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Pot holds center stage at Phoenix cannabis conference

The Arizona cannabis industry took a step forward this week when its faithful gathered at the Phoenix Convention Center to sing the praises of the most debated drug in the nation.

Hundreds of vendors promoting marijuana growing technology, retail management software, vaporizer pens, bongs and delicious, brightly colored macaroons — non-medicated samples only, because no marijuana was allowed at the convention — packed the exhibit hall to promote products, hear presentations and network.

Conference organizer Demitri Downing, a marijuana industry activist, said Monday's employment fair drew more than 300 job seekers.

"That alone would have been a success," Downing said Wednesday.

More than 70 speakers, many of national stature, addressed the conference in dozens of break-out sessions Tuesday and Wednesday. Steve DeAngelo, the pig-tailed owner of Oakland's Harborside Health Center, the largest cannabis dispensary in the nation, and four former NFL athletes were among them.

DeAngelo cited events in the past month as evidence that cannabis advocates are winning. Hundreds of recreational shops opened in Oregon; California's state assembly passed a medical marijuana regulatory system promised to voters almost two decades ago; and the federal government announced it would free thousands of non-violent prisoners, many locked away for because they broke marijuana laws.

"Prohibition is unraveling, not with the bang that I always hoped for, but with a whimper," DeAngelo said.

Aari Ruben, owner of Tucson's Desert Bloom Re-Leaf Center, a dispensary at 8060 E. 22nd St., had a booth at the expo. He also deemed the conference a success.

"It brings the kind of industry attention that we've seen in Denver and other bigger cities to Arizona. I think they've laid the groundwork to have more, similar conferences in the future. It's a sign the industry is maturing," he said.

Downing and Ruben believe Arizona voters will approve recreational marijuana use in November 2016, but Ruben and other business owners and investors are on hold while the legal picture emerges. Whether recreational legalization comes is not the question for them. The question is, what will it look like?

"We're sort of holding our collective breath to see what's going to happen," Ruben said.

He thinks the ballot measure backed by the national Marijuana Policy Project will pass, and that measure includes, among other restrictions, strict limits on the number of commercial growers in the state. A competing ballot measure doesn't have those restrictions, Ruben said, which allows more people to get into the nascent industry.

The unknowns make Arizona a risky market for investment, because investors can't plan out more than a year in advance. Should he plan for a tenfold increase in his customer base? Should he expand his growing operation to meet the demand?

"No one knows," Ruben said.

Ricky Williams, a two-time All-American running back from University of Texas who won the Heisman Trophy before his 11-year NFL career ended abruptly in 2004 after he failed two drug tests, said the marijuana allowed him to sleep and find peace during the turmoil of his senior year at UT. It was there, he said, that a roommate introduced him to the drug.

"I don't think I would have won the Heisman Trophy without cannabis," Williams told the crowd during a panel discussion with other member of the Gridiron Cannabis Coalition, a group of former NFL athletes who support and use cannabis.

Though many think the fight for legitimacy is over, it isn't, DeAngelo said.

Cannabis advocates have a long way to go before the nation fully accepts cannabis, whether it's as medicine or just for fun. He is sure the fight will continue, with or without him. He praised a new generation of activists who have stepped up, often with their parents, to support legal cannabis.

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"I will carry this torch until I drop dead," he told the crowd during a keynote speech. "But if I'm not done, by all means, please come along behind me and pick it up."

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B. Poole/TucsonSentinel.com