Men clad in sport coats mulled about and women clutching designer purses navigated the second floor of a Loop hotel hosting a major investment conference.
Like countless business conferences held in Chicago, the Arcview Investor Forum — held over four days last week at Fairmont Chicago at 200 N. Columbus Drive — offered attendees the chance to hear from industry leaders and peruse booths set up by entrepreneurs pitching their brands.
But as a conference set up to attract investors into the cannabis industry, it offered a glimpse of the changing face of the drug as it goes mainstream — and as Illinois prepares to fully legalize recreational weed on Jan. 1.
One of the founders of the conference, which was first held in San Francisco in 2011, said that was the point.
“The idea was to bring together investors who were seeking deals in the new legal cannabis space with cannabis entrepreneurs who were seeking growth capital,” said Steve DeAngelo, a trailblazing activist and business owner.
“We did that out of a belief that a legal, profitable, politically-engaged cannabis industry could become the most important factor pushing cannabis reform forward,” DeAngelo said. “I think what’s happened in the years intervening have pretty much proven that to be the case.”
Among more traditional products being hawked to the 400 attendees in Chicago were pot-related legal services. Other items included CBD-laden sunscreen and cannabis-infused beverages.
Skip Stone, CEO of a Colorado-based company called Stashlogix, credited Arcview for playing a “big part” in mainstreaming the weed business. His products, which include boxes and bags for helping pot users discretely transport their wares, are already sold to some retailers in Illinois.
Absent from the conference were any traces of weed smoke, dreadlocked stoner-types donning tie-dyed T-shirts or any other vestige of the hippie subculture that has long been associated with pot use in America.
Fighting those stereotypes is the goal of another group with a presence at the conference, the National Industry Association. Amy Rose, partnerships manager for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, said they are dedicated to removing the stigma associated with the drug.
“If you see all the people that are here, it definitely seems like it’s legitimized,” said Rose, whose group is lobbying to open up banking services and adjust the tax code for its 2,000 members.
“Investors especially are interested in getting into the space, and I think they were definitely a little bit nervous at first,” she added.
DeAngelo said the people entering the cannabis industry now “have a very different orientation than the pioneers who built this business.”
“Today, I think most of these people in powerful positions in the industry are people who are attracted mainly by the economic opportunity and don’t have a close personal relationship with the plant,” he said. “I still see cannabis company executives who proudly announce that they’ve never consumed any cannabis and they never will.”
DeAngelo started the conference as an outgrowth of the Arcview Group, an investment and market research company he co-founded with fellow “ganjapreneur” Troy Dayton.
DeAngelo, who has been called the “Godfather of Legal Weed,” referred to the current era as “the end of the golden age of cannabis investing.”
“We don’t know how much longer the golden age is going to go, but we do know that at some point the federal government legalizes cannabis,” he said. “Once they legalize cannabis, then all the institutional investors that thus far have not been in the mix will come roaring in.”