Southwest Cannabis Conference and Expo Career Fair in Phoenix a Big Hit

In the latest sign of marijuana going mainstream, a three-day marijuana-industry conference at the Phoenix Convention Center kicked off this week with a well-attended job fair.

The main events of the Southwest Cannabis Conference and Expo will take place today and Wednesday, featuring about 300 exhibition booths, guest speakers and an expected crowd of experts, entrepreneurs and all sorts of folks interested in just about any aspect of the plant.

This isn’t your grandpa’s marijuana industry, in which hundreds of people who work with pot coming together for a meeting of the minds might be deemed a crime wave by local cops. The big-time conference and career fair is a clear-eyed reminder of how far society has come in its tolerance of cannabis. Even without federal approval, it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry nationwide. And opportunities abound in Arizona, a state with a robust medical-marijuana program and the possibility of a Colorado-style legalization law looming with next year’s election. Organizers call the conference a “business-to-business” event, perfect for people “interested in entering the industry to open doors and meet its key players in person.”

On Monday morning, at least 200 people showed up for the career fair at the convention center at 100 North Third Street. Participants met industry workers or even future employers, plus speaker panels on topics including growing opportunities in the fields of dispensary management, cultivation, and extracting cannabis concentrates. Nearly everyone wore business-casual attire, though some had wide ear gagues or multiple skin piercings to supplement their short-sleeved collared shirts. Hopeful job seekers varied widely in experience and acumen.

“The industry is opening up – it seems like a prime time to get into it,” said Christina Matthews, a 19-year-old from Phoenix with lavender hair who was waiting for a pass to listen to Monday’s seminars.

Working toward an associate’s degree in science, Matthews said she’s intrigued by the idea that marijuana can heal people in a more “holistic” way than many pharmaceutical drugs. She hopes to someday play a role in future research and development of treatments.

Another career-fair attendee, Visa Graves, 44, said she was interested in meeting other entrepreneurs. She’s a former tattoo-shop owner with a business degree who now works as a beekeeper. Ideally, she said, she’d help manage a start-up company of some sort, preferably in the “ecology side” of the industry.

“I’m just looking to see what’s out there,” she said.

There were also people at the event like Phoenix resident Adam Banda, 58, who wants to work in a marijuana-related job in part because he feels he could use marijuana freely and wouldn’t be judged.

“I don’t think I’d have to pass a drug test” to get a job in the industry, he quipped. He’s a telemarketer now. But he’d be willing to start from the ground up, literally, with a job clipping or growing plants, he said. He’s got some experience cultivating marijuana and would like to offer his ideas to a future employer, such as one he has for growing marijuana plants upside-down.

One of Monday's guest speakers, Eric Carlson of the National Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, emphasized that a large number of jobs are being created in the industry as more states move toward legalization for medicinal or recreational use. He's a specialist in non-psychoactive hemp, which he believes could provide the foundation for an entire economy. For instance, he told New Times, whole cars can be built from processed hemp and then be run on bio-fuel made from the plant.

He and other speakers downplayed the “pothead” angle when it came to the serious business of making money in the diverse pot industry, in which 30 percent of workers may never even touch the plant. People might believe they can succeed in the industry and stay stoned all day, but the most successful business-people don’t, a spokesman and organizer for the Southwest Cannabis Expo, consultant Demetri Downing, told a crowd of about 150.

“There is no reality where it’s better to smoke at work,” Downing warned, adding that he doesn't use cannabis. “The adults are now taking over [the industry.]”

The Expo’s events begin today with several presentations starting at 9:30 a.m. – complete schedules, speaker listings and vendor information can be found on the event’s website.

New Times is the media sponsor of the conference, along with the title sponsor, MJ Freeway Business Solutions.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern