Record Crowd, Sea Change in California Create Buzz at Marijuana Business Conference

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By John Schroyer and Omar Sacirbey

The Marijuana Business Conference and Expo kicked off Wednesday in Las Vegas with record-breaking attendance of more than 5,000 cannabis professionals from all 50 states and 23 countries.

The expo, which runs through Friday, also features more than 230 exhibitor booths from companies representing every facet of the industry.

On Thursday morning, the conference’s keynote address will be delivered by former presidential candidate Ralph Nader.

The conference began Wednesday with a separately ticketed crash course for industry acolytes and a special panel discussion focused on the landmark California medical cannabis regulations that passed in September.

The panel featured Assemblyman Rob Bonta, who authored one of the three bills the California Legislature approved, as well as four industry insiders who welcomed the new regulations as bringing some much-needed legitimacy to the industry.

“We’re looking for some stability and certainty,” said Hezekiah Allen, the executive director of the California Growers Association (formerly known as the Emerald Growers Association).

The upcoming rules – many of which have yet to be written by state officials – will make running a cannabis business easier in the future, but they will likely undergo revisions before they are finalized, the panelists said. Changes could come either during the rulemaking process or through further cleanup legislation next year at the state Capitol.

For example, there’s confusion about whether the new regulations allow for-profits, since for nearly two decades, only non-profit MMJ businesses have been allowed in California. Bonta said the new laws do allow companies to be for-profit, but the law may need to be clarified.

Another change could come to a provision that sets a March 1, 2016, deadline for municipalities to have their local MMJ industry ordinances in place. If local governments don’t have laws in place, the state will do it for them.

Cannabis business leaders worry that some local governments might find the deadline too difficult to meet. Instead of trying to get ordinances in place by March, many cities could establish emergency bans on cannabis businesses.

But Bonta said a repeal of that deadline “will be seriously considered” by the legislature.

There may also be changes to how medical cannabis will be treated on tribal lands, he added, as well as a number of other significant tweaks to the new law.

There will also be challenges for existing marijuana businesses, panelists said, particularly because the new law requires companies to obtain both state and local licenses in order to continue operating.

“There’s a lot of apprehension by local governments to issue licenses,” Bonta said. “You need to go out into the local community and start speaking up for yourself. “

Of the thousands of business owners already operating in California, only about a third of them will get local licenses, predicted Kim Cargile, director of A Therapeutic Alternative, a dispensary in Sacramento.

“You’ll need a local permit and very few local providers have a local permit,” Cargile said. “We’ll see greater involvement from local government in the next couple of years.”

That also could mean a lot of new business opportunities for out of state players, as Bonta noted, because the new laws don’t include a residency requirement for owners.

That may make California much more competitive in the future, as companies from all over the nation – and possibly even from other countries – look more closely at tapping the state’s immense market.

Given the short time window between now and March, it will be imperative for marijuana stakeholders to reach out to local governments and educate them about the industry and let them know what kind of ordinances will help, Cargile said.

Another important deadline will be Jan. 1, 2018, when California is supposed to have statewide rules in place and start issuing business licenses.

Some panelists also worried about a culture clash between small, existing, especially small cannabis businesses who have operated in the margins for the last several years, and newcomers with a business mentality.

There could also be a good bit of interplay between the MMJ industry rulemaking process and the campaign to legalize recreational next year.

Sean Luse, president of the California Cannabis Industry Association, said he hopes any initiative that makes the ballot next year (and so far there are two campaigns that are expected to be contenders for a statewide vote) doesn’t overturn the new MMJ regulations.

John Schroyer can be reached at

Omar Sacirbey can be reached at