“This is basically a boutique version of a conference,” Affirm CBD CEO Chris Finelli said, gazing around at the abundance of petite, pastel-hued THC products on display at the fifth annual Luxury Meets Cannabis Conference (LMCC).
Finelli isn’t disparaging the event, which is taking place on the seventh floor of a nondescript building a stone’s throw from Hudson Yards; it’s just that he’s been to sprawling, cannabis-centric events in Las Vegas, where vendors and retailers have to walk through the catacombs of sprawling casinos to link up with potential business partners.
LMCC is an event reserved for those in the business of peddling CBD (Cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). You won't see any customers roaming around. In fact, paper signs taped to the walls explicitly prohibit both sampling and smoking. The layout is professional and clerical, very much reminiscent of an art fair. Every booth has its place, and the flow of the crowd reveals a subtle hierarchy: scrappier-seeming, less-tested brands are on the margins, while tried-and-true VC darlings are front and center. It doesn't smell like weed at all. If anything, it smells like cucumber water and Chanel Chance Eau Fraîche.
Finelli’s right: LMCC has a distinctly Glossier-like vibe, as if well-heeled weed entrepreneurs from all walks of life share a collective subconscious that prompts them to make every rose gold vape pen look like a makeup product. Not that there’s anything wrong with that!
The upmarket sheen coating the offerings on display here, such as the Sex, Plz. wellness patches by Fleur Maché that contain 20mg of hemp per dose, or the Rich Moisturizers with CBD by MIND Naturals, a new skincare line, is one that’s by now completely proliferated throughout the arena of popular products. I don’t even need to paint a picture, I can just say things like Millennial pink, sustainable packaging or post-twee and you’d get the gist.
Today, attendees have flocked to Manhattan to discuss the business of retailing cannabis products, and where things are heading next. A continual challenge is the fact that as it stands, the use, sale, or possession of cannabis over 0.3 percent THC is still illegal in the United States under federal law. In April, the House of Representatives passed the MORE Act, their second attempt to get a bill passed that would remove cannabis from the list of prohibited controlled substances.
But retailers and vendors at LMCC expressed certainty that there’s a long way to go in pursuit of universal legitimacy. After a panel discussion, one attendee asked if heath insurers like Aetna or BlueCross were moving towards considering covering medical marijuana costs; one panelist responded that such changes were likely 15 years away or more.
“Right now everyone is on the edge of their seats for federal legislation and new recreational markets like New York and New Jersey to become fully operational,” Nico DeLuque, a sales and marketing associate at The Bureau, said. “People are getting more into the science of cannabinoids when formulating new products. There’s an increased focus on cannabis as part of an overall health and wellness routine rather than eating a pot brownie and getting couch locked, especially on the East coast. Overall lots of expansion, excitement, and speculation.”
Catherine Grimes co-founded the CBD subscription box Allay with her son, who used to work in pharmaceutical industry. “CBD is going to be way more expensive than Vicodin,” Grimes said. “You can use your prescription card for Vicodin, and it’s probably going to cost you $2. CBD is going to cost you $50 for a tincture, so from my perspective, the price point alone almost makes it a luxury product.”
Plus, in-person and e-commerce shopping for THC products is exploding. Cannabis has ballooned into a $61 billion industry, and it’s recreationally legal in 17 states.
James Choe is the Chief Strategy Officer at Flora Growth (the manufacturer of MIND Naturals) and the founder of Vessel, a vape pen brand featuring a “flagship battery built to power any oil in style.” For Choe’s ventures, one of the next steps is infiltrating well-established spaces; specifically, sweet-talking the retail and department store buyers roaming LMCC, waiting to be courted. “Some of our brands are carried by a range of dispensaries. MIND Naturals is on Walmart.com,” Cho said. “We’re going to be pushing more assertively into the more traditional beauty stores.”
Would his wildest dream be to get MIND Naturals into Sephora? “Where the right customers are, absolutely. But we’re also very proficient in direct-to-consumer.” The plug mentality never fails.
Thomas Winstanley, VP of Marketing at Theory Wellness, an East Coast-based cannabis brand, unfurled an anecdote about the 15,000 square foot location the company’s working on opening in Medford, MA. There’s “no static design in retail in cannabis,” Winstanley said, encouraging business owners to invest in big spaces: some operations might need freezers while others might need beverage vaults, depending on the product they’re selling.
It helps that notoriously-liberal Massachusetts just started licensing cannabis delivery, a move that should make things considerably easier for upstart THC entrepreneurs looking to hit it big in the Boston area.
The elephant in the stark-white conference room: continually heinous, marijuana-related arrest and incarceration numbers in America.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, marijuana arrests currently account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Federally, possession of marijuana is punishable by up to one year in jail and a first conviction minimum fine of $1,000. And despite usage rates that are essentially equal, a Black person is 3.73 times more likely than a white person to be arrested for marijuana.
“One thing I would love to see here next year is a little bit more diversity,” Sarah Michel, the founder of Canna Culture Connect, said. “Cannabis is an industry that was built on the backs of Black and brown people. Now that we have the MRTA [Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act] legislation making cannabis legal [in New York], with other states looking at us as the model, I think it’s important now more than ever that initiatives and programs for social equity and inclusion are implemented from the ground up.”
The current centerpiece of Brianna Horton’s business, POSHHEAD, is an Alfajores cookie, a dulce de leche shortbread confection she bakes with cannabis-infused butter.
Horton came to the conference looking to be inspired, but “it’s what I haven't seen that’s stoking my imagination,” she said. “I would expect to see a lot more haircare products, when you start to think about the things that cannabis can do and how it's helpful for inflammation. I also don't see a lot of Black haircare. I came here to confirm that I’m on the right track, and now I’m really just trying to find something that I’m passionate about.”