The ‘De-stigmatization’ Inflection

Back in November, near the end of our “Green Gold” discussion at the Milken California Summit, there was a question as to what the cannabis industry might look like a decade down the line. I recall saying something to the effect of: in 10 years, we’ll see cannabis-based products at Target, and they will sit in multiple aisles.

So where’s the tipping point? In the last six months, it’s become clear that the tipping point is not so much a domino to be knocked over, but more of an inflection point to be identified. This is hard to gauge in real time, with each week bringing news of a significant transaction, scientific breakthrough, cultural milestone, or political victory in our space. Furthermore, it’s even tougher to locate yourself along the very curve whose trajectory you’ve been pushing, for years at full throttle, to change. Perhaps such a task is better suited for a historian.

The latest in this litany of industry inflection points was the inclusion of our cannabis panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference, which I was honored to organize and moderate. Our topic sat alongside others exploring weighty themes like Artificial Intelligence, developing the Space economy, and the future of urban transportation. The panel managed to attract a packed house crammed with more prominent private-equity managers, venture capitalists, hedge fund managers, and Fortune 500 CEOs than I’ve ever seen before at a cannabis discussion. Panelist and PAX CEO Bharat Vasan, noted that the standing-room-only crowd was in spite of Milken having doubled the size of our space compared to last year.

More broadly, Milken’s decision to prominently feature the cannabis theme laid an important marker on our industry’s path to de-stigmatization. It’s not at all lost on me that this same path, not too long ago, used to wind through dark alleys, littered with baggies.

Panelists on the Cannabis Panel at the Milken Global Conference

The caliber of panelists we were able to assemble spoke not only to how lucky I was, but also to the industry’s continued ability to attract top talent. Case in point is Jeff Wells, CEO of Franwell, the company behind Metrc, the foremost track-and-trace system for monitoring the industry. After hearing him speak (at his first cannabis panel ever!), one can’t help but conclude that Metrc has played a big role in cannabis being the most organized and transparent industry out there, period. Lessons abound for the FDA and other federal regulatory bodies, Jeff noted.

Working hand in hand with technological innovation, more abstract efforts at de-stigmatizing, (re)branding, and mainstreaming cannabis culture have paid off handsomely in terms of our industry’s surging ‘respectability’. Big Rock founder Mike Harden alluded to this masterfully when he said: “We look at cannabis like a vegetable”. (Albeit the most profitable vegetable ever grown.)

And co-panelist Ben Kovler of Green Thumb Industries hammered home the pivotal importance of branding in the current moment, the twilight of cannabis prohibition. “In this Prohibition 2.0, the brands distributed at-scale will win.”

One sort of meta-thread I noticed running through our discussion was how these executives, just by sharing their stories, were able to capture the nuances and complexities of the industry. That itself is quite helpful in breaking down the stigmas attached to being a business leader of a cannabis company.

I’m so grateful to Bharat, Jeff, Mike, and Ben for bringing such insightful conversation and of course, to the Milken Global Conference for affirming our claim that cannabis will indeed be among the most compelling investment themes of our generation. We’ll try to make you proud, all the way to Target.