Canada was easily the top cannabis newsmaker of 2018 after becoming the first G7 nation to legalize recreational cannabis. But 2019 could belong to Panama and the rest of Latin America, which is poised to become the cannabis industry's next big mover and shaker in the near future.
"Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Chile, Brazil and Argentina are all going to have some form of medical program coming online in 2020 - maybe even 2019," Saul Kaye - Founder of CannaTech - told Civilized. "The Latin American opportunity in cannabis is very large. If you think about it, it's over 500 million Spanish-speakers about to be turned on to some form of either medical or lifestyle cannabis. That market's bigger than the US and Canada combined."
That's why Kaye's company decided to hold the next CannaTech Cannabis Conference in Panama, which runs from February 12-13, 2019.
While the cannabis industry will generate big business throughout Latin America, Panama's economy and geography have given it a unique opportunity to become a key player in the nascent industry.
"It's a tax-free zone," Kaye explained. "It is known for logistics and production. So you could grow low-cost cannabis in Colombia and export it to Panama for upscale production in a tax-free environment where all the boats are going through to get to the rest of the world. It's pretty well positioned in terms of its location and economy. I think those will be the drivers for Panama: both low-cost, export-grade cannabis for the rest of the world and a big local market as well."
New Country, Same Problem
While there are great economic opportunities for cannabis businesses and investors in Panama, the country also faces the same major challenge that we've seen in Canada, America and every other country that has tried to reform its marijuana laws.
"Stigma is strong everywhere," Kaye said. "We've jumped from one stigma to another, which is the stigma of cannabis is bad to the stigma of cannabis is stoner."
That means many cannabis businesses and other companies will likely try selling products by playing up stoner stereotypes in ads. But Kaye hopes the conference will convince forward-thinking brands to take a more mature approach to promoting cannabis culture.
"I think we need to take on a new responsibility in advertising and marketing in general in terms of the new cannabis generation," Kaye said. "We have to be about responsible use, we have to be about limits, we have to be about appropriateness. We've jumped into the very early side of marketing cannabis to a new, fun generation without necessarily considering the longer-term ramifications of what we really want this industry to look like in five years or ten years. Let's build the marketing for that now because where it's headed is not necessarily going to be great."
To discuss what that approach might look like, Kaye is teaming up with Civilized publisher Derek Riedle for a fireside chat on cannabis stigmatization and the role that media can play in erasing outdated stereotypes.
"I want to see what his views are," Kaye said. "I come from the medical side of cannabis, Derek comes from the lifestyle, publishing side of cannabis, so how do you take both of those and give a cohesive message in a language that the consumer can understand? That's what I'd like to find out."
But the image of the recreational industry will ultimately be decided by the customer, according to Kaye.
"On the product and lifestyle side, the consumer is the one who is going to ultimately choose which of the brands that are going to succeed in this industry. But if we're conscious consumers today of cannabis material, and we're responsible about that, then I think the more responsible brands - the brands driven not just by consuming joints but changing perceptions around cannabis in general - those are the ones that will have the larger impact. How do we make this sustainable? How do we make the packaging better for the environment, how do we put responsible products that are age-appropriate to market? Those are the right conversations to be having, not 'Cheech and Chong rolled out a new bong.'"
The CannaTech Conference Experience
Kaye wants the CannaTech Cannabis Conference to encourage that conversation among a broad cross-section of the industry. While more and more conferences are popping up every year as cannabis legalization gains momentum around the world, Kaye believes that CannaTech's events stand out by offering an inclusive forum that reflects the interests and concerns of the global industry.
"We speak a language that a farmer in overalls, a PhD in his lab coat and a money guy in his suit can understand. And not only understand but participate and collaborate in and figure out what deals can be made around that. That's been CannaTech's energy from the very beginning, with a very global focus. So while there are a lot of conferences in the world, there aren't many that are focused on taking the Canadian opportunity, the US opportunity, the Latin American, the Australian and so on, and mixing all those into one room together to get a better outcome for everybody. Our conferences have an ecosystem and a community around them that is unparalleled. The fact that you can rub shoulders with the Bruce Lintons and Derek Riedles of Canada, and the Kevin Murphys of the US and the Professor Mechoulams of Israel - that is a unique thing that not everyone is able to pull off."
And they're hoping to bring that unique opportunity to other places that haven't held a CannaTech Cannabis Conference yet.
"We're looking at a couple of places in Africa. And we have one slated for Europe in 2019, so we're definitely spreading our wings and taking our message of a global cannabis ecosystem everywhere."
Want to take part in the conversation at CannaTech? You can buy tickets here. Enter the the promotion code "CivilizedVIP" and you'll get $200 off the main conference pass (valid through February 3rd).