By Robyn Griggs Lawrence
In his dark suit and red tie, Washington State Rep. Roger Goodman (D) could have been speaking to bankers or programmers. His audience of graying men (there were only a few women) wore coats, ties and khakis and sat in neat rows of black chairs in a basement ballroom at Denver's Colorado Convention Center last month.
The buttoned-up crew was there for two days of networking and learning, a scene that would be mundane if not for the industry the conference was promoting, a product that's illegal for most Americans and citizens of the world. "I used to be the oldest person in the room at these events," Goodman told the audience for his panel about marijuana legalization and regulation at the Cannabis Business Summit. "I'm not anymore. That's quite a shift."
No Bongs or Buds Here
The crowd, just shy of 1,000 people, was a far cry from the unrulier bunch that gathers for KushCon and Cannabis Cup. Not a bong or a bud could be found on the expo floor.
In a sign of the nascent industry's rapid maturing, this full-on National Cannabis Industry convention with educational breakout sessions and vendors hawking everything from water systems to consulting and lab-testing services was the place for entrepreneurs, investors, growers and retailers who hope to snatch their share of a $1.43 billion industry that's projected to grow to more than $10 billion by 2018.
Though the federal government still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 substance, marijuana has become a legitimate - if not completely legal - industry. Colorado and Washington, which Hillary Clinton called "laboratories of democracy," legalized full adult use last year, and 23 states have legalized medical use.
Physicians in medical marijuana states are prescribing cannabis for conditions such as ADHA, cancer, glaucoma, Crohn's disease and chronic pain. This spring, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment prohibiting the Department of Justice from interfering with medical marijuana laws, which is now pending approval in the Senate.
Cannabis Industry Has Sprouted
Once ruled by outlaws, the cannabis industry has matured in every way. No longer a bastion for longhairs and rebels, it's now firmly under the control of the generation that has grown out of being longhairs and rebels - but still has it in them. Boomers with cash to spend are circling and closing in on the cannabis business because they see money to be made and they still love a good cause.
Speakers and attendees at the Cannabis Business Summit were well aware of marijuana's potential to make money. Suits don't come to conferences for fun. Still, no one Next Avenue interviewed cited money as his or her primary reason for getting into the cannabis business. Instead, they said they were there out of humanitarian concerns, such as helping treat cancer.
Marijuana is tangled up in social justice issues - more than one speaker pointed out the irony of gathering for a conference about making money on a plant that landed less fortunate people in jail - and is gaining traction as legitimate medicine with the likes of Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Dr. Mehmet Oz singing its praises.
"Where Commerce Meets a Revolution"
The tagline for this conference was "Where Commerce Meets a Revolution," a sexy idea for boomers. Freedom and justice were the speakers' buzzwords, and several presenters made nods to the generation that launched today's cannabis revolution in the '60s.
"Hippies keep being right," said Millennial Troy Dayton, CEO of Arcview Group, a marijuana investor network, market research and insurance firm, in his opening remarks, as many in the audience nodded in agreement. "They were right about renewable energy. They were right about organic food. And they're right about cannabis."
Dayton said most investors in his network are boomers who've raised their kids, made some money and want to put some of their portfolio into something they believe will make a difference in the world.
A solid example would be his father, 62-year-old Gary Dayton, who's along for the ride as his son capitalizes on the cannabis revolution. Manning the booth while Troy moderated panels and schmoozed, Gary looked out at the crowd and commented, "This is not a bunch of potheads. These are people who are interested in freedom and making money."
"The Time is Now"
For many at the conference, the cannabis industry presents new opportunity to parlay well-honed skills. Carole Richter, of CRichter-HR Consulting, courted medical dispensary and retail pot shop owners while playing up her 25 years of experience in business, operations and human resources management.
Peter Stoyt, who has been developing and selling commercial greenhouses for decades, showed off solutions for cannabis growers at the Envirotech Greenhouse Solutions booth.
Meg Collins, executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance, said establishing the organization was a natural, given her long experience in government affairs.
Ecologist James McMahon established his company, Elevate 420, when he discovered that the water filters he was selling to traditional horticulturalists also work well for growing cannabis. McMahon smoked his first joint on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris while singing "We Shall Overcome" with other civil rights activists in 1968. Like many boomers, he gave up marijuana after having children. But he feels safe getting into the industry now that pot is legal in many states.
"We boomers went from smoking pot on campus, which was pretty well tolerated, to having careers and having to be more secretive," McMahon said. "But I don't give a s*** anymore. Why wouldn't I participate in this joyful, gleeful, celebratory industry? We're the ones who are making this happen."
"The time is now," said Lacey Williams, an MBA and proud soccer mom who explained that medical marijuana helped her survive cancer treatments. As the cannabis industry legalizes and professionalizes, Williams said she, too, feels completely comfortable getting into the business.
Williams and fellow cancer survivor Tamara Stoltz, an attorney, are developing hash oil from cannabis plants that are high in marijuana's non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD. They hope to open a medical marijuana dispensary for women and the elderly in Denver. The two women want to make sure everyone who needs it can get access to a substance that they believe helped save their lives.
Studying a Way to Slow Tumors
Timothy Matula was at the conference because he learned a few years ago that CBD could be the answer to his years-long search for drugs to treat pancreatic and brain cancer. A member of biotech company Nuvilex's Board of Directors since 2004, Matula established Medical Marijuana Sciences, a wholly owned subsidiary of Nuvilex, to study the cannabinoid's effectiveness at slowing tumor growth in clinical trials. Clueless about how the industry operates, he turned to his sister, Janet Matula, who ran a medical marijuana cooperative in southern California.
"If CBD does have an anti-tumor effect, we've hit a home run," said Janet, who now consults for Medical Marijuana Solutions. "This would bring legitimacy in a very traditional way."
A Legitimate Industry
Legitimacy, it seems, is what many boomers have been waiting for - and many believe it has arrived.
Wanda James, a 50-year-old former corporate vice president and military officer who now runs a restaurant and a cannabis cooking school in Denver and was instrumental in getting Colorado's amendment to legalize marijuana passed, said this new legitimacy is spurring boomers to get in on the action.
"I've been getting high for 30 years with doctors, lawyers, businessmen, college professors and even a high-ranking federal politician," she said. "But boomers are in some ways a lot like teenagers - they don't always want to admit that they've been doing something that could get them into trouble."
James said she curates and cultivates her marijuana strain collection just as she has maintained collections of fine wines and rums. She can suggest the best marijuana strains for cooking and those that could help with muscle pain or anxiety - and many former tokers are taking note. "People's eyes light up when they realize this isn't about getting high in their dorm room or going to a Bob Marley concert in 1979," she said.
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