The cannabis scene has changed enormously within the past two and a half years, a fact reflected most by the evolution of the Marijuana Business Conference (MJBizCon or MJBiz), the world’s largest international cannabis industry event held annually by the sector’s premier B-to-B publication Marijuana Business Daily. In this time of pause and reset, ahead of the MJBizCon NEXT Direct Virtual Conference with many companies looking to restructure in the wake of COVID-19 and the industry’s future positive but ever-shifting, it’s only fitting that we take a flashback to the great moment when everything changed. At MJBiz 2017, the conference came to Las Vegas, Nevada for the very first time. A dynamic program was devoted to Canada, then on the brink of being the first G7 nation to declare adult-use cannabis federally legal (which it did after much debate in 2018). New Jersey was looming large in East Coast circles as it inched closer to recreational legalization – though that milestone would eventually fail to manifest. And cultural publications, including Honeysuckle (then creating the first Honey Pot section), would be granted access to industry conversations for the first time.
In December 2019, when MJBizDaily’s co-founder Cassandra Farrington stepped down as CEO, she handed the reins to founding editor Chris Walsh. Walsh, a legendary journalist and one of America’s foremost cannabis industry analysts, spoke to Honeysuckle at MJBiz 2017 to answer pivotal questions about the business of the plant. His answers below are revealing – for the truths they contained then, and for what they indicate now about just how far we’ve come.
HONEYSUCKLE: With MJ Biz, what is the benefit of focusing on a B-to-B concentration, even in regard to what publications are coming here?
CHRIS WALSH: We started it with a very specific focus: to provide business information and analytic notes to professionals. When we started in 2011, there was nothing like it out there. The only type of content for the industry was High Times, and we felt, “Look, this industry is coming out of nowhere. There are business people that need help.” They want to know the stories that affect them; they want someone to cover the news effectively. The mainstream media almost never covered any of these issues or the industry, and if they did, it was always pot puns. No one ever took it seriously.
I come from a business journalism background, and we said, “Well, every other industry has news written seriously for the professionals in it, and this industry does not.” So that’s how we started our focus, and that’s [continued] from online to our magazine to the conference content here.
We’ve been keeping abreast of the trends in the cannabis business community, and recently heard that West Coast sales are expected to plateau for 2018. What do you think about that?
I don’t think we’ve reported that they’re going to plateau. I do a lot of our market estimates and research. In fact, California is the next gold rush. That’s common knowledge in the industry. That’s going to grow significantly, because [they’ve] legalized recreational marijuana… and that will become the epicenter of the industry. It shifted to Colorado when Colorado legalized recreationally and California didn’t have regulations on its industry, so it’s really been a mess.
But as they started medical, as they’ve started to regulate recreational marijuana, that’s going to be a massive new market. There’s going to be significant growth occurring in Washington State’s marijuana market; Oregon is growing. The only contractions we’re really seeing are in aspects of the medical marijuana industry in Colorado and Oregon because they have recreational. A lot of patients are not renewing their cards and they’re just going to the rec market. That side has been contracting in those states, but in every other state we see, even the mature medical marijuana states, the programs are growing. They’re adding patients, they’re adding physicians’ lists, and their sales are growing. So the long-term future and the near-term future of the industry are extremely bright.
Regarding the East Coast, obviously New Jersey is huge news right now. Some say it’s going to be the state to watch for 2018, but a lot of people are still saying it’s New York because that’s the last domino to fall.
Well, there’s a couple of things that we’ve seen play out. The marijuana industry has largely been concentrated out west. Those are the pioneering states, those are the ones that got their industry regulated. What you’re seeing now is that the West is still a major part of this industry and still the epicenter, but the East Coast is developing as well, and it’s developing differently. It’s developing with more regulations and in many cases a more professional feel. The environments are different between the two from a business perspective, so New Jersey could legalize recreational next year. That’s looking very possible and it would be a massive development. And New York, its medical program has struggled a bit because of strict regulations. They didn’t license a lot of companies. They’re working through some of the kinks. But obviously New York has the potential to be one of the top marijuana markets in the country, if not the world, depending upon if they legalize recreational marijuana and where they go with the program. If they can open that up more, that would be a massive market.
If New Jersey does get recreational pushed through in 2018, how is that going to change the overall appearance of the marijuana business community?
We don’t know yet, because no business on the East has gotten its recreational industry up and running yet. Massachusetts is kind of dragging its feet, Maine now is going to have a delay, and those were the first two – those were hopefully going to be the first two to go. What you see in the West is that the states that legalized recreational marijuana right now are moving fast. Oregon did the same – they’re starting early sales before they plan. In the East, you’re seeing delays on the recreational side.
We’re not sure how that’s going to play out, but I can guarantee you that if New Jersey legalizes recreational marijuana and gets its industry up and running, it’s just going to be a key cog in the whole marijuana industry in this country.
Countries like Canada and Israel really have their cannabis industries booming as well.
What I’ve seen over the past couple of years, especially in 2017, is this becoming a global industry. And you have Canada, where medical’s already legal federally, and now they’re going to legalize recreational marijuana next year. That is huge – they’re the first G7 country to do that. And they are already advancing so far that there are companies that are licensed and legal federally that are exporting marijuana across the country and the world because more countries are legalizing medical marijuana and they’re looking for people. You can’t do that in the US because it’s illegal; we can’t export it from here. So Canada has this rapidly growing export industry. It’s becoming a leader on that end, and what you’re seeing is these companies are expanding into South America, into Europe. Australia has legalized medical marijuana. This year alone I think there’s something like a dozen countries who have made significant moves in either legalization or very close to it.
So you have Canadian companies coming into the US, you have US companies going into Canada, and then you have all these other companies going elsewhere and international companies coming in here! There are Israeli companies that have been coming in these last couple of months too. They’re very well advanced on the research side in that country.
We’re very aware that other countries are leapfrogging the United States because they’ve allowed other countries to usurp them. Israel is focusing really on pharmaceutical and research to back up the claims. Here in the US, people are kind of like, “This will help you with this!” Anecdotally. There’s no hard data. So in Israel, you have research, exporting in Canada, and you can only expect that this will continue.
It’s still really difficult to research in the US until the laws change. I think the US should still lead the way in creating a regulated market and finding a right mix of regulations that ensures a responsible industry that’s professional and legitimate, but that also allows business opportunities and it also has the necessary safety regulations to protect children or patients that use it as medicine.
The international presence is great at MJ Biz Con. What would you say to people who have never been here?
We have attendees from more than 40 countries here. For the first time, we held a whole schedule of conferences about Canada; we have speakers from Israel and Europe. If you’ve never been here and are considering getting involved in the industry, then you should probably do your due diligence and see what it’s like. See the types of companies and the people, because a lot of people come in and make missteps when they don’t understand the industry. So when you can get together with 17,000 people and most of them are already in the industry, learn from them, attend sessions that can teach you the basics and the advanced strategies for the business, you probably couldn’t get that much education or networking in any other capacity.
At the end of the day, we’re a reflection of the industry. We wouldn’t be this big if the industry hadn’t grown this big either.