POIPU, Kauai — Alex Rogers vaulted onto the stage like the warm-up act at a rock concert. “Yo, make some noise!” he howled into the mic, riling cheers from a mid-morning audience of pot smokers, investors and farmers. “I love y’all!”
Slender and silver-haired, Rogers is the founder and CEO of the International Cannabis Business Conference, which descended this weekend on Kauai’s Grand Hyatt resort.
The three-day affair featured a spree of presentations by lawyers, politicians and music producers, as well as a reggae concert, a golf tournament and giveaways of non-intoxicating cannabis products, such as bottled water laced with CBD oil. The destination event will next pay visits to San Francisco, Berlin and Vancouver.
The Kauai conference-goers numbered 500, according to Rogers, and many of them had flown in from states and nations with progressive marijuana legislation. Attendance at a midday panel on foreign cannabis law, however, was notably sparse, a sign that the event was viewed by some marijuana entrepreneurs as an opportunity to justify a Hawaii vacation as a business expense write-off.
Those who did make it to the first day of panels were welcomed Saturday by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who appeared in a pre-recorded video played on twin projectors.
“Our outdated policies are having devastating effects on individuals and communities all across the country,” said Gabbard, who spoke for five minutes. “They’ve turned everyday Americans into criminals, torn apart families and wasted huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate people for nonviolent marijuana charges.”
A proponent of federal marijuana decriminalization, Gabbard said she wants to make it easier for cannabis companies to work within the banking system. She also voiced support for measures that could jumpstart the industrial hemp industry, such as erasing hemp’s controlled substance classification.
State Sen. Will Espero predicted marijuana will be legal for adult recreational use in Hawaii within the next three to five years.
In his keynote address, state Sen. Will Espero called conference-goers pioneers, evoking American greats like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison.
A Q&A session capped each forum, and Espero, who hosted a $250-per-head fundraiser in a hotel suite, was questioned by a New Yorker about Hawaii’s stance on adult recreational use of marijuana.
“I’m surprised that you guys are so conservative here,” the audience member said. “Who are the voices that are quashing adult use?”
Black market pot’s ubiquity has hampered progressive marijuana legislation in the islands, Espero said. But the state government’s need for revenue will eventually drive legalization. And when it does, Espero said he believes Hawaii is poised to become a highly valued, world-class cannabis producer due to its brand power.
“People have not been pounding the doors on legalization because it’s here,” said Espero, who is campaigning for lieutenant governor. “You can get it in any neighborhood. But now we are thinking about it from the aspect of commercialization, of health care, of tax revenues — and that’s why the bar has been raised on the issue of legalization.”
The senator also made a prediction: Marijuana will be legal for adult recreational use in Hawaii within the next three to five years.
Getting high was only a small part of the weekend conversation. Discussions ranged from best practices for lawsuit avoidance and cannabis brand-building (“There’s not a Coca-Cola of cannabis — yet,” said Bibiana Rojas, the co-founder of a marijuana company in Colombia) to the future of hemp agriculture in the Hawaiian islands.
Speakers and moderators on these subjects included Jamaican record producer Wayne “Native Wayne” Jobson, San Francisco Chronicle cannabis editor David Downs and Big Island vegetable and hemp farmer Greg Smith. Attendees were informed and attentive, pressing panelists about the threshold for permissible pesticide contamination in Hawaii’s medical cannabis and the legality of recent letters sent by the Honolulu Police Department ordering medical marijuana users to surrender their guns.
Outside the conference room, exhibitors modeled products ranging from glass pipes to fabric pots that promote soil aeration.
“It’s like how you take Vitamin C every day,” said an exhibitor promoting daily cannabinoid therapy via a pen roller that can be used to apply CBD oil to the wrists or temples.
Christopher Takhvar, a 43-year-old tattoo artist from Maui, was scouting for an investor to help him develop a business utilizing his “Mauiwowie” federal trademark. By Saturday afternoon, he hadn’t had much luck.
“They might be fans, but I don’t think 95 percent of these people here are proponents of developing this industry in Hawaii,” he said. “There’s a lot of fluff.”
But there was also substance. Hawaii’s new medical cannabis program and its inefficiencies took center stage in one panel discussion.
Helen Cho, who is Aloha Green’s director of integrated strategy, lamented anti-smoking regulations administered by the state Department of Health that forbid dispensaries from selling rolling papers or any other paraphernalia that enable the inhalation of cannabis.
“Right now at the dispensary there are a lot of cannabis newbies and we have lots of paraphernalia for them to look at, and we show them and say, ‘OK, when you go to the head shop this is what you want,’” Cho said.
Panelist Caleb King of Steep Hill Hawaii, a cannabis testing laboratory, noted this problem with the state’s 1 part per million action limit set for pesticides: Some pesticides are toxic below the 1 ppm threshold for patients with compromised immune systems. As the medical cannabis program grows out of its infancy, King said the state has indicated that it will consider lowering the limit to curtail any potential health risks to patients.
At least as important as the conversations stimulated by panelists were opportunities for attendees to exchange business cards. Away from the exhibitor halls, after-hours networking happened over cocktails and in hot tubs.
“I think the people are almost more interesting than the conference itself,” said Kauai resident Jay Ensworth.