"For the times they are a-changin' ..."

I don't suppose Bob Dylan was thinking about a business-to-business marijuana trade show when he popularized those lyrics back in 1964. Still, when I read about the upcoming CannaCon, that line kept playing in my head. Once the province of rock festivals, tie dye, and the omnipresent fear of "narcs," a great gathering about pot has moved to a convention hall, complete with booths, sponsors, seminars, and guest speakers.

The event will kick off this August in Tacoma, Wash., one of the two states (the other is Colorado) that has completely legalized marijuana. Another 15 states have decriminalized possession up to a certain amount, and a total of 40 states have, at a minimum, reduced penalties for possession. Cannabis-centered businesses that have previously had to fly under the radar finally seem poised to – well – legitimize.

With an anticipated 50,000 visitors, CannaCon promises to teach entrepreneurs "everything you need to know to succeed in the Green Rush." True to the conventions of other industries, topics will include marketing, PR, security, and strategy.

A peek at the sponsors

CannaCon sponsor GreenHouse Payment Solutions epitomizes the type of balance that businesses that support this kinda-but-not-quite-legal product encounter. Largely targeted toward suppliers of medical marijuana, GreenHouse provides a way for providers to accept something other than cash.

Even though medical marijuana is legal in nearly half the states, the federal government considers it illegal. This has made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for sellers to use banks and credit card companies. In fact, according to GreenHouse, none of the major credit companies will allow transactions of this type. They call their solution a "Cashless ATM," an electronic system to deposit funds directly into a bank account.

Cutting Edge Solutions, another CannaCon sponsor, supplies growers with various types of nutrients and growing systems to enhance hydroponic farming. The company features a full range of products for the entire plant life cycle, backed by some serious-sounding science. E-commerce is notably absent from their website.

Seattle-based Magical Butter also gets top billing at the event. The company sells a device that looks a lot like a percolator crossed with a La Machine. It promises consistently good results on everything from lotions to butters and oils. Unlike Cutting Edge, Magical Butter does offer its products via the web; it also does not position its machine as made for pot. Nevertheless, given the marketing images and the company's marijuana policy activism, if we found a Magical Butter machine in Grandma's pantry, we'd have to be suspicious.

Marijuana and the economy at large

Of course, a fair amount of the debate about legalizing pot has centered around the economic implications. Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron recently published a report claiming that the federal government would save $13.7 billion in enforcement costs by legalizing marijuana, a document that has now been endorsed by over 300 of his colleagues.

Job creation around medical marijuana dispensaries is already under way, and has varied and widespread support. "Legalizing the production, regulation, transportation, and distribution of medical marijuana will create thousands of good, long-term jobs and generate much needed revenue for [New York] state," according to Mario Cilento, president of New York State's A.F.L.-C.I.O. labor union, speaking in support of the state's Compassionate Care Act.

Nevertheless, President Obama has been careful to assert that pot isn't the answer to the country's economic woes, and the FBI is still very much interested in enforcement around marijuana.

Back to CannaCon

Big business is notably absent from the list of CannaCon sponsors. No doubt the product is still too controversial for major brands, and federal enforcement is a serious consideration. Nevertheless, the ability of smaller businesses to step up and share their wares is a landmark and a trend to watch. Public sentiment has reached a tipping point, with more people now supporting the legalization of marijuana than not, according to research by the Pew Center.

The future of pot businesses very much hang in the political balance, but if the viability of an event like CannaCon is any indication, the times may very well be changing.