SXSW and the Cannabis Industry: Why 2017 is Different

2017 marks the first year a cannabis-related business has been an official sponsor of the South by Southwest (SXSW) music, film, and interactive media festival. Leafly will sponsor a three-part track of cannabis programming, including one keynote speaker and two panels, on March 14, 2017.

While content sponsored by cannabis companies has been affiliated unofficially with SXSW in previous years, 2017 makes the relationship official. To pinpoint why 2017 is the tipping point, we chatted with a representative of SXSW as well as four panelists participating in the sessions:

  • Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer, SXSW
  • Ashley Manta, writer and sexuality educator, CannaSexual
  • Berrin Noorata, Marketing Communications and Social Impact, Marley Natural
  • Chris Sayegh, owner and head chef, The Herbal Chef
  • Adrian Farquharson, Chief Creative Officer, MARY Magazine

Here’s what they had to say about this year’s cannabis programming at SXSW.

Leafly: What makes 2017 the tipping point in terms of bringing cannabis content into SXSW?

Hugh Forrest: We’ve definitely had cannabis-related panels and presentations at SXSW in previous years, but probably never as much as we have on the 2017 schedule. I think the increase in sessions reflects the overall growth of this industry — and the fact that more and more so-called mainstream entrepreneurs are seeing the kinds of opportunities that cannabis presents.

What are some tactics you use to educate mainstream audiences that are new to cannabis?

Ashley Manta: I like to use a balance of anecdotes and science. Too much of either can be distracting or cause folks to lose interest, but a healthy balance can both inform the audience with facts and make the data relatable to their lives so they can identify “what’s in it for me?”

Chris Sayegh: I use food as a way to destigmatize the preconceived notions of what cannabis can be. I think it’s a great way to make others feel comfortable while trying something new. Food has the ability to break down barriers that may keep us from communicating properly. 

Adrian Farquharson: Millions of people use cannabis … so providing content that is easily relatable and not in a condescending tone in return attracts more of the modern day user.

Has there been any resistance to the inclusion of cannabis topics in the festival?

Forrest: As far as I know, we haven’t encountered any resistance on these cannabis sessions. I think it’s neat that we have these kinds of panels and presentations at SXSW — and I look forward to getting more intriguing speaking proposals on these kinds of topics for the 2018 event. That said, all things in moderation — we wouldn’t want all sessions at SXSW to focus on cannabis (just as we wouldn’t want all sessions at SXSW to focus on self-driving cars).

How can a panel around cannabis help people in other heavily regulated industries?

Berrin Noorata: Cannabis is a highly regulated industry, which means marketers need to develop innovative and often unexpected strategies to engage consumers. That requires out-of-the-box thinking, which is useful no matter what industry you’re in.

Manta: Making a heavily regulated industry more accessible and relatable is of vital importance, and a panel presentation does just that. When an industry like cannabis is shrouded in secrecy, people have nothing to go on other than myths and stereotypes. Panels like these allow access to new ideas and perspectives, which will help folks in similarly regulated industries brainstorm and share solutions.

Do you expect cannabis programming to continue to evolve and increase going forward?

Forrest: Yes, I think we will continue to see this kind of content in 2018 and beyond. But that really depends on the quantity (and quality) of speaking proposals that we receive on this topic. To that end, we will accept speaking proposals for SXSW 2018 during the first two weeks of July 2017. So, if you have a great idea for a session for next year, watch www.sxsw.com in the summer for how to get that speaking idea into the system.

Which topics or presentations are you most excited about?

Noorata: I’m excited to talk about Marley Natural’s social impact initiative, Rise Up, and how other brands in the industry can give back to the community.

Sayegh: I am most exited to talk about my restaurant opening later this year, Herb!

Forrest: I’m really excited about the “Modern Cannabis: From Ditch Weed to Tech Disruptor” session with Paul Campbell on Tuesday, March 14. A person from the [venture capital] world talking about new technology related-markets and opportunities with marijuana? Sounds like a perfect fit for SXSW!

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