‘Cannabusiness entrepreneurs’ take over South Loop hotel

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Louie Marchese, president of California-based Med-Fresh, talks about his company’s products at the Marijuana Business Conference & Expo at the Hilton Chicago on Wednesday. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media

The marijuana leaves adorning banners and paraphernalia were mostly subtle as men and women in suits, sport coats and dressy jeans browsed the nearly 200 booths showcasing everything one might need for a legal marijuana business.

There’s the investment bankers with cash at the ready.

The custom vault company that’s opened its business beyond pharmacies and banks.

The insurance agency focused on legal pot, the software developers that want to track marijuana from “seed to sale” and the scientists who want to regulate the testing of marijuana products so it’s dispensed as precisely as possible to seriously ill people.

More than 2,000 people descended on the Hilton Chicago in the South Loop for the three-day Marijuana Business Conference and Expo.

And it was a decidedly professional crowd inside the storied hotel that regularly hosts politicians and more mainstream business conferences.

But the marijuana conference this week fit right in.

“It’s a much more serious,” said Alex Thiersch, whose Salveo Capital was among the exhibitors. He described the atmosphere as “button down” and said more “sophisticated” entrepreneurs are getting into the game.

Of course, Illinois isn’t a state that allows for recreational marijuana, and its medical marijuana program is tightly regulated. That was evident in how exhibitors presented their wares.

The many grow lights that promise to help your plants thrive shone over colorful flowers. And the containers to store marijuana displayed jelly beans.

The normalcy surprised Audrey So, who was with her husband representing Illinois Cannabis Research Labs, which has applied to open a lab in Northbrook that would test marijuana and its products.

“It’s your mom and dad,” she said of the people in the crowd. “It’s interesting how legitimate this all is.”

The legal marijuana market is booming, said Chris Walsh, the managing editor of Marijuana Business Daily.

Sales this year are estimated to be $3 billion nationwide, he said, noting a majority of that is from medical marijuana. By 2019, it could be as high as $8 billion, he said.

Walsh said Illinois could be a “huge” market if new conditions are approved.

At a panel about emerging markets, Sara Gullickson, vice president of sales and marketing for MariMed Advisors, said there are opportunities in Illinois and other states.

But Adam Bierman, founder of MedMen, was less optimistic. There areonly 2,300 registered patients and a looming expiration date for the pilot program unless a bill allowing for an extension passes the Illinois General Assembly.

It will take the state legalizing taxed and regulated recreational marijuana for the cash to flow, he said.

Illinois is “not really up to create revenue anytime soon,” he said.

Despite some concerns, it was evident at the convention that people aren’t shying away from the industry.

At an “investor pitch slam,” startup companies pitched their product to seasoned marijuana investors.

One man pitched a portable machine that can test marijuana for potency. Another pitched a testing lab.

And one man sought $5.2 million for his Colorado marijuana farm and some of his edible, marijuana-infused products, including a chocolate to “heighten arousal.”

Though real investors heard the spiels, the pitches were a mock exercises to show “cannabusiness entrepreneurs” what to expect and how to do it.

But the moderator, implying opportunity was abound, told the businessmen “it’s up to you” what happens off stage.

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