Chris Walsh_MJBizDailyChris Walsh entered the cannabis industry early on, but not in the most traditional way.

After working for over a decade as a business reporter and editor at metro newspapers in the U.S and South Korea, Walsh joined Marijuana Business Daily as its founding editor, becoming the first journalist in the U.S. to focus exclusively on covering the business of cannabis.

Now as president and CEO, Walsh guides the strategic vision of the company and its sister publication – Hemp Industry Daily – while educating mainstream industries about the marijuana and hemp sectors.

Walsh will present “Charting a Course in the $20B Cannabis Industry: Opportunities, Challenges, & Considerations” during Cannabis Products Exchange, slated to be held virtually April 27-28. This interactive two-day conference is designed to inform and inspire the ideation, innovation, research and development, manufacturing, packaging, distribution, and consumer safety of legal cannabis edibles and beverages.

Walsh recently spoke to Cannabis Products about his introduction to the cannabis industry, the prospects for federal cannabis legalization, and the challenges facing burgeoning cannabis companies and those coming from the traditional food and beverage space.

CP: How did you get involved with the cannabis industry?

CW: In 2011, I had just returned to the U.S. from South Korea, where I had worked as a business editor at a daily newspaper in Seoul. I was finishing my MBA and looking to get out of mainstream journalism. 

Two brilliant entrepreneurs – Cassandra Farrington and Anne Holland – had decided to launch a new business publication serving the nascent medical cannabis industry and were looking for an editor to launch it. The position appealed to me because I recognized the potential of legal cannabis, the lack of credible, objective business resources and information, and the opportunity to help pioneer and professionalize a nascent industry. It was a good fit for both sides and I joined as founding editor.

CP: Are there any insights the cannabis food and beverage market can take from traditional food and beverage? Or vice versa?

CW: Both sides can learn a lot from each other. Cannabis companies are largely still learning how to scale, how to mass produce, how to market and brand at a high level, how to ensure consistency and how to win the hearts and minds of consumers across the country. Because of the unique way the industry has evolved, infused products companies often don’t have a lot of expertise in these areas, which are becoming much more important than in the past as the cannabis industry matures and competition heats up. 

At the same time, the cannabis food and beverage market — and cannabis as a whole — is markedly different from traditional industries. So outside companies can learn a lot about the regulatory landscape, the pitfalls and the consumer base from those with experience in cannabis. 

CP: Any advice for traditional food and beverage companies looking to move into the cannabis space?

CW: There are opportunities everywhere you look, which actually is a huge challenge. It’s easy to chase after all the bright, shiny objects — and then lose your focus along the way. So you have to stay disciplined and run any opportunity through a rigorous vetting process. Sure, traditional companies do this all the time. But, again, it’s really easy to go off in multiple directions because there are so many possibilities. 

Additionally, the path to success is littered with landmines and unexpected challenges. What works in other industries doesn’t always (or often) work in this one, and that’s something outside companies and executives sometimes fail to realize until they’ve made some huge mistakes. You need to build your knowledge of this industry from the ground up and understand how it works, how business is conducted, the nuances of state and local regulations, and the challenges tied to federal prohibition. Then you can make smart business decisions. Hubris will kill you in this industry. 

CP: What is the potential for federal cannabis legalization? Do you have a prediction for when it might happen?

CW: We’re tantalizingly close to federal reform, though I don’t believe true legalization is on the horizon anytime soon. Rather, I’m extremely optimistic we’ll see some type of meaningful change in the next two years such as decriminalization, banking reform, or ultimately, the passage of laws that clearly allow states to determine their own path for legalization. These types of changes would usher in a new phase of growth. 

I am hesitant to go all-in on this prediction, though. There are still plenty of hurdles ahead, even with Democrats controlling Congress and the White House. I could certainly see a scenario where cannabis legislation just can’t get over the hump and is bogged down by remaining pockets of resistance, more pressing issues and general political infighting. The good news is that even if that’s the case, the industry has a bright future and will continue growing as more states legalize, acceptance continues to rise and entrepreneur and investor interest grows. 

CP: What would you like to see as the cannabis industry continues to mature?

CW: I’d like to see this industry retain the unique spirit, energy and dynamics that have made it so exciting to be a part of over the past decade. We have a chance to create something special here. To shape an industry that can truly make a difference for patients, consumers, workers and communities and isn’t just about dollars, cutthroat competition and growth at all costs. One that has diversity and equity rather than a good ol’ boys club dominated by massive corporations and big money. It will be a tough task as the mainstream increasingly enters, but I think we can find a balance.

For more information on Cannabis Product Exchange or to register, visit cpx21.com.

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