The global cannabis industry is booming.
Forecasters predict that the legal cannabis market will reach $66 billion by 2025. In the US, 11 states – Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and the District of Columbia – have adopted laws that make recreational marijuana use legal.
In addition, 33 US states have passed laws that allow the medicinal use of cannabis.
But how is technology impacting the budding cannabis industry?
Note: According to US law, hemp is the stalks, stems and sterilized seeds of cannabis sativa, and marijuana is the leaves, flowers and viable seeds of cannabis sativa. In this article, I will use the words “cannabis” and “marijuana” interchangeably, except when specifying CBD oil or cannabidiol.
Tech and cannabis: two sides of the same coin
As a business and technology writer, rarely have I come across two disparate industries that are so perfectly matched. Of course, technology enhances virtually every business, but the widespread legalization of cannabis comes along at a particularly exciting time.
For at least 12,000 years, humans have been breeding and living alongside cannabis. From the invention of agriculture thousands of years ago to today’s technological innovations, technology and cannabis are synergistic.
These are some of the factors that are helping fuel the explosive growth of the legal cannabis industry:
According to Allison Margolin, Attorney at Margolin and Lawrence and Medical Marijuana Advocate, “As with every market, convenience is key in the cannabis industry. Following the legalization of recreational marijuana, we have noticed a boom in new cannabis-specific apps, software, hardware, and business-consumer platforms.”
Among those is the Weedmaps app which, as of 2019, is the number two medical app on iTunes. Weedmaps is a clever blend of Google Maps, Yelp and Amazon for dispensaries, delivery services, and doctors that deal with cannabis.
Another convenience app and a direct competitor to Weedmaps is Leafly. Offering a ton of information on flavors, effects, and quality, Leafly recently announced that they would de-list unlicensed sellers in California, effectively removing the black market from their app.
For the growers, the SimLeaf app is a “highly advanced 3D grow simulator” (according to the developer) and walks you through the subtle process of growing your own cannabis at home.
Big data and IT professionals
Like any traditional industry, cannabis must stay efficient if it hopes to remain profitable in the long-term. Enter the IT department. Well-managed IT systems can encourage the fast collection of data about industry trends in real-time.
When growers, distributors, and retailers have access to this information, they can create marketing plans that work. No doubt, a marketing-focused S.W.O.T. analysis for a cannabis distributor would make for an interesting read.
IT can also leverage its capabilities for both security and compliance, both of which are essential in the complicated and ever-changing legal landscape of the marijuana industry.
But perhaps IT’s most exciting contribution will be to automation in the growing process. According to CannabisTech, automated systems and sophisticated machinery are available to improve performance in cultivation, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, packaging, and distribution. Right now, growing cannabis is still the most expensive link in the chain of the industry.
Not to be outdone, science has taken aim at the cannabis industry as well.
As LED technology continues to mature and replace traditional incandescent bulbs, cannabis growers are experimenting with new ways to light their plants.
Traditionally, both legal and illicit growers of marijuana have used high-pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs which both used a lot of electricity and generated a lot of heat. This would often require a climate-control solution which, in turn, would use even more electricity. Now, many growers are experimenting with cost-efficient LEDs as a possible substitute.
In addition, some companies are experimenting with new ways to extract cannabinoids or CBD oil. Currently, this is done using traditional and expensive extraction techniques – a reason why CBD oil prices are typically high. One company, Cronos Group, is experimenting with biosynthesis as a means to extract CBD oil on a commercial scale. In theory, marrying biotech to cannabis seems like a perfect fit and biosynthesis would allow cannabinoids to be produced on-demand and year-round.
Elon Musk’s Tesla may be breaking into the cannabis industry as well. Producing and growing cannabis has been known to be an energy-intensive endeavor. Now, Tesla is positioning its battery innovations to cannabis, offering its Powerwall/Powerpack solution which empowers growers to buy and store their own electricity during non-peak hours.
And finally, I recall wondering recently how law enforcement or employers would test for intoxication when THC, unlike alcohol, can stay in the body for weeks. After all, testing for marijuana at your job seems a little unfair if you live in a state where cannabis is legal. One could be completely sober and still test positive for THC.
According to investment magazine The Motley Fool, a number of prototypes for cannabis breathalyzers are currently in various stages of development by several companies. These portable devices would help authorities determine if someone had recently used cannabis and help judge the level of impairment if any.
Technology as a force multiplier
With any application, whether it’s defense, business, surveillance or leisure, technology is only as good as the people who use it. In that sense, our use of tech is a direct reflection of our own biases.
By and large, tech in cannabis seems to be a positive move for an industry which, until recently, has been almost entirely underground.
It might not be hyperbolic to claim that the cannabis industry is creating overnight millionaires. Technology is only increasing the velocity with which this new industry expands.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to watch how we, the Information Age humans, apply our technological prowess to a plant that we have been enjoying for over 12,000 years.