Legendary comedic actor and musician Tommy Chong is no stranger to the big stage, whether it be the silver screen, a packed music hall or a podium before thousands of people. He’s earned more accolades than he can even pretend to remember, yet something felt different in Las Vegas on Aug. 24. There was a cannabis award to win.
On hand to receive the Cannabis Conference’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award, the 84-year-old marijuana advocate cracked a smile in front of a packed ballroom at the Paris Las Vegas, then looked over at a table where his wife, son and two-year-old granddaughter sat taking in the moment.
“The reason I’ve been very successful is because I know there’s a higher power,” said Chong, one half of the renowned Hollywood comedy duo, Cheech & Chong. “It’s a dream for me to be here.”
Chong was one of six industry leaders honored with a cannabis award at the packed show, part of the three-day annual business-to-business conference held by Cannabis Business Times, Cannabis Dispensary and Hemp Grower that’s known as the more intimate alternative to larger marijuana conventions such as MJBizCon. Sponsored by Fohse, a Las Vegas-based indoor horticulture lighting application and research firm, the leadership awards portion of the event returned for its second consecutive year.
Also honored with cannabis awards were Wendy Bronfein, Co-founder of Curio Wellness; Drew Duval, Cresco Labs’ Senior VP of Cultivation; Ian Hackett, President of Napa Valley Fumé; Kema Ogden, Co-owner of Top Notch THC dispensary; and Lindsey Renner, Owner of Native Humboldt Farms.
Fohse President Ben Arnet said the company backed the leadership awards as a way of giving much-deserved credit to people making positive change in the legal industry.
“We saw people doing cool stuff whether that be through charity or social equity programs, and we wanted to shout it from the rooftops,” Arnet said. “We believe it’s good for people to pull their head up every once in a while from all the work and just get a little recognition for all that they’ve done.”
Love, Vegas Style
The Cannabis Conference is no stranger to Vegas; this week was the third edition of the event in Sin City after two years in Oakland dating back to 2017 and a pandemic-forced hiatus in 2020. It regularly draws more than 2,500 attendees and 180 exhibitors across its 85,000 square feet of convention space.
Largely thanks to Fohse’s involvement, the bustling convention has added more star power and flare every year.
Tommy Chong was in Las Vegas just two days before receiving his cannabis award for a lifetime of achievement for Clark County’s declaration of an official “Cheech & Chong Day.” Yet the chance to be recognized for a lifetime of destigmatizing the plant was enough to convince him and his family to hop on another plane from Los Angeles to the desert metropolis.
Chong spent the majority of the day he received the cannabis award signing autographs, shaking hands and posing for photographs at Fohse’s booth on the showroom floor. A smoked-out SUV limo ride to NuWu Cannabis Marketplace on tribal land near downtown Las Vegas offered the legendary cannabis advocate a first-hand look at Vegas’ only operating cannabis consumption lounge.
“I loved the spot,” Chong said of NuWu. “I admire the Native [American] culture so much. It’s refreshing to see Native Americans leading the way in cannabis, and I believe there’s a lot that the rest of the [cannabis] culture can learn from them.”
Throughout the day, wide-eyed fans and fellow exhibitors greeted the comedy legend as he walked through the Paris and Cosmopolitan Hotels.
Oregon resident Ari Novak snapped a quick selfie with Chong in the Paris casino walkway as Chong and his entourage headed back toward the venue’s convention center. Novak, a 56-year-old engineer, cracked that he “grew up” with Chong.
“I’ve seen every one of [Cheech & Chong’s] skits and I just wanted to tell him that,” Novak said. “So surreal to be here and just randomly see one of my childhood idols walking by.”
The US cannabis industry has undergone a number of significant setbacks in recent months. Besides the failure of federal authorities to make meaningful progress on banking and decriminalization laws, growers in California have been suffocated by high state taxes and government red tape. As inflation has skyrocketed, California’s bureaucratic hurdles have already put dozens of legal cannabis small business owners out of work. Media reports suggest dozens more could shut down in the next few months.
Cannabis Business Times director Noelle Skodzinski said the majority of Cannabis Conference exhibitors and attendees come from the Golden State, and event organizers were holding their breath as this week’s event drew closer. The expo saw more on-site registrations than ever, a sign that many exhibitors waited until the last minute to ensure company budgets allowed them to attend.
“Honestly, we’re pleasantly surprised with the turnout,” Skodzinski said. “With all that’s going on, we didn’t know exactly to expect.”
Looking forward, Skodzinski said she’s optimistic the California industry’s weed tax and bureaucratic hiccups will be mitigated, if not solved, by the time of next year’s Cannabis Conference. If not, both Skodzinski and Fohse’s Ben Arnet believe massive expansion in other cannabis-legal states—Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, Connecticut and others—will help fill the void.
Conference organizers have again reserved the Paris Resort for next year’s expo but say increased demand for more exhibition space could eventually force them to move the annual expo to the much larger Las Vegas Convention Center.