OAKLAND — There was an air of political resistance at the Oakland Marriott City Center on Tuesday, where the fourth annual Cannabis Summit & Expo was being held just after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made headlines for a letter he wrote asking Congress to undo federal medical marijuana protections.
Among the most outspoken at the conference was former president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, who delivered a keynote address to a crowd full of cannabis industry businesses, reporters and others at the summit.
“That he is crazy. That he doesn’t know about history. That he doesn’t know what we have built with such a big effort and such sacrifice,” Fox said to a group of reporters before his address when asked about Sessions’ request to undo those protections, which are known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment and prohibit the use of federal funds to enforce federal law (marijuana is still illegal federally) in states that have legalized marijuana.
“I don’t know what has happened with this administration,” Fox continued. “They are totally blind.”
Fox went on to defend the cannabis industry as a “sensible industry” and spoke of the need to decriminalize marijuana — and potentially other drugs — to end the violence associated with drug cartels and the underground drug market between Latin America and the United States.
He spoke critically of the Trump administration’s efforts toward what he called “isolationism,” including proposals to build a wall along the United States-Mexico border and limit trade with certain countries. When asked by reporters how he would handle the Trump administration if he were president today, he responded, “How do you treat beasts?”
Aaron Smith, co-founder of the National Cannabis Industry Association, which put on the expo, urged attendees who are in the cannabis industry to unite by networking and stick together in the face of potential crackdowns by the federal government.
“It is imperative, now more than ever, to operate above board … and reach out and connect with the community and be good corporate citizens,” Smith said, adding that they should keep their operations “out in the open and work in solidarity.”
The association is among the most prominent cannabis industry groups in the country, representing 1,300 member businesses. The summit, which is held over the course of three days, featured about 150 speakers in educational programs and an expo floor with hundreds of exhibitors.
The tone on the expo floor Tuesday as cannabis workers and business owners roamed the halls, looking at the latest technology, innovations and business concepts in the industry, was decidedly more optimistic than Fox’s words about Trump.
Nate Winokur is a process engineer at Blaze Lab Solutions, a company based in Southern California that sells equipment for oil extraction, a growing facet of the cannabis industry.
“It’s happening massively,” Winokur said of that growth. “It’s the type of growth that happens with a product that wasn’t a commodity before but now is … as if bacon or corn didn’t exist and now did.” Increasingly, people and businesses are extracting oils from marijuana plants to infuse into products, from edible treats to medicine.
It was clear on the expo floor that the cannabis industry is no longer just a handful of dispensaries and growers. While those are growing more sophisticated by the day, lots of new businesses have sprung up to meet the needs of the cannabis industry.
That includes everything from security to grow systems to accessories.
Iron Protection Group, founded in 2014, provides a range of security services to cannabis companies, from having security personnel outside grow operations or at dispensaries, to providing transportation of product, to offering training and consultations. The group mostly consists of young war veterans, according to Chris Bowyer, a director at the group and a marine veteran himself.
For many veterans, marijuana is a balm for helping to calm minds after combat, Bowyer said, adding that the company promotes a sense of “brothers helping brothers” in providing jobs to these veterans. And while theft and crime is a “dark side” of the industry, security like the type Iron Protection Group provides is necessary as cannabis businesses grow.
Other businesses are shifting or expanding their models to meet cannabis industry demands where they did not before. LeafLocker is a venture from a company called the All Packaging Co., which manufactures folding cartons. LeafLocker makes child-resistant cartons specifically for marijuana products, working with cannabis brands and businesses to customize the packaging for different products, said marketing manager Brad Nelson.
Nelson said the Leaf Locker venture came from seeing a growing need for proper cannabis packaging, which must be child-resistant to meet certain regulations, he said.
The cannabis industry indeed continues to grow, particularly as states like California legalize its recreational use. According to marijuana research publication Marijuana Business Daily, the U.S. cannabis industry’s total economic impact is slated to rise 241 percent from $16 billion-$18 billion in 2016 to $48 billion-$68 billion by 2021. Those numbers are based on the formula that each dollar spent by marijuana customers at the retail level generates another $3 in economic benefit through things like industry wages, taxes and the construction and real estate activity for cultivation and dispensary facilities.
AEssense Grows a Sunnyvale-based company, develops aeroponic systems for plant growth that can be controlled automatically, and as the cannabis industry has grown, it has marketed its aetrium systems mostly for marijuana growers. The systems aim to help growers get maximum yield from their crops while also using less water.
Chris Wrenn, vice president for sales for AEssense, said the cannabis industry has provided lots of new opportunities for the company.
“And it’s a lot of fun.”
Watch Vicente Fox’s keynote address at the Cannabis Business Summit: