“If the only green at your cannabis conference or event is dollar bills, it ain’t no cannabis event.” Chris Bennett, Cannabis Historian.
I always think of 4/20 as the beginning of the “High Holidays” in the cannabis industry. It usually marks the beginning of cannabis protests, cannabis festivals, cannabis cups, cannabis fundraisers, cannabis boat cruises, and of course cannabis conferences. 2017 has proven to the busiest year yet with conferences and events planned all across Canada this summer. And it started in Toronto with the O’Cannabiz Conference and Expo, April 21st to the 23rd.
I was initially pretty intrigued, as the conference had some star power. But not the Trailer Park Boys, Snoop Dogg, Tommy Chong, or a member of the Wu Tang Clan who typically represent the celebrity stoner crowd. Instead, badass cancer survivor and amazing singer and songwriter Melissa Etheridge was the star of this event’s lineup.
My interest quickly turned to confusion though, with the posts and advertorials that quickly began to appear on my social media feeds. Press releases and advertisements in the Financial Post mimicking articles began to appear claiming that — although I have more cannabis conference badges than I can count cluttering my office — this conference was the “first of its kind”.
The cost to attend the O’Cannabiz conference was $399.00. Though no one answered my request for a media pass to the talks and presenters, I decided to drop $25 on an event pass and spend my Saturday afternoon at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel.
I arrived at the Sheraton and made my way to the conference centre. After purchasing my day pass I headed to the escalator, where I was immediately stopped by security. They informed me that since I was a day pass holder I would need to use the stairs. I asked if disabled attendees were allowed to use the escalator and they assured me there would be allowances made.
At the staircase I was annoyed to be stopped by yet another security person. This time it was to have my bag searched (not happening at the escalators). I told the young man searching my purse that I was in fact carrying my legal cannabis.
He inquired as to how much I had. When I told him that I had approximately eight grams he requested that I take it out and show it to him. Of course, I complied, ‘though I was feeling pretty insulted by this point. This was a cannabis conference, wasn’t it?
He allowed me to enter the exhibit hall, but I was subsequently searched at the stairs three more times that day.
I walked into the hall and immediately saw the friendly faces on the vendors at Chronic Canvas, selling prints and merchandise that showcases the art of various cannabis flowers. I said a quick hello as not to interrupt their flow, and made my way into the main hall.
Immediately it became clear to me that the O’Cannabiz conference really was “the first of its kind”. It was different from the many others that I have attended in my fifteen year career. It was a cannabis conference without cannabis!
Where’s the Weed?
I passed row after row of booths, and exhibitors dressed in either suits or branded golf shirts, surrounded by glossy photographs of cannabis plants and stylized logos. I looked for anyone actually featuring the product we were all there to discuss. Why couldn’t I see the various legal cannabis products currently offered in the market? Why couldn’t I smell it?
I exited out the other end of the hall and saw another group of friendly faces at the Smoker’s Guide Canada booth. They were across from one of the many bars around the venue. In fact, if I wanted to stay until the end of the day there would be a cocktail reception later. I felt like I was in an alternative universe … shocked by the blatant hypocrisy that alcohol was allowed at this cannabis event, but cannabis seemed banned.
I asked a few of the exhibitors why they were not featuring their product, and they told me it was against the rules. The heartbreak only an activist can feel when people are shackled by rules you’ve already broken.
In my day, to get around the convention centre “no display” rule, patients would visit our booths with the medication they possessed legally allowed to possess. We’d invite them to come and show it off and talk about their experience as patients, peer-to-peer. The consumers of this product are our industry’s greatest marketing asset, yet the patient experience seemed left behind at O’Cannabiz.
I’m a big Melissa Etheridge fan. Her music has been in the playlist of my life ever since I discovered her music in the early 90’s. When diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, Etheridge openly used vaporized cannabis as part of her treatment protocol. I was somewhat surprised that Storz and Bickel, the makers of the Volcano Vaporizer she used, didn’t pursue an endorsement deal.
While Melissa Etheridge was interviewed about her cannabis experience I stood in the audience. I was grateful to hear her recognize the activists and caregivers who have been fighting to provide medical cannabis access to patients for decades.
There is a problem with celebrity endorsement however: they are celebrities, not necessarily cannabis experts. I met Dr. Reggie Guadino, VP of Scientific Operations and Director of Intellectual Property at Steep Hill Labs. We both visibly cringed at some of the misinformation contained in the interview.
And it was lost on neither of us that the event we were attending was being run by affluent white men while prohibition continues to unfairly target men of colour.
Before I left on Saturday the kind folks at High Canada Magazine gifted me a pass for the next day, as well as a ticket to the Women’s Cannabis Business Breakfast at 8:30am.
I sacrificed my relaxed Sunday morning and got up at 6:00 am to arrive in time for the breakfast. The meeting room held a lot of familiar faces and quite a few I did not recognize at all. I sat at the back, and enjoyed chatting with a few ladies I knew at the table while we enjoyed breakfast and waited for the panel to begin.
I wish I could tell you all about the incredible information I learned from the women on the panel but my temper got the best of me. It’s a redhead thing.
United States of Cannabiz
There were seven women on the panel that morning. As each American panelist briefly introduced herself I couldn’t help but go through my mental roster of incredible Canadian women who could have been on that panel instead. The only Canadian representative was Jodie Emery. And while I consider Jodie a respected friend and colleague, she is just one of many building this industry.
I waited until Jodie finished her presentation, the first one, out of respect. But when she was finished I stood up in the back of the room to voice my displeasure. At an event supposedly celebrating the influence and power of women in the Canadian cannabis industry they could only find one to represent us!
And then I promptly stormed out of the room.
To the ladies on the panel I apologize; I’m sure there could have been a lot I could have learned from you had I not left. But a more balanced panel would have ensured we learned from each other.
I left the conference, sat across the street and vented my frustration on social media. Then I returned to the exhibition floor. I had my bag searched again, wondering what the hell I was still doing there. But I felt the need to explain my outburst to a few people before I left. Luckily not much of an explanation was needed; many other women in the audience apparently felt the same way.
So I stayed at O’Cannabiz and spent the rest of the day with High Canada Magazine and the Smoker’s Guide Canada team. We were joined by photographer and social media darling Tweedledoob and reality TV star and columnist Sarah Hanlon. They were also hosting neuroscientist (and reality TV star) Dr. Michele Ross.
I learned more from the side conversations I had with delegates and exhibitors than I did at the actual event. By all accounts Dr Guadino gave the presentation of best value — Expanding the Frontier of Cannabis Genetics: Unique Approaches to Phenotypic Analysis/Genetic Markers.
Oh, No, O’Cannabiz
While I am hopeful about what the added interest in the cannabis industry will mean for cannabis innovation, conferences like these need to step it up.
All cannabis businesses need to step it up and start to do their market research. They need to learn from the businesses that have come before them and learn who their consumers are. Investors may get you started but relationships are what helps your business grow.
Would I pay $399.00 to attend another O’Cannabiz Conference? No, in fact I probably won’t spend the $25 either. Maybe it was the apparent takeover of the cannabis industry by white men in suits. Or maybe it was the use of our national anthem while featuring American presenters that offended me.
Or maybe it was all those bag searches.
Photography courtesy of @Tweedledoob.