Can cannabis culture and big business coexist?


This MJBizCon panel examines the question: Can large companies and cannabis culture go hand in hand … [+] solid industry?

Mike Rosati / @rosatiphotos

A few years ago I started talking about the need for legacy cannabis and corporate cannabis to build bridges between each other. I was hoping to bring the subject to a bigger platform. This year, at the national MJBiz conference in Las Vegas with 27,000 participants, I had the chance to hold the main podium Clash of the Titans: Can Cannabis Culture and Big Business Co-Exist?

We brought together five notable panelists with different perspectives on the topic. Huge MSO companies as well as long-established Mom ‘n Pop companies were represented: Simply Pure CEO Wanda James, Curaleaf CEO Joe Bayern, Swami Select founder Swami Chaitanya, Ayr Wellness Co-COO Jennifer Drake and Happy Munkey founder Vladimir Bautista. Each participant spoke honestly and openly and expressed a desire to build bridges. As the moderator, it was my job to let the panelists speak; Below are some highlights from the discussion with insights from MJBizCon CEO Chris Walsh. Consensus of the Titans? Build the bridge.

You have been instrumental in bringing this theme to the main stage of your biggest event. What were your most important insights from our panel?

Chris Walsh: This panel was an opportunity to bring a conversation to light about the cannabis industry – can long-established and business owners build a cohesive industry? Ultimately, we learned from this conversation that there is still much to be done and significant differences in motivation, but that both sides recognize the importance of working together and bridging the gap in strengthening the industry as a whole.

Vladimir Bautista, Jennifer Drake and Wanda James at MJBizCon in Vegas 2021 for the Clash of the … [+] Titans panel.


What was different about this panel from previous ones you participated in?

Wanda James: This panel was a great addition to the main stage. Having a board that is not just women, black or Latin American CEOs, or just the hedge fund-backed public companies, but a combination of all of them makes for a much more interesting conversation. The diversity of voices opens the door to a better understanding of what it takes to deliver on the promise of true diversity in the industry. It also brings a different audience to the table. Too many CEOs of the largest cannabis companies ignore concerns from people of color who may not sit on the all-white, all-male boards of multi-state organizations.

Diversity is always a topic of discussion in the industry – but there are obviously few companies that have a plan for addressing real diversity. It is very evident that corporate cannabis is failing to meet its obligation to warrant various boards of directors, CSuites or management teams. A discussion like this, involving different voices and companies, should lead the multi-million dollar publicly traded companies in the industry to better advocate inclusion, or at least make them very aware and uncomfortable about their failure in this critical area.

Swami Select founder Swami Chaitanya

Mike Rosati / @rosatiphotos

As the CEO of one of the largest cannabis companies in the world, what did you take away from the panel?

Joe Bayern: My biggest takeaway is that we all have a lot more in common than people think. We are all trying to create a viable industry and remove the stigma that is attached to the facility and industry today. If regulators, big cannabis and small legacy players work together, we can build an inclusive and resilient industry over the next few years, where everyone has room for a responsible business.

Reforms and legislation are needed to give smaller operators and entrepreneurs better access to capital and create opportunities for everyone in the market. This year we launched Curaleaf’s first major joint venture under our Rooted in Good corporate social responsibility program, and we will continue to use our national platform to promote social justice in cannabis. I really believe that “big” cannabis can be good cannabis – and good cannabis can be big business.

How was your experience as an old operator?

Swami Chaitanya: I had fun on the podium and it was interesting to find out that the bosses at Curaleaf and Ayr Wellness are not monsters, but actually nice people.

Multi-state cannabis and small-scale artisanal cannabis are not natural enemies, not even real competitors. We actually need each other. Legacy cultivators are the heart and soul of cannabis culture, the lawless heroes who are legendary. They set standards for quality, create new varieties and discover new medicinal preparations. The big corporations and their capital are essential to getting the magic herb to those who need it.

The elephant in the room, in my opinion, was the absence of government officials on the panel. It is they who hinder the expansion of the legal market through onerous and overly strict laws and regulations, restrictions that are not imposed on any other industry and only serve to continue the illegal market.

In California, the threat to small artisans is from giant indoor and greenhouse cultivators, flooding the market with mediocre machine-made weed, driving the price below the cost of production for the small independent farmer. The same story for artisanal producers across agriculture.

Consensus of the Titans? Build the bridge.

Mike Rosati / @rosatiphotos

As a representative of a large licensed multi-state operator, what did you take away from the panel?

Jennifer Drake: We believe licensed operators like us need to take on the history of cannabis, and not just in a performative way. You must show real respect for the work and the people who have sacrificed so much to get us where we are today.

We must also work together to create opportunities for everyone to be successful in the licensing market. There has to be a way for unlicensed operators and those communities disproportionately negatively affected by the war on drugs to participate in the growing licensed market, with tiered royalties, reduced background checks, etc. There is so much room in this amazing space for all of us to flourish – and only together can we make cannabis accessible to everyone.

As the only unlicensed operator, what did you take with you on the panel?

Vladimir Bautista: In today’s legacy market with an annual turnover of 60 billion US dollars, there are people who fill every position, from budget tenders to C-suite managers. With cannabis driving mainstream legalization, it is clear that without the synergy of culture and corporate cannabis, the industry will never be fully optimized. There are thousands of skilled and accomplished business people like myself from the legacy market who don’t feel welcome in these rooms. It’s up to the entire legal cannabis industry to change that!