SXSW Asks: Whither Weed?

Cannabis experts look forward to a world of legality and organized cannabusiness

Illustration by Zeke Barbaro / Getty Images

With 19 panels about cannabis at this year’s SXSW Interactive Conference, it’s safe to say that, despite our home state’s idiotic legalization delinquency, the Festival’s Austin-based programmers recognize the growing craving for insight into this growing industry.

On Friday, the Culture, Legacy & Cannabis: Roadmap to Coexistence panel discussed two opposing camps in cannabis culture: legacy versus legality. A stacked panel of New York-based experts – Vladimir Bautista (Happy Munkey), Dasheeda Dawson (Cannabis NYC), and moderator Mutulu Olugbala aka M-1 of Dead Prez (Urban Aroma) – explained why both sides must deliberately collaborate to unify cannabis progress and anchor it in ethical standards.

(l-r) Panelists Kelly Crawford, Derek Smith, and Bob Gunn at Green or Not? Is Cannabis Actually Good for the Environment? (Photo by John Anderson)

Kicking off the chat, Olugbala said, “I hope everybody is happy, healthy, and high if need be. I am.” And throughout the hour, that same openness and shared focus on community healing was the crux of the discussion. “Success in the [cannabis] market is nothing without the culture.”

Essentially, the group imparted that one of the most critical elements of cannabis legalization is giving formerly incarcerated individuals an opportunity to sell legal cannabis. Areas with the highest rates of incarceration have historically been the same areas subject to over-policing and the consequences of it: By acknowledging the harm done, healing can begin. Government officials are often the least knowledgeable about cannabis; it’s the people who have lived and breathed the medicinal plant and its market for decades that know best what next steps should be. Dawson said, “We are taking on cannabis legalization as an opportunity to rectify the harms of the past.”

“Create bridges, not moats,” said Bautista, who has personally experienced the consequences of criminalized cannabis.

(l-r) Brian Geddes, Mikaela McLaughlin, Cy Scott, and Ryan G. Smith at the Creating Robust Data Sets in Cannabis panel (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Simultaneously, in the Accelerating the Science of Cannabis panel, the focus was on the current state of cannabis research and what consumers can do to support future efforts. Cannabis research is unique because, due to the federal prohibition, funds are lacking and human trials often do not reach clinical testing standards but rather depend on consumer self-testing and reporting. Panelists Andrea Baillo (Open Book Extracts), Julia Bramante (Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment), Harold Han (Vertosa), and Arian Roman (Pivital Holdings) were all in agreement that collaborating with fellow cannabis industry players is the key to progress.

On Saturday, Creating Robust Data Sets in Cannabis featured folks in the know about consumer data collection in the cannabis realm. Moderator Brian Geddes (Jane Technologies), Mikaela McLaughlin (springbig), Cy Scott (Headset, founder of Leafly), and Ryan G. Smith (LeafLink) all represent various funnel points of the marketplace. Because each state operates as its own singular marketplace, it’s essential – but nearly impossible without the proper tools – to create full data sets. As a burgeoning industry, the rules are still being written: With the proper information in place, real progress can be made.

Finally, on Sunday, Green or Not? Is Cannabis Actually Good for the Environment? focused on how much energy cannabis production uses and what can be done to improve the statistics and educate both consumers and lawmakers. Moderator Natalie Fertig (Politico), Kelly Crawford (D.C. Department of Energy & Environment), Bob Gunn (Seinergy), and Derek Smith (Resource Innovation Institute) offered that going green in cannabis means concerted efforts to not only inform regulators and lawmakers of the facts, but help people at all levels understand the different production considerations of energy and water consumption for both indoor and outdoor crops. Some folks are utilizing the power of regenerative agriculture, some grow in indoor/outdoor greenhouses with open air and patched sunlight, and still others rely on LED lights because they’re indoors entirely (similar to tomatoes and bell peppers). The latter, interestingly, have the highest energy consumption and the lowest water usage.

Trying to figure out how much energy is being used and developing the best prescription for cultivation is the name of the game. Fertig offered an analogy to explain the complexity of federal versus state-by-state differences: “Imagine every carton of orange juice had to be grown and produced next door to the grocery store where it’s sold.” Currently, the laws require that very notion of cannabis. Take Washington, D.C., for example, where the demand is high because of decriminalization, but regulations mean it all has to be grown and produced in the city, which affects supply dramatically. There’s a gray market full of perceived loopholes, of course, and the underground market, which is not regulated at all.

When asked which is worse for the environment – cannabis or almonds – the panel concluded that cannabis is better. Again, that’s relative, given the variety of grow methods. “Regulating the cannabis growing industry is the biggest energy reduction opportunity in our lifetime,” said Gunn. Perhaps most important though? You guessed it: Knowledge transfers in every direction – from consumers to scientists to lawmakers – should be everyone’s No. 1 priority.

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