by Bridget Hennessey, Vice President, Public Affairs at Weedmaps
I will admit, it’s “been a minute” as my kids would say, since I got excited about a cannabis conference.
Don’t get me wrong. These gatherings are important, useful, impactful and worthwhile. I am not saying otherwise. Perhaps I’m suffering from “conference fatigue.” I’ve lost count of how many cannabis conferences I’ve attended, participated in or helped organize. And that doesn’t include the panel discussions and workshops at non-cannabis conferences with a cannabis-related focus or theme, or a cannabis “track.”
And then, last week I flew across the country to attend Regenerative Cannabis Live, in New York. My faith in cannabis conferences was reignited.
Being in New York contributed to the change of heart. There is an obvious and palatable excitement and energy about legal cannabis in the Empire State. I’m optimistic about what Governor Kathy Hochul is doing on the regulatory front. And we can’t help but expect innovation, creativity and the buzzwords du jour “thought leadership” from New York-based cannabis brands, ancillary businesses, and trade and professional organizations. I’m not picking favorites. The west coast cannabis community has the history and OG title, that’s for sure. But since I returned from the conference, I occasionally find myself humming an Alicia Keys song.
As legalization matures among the West Coast states, a flush of legalization is happening concurently on the East Coast. National public opinion on cannabis has gained record support in all demographics. As a result, we are beginning to see a less state-by-state attitude about cannabis-related issues. An “American Cannabis” frame of mind is unfolding. So the Regenerative Cannabis Live conference couldn’t have happened at a better time.
Themed “Sustainable Development for and by the Cannabis & Hemp Industry ‘’ the conference was held at the United Nations. Although this was not an official United Nations event, the conference organizers smartly chose to develop the sessions around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. I was initially leary. UN activities sometimes feel like a global high school debate society–with prepared, previously reviewed and approved statements and talking points that should be called “talking at points.” But give them this: no one does “frameworks” better than the UN.
That’s something that has been lacking at other cannabis conferences: We need a better (i.e. more inclusive) way to frame conversations, and for disparate voices to not only have a seat at the table, but more importantly, for their voices to carry the same weight as their tablemates.
The conference also presented hemp and issues related to hemp on equal footing with cannabis, instead of acting like hemp was an afterthought. Words like “synergy” and “cross sectionality” often cause my eyes to roll. They weren’t necessarily a part of the conference vocabulary, but what those words mean or represent certainly was. Cannabis issues are quintessentially inter-related within and outside of the cannabis industry in so many ways.
The holistic perspective that the conference was organized around was more than refreshing, it was required. That’s because other countries view cannabis more holistically than we do. They see cannabis as a means to accomplish both economic and sustainability goals. For them, cannabis is both an economic driver and a sustainability solution. That’s not always how it is here. In the US, we have a disjointed, siloed view of cannabis and the industry. We view, regulate and even organize conferences in that way. Case in point: cannabis and hemp. They are the same plant. But if you didn’t already know that, you probably never would, based on how we talk and regulate them.
That’s not really surprising, as legalization in the United States is a “patchwork of policy” and non-legal states resist looking to legal states as “been there, done that” laboratories of best practices–what works and what doesn’t.
We can’t excuse away our nearsightedness solely on the lack of federal legalization. There are many other factors at play. My interactions with the delegates from Paraguay and Malta, for example, opened my eyes to that. They are small countries compared to ours, but their experiences, successes and challenges are not as unique as we too often think. We (the US) still have a lot to learn about cannabis, and we must include other countries as our teachers.
But I think what influenced my cheerleading of this conference most, what I enjoyed most, what energized and inspired me most was the representation of women. And as a result, this conference was visibly and experientially different–in the best sense possible.
We’ve learned, at least I hope we have, that the audience doesn’t burst into flames if the keynote speaker is a woman. To no one’s surprise, the earth doesn’t open and swallow up the stage if the participants of a panel discussion happen to be all female. So can we just finally agree that more women involved in a discussion means a better discussion? Women and men are . . . different. So it should not come as a shock–or be perceived as a knock (on anyone) — that they communicate differently. And that difference was on full display at this conference. The conversations and presentations were markedly more thoughtful and intentional than most others I’ve heard. Yes, I know. That’s nice. But they were also markedly more solution-oriented. That’s important and useful.
I have to give fan girl shout outs to conference speakers Sandra Carillo, a professor at Panama University; Patricia Villela Marino, President of Humanitas360; and Giadha Decarcer, founder and executive chair of New Frontier Data. Their presentations were outstanding.
Haven’t heard of them? That’s okay.
Give it a minute.
Bridget Hennessey is a Vice President at Weedmaps, the leading technology provider to the cannabis industry. She heads the company’s Public Affairs Department.