With Mass Cannabis At An Inflection Point, NECANN Adapts With Biggest Convention Yet

New England’s “Annual Meeting of the East Coast Cannabis Industry” “grows up,” plans sessions on everything from sustainability to psychedelics

On one hand, the Massachusetts cannabis industry, like the wider world of weed intrinsically attached to it, is facing rocky times. From recreational markets opening in neighboring states to the impasse over social consumption to archaic banking restrictions that continue to hobble businesses of all sizes, it seems that Bay State cannabis is way past the honeymoon phase.

On the other hand, we now have hundreds of businesses operating and thousands of products being made here in Mass with new companies turning up regularly. The pipeline is packed and applicants are waiting on final approval from the Berkshires to Boston. And the place they all congregate along with swarms of cannabis consumers and industry stakeholders from across the country—the New England Cannabis Convention, or NECANN, which takes places at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston from March 10 to 12 this year—has grown to the biggest it has ever been, with more than 300 exhibitors, five programming tracks, more than 100 expert speakers, and loads of ancillary attractions like a cannabis cup competition and various unaffiliated afterparties.

“Thematically, there are fewer Cannabis 101 and ‘What is 280E?’ sessions,” said Beth Waterfall, a NECANN board member who spearheads education for the conference. Waterfall, who also runs her own cannabis comms agency and co-founded the group ELEVATE NE to boost women in the green space, was referring to the IRS code that prevents weed companies from deducting most business expenses. People are well aware of what’s wrong, she said, adding that they’re looking for solutions at NECANN 2023.

“In addition to how to get a license, we’re talking about how to keep it, how to utilize data from New England to make smart and sustainable decisions, how to keep our workplaces safe, and how to expand into new markets,” Waterfall said. “We’re growing up.”

A quick scroll through the NECANN schedule paints the picture. There are panels on increasing revenue, managing staff more efficiently, putting data to better use, and, perhaps most directly, Restructuring Your Cannabis Business, as one workshop by frequent Talking Joints Memo contributor and cannabiz consultant David Rabinovitz (cannaventurelabs.com) is hosting with Jacques Santucci of Opus Consulting and attorney Scott Moskol of Burns & Levinson is titled.

For a panel called Cannabis Consumer Confidence: The CCC We Have vs. The CCC We Need, Michael Kahn of MCR Labs plans to address major problems head-on, amplifying widely-criticized issues with state regulations enforced by the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. The description for Kahn’s presentation cuts to the chase …

“The MA cannabis testing regulations were developed in 2013 by the MA Department of Public Health,” Kahn writes. “This program was originally based largely on information from the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and United States Pharmacopeia. There were feedback loops and open communication between operators and regulators with the goal of creating a safe and fair industry.”

The overall result: “The Massachusetts cannabis industry has devolved in the last two years: Consumer confidence is at an all-time low, demand is down, and the industry is starting to collapse. Wholesale prices are down, industry workers are being laid off, product labels cannot and should not be trusted, and Massachusetts now has the industry’s first documented workplace fatality.”

Waterfall echoed some similar sentiments: “The problems that Colorado and California encountered two years before us, we’re seeing now. In the past, it was all about gearing up for legalization and the big shift this year is … businesses are struggling and people aren’t paying their vendors. There is that trickle-down effect from prohibition where these businesses don’t have access to regular banking, or interstate commerce. So it’s really about how do we either consolidate and move forward or are we closing doors and going backwards?”

Growing pains aside, there is a lot to be excited about—even if some of the planning and panel proposals stemmed from the reaction to industry pressures. Waterfall said Friday’s program will mostly focus on business operations and management, while Saturday will move into regulatory updates and data plus trends and other topics like a cannabis tourism session. And on account of what she describes as “some really sketchy things happening to women” in the industry, NECANN is bringing back a women’s panel to address, among other things, problematic language and initiatives aimed to “get into this untapped market of women.”

Plus of course there is the massive exhibitor hall, where everyone from ace cultivators to the cannabis curious can get lost for hours learning about all the new and innovative gear, goodies, and gadgets one can now use to get stoned (just note that the sale of THC products is prohibited in the hall, but unlike in years past, you can actually walk to a nearby dispensary now if you need something). The still-emerging rec world may be in transition, but people will continue to consume mind-bending substances regardless.

With the future in mind, I asked Waterfall what presentations she is especially looking forward to.

“I’m excited about the psychedelics one,” she said, referring to a session titled Free the Mushroom: How to Succeed in the Emerging Psychedelics Industry. Hosted by James Davis of Bay Staters for Natural Medicine, it’s “designed to distill evidence and media narratives to give the audience a realistic understanding of the benefits of psychedelics, the legal landscape, the future of the industry (free from the get-rich, investment pitches that are pushed at other conferences), and how to  create value in the space.”

“It’s like, are we going to go to this next thing now?” Waterfall said about the mushrooming topic.

You bet we are.