Tech has CES and fashion has Magic, but the biggest trade show of the year for the cannabis industry is MJBizCon. The four-day event ran December 11-14 in Las Vegas, featuring conferences, panels, parties, and an expo at the Convention Center with about 35,000 attendees and more than 1,300 exhibitors.
The annual gathering was the perfect place to gauge where things currently stand while pinpointing the latest trends. Top takeaways reveal that the industry is stronger than ever and moving in a promising direction — even if some issues need to be addressed along the way.
Microdosing: less is more
Consumption is often a guessing game. How many puffs should I take? How much of that brownie should I eat? As the consumer base continues to grow, microdosing is becoming an attractive alternative to those who want to ease into the enjoyment of THC or simply manage their intake without an overwhelming high.
"It's really about finding the right cannabis product that suits your tolerance," said David Elias, co-founder and CEO of Lowell Herb Co. "Some people are doing super-low 2.5 milligrams edibles, where they're feeling a light buzz, but they're not very high."
Elias believes the retail market underestimated the demand for low-dose products. It's one of the reasons his company is now marketing mints with small, precise doses of THC.
"The market is far bigger than just intoxication," said dosist CEO Gunner Winston. "That's one of the evolving parts of the industry."
Microdosing and, more specifically, precision dosing was front-and-center when dosist launched its first pen in 2016. Each product contains THC targeted toward a specific purpose — like "sleep," "calm," "bliss," or "passion" — making it a compelling choice for health-conscious consumers, first-timers, or those who prefer a more specific understanding of their dose. The company also produced the first certified child-resistant dial that dispenses 3.7 milligrams dissolvable tablets.
Winston said it's all about responsible consumption, comparing reckless cannabis intake to chugging a bottle of Tylenol for back pain. It's important to know exactly what you're taking. "Most people want control," he said. "We want to create predictable outcomes."
The struggle for representation continues
"There is not enough diversity in this space. Blacks only represent four to five percent of the industry," said Al Harrington, former NBA star and founder of Viola, a rare example of an entirely black-owned and operated cannabis business.
It was a common topic of discussion at MJBizCon — how to ensure there's equal and diverse representation among those who make the most money on legal cannabis.
Harrington had one idea for improving the situation: "Some form of a carve-out. There should be a certain amount of licenses set aside for capable (members of minority communities). I'm not saying just give them to anybody. Prove yourself and have the acumen to run and operate these businesses. You just need to figure out a financial source, and one that's not going to be predatory."
For Hope Wiseman, raising capital wasn't an issue. She partnered with her mother and a family friend, using money from a dentistry business and real estate investments to open Mary & Main in Capitol Heights, Maryland. In the process, the entrepreneur became the youngest black dispensary owner in the United States. "It was a little bit of luck, but a lot of planning and resources," she said. "We just got in a little bit early."
Wiseman said her biggest obstacle was not having connections already in place when she started the application process. "Money is green," she pointed out. "However, even when you have enough capital, you're competing with people who have access to so much more."
The honeymoon period is over
There are plenty of promising markets for cannabis in 2020. Massachusetts opened its recreational market and sales are soaring. Illinois and Michigan are introducing adult-use sales and could see $3-4 billion in combined revenue. The biggest surprise is Oklahoma, which took a business-friendly free-market approach and saw $350 million in sales on medicinal marijuana alone.
However, California is the most glaring example of a struggling market with a messy patchwork of inconsistent laws, restrictions, and regulations throughout the municipalities that make up the world's fifth-largest economy. It's an environment that's proving to be tough for businesses large and small.
"I think it's a make-it or break-it year for a lot of companies," said Al Harrington. "We're going to see more consolidations as well — people trying to get under the umbrella of bigger companies."
Sales in the Golden State are strong, expected to be around $3 billion for the year. However, illegal sales are even higher and it doesn't help that a new tax hike was approved. If endangered companies don't consolidate, they may need to raise capital — or make cuts — to survive the turbulence.
"We've had numerous companies announce layoffs," said Marijuana Business Daily CEO Chris Walsh. "That's a lot different from where we've been in this industry."
Walsh believes the situation will get worse before it gets better. "For now, there will be pockets of pain and challenges as we continue to grow," he added. "But eventually, it will normalize."
Consumption will further merge with everyday life
As cannabis continues to emerge from the shadows and gain acceptance, consumption will integrate more into everyday activities. Collette Patricia of Balancing Cannabis is well aware of this. She leads private meditation sessions in Southern California that incorporate marijuana.
"If you meditate with cannabis in your system, you can connect deeply to yourself," she said. "We're the first generation of cannabis users since the beginning of time who have forgotten that cannabis is a spiritual ally. It's a spiritual plant and has always been used that way. We want to remind people of that."
Her services range from a private session at home or in a yoga studio to four-day retreats for women. A certification program is in the works to expand the program with coaches throughout the country.
"Businesses are looking for ways to combine cannabis with what people do in their everyday lives to relax or have fun," observed Chris Walsh. "There's a big trend in the spa world to incorporate CBD or THC massages. Instead of 'sip and paint' there's 'smoke and paint' for a girls' night out."
Infused dinners are here ... and you're invited
One of the highlights of MJBizCon was an event that happened about six miles from the Convention Center. Lowell Herb Co. presented what the company claimed was the first THC-infused dinner in the country with tickets available to the general public. The four-course meal, presented under the Lowell Cafe brand, was prepared by Chef Marc Marrone of Graffiti Bao. It included short rib with infused mashed potatoes and a butterscotch budino with an infused snickerdoodle cookie.
"I used to make brownies as a kid, so I know that any kind of fat or butter picks up THC well," joked the chef.
However, Marrone focused on flavor profiles while the Lowell team handled the science behind the infusions. The dinner was intended to be more than a meal, but rather an entire experience. Held in a rustic outdoor setting with wood tables and hay bales underneath string lights, the dining area was between tents next to NuWu Cannabis Marketplace, the only dispensary legally able to allow public consumption in Las Vegas due to its location on Native American land.
"There is an entire[ly] new group of consumers who wants that laid back, relaxed experience," said David Elias. "It's not smoke in your face. It's not everyone on top of each other. It's not packed with the most people possible in a small space. It's really about embracing what we've created with the Lowell brand and making the next move."
Elias is planning more Lowell Cafe pop-up dinners in 2020 but understands the limitations within different states and municipalities. Yet he's already in talks with NuWu management for another Vegas event in the near future.
Say “hello” to the digital budtender
You already see them at McDonald's, and now digital-ordering kiosks may be coming to a dispensary near you. Just walk up and tap a screen to browse your selection, place your order and pay with cash, credit or debit — then collect your product at a nearby counter.
"Our kiosks don't call out sick, they work 24/7, they don't have an attitude and they upsell about 30% on the first day," said Carl Case, director of global sales for Paywana, a company that provides self-ordering technology to the cannabis industry.
Budtenders won't disappear altogether, although they could be repurposed to "go in the back of the house to fill the orders that are being placed" added Case, who estimates 1,600 deployments of his kiosks in 2020. It only takes a business about a week or two to get running with the new technology. Curaleaf, which operates dispensaries in 12 states, is Paywana's largest client.
Vault Logic is taking the concept a step further with a multi-use app-based digital kiosk that not only doubles as an ATM but can also potentially accept cryptocurrency for dispensary transactions.
"Is crypto going to be adopted by the greater cannabis community? The answer is it should be," said founder and director Doug Scribner. "Because banks hate cash and banks hate cannabis. Banks also hate crypto. So we're all in this together."
Edibles are evolving … slowly
Sick of the same old edibles? Pastry chefs and producers are getting more inventive with their creations. But as far as trends go, gummies and chocolates continue to dominate dispensary shelves.
"I do think that market is a bit saturated and there's an opportunity for more niche products and things that are a little more health-conscious," said Rachel King, founder and culinary director of Kaneh Co. "Everybody makes a chocolate chip cookie — including us, they're delicious — but I think things like our superfood granola or chocolate paleo bites are the way the market is going. Our gummies are made with real fruit, rather than (artificial) flavoring or gelatin."
King reflects a growing trend of culinary experts coming to the cannabis space, rather than the other way around. "I was a restaurant pastry chef for 10 years, so I'm transferring my skills to this industry," she said. "We can do more creative things. Things are starting to taste better."
Kristin Wood agrees. She represents Once Again Nut Butter, a company that markets gourmet peanut, almond, cashew, and sunflower butter to edible manufacturers. "Everybody is looking for that chocolate sweet treat," she said. "You're going to see more peanut butter cups and creamy fillings."
Guys are going glam with CBD
CBD is in pretty much anything and everything these days, although much of the cosmetics market is geared toward women. A new wave of products is keeping the fellas in mind. Oregon-based Sweet Earth has a CBD men's line that includes a beard and mustache oil, moisturizer and styling balm.
"They're looking for something that's not fussy and not overly fragrant," said founder Farinaz Wadia. "Suave, but not foo-foo."
Marijuana is for sale on a bus
The Real CannaBus bills itself as a mobile dispensary, and it's definitely a first-of-its-kind concept. During MJBizCon, the weed store on wheels was parked outside Essence near the Strip, shuttling in guests from the Convention Center to check it out. It was also parked outside Wow Organics' Dream networking event near Fremont Street and traveled to the Emerald Cup in Northern California the following weekend.
At the moment, the bus is mainly a promotional tool for the technology inside — but can it actually sell marijuana? Only in California, where the law allows limited licenses for off-premises transactions. That means you may be able to score some bud of your own when the Real CannaBus makes an appearance at several upcoming festivals and concerts throughout the state.
Smoking is cool again
In reaction to the bad press surrounding vaping chemicals over the past year, there's a renewed interest in smoking the old fashioned way — while keeping it as healthy and natural as possible.
Caldwell's Smoking Pipes is poised to capitalize on the trend with a new type of patented cigarette-sized pipe that's more convenient, discreet, and supposedly better for your health than other one-hitters out there.
"We made ours out of the safest materials," said co-founder Christopher Davis. "We have a surgical-grade stainless steel bowl and there is a five-hole matrix in there as opposed to the single one you usually get. It's really good for protecting from ash."
If a traditional blunt is more your speed, Twisted Hemp makes all-natural wraps with hemp single-sourced from a Canadian farm — bypassing the nicotine in a tobacco leaf or the additives in rolling papers. The product is a single sheet of hemp, so there isn't even any glue holding a seam together.
"It's a cleaner option versus the traditional way to smoke," said sales manager Duane Latham. "We're seeing a huge backlash on vape pens and cartridges. Consumers are more concerned now than they were a year ago."
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