After an evening of watching Ghostface Killah tear up the stage for the Last Prisoner Project benefit, attendees streamed into the conference hall on Day 2, ready to finish strong.
The morning mainstage events kicked off with the presentation “Creating & Sustaining Company Culture – C-suite to Budtender,” moderated by the founder of Herbal Hire, Michael Spremulli. His spunky presence enlivened the conversation, which featured Rabbi James Kahn of Holistic Industries and Nicole Upshaw of Jushi, both of whom spoke to the importance of staying true to the human element, no matter how big the company gets. The room started off quiet and perhaps a bit sleepy-eyed from the previous night’s festivities, but it wasn’t long before the crew had captured our attention and stirred up some laughter.
Rabbi Kahn listed off the ways they build company culture, wrapping it up with a chuckle and adding, “Oh, and we have a rabbi!” He also mentioned how a genuine love of the plant serves as a driving force for their culture, along with an original connection over a shared love for the Grateful Dead—a link he can likely share with others at the cannabis conference…
Nichole Upshaw, who had a graceful stage presence and was rocking the appropriate flair of weed leaf earrings, shared her experience in protecting company culture by taking a zero-tolerance policy for abusive behavior. Kahn agreed, warning, “The culture of an organization is defined by the worst type of behavior that a company is willing to tolerate.”
Over on the exhibition floor, the chandelier lighting created a more intimate feel than what many might imagine from a tradeshow, and the mix of booths and free-standing kiosk displays gave more people the option to wander and mingle. We enjoyed checking out the design creativity on display: our favorites included the kiosk for Cannadips and Arcata Fire, which had a fun street style and included a pair of hand-painted sneakers; the lush, tropical SHOKi display; and the forest green and gold stylings of Escape Artists, who had hustled to launch their rebrand in time for the show. (Our friend and team member Spencer Worley swears by their topicals.)
At the Highbridge kiosk, four shelves held four sets of products, each with a totally different mood. A beer mug, poker chips, and snack mix created a party vibe to showcase their line of cannabis beers, while their sleep aid level had a dreamy vibe replete with sleep masks and faux candles. The brand was really bringing it because they also occupied a nearby booth with a seriously innovative interactive display designed by A Peak Beyond, which had a space a few doors down.
Meanwhile, sparks flew between brand representatives finding their people. BadaBloom’s Michael Marinaro was spotted checking out Puffco’s brightly lit booth, and the live rosin king of Massachusetts was delighted to find himself walking away with the dab accouterment of our dreams, a multicolored LED contraption that looks like a portable temple to the almighty dab. But-A-Cake founder Matha Figaro came over to investigate Eric + Eric’s gluten-free baked goods, and representatives of the two companies traded snickerdoodle bites for butter cakes while bonding over their frustrations with the particularly harsh regulations for infused baked goods. “The majority of my clients are soccer moms!” Figaro said, “and none of them are complaining about children getting into their baked goods!”
All the chatter caught up to some exhibitors, who had been busy conversing for the last two days. “I’m non-stop talking. I’ve already lost my voice,” Myron Chadowitz of Oregon’s Cannassentials told us from beside his brand showcase. His only complaint? He’d been so busy talking to people throughout the event that he didn’t get to explore the brand floor much.
A highlight of the entire event was the panel discussion “Legacy Storytelling: Creating an Authentic Brand from the Unregulated Market,” which was moderated by Steve DeAngelo of Last Prisoner Project. DeAngelo began with a passionate trip down memory lane to the halcyon days of California’s medical era, when it was possible for independent craft growers to actually make money while offering patients some of the best weed in the world. But neither DeAngelo nor the panelists glamorized the deadly persecution growers and sellers experienced during the days of prohibition. In particular, Tina Gordon of Moon Made Farms in Humboldt County spoke eloquently of the trauma that Emerald Triangle farming families suffered–a trauma that lives on.
In the words of Oakland dispensary owner Tucky Blunt Jr., “There’s people in jail for this shit, y’all.”
The conversation was thoughtful, animated, powerful, and nuanced.
“First off, language is really important,” said Vlad Bautista of New York’s Happy Munkey. “There is a difference between social equity and legacy. Social equity is a systemic issue not exclusive to the cannabis industry. Legacy is a fact of what has happened in the last 80 years where a group of people sacrificed their lives to maintain and build an industry.”
The group discussed the challenges legacy operators face when they try to make the jump to the regulated market.
“We did not have the opportunity to learn compliance, because we were busy learning skills like evasion,” said DeAngelo. “We didn’t learn skills like marketing because that would lead the cops to us and we’d get busted.”
The conversation was notable because it offered actionable takeaways for legacy operators, as well as advice for the bigger players who are contemplating the threat of the unregulated market.
Lawrence Perrigo of Saints Joints spoke of how the 43% tax is strangling Washington’s legal industry, which is one reason the unregulated market will never go away. This was a thread through the discussion: ignoring legacy players isn’t going to make them disappear.
“I’m going to speak very frankly,” said Bautista. “The industry has three choices when it comes to legacy…you either run with legacy, you run from legacy, or legacy will run you over.”
But the panelists encouraged the audience to tap into the power and expertise that legacy players bring to the table.
“Listen to the people who have the experience and take it to the investors, the lawmakers, and the brands,” said Tina Gordon.
Tucky Blunt Jr. was on the same page. “We have barbers making laws for plumbers. I call what I’m dealing with in California with Blunts & Moore as the War on Drugs 2.0,” he said, referring to his region’s notoriously problematic regulatory and tax structures. His solution?
“We need to be at the table when laws are made. We can’t be on Zooms; we need to be in rooms,” he said, gesturing to the theater around him. “It takes people like us to educate people and talk to legislators before they ink anything.”
Bautista cautioned corporate operators to look at legacy operators as an asset, not a liability. “Ultimately everyone can win if we are comprehensive and cohesive and move forward with opportunity,” he said, adding, “What happens here in New York in the next two to five years, and how we embrace the legacy market, will have effects for years to come.”
The presentation clearly resonated with the audience, who frequently burst into loud, spontaneous applause. Afterward, we spoke with Erin Cadigan of Illuminated Leaf Dispensary in Woodstock, New York. She and her husband and business partner, Martin Mills, are both legacy operators. “This is a really lovely industry meetup,” Cadigan said. “We’ve met a lot of very cool people. One of our favorite parts of the past few days, though, was getting to see the legacy stories panel. The discussion that the men and women on that stage were having is really close to our hearts… This industry is more than a money maker. It is a community and legacy. Legacy growers and sellers are who built this industry and they need to get the respect they deserve.”
The next panel, “Potbullying: How Independent Retailers Can Compete With MSOs in New Markets,” echoed many of the same sentiments. With MSOs bringing the force of their seemingly bottomless bank accounts, do strong values and community ties stand a chance?
“The biggest challenge is the ability to negotiate,” said Lilach Mazor Power, founder and CEO of Mazor Collective. “We don’t have the buying power, and it’s hurting us when you talk about margins.” Meg Sanders of Canna Provisions shared concerns over “promiscuous consumers,” who are always looking for the newest, shiniest thing. But the panelists also see plenty of reasons to keep holding it down for locals. As CEO of the High End Helen Gomez Andrews put it, “I’m still wearing rose-colored glasses. I think there’s plenty of opportunity to do something incredible—let’s not just sit around and wait for things to happen to us.”
Later that afternoon, we ran into Aaron Looft, President of Flower Mill (a favorite grinder among the MJ Unpacked staff) on the exhibition floor. He told us he was feeling good about the event as it came to a close. Before making his first trip to New York for this conference, he anticipated high-level conversations with well-established people in the industry, and that’s just what happened. “We’re looking for strategic partners and they’re everywhere you turn,” he told us. And while Looft was enjoying his first trip to New York, Corrine Butler of Azuca (who we can thank for the infused Jell-o shots circling the previous night’s concert) was excited to attend a show right here in her backyard. “Having my favorite show in my favorite town has been pretty much a blessing all around,” she told us. “It’s a perfect combination of people on retail, brand, manufacturing and the technology side.”
Native New Yorker Paras Chhabra, who started Bodega Boyz in Oklahoma, was of the same mind, saying, “It’s been a great experience to be back home. Let’s get it New York! We’re going to be here. I’d like to thank MJ Unpacked for this event. It has been amazing to see everybody come out. The culture! New York’s alive again. Cannabis is real.”
Lawrence Perrigo of Saints Joints caught up with us near his booth, which was packed with a stacked display of his striking joint packages. “I have been overly impressed with the professionality of it,” he said of the whole event, before telling us that he hadn’t ever been to a convention like MJ Unpacked before. We’ll take that as a win.
We also stopped by the Women Employed in Cannabis (WEIC) Women’s Lounge for a quick break from the hustle and bustle of the event floor and to make some notes in a quiet, calm space. WEIC’s founder Kyra Reed told us, “Women come in here and don’t even know what to do. This is all for me?” They successfully cultivated a welcoming atmosphere complete with the soothing scents of CandaScent Labs Focus Aroma. Notes of lemongrass, ginger, and ylang ylang circulated the room and helped to recenter ourselves before hitting the floor for some more networking.
Before we knew it, it was time to head over to the celebratory happy hour. Though it was hard to believe the event was coming to an end, the contented buzz in the lounge was a sign of its success. We were excited to talk policy with the ever-eloquent Devin Alexander, co-founder of Boston’s Rolling Releaf, and meet Helen Gomez Andrews, who immediately put us at ease with her warmth and candor.
Myron Chadowitz and his cousin Shane, head grower at Cannaessentials, occupied a table where they received a steady stream of cannabis connoisseurs looking to geek out on grow techniques and learn more about the farm’s top-shelf bud. Soon, everyone was laughing and eleventh-hour friendships were cemented. Once again, one happy hour turned into two, and the hotel staff had to send pointed looks our way before we reluctantly packed it in.
Some of our team members caught up outside after the event, sharing highlights and takeaways from the last two days. Dan Berman of Cannabis BPO exited the hotel and bumped into the group of us huddled away from the rain, before embracing our co-founder Kim Jage in a celebratory hug. He had one word to describe his experience at the event: next-level. As we shared our stories and reflected on the events of the past few days, we couldn’t help but agree with his assessment. While we all needed a joint and a nap, we were still buzzing from the sea of faces, brands, and information we had been swimming in.
Between the high spirits and endless chatter in the brand experience hall, the event felt fruitful all around. Deals were made, new connections formed, and excitement over the budding east coast cannabis industry was palpable. If MJUnpacked New York 2022 is anything to go by, it would appear that east coast cannabis is playing to win. Consider yourselves warned.