I've been covering cannabis for nearly five years, and by now I'm all too accustomed to the impersonal cannabis conference at a stuffy, generic hotel or expo hall, brimming with white guys in suits, and generally lacking in the spirit of well, cannabis. (The woes of legalization, I suppose.)
So it was a breath of fresh air when I walked into what felt like a giant atrium in downtown LA for a new kind of cannabis conference. Located in what's called the Valentine Grass Room in an industrial area past the hustle and bustle of the DTLA skyscrapers, Microscopes & Machines (M&M) boasted a diverse array of speakers, from doctors and lawyers to chemists and cultivators on the frontlines of the cannabis industry.
The speakers were divided between two tracks: microscopes ("medical providers [who] are the reason the cannabis industry exists at all, and who remain devoted to improving the lives of patients") and machines (those working to stabilize the cannabis supply chain through technology and manufacturing).
Outside the conference halls, guests mingled in the open ares; munched on vegan eats; watched a live artist paint a colorful, psychedelic canvas; and peered through a giant kaleidoscope made with a bouquet of cannabis buds.
"While it's been exciting to see how quickly [the industry] is developing, it's also felt like something's been lost — a sense of true person-to-person connection, a focus on how the plant can help people, a chance to really dive deep into details," says Ariel Clark, cannabis attorney and organizer behind M&M. "At a certain point, you realize that if you really care about something you can't just wish for it, you need to create it. It was a year-long process, but in the end we put on the cannabis nerd conference of our dreams, and we couldn't be prouder."
Indeed, M&M was a conference for weed nerds, not Green Rush noobs with little relationship to the plant and big dreams of cashing in on cannabis. Attendees were comprised of veterans of the cannabis space and those looking to deepen their knowledge of marijuana.
I caught a couple panels on both tracks, including a talk on open source cannabis by industry pioneer Dustin Powers (machines), and a lecture on synthetic versus organic cannabinoids by Dr. Jeff Chen, founder of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative (microscopes).
In his interrogation of "ethical capitalism," Powers asked the audience if such a thing could even exist, and if so, how. The open source model of sharing information, he explained, is for the good of the community. The only way to protect the cannabis plant, he suggested, is to work together through open source data so everyone in the industry can move forward — not only a privileged, well-capitalized few who have access to the necessary information they need to make progress.
"Closed systems control information and data, which means, you can control people and the government," Powers said. "When one company controls people and the government, you've got serious issues. Closed systems are why the majority of existing cannabis patents are held by a few large companies — companies that don't give a fuck about the plant."
From cannabis genetics to pesticide remediation, he explained, there's no lack of material that could be made open and accessible for all to learn from, and to help build toward a collectively beneficial future.
The issue of access within the cannabis industry also feeds directly into the debate about synthetic versus organic cannabinoids. As Dr. Chen explained during his lecture, plant-derived cannabinoids come at a lower cost than those that are synthetically derived (and hence, make the industry more accessible to a diverse array of players), but the latter are more environmentally sustainable to produce, more scalable, and more consistent.
At the same time, however, cannabinoid isolates don't automatically come with the added benefit of the entourage effect, that's inherent to a plant with a naturally occurring range of cannabinoids and terpenes to play off each other. Then again, biosynthesis will become the reigning way to produce more minor cannabinoids that don't naturally occur in vast quantities in the cannabis plant, itself.
The synthetic versus organic debate continues with regard to efficacy, as well. Chen gave the example of CBD isolate's biphasic effect, in which a moderate dose of pure CBD can lower inflammation, but with a high dose, the benefit drops off. The same, however, doesn't happen with organically extracted CBD. Why's that? Scientists still aren't sure, he said.
Ultimately, the debate will come down cost, efficacy, consumer perception, and regulatory sales. Different facets of the industry, both in terms of production and the consumer base, will demand different kinds of cannabis — there will be those who value consistency and a pharmaceutical approach to treat chronic medical conditions, and then others who appreciate the esoteric ins and outs of indoor, outdoor, and greenhouse cultivation techniques and can taste the difference from bud to bud.
"The industry is understandably focused on building brands and businesses, and that's important, but we wanted to bring the plant back into the spotlight and have substantive, high-level content and host a conference where you actually learn something interesting directly from scientists, researchers, engineers, doctors, and other impact-makers," Clark explains. "We were not afraid to go deep and put conscious capitalism and community investment as core tenets."