8 Things We Learned at Cannabis Conference 2021

Cannabis Conference 2021, the industry’s leading event for plant-touching businesses, was host to nearly 3,000 cannabis professionals in August, who came together for the first time in two years to share the latest technologies and solutions, business strategies and more at Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.

On the 85,000-square-foot trade show floor, 175 exhibitors showcased their products and services, while nearly 90 speakers shared their expertise during Cannabis Conference’s 40-plus session educational program. Sessions were jam-packed with business, cultivation, extraction and dispensary insights. After a monumental year in cannabis—there was much to discuss and break down.

Below is a snapshot of takeaway moments from Cannabis Conference, compiled by the editorial teams of Cannabis Business Times, Cannabis Dispensary, and Hemp Grower.

1. Social Equity Is Evolving to 2.0

In the panel, “Turning Talk Into Action: How Cannabis Companies Are Developing Meaningful Social Equity Priorities,” speakers discussed the importance of the industry moving into what they called “Social Equity 2.0.”

Jerel Registre, managing director of Curio Wellness’ Curio Investment Fund, said social equity is currently often thought of as the rules states put in place and how prospective and current operators navigate them. He said: “I really think the next iteration needs to be: How do companies choose to engage in partnership with their local communities?” (Read more about Curio Wellness’ reinvestment and franchise partnership opportunities here).

Al Harrington, CEO of Viola Brands, outlined some of the initiatives his company is taking on. “We’re rebuilding a park in Detroit, we give food away over the holidays, we do clothing drives—as a cannabis brand, just to get people to understand we’re not criminals. We’re really doing this for the right reasons,” he said.

Patrick Williams, senior editor, Hemp Grower


Las Vegas Event Photography

From left: Amber LIttlejohn, executive director of the Minority Cannabis Business Association; Jerel Registre, managing director of the Curio Investment Fund; Hope Wiseman, owner of Mary & Main Dispensary; and Al Harrington, CEO of Viola Brands, discuss social equity policies in the cannabis industry.

2. Community Reinvestment and Raising Capital Upfront Continue to Grow in Importance for Licensure

In just a few short years, we’ve seen the licensing landscape evolve dramatically. Some states have set caps and intentionally limited the marketplace. Others have taken an open-ended free-market approach. Through it all, two defining trends have been: rising regulatory and startup costs, as well as an increased emphasis on both community engagement and social equity in the application.

During the session, “Create A Winning License Application,” a recurring motif was expense. Plan ahead to spend more than you initially think you will. Erin Alexander, general counsel for multi-state operator Cresco Labs, said that only a few years ago you’d see licensed dispensary startup costs around the $500,000 mark. Now, that’s closer to $1 million.

And within the actual license application, social equity and a commitment to diversity in the workplace has become a linchpin in the path to approval. “Whether it’s a municipality or a brand new state program, social equity is going to be front and center,” Alexander said.

– Eric Sandy, digital editor, Cannabis Business Times, Cannabis Dispensary, Hemp Grower

3. New Brand Strategies Will Emerge with Continued Legalization

The prospect of the federal legalization of cannabis, which could open up interstate commerce, is changing the way the industry thinks about the way it creates and markets its products. While the cannabis industry’s roots never centered on brands, this is changing as the industry becomes more mainstream. 

“The stigma is definitely going away, we see the expansion across the U.S., and so with that, when you talk about daily consumption products, it’s because we can see that day when it’s no longer illegal from a federal level,” Valda Coryat, chief marketing officer of Florida-based Trulieve, said during a Cannabis Conference session titled “The Future of Cannabis as a CPG (Consumer Packaged Good).” 

This means that the approach to branding will continue change as the number of consumers grows, and consistent frameworks for brand strategies will start to emerge. 

– Melissa Schiller, senior digital editor, Cannabis Business Times, Cannabis Dispensary

4. Operators Should Start Planning Now for a Federal Cannabis Economy

ngiste abebe christian sederberg

Las Vegas Event Photography
Ngiste Abebe, vice president of public policy at Columbia Care, and Christian Sederberg, founding partner at Vicente Sederberg, discuss the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act.

After decades of prohibition, federal legalization can’t come soon enough. At the same time, it can also come too soon. In that second breadth, it’s important to take notice that once federal legislation finds majority support in both chambers of Congress and in the White House, the rules and regulations rollout must position state markets and their entrepreneurs for success through a transition period.

During the session, “Federal Cannabis Legalization in the United States: What Will it Mean?” the inevitability of interstate sales emerged as one of the merits of a transition period. Industry stakeholders should be provided the time to prepare for changes and know exactly when and how those changes will happen, said Ngiste Abebe, vice president of public policy at Columbia Care.

For multi-state operators, maybe vertical integration will be shifted to a national scale with central cultivation and processing hubs. For dispensary owners in a border town who rely on traffic from neighboring states that don’t yet have adult-use legalization, maybe their sales figures go down as new state markets come on board—or maybe they go up as consumer use increases. And when a border opens up between two states with drastically different taxation models, perhaps state governments will have to adjust their revenue systems to remain competitive. Those possibilities are currently being taken into consideration with the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act’s draft legislation in the Senate, but unintended consequences won’t play out until real time.

“Interstate sales are going to come, and you have to prepare your business for that transition and that new economy,” Abebe said. “What I would hope to see from the CAOA is that we provide some certainty about that timeline and that we provide a bit of a delay so that everybody has time to prepare for what that new change is going to look like.”

–Tony Lange, associate digital editor, Cannabis Business Times, Cannabis Dispensary, Hemp Grower

“We consult to educate, and we educate to empower.”

– Sara Payan, Public Education Officer at The Apothecarium


5. The Barriers to Clinical Cannabis Research Are Starting to Break

One of the most confounding aspects of cannabis use in the 21st century is the lack of federally approved clinical research, with consumers relying heavily on anecdotal data to guide their purchasing decisions. In the United States, the fallout of prohibition, as well as the lack of research funding from the private businesses are two major roadblocks impeding the progress of the study of cannabis for medical use. 

During the session, “Product Formulation Best Practices, Current Trends and Where the Future Will Take Us,” Dr. Andrea Small-Howard, president and chief science officer of GB Sciences said, “Research is a double-edged sword. Everyone wants research, no one wants to pay for it. … One of the things that would be great is if collectively, somewhere in the cannabis industry, there became some sort of general fund for funding this kind of research that we all hope will exist but don’t necessarily want to pay for entirely.” (Read more about the research G&B Sciences is conducting to study cannabis as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease here.)

However, some roadblocks, such as the nearly 52-year-old government monopoly on federally approved clinical cannabis cultivation, are wearing away. Cannabis Conference’s Day 2 keynote presenter and Scottsdale Research Institute President Dr. Sue Sisley outlined the journey she and two young lawyers took to bring litigation against the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Justice, which led to the acquisition of a Schedule I research license to cultivate high-quality cannabis for clinical trials. Before this point, only the University of Mississippi held a license to cultivate cannabis for federally approved studies.

“We ended up winning. We got to the brass ring of what we endeavored, which was to be able to grow our own flower for our own [clinical] trials and maybe even to supply other DEA-registered scientists who want diverse [cannabis genetics] options,” Sisley said.  

– Cassie Tomaselli, contributing editor and conference programming director, Cannabis Conference

6. Consumers Are Starting to Value More Than Potency

Federal cannabis prohibition has driven the THC-focused market that currently exists within the industry, with consumers seeking more “bang for their buck” at dispensaries. However, consumers are beginning to discover there’s more to cannabis than THC percentages alone, according to panelists on Cannabis Conference session “If Not Potency, Then What? Cultivating For a Nuanced Chemical Profile.” 

Jesce Horton, CEO of Oregon-based LOWD, says education is vital to the industry’s advancement. “Educating your staff, your cultivators—whoever is interacting with the consumer about those terpenes and those testing qualities, not just within the THC percentage—will certainly make your consumer more educated, and naturally the market will move away from these simple potency tests and more towards an effect-based method of selection, which I think is what people actually want.” 

– Zach Mentz, senior editor, Cannabis Business Times

7. Better Education Begets Loyal Customers

In the panel, “Patient & Consumer Education Strategies,” speakers outlined how they’re working to provide customers a more holistic view of cannabis consumption within their companies—from product forms, to uses and effects, dosing and more. As a result, they’re building more loyal consumer bases.

“We consult to educate, and we educate to empower,” said Sara Payan, Public Education Officer at The Apothecarium. “Educated consumers make better autonomous choices for themselves, better self-advocates, and are more open to trying new medicines that help them. In addition to this, an educated public makes better policy. … Not only is education keeping people safe, but it’s also empowering people and activating them so that we can go to our politicians and people who depend on our votes and say, ‘I pay taxes, I am a functioning member of society, I use cannabis [and] I vote,’ and that’s a really big thing.” 

– Andriana Ruscitto, assistant editor, Cannabis Business Times, Cannabis Dispensary, Hemp Grower

8. Outdoor Growers Are Bracing for More Weather Disasters

As the cannabis industry matures, a bulk of cultivation will eventually take place outdoors, predicted Mason Walker, co-owner and CEO of East Fork Cultivars, during the session “Outdoor Cultivation Strategies for Environmental Variables & Disaster Preparedness.” 

While outdoor cultivation is relies less on natural resources, it’s also rife with challenges—especially as the effects of climate change become more prevalent. Wildfires, extreme temperatures and drought are just some outdoor conditions that cannabis and hemp cultivators have begun dealing with.

And it’s likely just the beginning: “I think it would be a hyperbole to say the water wars have started, but … we’re probably a few years off from water being a major political issue in the American West in particular,” Walker said.

– Theresa Bennett, editor, Hemp Grower

Cannabis Conference will return to Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino August 23-25, 2022! Sign up to receive updates regarding speakers, sessions, exhibitors and more at www.CannabisConference.com.