Hook & Ladder’s Cannabis Festival Enlightening


Not long ago The Hook & Ladder hosted the first Legalization Acceleration festival. Think of it as a vendor fair of small businesses that jumped into the recent Minnesota about face on recreational cannabis use. I remember seeing something posted but never made it. When I heard the place was packed, I kicked myself.

Usually when somebody comes up with a good idea, they repeat it. Our friends at The Hook make a habit of it. When a second event was scheduled for last night, I made sure to get there.

I had a lot of questions. Nearly everybody in Minnesota has questions. The individual state by state adoption or rejection of cannabis use is all over the board. So it can be bewildering. Nowhere more so than in our own back yard. Many of us woke up one morning and learned that under certain conditions, recreational use was legal in Minnesota. We’re not talking about CBD or Delta 8. We’re talking straight up edible products which are no different than one might find for sale in a Colorado or Washington dispensary. No debates. No ballot initiatives. No special taxes or restricted points of distribution. Cannabis was here and to be had in places unlike any other spot in North America.

Roughly a month ago, I walked into The Hook to see blues rocker Davy Knowles. I was greeted by a friend who raised his can of THC infused beverage and smiled like a kid. When I asked where on earth he’d gotten it, he simply pointed at the bar. Sure enough, right next to the beer were about half dozen choices. It dawned on me that something like this is only taking place in Minnesota.

Last night’s Legalization Acceleration event was a chance to talk to a whole bunch of people who knew the inside story. Many of whom were involved in the state’s greenlighting of use. I was curious about how everything had happened so seamlessly. How were entrepreneurs leaping into the breach?  Where would regulations go?  Were these entrepreneurs vertically integrating from grow to process to sale?  Or just filling one of those niches?  Some very clear conclusions. Nearly all of the 14 curated THC vendors pointed to the same legislation as the event that opened the door: the 2018 Federal Farm Act.  The majority were also vertically integrating or partnering with other new businesses.

Essentially what that Federal law did was exempt hemp from the list of THC restricted products,as long as the potency of the individual plant did not exceed a mandated threshold. For those of us who came of age in the 1970s, what we referred to as “ditch weed” was now acceptable.  Although truth be told, nothing here is grown in a ditch.  Hemp farming is highly regulated and the growers are very careful.  All it takes is for one sample plant from your field to test “hot”, ie. too potent, and the whole thing comes down.

The primary difference between what I’ll call modern cannabis versus what was around when we were kids is potency. The kind of stuff you’d find in a Colorado dispensary is normally, at a minimum, four or five times more potent than in the old days. The other big difference is that you usually know what you’re buying as opposed to what we dealt with 40 or 50 years ago. Back then, stuff was defined with terms like Mexican, Colombian or Thai. Nowadays you choose Sativas, Indicas or hybrids.  Maui Wowie, Northern Lights or Granddaddy Purple.

Why is that important? Anybody who has used cannabis knows that every strain is different. I’m not talking about potency, I’m talking about effects. It might be a Sativa strain which will buzz your brain and get you laughing.  Or it could be an Indica which will unwind you on the couch after a long day at work. One may make you talkative or curious. Some may help you sleep or relieve pain. Some produce munchies, some don’t.  Cannabis is a complex plant loaded with unique terpenes. Each combination has its own characteristics.

Back to that 2018 Farm Act and how things have been on a fast track around here for the last four years. What the state of Minnesota did was simply align with aspects of the Federal law. MN put in place what initially seemed like some major restrictions. Edible or ingestible only (I learned there’s also a loophole there). A maximum dose of 5mg of THC. For comparative purposes, the industry standard for an edible like a gummy is 10mg. No more than 50mg in a single package where most states allow for 100mg.

When I asked most of the vendors why somebody hadn’t pointed out that a really bright person who wanted 10mg might figure out he or she could just…eat two? They all simply smiled and shrugged. Theirs was not to question why. Their was just to educate their customers and provide the best advice they could.

You want a perfect example about how wide open the terrain is when it comes to packaging and dosing? I decided to sample a can of ginger ale. It was delicious. The can indicated 10mg. When I asked the bartender how this could be legal with the state saying 5mg was max dose, he referred me to the back of the can. It said 4 servings. Maybe that’s why I was asked if I wanted a glass when I ordered? It was supposed to be shared. Yeah right!  How likely are you to pass around a can a of beer with your friends? Or would you simply tell them to get their own?

In the past number of years, all of us have become completely accustomed to CBD. That’s just another terpene in the plant. More recently, we started seeing billboards about a substance called Delta 8. That chemical compound is simply a THC molecule with one tiny piece knocked off, a polymer. It impacts the psychoactive properties a bit. Now there’s Delta 9 and it’s essentially the same stuff as folks were getting at the dispensary.

All of those low potency products need a whole lot of hemp. That’s the primary reason that the amount of hemp cultivation in the state skyrocketed post 2018. But as I said before, the only thing that distinguishes hemp from marijuana is potency.  So if you think about it, you can still produce all the edibles you want, at whatever dosage you desire.  You just need more material.  For instance, if a top shelf dispensary cannabis is 5 times more potent than legal hemp, you just need to process 5 times more weak weed as opposed to what it would take with strong weed.  You can get to the same point.  It’s just more labor intensive.

Which may help to explain cost in the market.  My first instinct was that our cannabis should be less expensive than other states for a couple reasons.  Admittedly, this isn’t the greatest climate for an outdoor grower.  The season is short.  So much of it is cultivated indoors which brings its own set of costs.  Particularly for energy.  Those have to add to cost.

But in the bigger picture, there is no state tax (yet).  I don’t know about other states but Colorado imposes a 19% tax on all sales.  Add to that the fact that other states are highly regulated and products must pass through a formal dispensary.  That’s all the expense of maintaining facilities.  Here in MN you’ll now find cannabis in all kinds of places.  Piggybacked in other stores.  Online.  Home delivered or in their own storefront.  Perhaps most importantly, the way MN went about the process by using a legal base product, our cannabis is not subject to Federal laws prohibiting vendors from using the banking system.  That means people can use credit cards unlike other states.  Sellers can run normal bank accounts like everybody else.  Small business loans become available.  Those are all powerful cost savings to a small business.

Taken together it feels like the price of edibles here should be very competitive.  It’s not.  At least yet.  Some of that may be that there isn’t much competition.  Vendors can charge what the market will bear.  These are also a lot of small Mom and Pop businesses right now.  Typically, that means a shorter recovery period of their upfront investments; to make hay while the sun shines.  The fact remains, however, that right now Minnesota costs about double the price of mature cannabis markets.

It’s still a bit of the Wild West out there.  There’s no question more regulations are coming.  There’s also little question that Minnesota will formally legalize in the some manner as other states have for recreational use sooner rather than later.  So stay tuned.  We’re getting there but it’s doubtful the final framework will look like it does now.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also comment on the fact that this event was…cool.  The kind of thing The Hook does better than anybody.  You like diversity?  Should have been there!  While the new entrepreneurs tended to be younger, they covered the waterfront.  Black, White, Asian. Male female. Farmers, chemists and molecular biologists.  Former military and Harfoot type characters out of a Tolkien novel.  The common denominators?  They know their stuff.  They’re passionate and they truly believe they can help people.

Those of us who attended represented an even bigger cross section of society.  There were fully engaged elderly people buying product.  Lots of us grey middle aged types.  Plenty of 30 somethings.  Nearly everyone legally ingesting in some manner.

And it was that which struck me as the most remarkable aspect of the experience.  Go to a bar, particularly if there’s music to be had, and you always notice the impact of alcohol.  Things tend to get louder and a bit more rambunctious.  It’s not all that rare for some kind of a disagreement or dispute to arise when enough alcohol is imbibed.  Bottom line is nobody really likes a drunk other than the person who’s intoxicated.  Last night was very different.  DJ Shannon Blowtorch was laying down righteous grooves for the ambience (and her taste was impeccable) with this underlying Rasta dance hall feel.  Everybody was smiling.  No stoners to be seen but a lot of people slightly high; talking in depth with the vendors.  The vibe was chill.  Most importantly, I felt safe.

All of us are different when it comes to feeling safe these days when we go out.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’ve reined things in due to a crime spike.  However, I will admit that the older I get the more I appreciate slightly smaller venues.  Fewer people.  A bit more decorum. I absorb my music from the periphery and hang close to exits.  Substituting edible cannabis for alcohol flips that script.  Shortly before I headed for the exit, I took in the scene.  Grooved to the tunes.  And remarked to a friend that this was a remarkable gathering of happy people.  And cool as could be.  

It’s a brave new world.  Cannabis is no longer just about getting stoned.  Today it’s about unraveling all the secrets of this chameleon of a plant.  Figuring out how different aspects can produce specific, desired results.

Everybody who attended left with a swag bag.  Filled with perfectly legal products.  The value equal to the price of the ticket.  I haven’t yet gone through my bag to see what’s there.  Kind of like waiting until the day following Halloween to inventory the haul.  When my ride arrived it took some time for me to wrap my head around the fact that I was walking around with a bag filled with cannabis.  And it was perfectly legal.  Going to take me some time before it becomes NORML for most of us.