An Industry Retrospective for our 9th Anniversary
How often do you find yourself asking, “Where did the time go?” Unbelievably, I’m approaching a decade of cannabis experience, and MJ Freeway celebrates nine years this month. Conceptually, MJ Freeway was conceived on New Year’s Eve 2009, which was the same year I invested in one of the first legally licensed operators in Colorado. My first experiences in the industry were on the operations side initially, where it was easy to see the need for compliance tracking in a newly regulated industry. So, MJ Freeway was officially incorporated in January 2010.
As I’m personally nearing a milestone anniversary and as our business approaches a landmark change in publicly listing on the NASDAQ, let’s revisit how our industry has grown and evolved:
Early, startup years (2009 – 2012)
In the very early days, everyone associated with cannabis was still considered borderline, if not outright crazy, and possibly criminal. None of us knew if the entire industry was going to be shut down in the next six months, and, in the meantime, most of us were still trying to figure out how to price our products and make payroll every month. If you mentioned cannabis as your profession at a social gathering, you never knew what reaction you might receive.
And, the industry was dominated by activists. Our early MJ Freeway clients often had a personal connection to activism, either for social justice reasons or due to a personal medical experience. One of my favorite early clients, who is successful and still in operation today, established a “love” program for medical patients. Terminally ill patients receive free medicine and other ill patients receive reduced price medicine on a sliding scale. I hope we never lose our roots in passion and activism as our industry continues to grow.
“We might make it” years (2013 – 2014)
In 2013, 13 states had true medical programs with operational cannabis businesses. Colorado (CO) and Washington (WA) had both passed adult-use cannabis laws in late 2012, and the Cole memo had given everyone in the industry some peace of mind. Both CO and WA implemented the first state track-and-trace software compliance oversight systems. (In fact, WA currently uses our track-and-trace Leaf Data Systems for cannabis traceability at the government level.) Businesses were being built and many enterprising operators expanded into multiple locations with the confidence and security provided by the Cole and later the Wilkinson memos. A very small group of businesses, most of whom are still in operation today, began to expand beyond their home states, seeking beach-head licenses in emerging markets. This is also when the first non-“friends and family” money began to be invested in cannabis businesses, and the first big institutional cannabis investments were made—Tao Capital, an early investor in Uber, SpaceX and Tesla invested in MJ Freeway and Pax/Juul, the Founders Fund, invested in Privateer.
"The sky didn’t fall and hey, look at those taxes" years (2014 – 2015)
Those of us in the industry knew the sky would not fall post-adult-use legalization, but the rest of the world didn’t. When the sky didn’t fall and nearly every study on the early recreational markets was positive, many other states and countries began to investigate legalization. Not only was there an absence of negative impact, but the economic boon seen in tourism, taxes and job creation became too significant to ignore. Many governmental entities consulted with us as they began to lay the groundwork for legalization in their jurisdictions. As a result, I identified that we would see a larger wave of legalization in the coming years and, as a result, businesses beginning to scale and differentiate with true brands. This is the time we raised our Series B round of financing to build MJ Platform, our generation 2 seed-to-sale product, which is built as a true ERP to serve the multi-country, multi-state compliance complexities, scale and business intelligence needs of consolidated enterprise businesses.
"The toothpaste isn’t going back in the tube" years (2016 – 2017)
The 2016 elections were such a consolidated monumental event that we won’t see the likes of it again until federal legalization. (Even that won’t be as concentrated as it will likely roll out incrementally through a number of various bills and initiatives.) Four additional states (California, Nevada, Massachusetts and Minnesota) passed adult-use ballot measures, and Florida, North Dakota, Arkansas and Montana passed medical ballot measures. Following this election, 25% of the U.S. population lived in legal states.
The ‘16 election was the true turning point when more established investors, businesses and professionals began to turn their focus to the industry. This is also the time period when our data shows that brands start to win big. Brands developed a major state-by-state following with the winners winning big, sometimes by 10-1.
Consolidation, public Markets, and Globalization years (2018 – 2019)
Canada becomes the first developed world country to legalize and regulate cannabis at a national level. We’re seeing consolidation at a breakneck pace, especially among newly capitalized, publicly-traded businesses with attractive public currency to offer acquisitions. Over the next couple years, we will see a true global cannabis economy emerge, inspiring more consolidation and a greater focus on brand building and efficiencies of scale, all of which we are poised to support with MJ Platform, which guarantees to deliver more value than it costs.
The next wave of cannabis will be based on study and evidence as grants and funding become more available, including landmark choices made in another of Leaf Data Systems’s track-and-trace clients, Pennsylvania (PA). PA’s program will provide the first broadly researched cannabis studies made in association with major universities. Many more governments, universities and medical research institutions will follow suit. Data shows most adult-use consumers cite wellness and medical benefits as a major reason for use. We’ll soon have a wealth of data to inform new products.
As for MJ Freeway specifically, our north star anticipates this future direction, and our goal is to continue to provide the technology backbone for the brilliant industry professionals to accomplish this work. We’re passionate about solving problems that better our world, and our technology empowers the cannabis industry to prove outcomes that positively change lives every day. That passion fueled nine years of impactful contributions. I look forward to many more to come.