Evolution of The Cannabis Convention

The Gentrification of Cannabis

Written by Darryl Hudson and Brian Penny

High Times Denver Cannabis Cup 2014 Versability

April in Denver is beautiful. As the last snow melts away, dispensary owners, activists, and cannabis lovers in general gather around the city preparing for a massive celebration comprised of auxiliary events citywide. Lighting up in public isn’t technically legal in Colorado, but the closer it gets to 4/20, the more lax regulations seem to get.

Or at least it appears this way as the judges and connoisseurs begin to pile into Denver the previous Sunday, and the aroma of the finest cannabis products in the world can be found wafting around hotel corners.

Anchoring the celebration for the past 2 years has been the High Times Cannabis Cup, and from one year to the next, it improved significantly, moving to the Denver Mart and supporting vastly more people/exhibitors following the full recreational implementation between the 2013 and 2014 events.

The traditional potheads, hippies, and characters of all kinds from around the world descend upon the city, filling parking lots with colorful buses and hot-boxed cars. The closer we get to Denver Mart, the more it begins to look like the Broncos are playing the SuperBowl at home. Streets and sidewalks are filled with a menagerie of pot-leaf covered people hitting blunts, joints, bowls, and vape pens.

High Times 2014 Denver Cannabis Cup Swag and Paraphenalia Versability
Cannabis Cup swag…

We enter the property at 10am – early enough to beat the crowds. The general population have begun to gather near the main gates. Walking past the crowd, people show off their stashes, smoke tricks, and accessories – offering free hits to passersby. After sampling some product from the crowd, we enter the building to pick up wristbands and begin touring the vendor booths, though most are just setting up.

The exhibition hall is filled with cannabis plants, concentrates, and nuggets. By noon, the line snakes around the parking lot and as far as you can see down the block, as if the entire population of ticket holders thinks the free dabs will run out in the first 10 minutes. And as the gates finally open, the masses flood in, filling every corner of the venue.

Everywhere you look is another booth with another way to grow, process, and consume pot. Almost all have a free sample of something.

While a number of people rotate through the main conference room sorting through their personal stashes, experts and industry leaders dole out advice and information on the industry. The relaxation area out back is where the real fun is. It almost looks like a state fair, with the rides in this carnival designed to take place in our heads.

At our first stop, a man is carefully rolling blunt after blunt, handing them out to the crowd one by one. These aren’t the little joint-sized pinners from outside; this is a full-sized cigar as thick as a roll of quarters. Everywhere we look, scantily clad models are handing out bowls, dabs, and bites of their Cup entries and house strains. Music is blaring from nearly every booth.

Hunter s Thompson Art Infusion Versability Cannabis Cup
Infusion Project is a great bunch of talented artists…

Gonzo-inspired art from the Infusion Project adds an extra hit to the sensations as a man from Dab Star screams across the PA system.

“Who wants free drugs? I love my job, ladies!”

By this point it’s as though dabs are rising from the earth and joints are raining from the sky. Even Willy Wonka and some Oompa Loompas are handing them out. The Magical Butter bus has a troll doll heating up his filtered Crock-Pots and the sweet smell of ganja is everywhere.

It’s definitely a celebration bordering on the ridiculous, yet that’s part of the appeal. In a world gone mad, sometimes we just want to have fun.

Buses are going in and out of Denver Mart, helping move crowds through the various cannabis tourism spots throughout the metro area. Smoke circles are forming everywhere, as police from every department wander politely through the crowds. We finish our seminar just prior to 4:20 pm, and exit the main conference area to the collective cloud of smoke blocking the view of the Rocky Mountains from any bystanders view…or astronaut’s for that matter.

After a few more laps and some relaxation time, we cap off the night with a freezing escape to the Whiz/Snoop show at Red Rocks with copious consumption of Cannabis continuing until the Awards show the following night.

Having attended Cannabis conventions for a number of years, both Brian and myself have witnessed a range of events.

From the High Times Cannabis Cups to the smaller, more fringe-themed events, there’s always common ground…the open enjoyment of Cannabis. Despite unjust laws to the contrary, these gatherings provided a temporary safe haven for those who toiled in the Cannabis underground to conglomerate and celebrate this amazing plant.

Cannabis Cup Cover Gallery

The majority of historical Cannabis events are being held in Europe (eg. Amsterdam Cup, Spannabis etc). Only in the last few years have changing laws in North America opened the door for Cannabis events to more openly take place. We’ve seen ‘events’ go literally from basements and/or bars to major sports arenas and/or convention centers in a relatively short time.

The presence of over 3000 people in business attire at a major Las Vegas Casino the National Marijuana Business Conference and Expo – the largest trade show in the industry – is something we would have never counted on a few years ago. Sure, we would occasionally see one of the guys from the Cannabis community throw a blazer over a multi-colored button up shirt in order to stand out and give the appearance of being a ‘professional’.

However at this event, it was the ‘non-banker’ attire that stood out as being in the minority. No longer are we made to feel like criminals, scouring around underground, making back alley deals with the so-called underbelly of society. Today, the cannabis industry is in the beginning stages of a bubble to rival the dotcom and housing bubbles of the past. Entrepreneurs and professionals are gathering to determine the industry’s future.

Cannabis Nutrients Grow Cycles Brian Penny
It’s got what plants need…

If nothing else, the fact that the business world is heavily investing in this sphere indicates that prohibition is nearing an end. The business world is taking notice.

And to be honest, there are times I feel like they’re taking over as well.

As early risers, (even after only a few hours sleep in Las Vegas) we head down for coffee and to check out the scene first thing in the morning. Expecting not a soul to be around the convention (as it technically didn’t start until noon), we’re surprised to find people standing in line at 7:30am tickets.

Unlike the line at Cannabis Cup, people are engaged in quiet, subdued conversation – only business cards are exchanged. We scan the crowd for familiar faces. If we know any of these people, we don’t recognize them in a suit – especially not this early in the morning. Casino security is stoic, and we’re quickly realizing  that – despite being in Las Vegas –  this is a straight-up business trip, not a celebration.

Outside, security is patrolling the area. The hotel OBVIOUSLY wants the marijuana money, but they’re clearly paying more attention to this conference than the educator’s convention or the Marine Core birthday ball happening down the hall. Even the professional gamblers of the World Series of Poker are being left alone. Yet exiting the doors from the conventions area, a guard is posted to “warn” people about consuming marijuana on the property.

Despite the C-suite crackdown, the uncanny similarity between the e-cigarette and the modern dab pens make it all too easy to sneak in some medical breaks in discreet locations. We offer a sample to a security guard, who’s excited to see the new waxes and oils he read so much about, but still has to warn us about consuming on hotel property.

Clearly, although we’re here to conduct business, the business of Cannabis consumption is not welcome here.  We’re surrounded by professionals – doctors, attorneys, scientists, farmers, engineers, venture capitalists, and marketers begin filling the expo hall.

At 8AM.

There’s networking to do and business to be done.

At the intersection of these two driving groups lies the true battleground in this industry. The old-school growers and distributors whose passion for this plant led us toward decriminalization are now being mined for knowledge by investors throwing copious amounts of money into an industry they clearly don’t understand.

Charlotte's Web Cannabis Crops
Charlotte’s Web Cannabis Crops

Still, there are some who are making this transition successfully.  It was great to see industry standards like Kyle Kushman and Adam Dunn (THSeeds) at booths, though again it took a few passes by before we even recognized them in traditional business attire.  Those wishing to move out of the underground are learning the business, and businessmen are learning about the marijuana trade. And Fast. This is the green rush –

Nowhere is the dynamic between green chasers and the stoners they’re gentrifying more blaringly obvious than through the trade show and convention circuit. Where the fan-friendly Cannabis Cup is a medicated festival celebrating Cannabis, the Marijuana Business Conference is a meeting of suits, many of whom have never even tasted (or seen) a nug.

In Las Vegas, talk throughout the crowd is less about cannabis culture and more about capital, branding, SEO, and investment opportunities. Commerce is everywhere, but there’s not a trichome to be found. Grow and jar displays are instead filled with random fake houseplants and moss from Home Depot.

No samples to be found at these booths and business cards were the only form of currency exchanged. The tickets did come with drink passes though. Alcohol consumption was encouraged at many open-bar events throughout the conference, with a number of booths giving out free drink tickets in lieu of their own products. Can’t help but wonder if professionals in other industries have to deal with this.

Like a business conference in any other industry, the real fun happens (or is supposed to happen)  at the after parties, where business deals are made at clubs and in private suites, far from the stuffy boardrooms you see on TV. Heading into the VIP clubs of Vegas, it quickly became apparent that alcohol and coke were the drugs of choice in this town. Even at night, marijuana is being tightly regulated, and the bouncers are confiscating any paraphernalia they find.

NEVER have I been invited to a party for a marijuana company where I was patted down and thrown out for having a small pipe. An empty pipe at that. This particular casino from an MTV reality show was actually taking peoples pictures and making them sign a form saying they would never return. For things like unused vape pens received as gifts. We exited swiftly prior to being subjected to such nonsense.

Las Vegas Graffiti downtown Brian Penny

Attending the Marijuana Business Conference, we see the emerging business behind the product. As the industry matures into a legitimate economic sector, many purists fear the pump-and-dump green rushers will dilute and destroy the real industry. We despaired at times this might be true. It became clear in Las Vegas that our fear isn’t just a tinfoil-hat conspiracy.

Though in the end, it was evident that the intersection of both communities isn’t a bad thing – it’s the true driving force behind this natural medicine we all love and acceptance of Cannabis by mainstream society. Not all is lost. Blazing in the Presidential Suite on the 51st floor of the Rio at the Women Grow Edibles Event on Thursday and the Bowling Suite in the Palms on Friday, our faith in the industry was restored.

The Magical Butter team seems to have seamlessly made the transition between the two vastly different conventions; bringing class and style to the Cannabis after-party while still keeping the culture intact.  I felt like ‘the Dude’ at times – unwittingly torn from obscurity into a world of lavish and luxury. But although money may change the clothes some of us wear and even how we are viewed by society, many were there to show that the culture is still alive. In fact it thrives.

Those who wish to truly be successful in this transitioning market will be able to take the best of the old world and combine it with the required business and financing aspects to take it to the next level.

Wynn Nightclub Las Vegas

Just like PAX and E3 coexist in the video game industry, there’s room for both citizen and capitalist celebrations of cannabis. While MBC and E3 focus on business connections, networking and the media, the CC and PAX exist for diehard fans to sample new experiences and put their skills up against the cream of the crop.

Beyond the media reports, political lobbying, and stigmatizing enforcement efforts lies a plant. The proliferation of this plant and its symbiotic relationship with people is reaching heights never before recorded in human history. Whether you’re a patient, pothead, or profit-seeker, we’ve progressed a long way.

Dr. Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. His work has appeared in Huffington Post, High Times, Cannabis Now, Fast Company, Hardcore Droid, and Lifehack.

Dr. Darryl Hudson is a commercial cannabis agricultural consultant and founder of The DOC Solutions. He’s a well-known expert in the cannabis industry, having worked on some of the largest indoor and outdoor grow operations for clients around the world.


Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer.

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