Cannabis industry kicks off first business summit

The tagline for this week's Cannabis Business Summit in Denver is, "Where Commerce Meets a Revolution."

And in speaking with some of the several hundred people in attendance at the two-day event, billed as the marijuana industry's first big business conference, there was a sense of mission that isn't usually found at most trade fairs.

Keynote speakers received applause when they talked about being in a state where cannabis is legal both for medical and recreational use and the importance of running businesses that their industry can be proud of.

"This industry is being born, you can't stop it," said John Davis, an industry activist and CEO of the Northwest Patient Resource Center in Seattle.

But Davis acknowledges marijuana businesses remain hobbled by their inability to access banks and other financial institutions. At least 22 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, while Colorado and Washington State legalized the recreational use of cannabis for adults on January 1. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, however, and most banks stay away from transactions with cannabis-related companies in fear of federal prosecution.

Davis says that, if you look at the marijuana industry's opponents, "that's their line in the sand... they don't want us to have the legitimacy of the banks. And whenever you have issues with banking, you're going to have issues with investment."

Still, a common theme at the summit is that the push for national acceptance of cannabis appears to have taken on a new momentum. That's especially the case among state lawmakers looking for new revenue streams and who have been closely monitoring the revenues Colorado has brought in during the first months of its experiment with recreational, adult-use marijuana.

That's not to say everyone is expected to benefit from the "green rush" the cannabis industry's been experiencing. State Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Wash., says officials in his state are predicting a 50 percent failure rate for local marijuana companies there.

"These businesses are highly speculative and risky," he said. "A number of the license holders don't really know what they're doing, but they have a lot of money. And they might be hiring consultants to do the work for them and it might not work out."

"On the other hand." he added, "we have applicants or license holders who know everything about [marijuana], but don't know how to run a business. And so the risks are on both sides."

Those risks aren't discouraging people from investigating what they see as marijuana's future in other states.

"I am very impressed with the organization, with the number of attendees, with the subject matters that are discussed," said Whitley Smith of Austin, Texas, who was checking out the Denver conference for his brother, who runs a smoke shop/book store/juice bar in Oklahoma. "With the obvious implications for the future, we are sitting on the edge of a new paradigm, and I'm very impressed."