A cannabis company won a CES award for 2020. Called Keep, the desktop storage device features biometric security to secure cannabis products, and looks good while doing it. The CTA gave them an Innovations Award Nominee in October and then weeks later told the company they were unable to use the word "cannabis" when exhibiting.
Keep Labs decided to stay home and not exhibit at the massive Consumer Electronics Show, potentially missing out on distribution deals, funding and increased brand awareness.
Vaporizers, cannabis and tobacco alike have long been found on the CES show floor. They're often hidden under different names, like aromatherapy devices. This year is different. They're gone from the show floor. I spent hours in the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands Expo center. The vapes are missing from the 2020 show.
That could change, according to a spokesperson for CES. The trade group behind the show is evaluating if cannabis has a place at CES.
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) runs CES. It's the largest such trade event in the world and attended by some 200,000 people. After speaking with a CTA spokesperson, it's clear the trade organization knows its under close scrutiny and yet it's still willing to blur lines to allow some companies ancillarily to cannabis to exhibit. That is, if they don't talk about the device's true intention.
In the past, sex tech was explicitly banned, so companies like OhMiBod exhibited under Health and Wellness. Vaporizers could be categorized as aromatherapy devices. Emails obtained by TechCrunch show the CTA has told cannabis-adjacent companies it can exhibit if cannabis is not mentioned on the show floor.
Keep Labs submitted its cannabis storage device exhibit under the "Home Storage" category. Upon its acceptance, the CTA nominated the device to the coveted Innovation Award and told the company it could present, as long as it doesn't mention cannabis. You see, to the CTA, Keep Labs' product is acceptable as it could have another purpose other than storing cannabis gummies; it could, in theory, be used to store candy gummies. Keep Labs told TechCrunch that avoiding saying "cannabis" goes against the company's best interest, so it decided to skip the show.
Canopy Growth operates several prominent brands in the cannabis space. Like Keep Labs, it feels CES is not the right place to exhibit its wares if true intentions need to be hidden.
The Canadian company announced a new line of vape pens and cartridges in late 2019. With smart features and an app component, it would be perfect fodder among CES' high-tech exhibits. The company also owns Storz-Bickel, a vaporizer company with historic roots that could exhibit in this CES gray area.
Canopy Growth acknowledges it's banned from the show while some smaller competitors are able to exhibit by skirting the rules.
Canopy Growth CTO Peter Popplewell tells TechCrunch he still attends CES. It's essential for him and Canopy Growth's brands, even if the company isn't exhibiting. For him, as the CTO, he's meeting with component makers and suppliers.
"As the largest producer of legally produced medical and recreational cannabis and hemp products, and now a hardware manufacturer, Canopy Growth is constantly looking for ways to provide next-generation innovation to our customers and enhance their cannabis experience,” Popplewell told TechCrunch. "Within its portfolio of brands, Canopy has brought to market five different vaporizer products this fiscal year and our R&D pipeline is full of exciting developments.
"CES is the tradeshow where I am able to meet with a host of component manufacturers that help us develop safety features on our devices -- such as accurate temperature control and locking the devices to address the unique needs and concerns of cannabis users,” Popplewell said.
Pax is one of the largest cannabis hardware companies and does not exhibit at CES. To be clear, Pax still has a presence in Las Vegas during CES, even though it's not at the show itself. Like many companies at CES, Pax holds meetings and attends third-party events during CES. This lets the company bypass the CTA's rules and still access CES attendees.
Earlier this week Pax released its Era Pro vaporizer that features PodID, a clever feature that brings a lot of information to the user.
Pax VP of Policy Jeff Brown, tells TechCrunch he's puzzled by the CTA's stance.
"CTA's stubborn refusal to allow cannabis companies on the show floor is both comic and puzzling," Brown said. "Cannabis is fully legal in Las Vegas, and there are multiple dispensaries within a mile of the convention center. Inside, companies offer an open bar in their booth, and hundreds walk the floor with a drink in hand.
"Nobody is asking to consume at CES," Brown added. "There's a lot of interesting technology being developed to take the guesswork out of weed. There are vaporizers with apps that tell consumers what they're smoking, they detail the chemical attributes, and provide controls to measure each dose. There's even a numeric lock to make the vaporizer unusable by children."
As he told TechCrunch, this technology is legal, and cannabis itself is legal in 33 states and Canada.
"Unfortunately, you're not going to learn about it at CES," Brown said.
Right now, even in 2020, there are ways around the CTA's ban. In the case of Keep Labs, the CTA granted the company permission to exhibit -- as long as cannabis wasn't mentioned. The company decided that to exhibit without saying "cannabis" wouldn't do the brand justice. They don't want to shy away from cannabis.
This is the puzzling part. The CTA will let companies exhibit, as long as their true intentions are hidden. The CTA used to do the same with sex toys, too.
In the run-up to the 2019 show, the CTA awarded sextech maker Lori DiCarlo with an Innovations Award. It later rescinded the award after the trade organization decided it was too sexy for CES. Fallout followed and expanded as the show opened, and sextech was found throughout the show floor, despite the ban affecting Lori DiCarlo. As with cannabis, the CTA allowed sextech under the guise of as "personal massagers" alongside therapy and sports massagers in the Health and Wellness category.
The CTA introduced the Sex Tech category for the 2020 show on a trial basis. I'm told the category will likely live on to future shows, too. This is how the CTA operates, the CTA told TechCrunch. It trials a category, and then if it works out, the category is rolled into the show.
"For us, cannabis is a tough decision," a CTA spokesperson told TechCrunch. "It's complicated, and the laws are changing quickly. We are watching closely, and I would not be surprised if, at some point in the future, it was part of the show."
The CTA tells TechCrunch it continually looks at the regulatory environment, pointing out that cannabis is still an illicit substance at the federal level in the United States. The CTA however acknowledges cannabis is legal in the state of Nevada.
Nevada is one of the 33 states in the United States where cannabis is legal in some form. In Nevada, it's legal to consume for recreational uses. The state law allows for cannabis consumption in a private residence, making it illegal to consume in a hotel, public space or convention center. There are dozens of cannabis dispensaries within miles of CES.
Cortney Smith's vaporizer company DaVinci is based in Las Vegas and has exhibited at CES a handful of times. As he tells TechCrunch, the company didn't have a problem presenting on the show floor, but "didn't paste pot leaves all over."
Smith explained that he feels the CTA's radar has grown more sensitive in part by the vaporizer scare in 2019.
"In the past, [cannabis products weren't] challenged," Smith said. "So when we were there, as a cannabis vaporizer, we did not get scrutinized because [the CTA] was not on alert."
DaVinci isn't exhibiting this year despite recently launching a new product. The dry herb DaVinci IQ2 just hit the market and is among a new crop of vaporizers designed to bring more transparency to cannabis use. It uses on-device processing to track and record active compounds produced per draw. The sleek device and smartphone app would look at home among the latest gadgets found at CES.
As he puts it, if CES doesn't want the business, there's an opportunity for other trade shows to pick up cannabis products and run with it.
"CES has competition," Smith said. "There are other consumer electronics shows around the world that would love to steal their thunder and star power. And the chance [the CTA] takes when they limit their innovation — like no sex toys or no cannabis — it gives the opportunity to some other electronics show to welcome adult toys or adult devices. So I guess they're willing to make this compromise to play it safe."