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At 4:20, a stalwart group gathered for a happy hour farewell to MJ Unpacked Midwest. After two days of making connections and listening to refreshingly detailed and specific breakdowns of various aspects of the business, I found myself trading stories about ridiculous weed-related situations, from accidental smuggling to rescuing plants from wildfires and snowstorms. And I remembered: at the end of the day, this industry is based on something relatable, therapeutic, meaningful and…fun.

I’m fascinated by the spectrum of experiences, topics, products, and disciplines that make up the modern cannabis industry. And I think that MJ Unpacked creates room for this.

During the panel discussion “New Brands in New Markets,” I gleaned valuable data-based analysis fro moderator Jessica Lukas (SVP of Commercial Development, BDSA), and enjoyed insights from the personable Jenifer Dooley (Chief Strategy Officer, Green Thumb Industries) on best strategies for maintaining brand identities across markets. Dan Gardenswartz (CFO & COO, Spherex) talked about thoughtful product development and dealing with explosive growth.

Although the event is designed for decision-makers in the retail and brand sectors, MJ Unpacked is remarkably diverse in terms of topics and perspectives. I listened with interest as Mitch Meyers (CEO, The BeLeaf Company) share her nuanced thoughts on maintaining brand credibility. Meyers, who was tasked with introducing Bud Light to the world (and named AdWeek’s Advertising Woman of the Year in 1996), brought a valuable history of mainstream corporate branding experience to interested upstarts in new markets.

The next discussion, “Glimpse the Future: Insights from Mature Markets,” was moderated by Sparky Rose, who served time in federal prison for opening one of California’s first dispensary chains, yet went on to be instrumental in founding several well-known brands. Sparky’s past experience differed sharply from that of Mitch Meyers, but also brought a wealth of knowledge to the table, which included Nancy Whiteman (CEO of Wana Brands), Guy Rocourt (co-founder of Papa & Barkley) and Ryan Brown (CEO of Native Roots). Given their resumes, I wasn’t surprised that their conversation was in-depth. Highlights included their thoughts on brand integrity and Rocourt’s insights on why and how to build strong relationships with farmers.

In the final panel, “Maximizing Retail Sales & Profitability During a Pandemic,” Denise De Nardi (VP of Sales for Native Roots), Rocio Garcia (co-founder The People’s Dispensary), and Cris Rivera (Retail SVP at Sunnyside) doled out the actionable advice that I’d come to expect, while moderator Charlie Cain brought his own insights to the discussion. I was particularly struck by Garcia’s thoughts on best methods for supporting the mental health of employees who are dealing with both a pandemic and civil unrest.

And so far I’ve only (barely) covered the panels. It’s interesting to think about all the conversations spawned in side channels. I spoke with many attendees and presenters who had positive feedback about the sense of community-building. One that stuck with me was Nicolette Clynes of Simplifya, who said that MJ Unpacked was the most effective conference she’d attended in 2020, and added “All the attendees, from retailers and brands to ancillary companies, have been very insightful and willing to connect. It’s great to have a conference that gathers decision makers together for interesting and intelligence conversation. Thank you MJ Unpacked for a great show!”

From the systematic racism to the cannabinoid system, there’s a lot to talk about in the world of cannabis. And I feel lucky to be part of the conversation. That’s my takeaway from MJ Unpacked.

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