Grinders to grow-lights: First-ever marijuana business convention arrives at the Tacoma Dome

Matt Mason and two friends drove to Tacoma from Indianapolis, ready to unveil what Mason called “tobacco grinders” at CannaCon.

That’s canna as in cannabis and con as in convention.

Mason calls them “tobacco grinders” because he comes from a state where possession of a certain amount of marijuana is prosecuted as a felony.

The idea for the shiny, colorful metal, laser-engraved grinders came one quiet evening at home.

“Me and my buddy were smoking tobacco in the garage, and we thought it would be a great idea,” he said Thursday.

Except, well, it probably wasn’t tobacco.

Mason, 20, and two co-workers were among several hundred entrepreneurs at Thursday’s opening of the business-to-business exposition at the Tacoma Dome.

Organized by Bob Smart of Edmonds, the gathering comprises 134 vendors who staff 180 booths.

“I get the feeling we can expect 10,000 to 15,000 people on the weekend,” Smart said.

“What I need is the public to show up so they can see the new industry they voted in,” he said. “It’s not about the smoking part. It’s about a whole new industry.”

And the industry was present Thursday and will remain through Sunday, with Saturday and Sunday open to the public.

Stan Speck was there on opening day. He’s with Cheeba Chews (“Potent, consistent, discreet”), an edible product infused with cannabis, and double-wrapped, and enclosed in a little cardboard box.

“My problem is with people who make a product that looks like gummi bears or lemon drops that would appeal to children,” he said.

His products range in potency from a total of 70 to 175 milligrams of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

None of his products are for sale at the convention, nor was any product containing marijuana available, nor has any space been set aside for those who might wish to smoke or vape.

It’s strictly business, and it’s a business that the people of Washington and Colorado are inventing.

“We don’t have a second chance to make a first impression,” said Michael Miller, president of the Florida-based National Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.

“Overall,” he said, “I think Washington is moving in the right direction.”

“We’re at the beginning of a grand experiment,” said Dave Rheins, CEO and co-founder of the Seattle-based Marijuana Business Association.

“We’re taking baby steps, but we’re doing it in a consensus-building manner,” he said. “In the long run we’re building a scalable model that will be used by other states and other countries. This is a community that embraces each other. I don’t care about market share, yet. What I see is the bringing together.”

His group, he said, “is already beyond Washington. “We started a New York market. We’re in the process in Illinois and Florida, and we’re in the process of Nevada and Oregon. California will go in 2016. In November, Alaska, Florida and Oregon (will legalize marijuana),” he said.

“This is a botanical revolution.”

And just as Rheins expects to build a presence in other states, so does expo organizer Bob Smart.

“Florida, Vegas, Los Angeles, Denver,” he said. All are on his mind for future CannaCon shows.

If Tacoma’s inaugural show is a guide, then future iterations will likewise feature a wide selection of booths, from the one selling TrimPal (“The gentle alternative to hand trimming”) to the Elite Security Commandos at SCAR Security, from Envirotech Greenhouse Solutions (heating and dehumidification) to the folks at Subzero Scientific, with their $60,000 closed-loop extractors that can turn 15 pounds of marijuana flower into 3 pounds of concentrated oil that can be used either in food products or eaten as is.

There were vendors offering butane, propane, hexane, helium and argon; and hemp rolling papers; and high-end cooking chocolate.

Shannon Noone and her boyfriend Jasper were there selling ceramic pipes and web-design expertise.

“We quit our jobs and decided to travel,” Shannon said. “We’re trying to get everything off the ground. The goal is to get a foot in the door.”

Leonard Haggerty was there with his “preset variable timing sunrise machine,” a lighting system that helps plants “understand that it’s the end of the day. I not only wake them up, but I put them to bed.”

This Growilla Sunrise-Sunset Light sells for $595, retail.

Mr. Nice Seedbank and Research is there this weekend, as is the “Triminator” trimming machine that resembles a small barrel from which winning raffle numbers were picked on party-night at the Knights of Pythias. Along with seeds, sellers are also selling soils.

And along with products, the service sector is present at the show selling cash and credit card processing, insurance, consulting and brand development.

Beyond the booths, Smart has arranged a series of seminars to run throughout the show. Among others, the titles include: “How to Raise and Manage Capital,” “Sales, Profits and Business Basics,” “Vacuum Ovens,” “Advance Pruning Techniques,” “Growing Mediums,” “Cannabinoids and Terpines” and “420 Tourism.”

Smart emphasizes that CannaCon is about business and for business. Should attendees feel the need to celebrate otherwise, there will be a free shuttle to this weekend’s Hempfest in Seattle – where it is expected that even people from Indiana won’t have to call it tobacco.