Part patchouli, part power suit, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts gathered over the weekend for the District’s first cannabis convention since the city legalized recreational marijuana — offering a glimpse of the emerging markets that could take hold in the nation’s capital.
Although the faint smell of marijuana hung over the Southwest D.C. hotel’s exhibition hall — where attendees could get tips on how to grow it, buy products to smoke it and speak with consultants on how to market it — nowhere could “it” be found.
It was a pot convention without any pot — out in the open anyhow.
The District’s legalization laws, which took effect Thursday, were partly to blame for that. The laws allow for the possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana but no sales or smoking in public.
Organizers of the District’s first Cannabis Academy also wanted to keep a safe distance from the stereotypical “stoner” image and hoped to stress that “cannabusiness” is a legitimate and respectable enterprise.
“It’s important that everyone understand that the industry is a professional and regulated and controlled industry,” said organizer George, who co-founded the cannabis industry education company ComfyTree but didn’t want to use his real name.
“Legitimate” doesn’t translate to “legal,” at least in the eye of the federal government, said the entrepreneur, who organizes education summits across the country where marijuana is not legal.
Exhibitors were instructed not to bring any THC products onto the premises of the Holiday Inn Washington-Capitol Hotel, located a block south of the Mall, where federal drug laws still apply and marijuana is an offense that could lead to arrest.
“The exhibit is more designed to bring in the experts from California and Colorado, the ‘mature markets,’ to allow the public in D.C. to start to brainstorm and understand how they can get into the industry and the type of things they can do,” George said.
So keeping with the letter of D.C. law, attendees shared their business savvy but not their green. Instead, speakers such as former investment banker Scott Grepier offered tips on how entrepreneurs could attract financial backers for their ventures.
Exhibitor Eric DeFeo showed off the prototype for his countertop planter, called Root, which comes equipped with automated LED lights and a watering system.
About the closest one could come to finding weed out in the open at the event were swag bags — containing a lighter, a breath mint, a business card and a small package of oregano — that Mr. DeFeo passed out with a wink and a nod in between pitches for his $299 hydroponic planter.
Industry estimates project that the combined sales of recreational and medical marijuana in states where programs are legal could top $8 billion by 2018. In the District, officials have estimated that the local marijuana economy could be valued annually at $130 million.
The potential to cash in on the blooming “green rush” economy was not lost on the convention’s attendees, some of whom paid up to $299 each to attend a two-day slew of panel discussions and education seminars.
The showroom Saturday alone had a crowd of about 2,000 people — baggy pants and pot leaf-emblazoned T-shirts pressed shoulder to shoulder with crisp business suits. In a separate conference room, oddly within eyesight of the entrance to the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, about 200 paying attendees brushed up on the intricacies of the District’s pot laws and asked questions of industry professionals from across the country.
Because the District’s legalization laws allow at-home growing of marijuana plants but not the sale of the drug, many at the city’s cannabis expo were focused on obtaining supplies or networking to put their growing experience to work.
Trent Johnson, 26, said he is considering a move to the District when the lease is up on his Arlington apartment in order to take advantage of the legalization to grow up to six marijuana plants.
“It would cut an expense,” he said with a laugh.
Mr. Johnson said he hoped experience cultivating the drug could serve him in the future if the local market eventually allows for legal sales, which Congress thus far has blocked.
Daniel Sims, owner of the Silver Spring indoor gardening store Montgomery Hydroponics, stood behind a rack of LED lights he had on display in the exhibition room.
“We’d be foolish not to take advantage of the D.C. laws,” said Mr. Sims, whose light racks were labeled $200 and up. “We want to start installing grow rooms for people.”
David Paine, a 45-year-old D.C. resident who has worked in the medical marijuana industry in California, said he is thinking about getting back into the business now that legalization is official. He said he would like to use his skills to help others run or fine-tune their cultivation centers.
Looking around the bustling showroom filled with cannabis-infused energy drinks, glass bongs and other items for sale, Mr. Paine joked that it seemed too good to be true.
“My fear is it is a trap,” he said, laughing at his own paranoia. “Like they are going to chain the doors and fingerprint everyone for later.
But after years of operating in the shadows, the sight of the marijuana industry out and thriving in the open felt “like a godsend,” he said.