Spirits were high at the Southern California Cannabis Conference & Expo, held in San Diego on Aug. 7. It wasn’t the crowd you might expect at a cannabis convention. While Sublime songs did make the occasional appearance, most gathered were there to talk the big business of marijuana.

The expo brought out dozens of cannabis-based businesses, some so huge they trade on the New York Stock Exchange, such as Medical Marijuana Inc., whose assets total more than $216 million, according to its 2015 annual report and whose main distributor, HempMeds, had a huge booth at the conference. Others are so small they consist of a mom and daughter cooking edibles in their kitchen and packaging them to sell at dispensaries. 

Seven of those budding cannabis entrepreneurs made their way to the main conference stage to pitch their business idea to Karen Paull, co-creator and co-producer of the Amazon reality competition The Marijuana Show, dubbed “Shark Tank for Ganjapreneurs.”

The audition was the first held in California, which still prohibits the use of recreational marijuana but has legalized the use of medical marijuana, albeit with various restrictions. In Denver, which is considered the epicenter of the marijuana industry due to its legal status, 200 contestants auditioned.

In the first two seasons, investors featured on The Marijuana Show bankrolled contestants with more than $18 million. This season, up to $20 million is up for grabs.

Paull and her partner, Wendy Robbins, created the show after hearing at a dispensary event viable business ideas that they thought they could help get off the ground with some consulting.

“We have successful business backgrounds, and we thought maybe we can help consult entrepreneurs out of the kindness of our hearts; give them some guidance,” says Paull, who served as the CEO of Sales Guru and VP of sales at Snapfish. Robbins is the co-inventor of the Tingler head massager as well as a two-time Emmy winner. She appeared on the show Homemade Millionaire with Kelly Ripa and has been a producer on Broadway.

Karen Paull and her partner, Wendy Robbins, hope their marijuana business reality show will become “Shark Tank for ganjapreneurs.”; Credit: Courtesy of The Marijuana Show

Karen Paull and her partner, Wendy Robbins, hope their marijuana business reality show will become “Shark Tank for ganjapreneurs.”; Credit: Courtesy of The Marijuana Show

“We typically offer free advice anyway,” Paull adds. “But what that morphed into was the concept of a reality show. We’ve been called the Godmothers of Pot before, or the Godmothers of Weed, and frankly, we’re a couple. We don’t have kids, so a lot of times the people that come through our show feel like our children that we get to coach and mentor and get to that stage where they’re ready to pitch investors.”

Hopefuls sat among a sparse audience and watched a sizzle reel showing past contestants walking away with the green they’ve been dreaming of. In one scene, a man triumphantly held up his dog inside a limousine and proclaimed, “Charlie! We’re rich, buddy!”

Among the auditioners was mother/daughter team Autumn Leilani and Deborah Smith. Leilani, a DJ living in West Hollywood, and her San Diego–based mom, run Pop’s Potions. It's a company they started after the death of Jim, Leilani's father and Smith's husband. They concocted different edibles and cannabis oils in their kitchen to ease Jim’s pain resulting from cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

After his death, the women decided to create their company so they could help others in pain through cannabis-infused candy and food, including truffles, beef jerky, lollipops and gummy bears. They’ve expanded their model to provide branded homemade edibles and packaging for other cannabis-based businesses.

The duo came to the conference to see if they could take their homegrown business to the next level. They say they believe that auditioning for The Marijuana Show can make that happen.

“It was one of those things where we said, ‘We should do this!' Why wouldn’t we?” Leilani says. “This is our heart and soul. This is our passion. I would love to just see us be one of the biggest edible companies out there as well as a main manufacturer for good, legit brands. There are edibles out there that are just garbage. We put pride in every single piece of candy that we produce.”

As auditions began, Paull picked up the microphone, angling her face to the cameras capturing the auditions, and greeted everyone. “We’re looking for the next marijuana millionaire, and they can be right here in this audience!”

While your neighborhood weed dealer may still be raking in enough cash for a sweet pre-owned Audi, those auditioning for The Marijuana Show know there are millions to be made in the legalized marijuana industry.

Marijuana industry investment and research firm ArcView Market Research reported that legal pot sales are expected to hit $6.7 billion in 2016 alone — a 25 percent jump from 2015. By 2020, that number is expected to be $21.8 billion. In California, sales at dispensaries were $2.7 billion in 2015, with an estimated growth to $6.6 billion in 2020. Los Angeles has more dispensaries than Colorado and Washington combined.

Deborah Smith, left, and Autumn Leilani, a mother-daughter team who auditioned for The Marijuana Show; Credit: Alex Zaragoza

Deborah Smith, left, and Autumn Leilani, a mother-daughter team who auditioned for The Marijuana Show; Credit: Alex Zaragoza

Still, because of the iffy legal status of marijuana use across the country, it’s a market fraught with potential legal issues. But Paull and Robbins want to get people there.

“We have people pitch us that aren’t going to necessarily be on the show,” Paull says. “But they will become friends or advocates, collaborate or sell sponsorships with us and everyone in this community, because cannabis is trying to become legalized. Everybody needs to help each other. It’s like a paradigm. The old culture is us against them. The cannabis culture is that we’re all in this together.”

A large investment would be life-changing for people like Leilani, who is attempting to grow her business from seed to bank.

“I would probably pee myself [if we got a major investor], and then there would be a big party followed by that, and then it would make all of my dreams come true,” Leilani says. “It would put me where I know I need to be. It would be buckle-down time. We’d get this in gear and get it to the next level.”

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