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Day one of MJ Unpacked was off with a bang, with everyone bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 9 AM and eager to talk about cannabis brands, retail, science, and investing. In contrast, the first hour of day two was more sparsely attended. This lack of morning momentum was no doubt at least partially due to the stellar party (and fundraiser for Last Prisoner Project) at House of Blues the night before, not to mention the myriad of afterparties that make weed week both fun and daunting. But before the organizers had time to worry, crowds began to flow into the stages and investor suites. By 10 AM, we heard the gong begin to ring in the brand experience hall, signifying that people were celebrating the making of deals. 

Out on the floor, fastidious brand representatives made small adjustments to their kiosks, preparing for the bustle of day two in the exhibition hall. “I’m a perfectionist,” admitted LaToyia Rucker of Detroit, MI’s Calyxeum, pointing to all the details that comprised their dynamic display, like the alternating lights that made the glass case glow with Calyxeum’s signature colors of tangerine and amethyst. Ian Hackett of Napa Valley Fumé offered the chance to feel the silky texture of Fumé’s signature packaging, while in the section devoted to their Lake Grade brand, attendees could participate in a cannabis candy counting contest.

The first presentation of the day was “The Next Generation of Cannabis Innovations & Compounds,” with Mike Hennesy of Wana, Harold Han of Vertosa, and Chris Emerson of LEVEL. Moderated by Zoltrain CEO Danny Gold, the panel had an illuminating discussion of the latest in cannabinoid nanotech and emulsification. This was followed by “How to Build Your Cannabis Brand,” moderated by Garden Society co-founder Karli Warner. Presenters included Peggy Moore, CEO of Love’s Oven; Mark Russ, West Region President of Curaleaf; Gregg Steinberg, CEO of Belushi’s Farm; and Katrina Yolen, CMO of Acreage Holdings

One highlight of the day was seeing how many event sponsors were taking an active role at MJ Unpacked. 

“Great content at MJ Unpacked. Really good panels and connections. Nice work!” said Annie Davis, VP of Marketing at Flow Cannabis. Davis was an exhibitor, sponsor, and speaker at the event, and seemed to be everywhere at once. Meanwhile, CannabisBPO made it a mission to raise more money for Last Prisoner Project.

“Marshall [Ogen] used his platform and his voice well in remembering that we are here working in a legal industry that wasn’t always this way, and that there are still people in jail for it,” said Lily Kerrigan, senior account executive with Jage Media

At noon, everyone on the floor began streaming toward the back of the room, a sure sign that Tommy Chong was making an appearance at the LPP booth, where he graciously posed for photos and shared pearls of wisdom. 

Both 40 Tons and LPP were major presences at the event, reminding us all that we can’t sit comfortably in this industry when there are still nearly 40,000 people incarcerated for cannabis “crimes.” When we asked LaToyia Rucker of Detroit’s Calyxeum for her takeaway from day two, she said, “Our introduction and awesome conversation with Steve DeAngelo. He has been someone that both my partner and I have admired. It was great to meet a cannabis trailblazer that has laid a foundation for companies like Calyxeum to make an impact in the industry and, more importantly, our community.”

Her partner Rebecca Colet appreciated the diversity at the show, saying, “It was so amazing to connect with many other very talented and diverse Cannabis entrepreneurs from all over the country. We really were inspired by the stories and journeys of such fantastic brands such as A Dose of Saucy, 40 Tons, The Garden Society, and more! It was also great to connect with other accomplished Cannabis professionals to network and share ideas in an intimate setting versus an overcrowded venue.”  

Steve DeAngelo of Last Prisoner Project, Nekeidra Cromwell of Urban Leaf, Tommy Chong, and Mary Bailey of Last Prisoner Project

As grow nerds, we loved meeting Rebecca and LaToyia from Calyxeum. A Black-owned, woman-owned brand that grows their own? Yes, please. On the grower front we were also excited to talk to the folks from Cannasentials, a seriously legit brand from Eugene, Oregon with inspiring living soil farming practices that are beyond organic, and Napa Valley Fumé, a brand dedicated to sungrown sustainability that also produces some of the dankest weed we’ve ever smoked.

Speaking of dank weed, we loved hearing CEO and founder Morris Kelly talk about his favorite product in glowing tones. It definitely made us want to get our hands on some Cherry Juice from SF Roots. When asked for his takeaway, Kelly said, “I was mainly stuck at my booth but my biggest takeaway was watching five other BIPOC entrepreneurs, who are able to successfully launched their cannabis brands during COVID, flourish on a national stage.”

Morris Kelly of SF Roots

One aspect that differentiates MJ Unpacked is the creation of a more comfortable space to meet and mingle. The bar in the front lounge was open all day and the giant foosball table was a popular attraction. In the brand experience hall, attendees socialized around the banquets, which were color-coded with stoner-friendly snacks: one table featured green food and beverages, ranging from edamame to Perrier, while another table had everything from fresh blueberries to blue candy–We were excited to find the blue raspberry gummy sharks. (Someone at craft services was having fun.)

Back at Main Stage, we dropped in to listen to Javan Bunch (Overton Capital) expertly moderate the discussion “How to Replicate & Localize your Retail Store in New Markets” with executives Ryan Brown (Groundworks Industries), Katrina Yolen (Acreage Holdings), and Thomas Winstanley (Theory Wellness). This team of veteran retailers shared tricks of the trade when it comes to learning and leveraging the geography and demographics specific to new regional markets. Their talk was followed by the keynote presentation, “Blues, Booze, Bunnies & Weed,” a convivial chat between Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, and Christie Hefner.

Among our favorite discussions was “The Future of Cannabis Consumption,” a panel hosted by Tina Ulman, president of the Chamber of Cannabis. It was powerful to see an entire panel of younger female leaders who are challenging what this industry is and what it can be. Chelsea Bedard, Layke Martin, Sara Stewart, and Jenn Tramaglino got deep into the logistics and politics of making consumption lounges a reality, with spirited analysis of everything from single-serving products to how to create partnerships with traditional retailers.

When our energy started to flag and our focus deviated, we stopped by the Azuca booth for samples of fast-acting CBD sugar for our coffee. We’ve long been intrigued by this company that provides the technology for some of the most successful products on the market and we were not disappointed by either the sample or our chat about their latest technologies, including their fast-acting chocolate activator.

Left: “Chris Anderson, Brian Lucchesi, William Simms, Anthony, and Loriel Alegrete, Tyler Edwards, and Corvain Cooper pose in front of the innovative 40 Tons booth. Right: Tyler Edwards, Corvain Cooper, Michael Thompson, and Donte West 

One consistent takeaway from the event was that participants appreciated the caliber of attendees and the opportunity to speak with other executives. 

“Every conversation I’ve had here has legs,” said Jen Dye, COO and co-founder of The Peak Beyond, which provides technology solutions to retailers. Paul Botto of LucID seconded that, calling MJ Unpacked “a target-rich environment.” 

For us, another favorite aspect of the entire show was getting to meet Hilary Yu of Our Academy and the dynamic group of equity brand leaders she brought to the table. These brands were each incredibly unique and fully realized–certainly among the finest we saw on the floor. When asked for a comment on her experience at MJ Unpacked, Hilary said,

“For the past month, Our Academy has been working with Tess Taylor (Saucy), Kimberly Dillon (Frigg), Morris Kelly (SF Roots), and Miko Banks (Resziin Farms) to make sure they all felt supported and ready to pitch in-person on the Money Stage. It was a proud moment to watch them all overcome their fears of public speaking and step into their power while giving exceptional presentations. The real highlight was looking around during Morris’s presentation and realizing there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.” 

Miko Banks and Hilary Yu

To us, the Our Academy cohort was an ideal of what we want to see in this industry: creativity, ethics, authenticity, beautiful design, legacy knowledge, and, of course, dank weed. They also represent a more synergistic approach to capitalism. As Yu said, “As far as a takeaway, the power of community is real. We all helped each other prep, make intros, and covered each other’s backs when someone wasn’t available or needed assistance with displays or feedback for their pitches. It can be a daunting experience going to a convention like this as a solopreneur and it was encouraging for everyone to have a group to do this with, which includes the MJ Unpacked team who has been so collaborative throughout this whole process and partnership.”

mj unpacked team

Kimberly Dillon, formerly the chief marketing officer at Papa & Barkley, and now the head of her own cutting-edge beauty and wellness brand, is a mentor at Our Academy. 

“Such an opportunity to present Frigg, launching an innovative beverage concept, to a nationwide community of investors, retailers, and peers,” Dillon said. “As part of the Our Academy syndicate, it was amazing to be connected to investors and retailers who are passionate about putting capital to work in the industry that can set the standard for impact investing access in many different sectors.”

In addition to putting a spotlight on homegrown brands, MJ Unpacked made space for big MSOs and financial advisors to share their knowledge. In the late afternoon, we made a final stop in the auditorium for “Integration Best Practices for Merging Companies,” which was moderated by Andy Williams, co-founder of Medicine Man. Jamie Mendola, Roy Bingham, and Peter Rosenberg shared hard-earned lessons on how to prepare for and execute successful transitions. 

In the words of Kimberly Dillon, “MJ Unpacked filled a much-needed gap in the market – connecting brands to retailers and investors. The connections and conversations made at the show have been invaluable and productive. I am excited to watch the show grow.”

MJ Unpacked co-founder George Jage is also clearly excited to watch the show grow. “We could not be happier with the outcome of this event,” Jage said. “We really created a totally unique experience by incorporating new technologies to increase productivity and efficiency. The response was phenomenal, but we never rest on our laurels. We know that we can continue to improve on our design and will be adding new features and benefits as we further develop MJ Unpacked.”

MJ Unpacked is grateful for our incredibly supportive partners and sponsors: 

Images courtesy of Blulight Films, Ches Owen, and Daniel Saenz.

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