10 Things We Learned at the Southwest Cannabis Conference and Expo in Downtown Phoenix

Pot is profitable. Whether intentional or not, that was the message behind the Southwest Cannabis Conference and Expo earlier this week.

A few thousand people turned out for the inaugural event, held at the Phoenix Convention Center in the heart of downtown. The three-day experience hosted a career fair and two-day convention of panel discussions, people-watching, and networking. Some flew in from Atlanta and Miami, while others drove in from Las Vegas and Tucson.

Prices for individual entry were steep, ranging from $100 to $550, depending on the perks, which meant a lot more suit-and-ties than just-rolled-out-of-bed looks, though pot paraphernalia and cannabis-forward fashion couldn't help but be spotted. Still, attendance was mixed, bringing lots of advocates, appreciators and social smokers, local organizers and lawyers, and business owners and corporate CEOs.

There were also dogs and babies, a handful of in-house Volkswagen buses, and a psychic. And, of course, 420-friendly rapper HotRock SupaJoint was around, performing seemingly impromptu sets and posing with fans and awe-struck passersby throughout Tuesday afternoon.

Here are 10 things we learned — and saw — during the conference and expo.

Cannabis is going corporate
Your crazy hippie uncle's worst fear is about to be realized on a grand, commercial scale. The Man is taking over. One look inside and it became clear that the expo was all business. Which makes perfect sense, as some projections are calling for legal marijuana to be worth as much as $35 billion in 2020. Already, the industry has seen a surge. The ArcView Group, a cannabis investment and research firm, concluded that profits rose to $2.7 billion last year — a 74 percent increase from the previous fiscal year. To date, only four states across the nation have legalized the retail sale of marijuana: Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. (Washington D.C. has legalized recreational use, but not sales.) Arizona and our neighbors to the west, Nevada and California, are projected to have recreational use laws in place as early as 2016. Everyone wants a piece of the action, which could be why we saw booths for marijuana extractions and vape pens next to those about corporate lobbying, the National Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, and the National Cannabis Industry Association. It only makes sense — and dollars.

Legalization is only an election away — maybe
It's coming. Probably. There are currently seven groups statewide pushing for signatures to get a recreational initiative on the ballot in 2016 — and a few have already exceeded the amount needed by next July (150,000 are legally required, but many groups aim for an extra 100,000 to air on the side of caution). Of those seven, only three are worth delving into too deeply, though all are essentially splintered factions from what was originally a very large base.

Arizonans for Mindful Regulation (AZFMR) have a proposal that reduces criminal penalities for possession, ban automatic DUIs for users, and wants to establish a 10 percent retail tax on the product. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) would, like AZFMR, allow adults over the age of 21 to possess certain quantities of pot. It calls for the creation of a state agency to oversee both licensing and enforcement aspects (the "Department of Marijuana Licensing and Control") and a 15 percent tax. Public use would remain illegal. NORML would eliminate all penalties for both medical and personal (i.e. "recreational") use and does not impose "reasonable taxation" — but also doesn't define what that might mean. Which begs the reminder: This is about marijuana. A peaceful plant. Everyone's basically asking for the same thing. Can't we all just get along?

Pot could be regulated like alcohol
The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has been making waves throughout the city, thanks to this attention-grabbing billboard. And that presents another possibility that is essentially the same possibility, which just so happens to be sponsored by the MPP. The concept of regulation, and MPP's specific proposal, were much discussed throughout the expo floor — and even a few mini-billboard signs were seen floating around. The current law in Arizona makes selling, owning, manufacturing, or even having paraphernalia in your possession a felony (as in, mandatory prison time) — though medical marijuana users are a small exception, contingent on certain conditions. 

Because Proposition 203 passed in 2010 (albeit by a slight margin of 50.13 percent, or approximately 4,000 votes) cardholders can carry two and a half ounces on their person any time and allows, in some cases, home cultivation. But just because you have your medical card or are a caregiver doesn't mean you can't get arrested. As attorney Laura Bianchi said during the Arizona Cannabis Law 101 speaking engagement (geared more toward dispensaries than consumers), "this is an industry without much case precedence." 

We're still making the laws
Case in point: Only recently did Tucson attorney Ken Sobel and Arizona Cannabis Nurses Association win a fight with the Department of Health Services to add post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of qualifying conditions for a medical marijuana card. Wrongful termination suits are being heard with regard to employees who use the drug medicinally, while those with cards who fail drug tests during job applications are in even more uncharted territory. Andre Maestas — an ASU student with a medical card — was arrested for possession within his dorm room because of campus policy. He was found guilty last month. While the amount of Arizonans with medical marijuana cards hovers around 65,000 and dispensaries seem to pop up everywhere, the wheels of bureaucracy are slow-moving at best, and the law has not caught up with practical application. For example: There's a recent case in which a patient was arrested for bringing pot to a friend who had left it at his house. Though both were patients, neither was designated as a "caregiver." It's a case, brought up during a law panel, that attorney Tom Dean considers akin to "taking my mother her medication after she left it at my house." In other words, a would-be non-issue, if it didn't involve cannabis. And though the smell of weed is no longer probable cause for a search warrant, the police can totally still raid a dispensary.
Ricky Williams smokes pot
Granted, this is not necessarily news. Williams has not only been outspoken about his use of marijuana to cope with both injuries and anxieties, but a positive test for pot forced the running back into early retirement while with the Miami Dolphins, and brought him into the public spotlight (a negative one) again in 2006, when he violated the NFL's drug policy again after his return to the sport. But to hear four former NFL All-Stars, Eben Britton, currently with the Chicago Bears; Nate Jackson, a tight end who played six seasons with the Denver Broncos; Kyle Turley, a former Saint, Ram, and Chief turned country singer; and Williams, a Heisman trophy winner and former rushing leader, all publicly talk about their experiences with cannabis and condone the NFL's approach to its use was pretty impressive.

"Ten or 15 years ago no one was having this conversation," Williams said at one point during the near two-hour panel discussion, sponsored by the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition. "Cannabis worked for me. I'm not saying it's for everyone, but there are a lot of people out there for who it may be valuable medicine. 

The four discussed the plant's potential as a training supplement ("I don't go to the gym without it," Britton said, though Jackson added he's never used it before or during a game, when "11 guys are coming at me") with Williams, who began using the drug in high school for stress, going so far as to say "I don't think I would have a Heisman trophy if it weren't for cannabis."

The future is female
While the stereotype may be a high-school or college-aged stoned-out bro, the world of weed is gaining significantly within the female market. Attendance at the expo seemed equally split among gender lines and almost every panel featured a woman's voice. Jessica Billingsley, the Chief Operating Officer of MJ Freeway, was a keynote speaker, and Cheryl Shuman, the self-proclaimed "Martha Stewart of Cannabis" was also in attendance, sitting on a panel aptly titled, "Power Women of the Cannabis Industry" (of which there were two parts).

"What attracted me to the industry is that we are building this from scratch, from the ground up. You can forget any glass ceiling," said Jazmin Hupp, one of the featured panelists. "We get to build businesses that support women and their families, rather than punish them."

As the CEO and founder of Women Grow, the largest professional networking group in the industry, Hupp is based out of Oakland and flew into Phoenix to moderate and participate in a panel discussion about the business. The group launched in Denver last August and the Phoenix chapter began later that December. California currently has nine open subsets.

Hupp goes on to note that women purchase not only the majority of organic foods and health-concious products, but they also purchase 93 percent of over-the-counter medicine. As an industry that stemmed out of a desire to move away from big pharmaceuticals and return to natural alternatives, that means some serious purchasing power.

"This is an industry that came out of patient care — 80 percent of healthcare decisions are made by women for their families," she said. "What attracts them to this industry is, partly, their caring nature. [Plus] Women will be the primary buyers of cannabis and hemp products [once recreational consumption is legalized] as they represent 85 percent of consumer spending."

Women are also purchasing more alcohol in every category except beer, Hupp said, and therefore consuming more — which likely means "they're looking for an alternative to a calorie-heavy, liver-toxic substance on a Friday night."

There's an app for that
There are three, actually. Leafly, Weed Maps, and Mass Roots have all seamlessly married the rise of the tech world with the social acceptance of marijuana, creating social media platforms akin to Yelp, Google Maps, and Instagram that allow consumers to rate and find and offer companies an advertising platform outside of Craigslist. Each prides itself on different things, but all offer the kinds of interfaces that are easily accessible to users.

"If you think about cannabis in general and how it evolved it's very overwhelming for a new patient to go in," said Alice Han of the Leafly booth. "There's so many different strains there. I think a lot of the new users and older patients don't know what to take, so this is a great place for them to come and find out what to do."

Leafly, founded in Orange County and now based in Seattle, boasts strain reviews, information about pros and cons per condition, dispensary reviews, and location-based retail options. The larger website features cooking recipes and arts and culture stories, with nearly 1 million unique users and 7 million visits per month.

Weed Maps prides itself, as its name sake says, primarily in the latter, while Mass Roots looks to connect product to customer and calls itself "the community just for cannabis." Hashtag about time.

It's as ubiquitous as an infomercial
It felt like watching a live infomercial. The amount of at-home extraction services and options were endless, teaching "home-brewers" how to harvest the power of concentrates in their own kitchen. The process can be dangerous and a little convoluted due to the science involved. Thus, Magical Butter was created. The at-home botanical extraction service, was developed three years ago by CEO Garyn Angel, who had a friend suffering from crohn's disease and wanted an alternative to smoking. It took Angel a year to develop this multi-pronged product, which comes complete with a "love glove," strainer, and the power extractor.

"There are a lot of ways to do this," Angel said of extracting, comparing his process to a power window versus a manual. Both will go down, he says, but one will get there faster. "We put a push-button on it."

It'll cozy up real nice next to your Magic Bullet.

Vaping has taken hold
It's almost impossible to ignore vaping, both in person and as a movement. Not only does vaping product use less combustion and is carcinogen-free, but vaping consists of 95 percent cannabinoids and studies have shown a much higher concentration of THC. The high from vaping is more concentrated, said Tyler Burns of Open Vape — one of the many vaping vendors on-site — and the difference is noticeable. Pro-tip: Maybe start by taking smaller hits?

And that's not the only thing making a splash. There's a resurgence in edible products: from olive oil to sour candy and just about everything in between. Not all measurements are created equal: one brownie does not equal one blueberry. Even one candy bar may have a different amount than a similar-looking option. And that, according to one attendee, is part of the problem.

"People think it's not working," said Han, who hails from Los Angeles and was working the Leafly booth. They end up taking too much, she said, and that can defeat the purpose.

Where the weed was
That the cannabis conference was a kush-free zone was not surprising. That people actually followed the rules, well, was. Though there were sparse announcements over loudspeakers to "put that fire out!", rumors of an early-morning police search that delayed the start of day two, and, according to one convention center employee, a group that tried to bring live glass blowing into the building, the crowd remained chill and cognizant. That's not to claim everyone in attendance was sober, but rather that hey, the nose knows and well, we couldn't tell.

A few steps beyond the conference center doors into the outside world, however, and the scent was unmistakable. Past all the petitions and the groups in suits at a slightly guarded area away from the building was a group who extended a universal offer.

They puffed. We passed.

Author's note: New Times was the official media sponsor listed for this event. MJ Freeway Business Solutions was the conference's title sponsor.
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Janessa is a native Phoenician. She joined New Times as a contributor in 2013. You can connect with her on social media at @janessahilliard, and she promises you'll find no pictures of cats on her Instagram — but plenty of cocktails.
Contact: Janessa Hilliard