues, reggae, and rap. Kicking off with the inviting sounds of DJ Largechild (Weedmaps’ Jared Leighty), the evening went into high gear with eight-time Grammy nominee and virtuoso slide guitarist Roy Rogers. Internationally-known reggae artist Hempress Sativa, hailing from Jamaica, inspired the New Yorkers to kick up their heels with a fighting spirit. Backed by The Unconquerebel Band, she delivered powerful vocals that shook the storied hall. The legendary Ghostface Killah of NYC’s own Wu-Tang Clan then emerged to bring the house down. A surprise appearance by Mutulu Olugbala of Dead Prez, along with sweet jello shots by Azuca and gourmet refreshments by Chef Ali of HiFive Edible Wonders, made the night one for the books. All proceeds went to benefit Last Prisoner Project, which works to free people incarcerated on cannabis charges and provide resources for their reentry upon release.

What Makes MJ Unpacked Different? The Flower of Life Gong

MJ Unpacked is truly unlike any other cannabis industry event. Aside from the action-packed happenings, there was one additional element that this writer especially appreciated. In the middle of the show floor stood the Flower of Life Gong, designed on the principles of Sacred Geometry to help aid in the process of creation. Its purpose at Unpacked? Whenever someone made a deal during the conference, the new partners would step up to ring the gong and celebrate their connection. There is no other cannabis business event in existence that honors the spirituality of this space, the birth of creativity and the power of our humanity, in such a way.

Like cannabis itself, those within the community must know we are more than who we are as individuals. When we come together, we are a force for good. Let’s keep unpacking that.

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