Q&A: With MJBizCon Set to Be Bigger Than Ever, MJBizDaily's Incoming CEO Talks Future of Cannabis

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December 6, 2019
The CES of cannabis is right around the corner, and this year, organizers say, promises to be bigger and better than ever. An estimated 35,000 people will flock to Sin City for what the Board of Clark County Commissioners and the City of Las Vegas have dubbed "MJBizCon Week," a week of networking, seminars, and festivities clustered around the biggest business-to-business event in cannabis.
Official activities kick off on Monday with the MJBizDaily's Investor Intelligence Conference. MJBizCon's expo, programming, and events stretch from Wednesday to Friday, with the main event of the Marijuana Business Daily Awards on Thursday evening.
Organizers expect more than 8,000 C-suite executives, 1,300 exhibitors, and 1,250 investors to descend upon Las Vegas for the 2019 conference, which could draw about 40 percent more visitors than last year. And it couldn't come at a more pivotal time ー both for Marijuana Business Daily, the news, analytics, and events company behind MJBizCon, and for the U.S. at-large.
The past year has been historic for cannabis reform in Congress. The Republican-controlled Senate held a hearing on cannabis banking in July. A couple of months later, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act. The bill still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, but if made into law, it would provide a safe harbor for banks looking to service legal cannabis businesses. In late November, the House Judiciary Committee passed the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019, which seeks both to decriminalize cannabis and to remediate harms from criminalization.
None of these items alone were enough to seriously shift the paradigm on cannabis reform federally, but they represent a substantial revision in thinking on the part of regulators ー one that falls more in line with sentiment nationwide. According to Pew Research Center, 91 percent of people approve of some form of cannabis legalization. As the growing crowd at MJBizCon just goes to show, cannabis is becoming more mainstream.
But change is also underway for Marijuana Business Daily. Co-founder Cassandra Farrington announced in late October she will step down from her role as CEO and transition to Chair. Chris Walsh, founding editor, is set to take over at the end of the year. Cheddar caught up with Walsh in advance of his appointment to hear his thoughts on MJBizCon, vaping, cannabis politics, and the future of the industry.
(Comments and questions have been edited for length and clarity.)
CHEDDAR: What is Cassandra Farrington's legacy at Marijuana Business Daily?
CHRIS WALSH: She absolutely is one of the most influential women leaders in this industry and she built one of the most prominent brands in the industry: Marijuana Business Daily. Most people in the industry know what we do, they know who we are ー and if they don't, then they know MJBizCon. She created that. And in an industry where you're seeing more men get involved, she stands out as true pioneer on the business side and also as a woman leader. She's still going to be working with me on top-level strategy, and long-term strategy, so we are not losing her completely, but she won't be as prominent.
C: People I've spoken to in the industry have referenced [Farrington] stepping down as another woman lost in the C-suite.What would you say to those people who are concerned about diversity as the industry matures?
CW: The company is still owned by Cassandra and Anne [Holland], her business partner, so you know the people that actually own this are both women. And Cassandra, as chairman of the board, ultimately has the say over who is the CEO and who's running the company. We have a very diverse leadership at the top level of our company with lots of women in prominent roles, as well, so I carry that spirit forward. You do see the changes, and I am part of that. I'm a white male going into this position, but, again, she is really pulling the strings at the highest level.
C: You've massively scaled up under Cassandra's leadership. How are you going to take charge of this ship and steer it?
CW: I've been a part of this company since day one, so I’ve been with her every step of the way. As I take over the CEO position, what I'm really looking to do is get a process in place so we can look further down the road. Most companies in the industry have only been able to look three to six months out up until now, because we've been so busy and the industry is growing. Aside from our core business, we are really focusing this year and next on international, hemp, and investing ー and those are the areas that I've helped lead and grow.
C: How much of this new era for Marijuana Business Daily is internal, and how much comes from the shifting climate of the cannabis industry more broadly?
CW: I think it's probably fifty-fifty. We didn't have the resources to be able to look that far ahead a year or two ago, but also, it was impossible to predict. You know, you'd set up plans today, and in two months you'd be going in a completely different direction because something happened that no one could predict. Now things are more predictable in general as [cannabis] becomes more mainstream. We can at least create rough road maps and have a rough idea that we can either go this direction or this one ー and we'll have plans for both.
C: You struck a deal with Headset over the summer. How is that relationship shaping up?
CW: We are putting a greater focus on it going forward as we build out our team and we have more resources to sit down and [assess] what can we do with their data that will help people in the industry and investors. It's kind of a change for us, because we've kind of gone it alone in almost everything we've done up to this point. But we've really started expanding our mindset as some more reputable companies with proven track records come up that we trust. We do want to partner more.
C: What's your broad outlook on the industry right now?
CW: I think all the stars are aligned for some big breakthrough in cannabis. I don't know what it is; if it's the STATES Act passing, or something like it that lets states go their own way on this, and set up their own laws, and not have to worry about the federal government coming in. I don't know if it is a fix to the banking issue. But I think everyone feels that the dam, there's all this pressure on it, and there's cracks, and it's about to blow open. We just don't know when and in what shape.
C: How are you making sense of the vaping crisis?
CW: It's unfortunate because we didn't have a lot of information in the early days when we started seeing that this could be an issue. Was it nicotine? Was it cannabis? Was it legal? Was it illicit? Now, as the information comes out, it sounds like a lot of it is illicit, and a lot of it tied to cannabis. I'm actually surprised we haven't heard more [anti-drug or anti-marijuana] kinds of groups come out. Ten years ago it would have been completely different, so that's the fortunate thing. As we learn more about it, the legal industry seems to be getting sucked into this unfairly, but I don't want to make any snap judgments, either.
I think in general the ban is hurting the industry: there have been layoffs in those areas. There have been companies tightening their belts. We've heard from potential exhibitors at MJBizCon that were in the vape sector that things are tight right now. So it's having a ripple effect. Unless there's something wrong with the legally-produced regulated vape pens or products, however, I don't see this being a longer-term issue for the industry
C: Speaking of MJBizCon, are there any trends that we should be looking out for going into this conference?
CW: What's going on in Canada is a big deal. There were a lot of problems, there was a ton of money, kind of this gold-rush mentality. People making bad decisions running businesses, people making bad decisions on investment. It was like the tech days in a very condensed period. Our big focus is on international, too, because the markets aren't really big yet, but it's become a really global industry. The vape issue ー everyone's going to be talking about that, and the election.
C: You’re delivering a State of the Industry address on the first day of the conference. What are some of your predictions for the year ahead?
CW: I think you are going to see more about what you've seen this year in the sense that traditional issues that affect every industry one way or another are going to start rearing their heads in this one. There have been layoffs. Layoffs? That word hasn't been uttered in the cannabis industry. Now you have failed mergers, and acquisitions that didn't pan out or are being restructured. You have markets that didn't start nearly as fast and people are now losing a lot of money, like California. Things like lawsuits, business stumbles of some well-known companies, there might be downsizing. I still think the future is immensely bright. We are going to see significant growth, but the perception of people in the industry is going to change.
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