Two pairs of pliers, dozens of baggied-up metal hoops, and—it made so much sense now—printed-out Google results for making a chainmail. After all that fidgeting, the burly, seven-foot enigma, swaddled in a slanket and lurching well past the armchair property line, was owning his space in the world, and then some. And I, forcibly snuggled against him as he began his medieval crochet, was a little bit jealous.
The flight from Tulsa to Las Vegas is three hours. I was the cowboy-hatless passenger going for MJBizCon, an annual cannabis conference hosted by Marijuana Business Daily that blossoms ever bigger each year, flooded with folks lured by the billion-dollar biz taking shape and who’re ready to gamble in green.
Well, I was and wasn’t going. We were aiming for the parties that surround it, which is a relief, because in the photos and things I’d read from prior sleuthing, the exhaustion of the event seemed to jump off the page.
Hunter S. Thompson once said, “A little bit of this town goes a very long way”—something anyone who’s been to Vegas once automatically knows. And on the way there, weathering the degrading constant graze of dingle-berried fleece streaked with strays from my neighbor’s long mane, I was already starting to see where Mr. Thompson was coming from.
Rocketing through the Strip in an Uber, I arrived at the Cosmopolitan, a flirty hotel and the de rigueur lodging choice for the conference. A bunch of wide-brimmed ball caps and gauged ears in the elevator assured me that I had the right place. And given the only other tidbit I had—that we had a penthouse suite on the 61st floor—those parties would likely often be coming to us.
After dropping my bags, the Manna team and I whisked off to an American joint downstairs for dinner. The hotel had morphed into a mall, and I would later find out that most of Vegas is one big dizzy interconnected mall, full of replica statues and landmarks from other cultures and, because it was December, overtaken with poinsettias, which also looked fake even, even though they were probably real.
While waiting for the jumbo surf and turf that would turn me into Daryll Hannah from the restaurant scene in Splash, I finally got to meet the team that until now were disembodied voices I’d quizzed over the phone in my few months since I began blogging for the company.
There was Nial DeMena, our affable CEO; Chief Medical Officer Harin Padma-Nathan, a wine connoisseur who navigated our bottle selection; our CFO, Frank Manganella, who seemed to know every single cannabis figure in town, their pedigree, and what they were weighing on their internal scales; and Chief Scientific Officer Michael Frid, who took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes to complain about the latest bogus black hole studies and the importance of revitalizing the optic nerves of rats as he cycled his phone and the WSJ inches from his nose. Right then I knew that this was an unusual team, our conversation different from what any other cannabis cohort in town was probably talking about during their first night of MJBizCon. That I was pretty sure of. It was the first bet I was willing to make in Vegas.
Amid a parade of bros stopping by the suite the next day, I snuck away for a coffee downstairs, which became an unexplored area of the mall, rife with a whole world of delights that almost made going outside irrelevant. Plunking down $8 for a latte at Starbucks, I glanced over to a couple engaged in PDA, doing nasty nuzzles over a Venti and a mimosa flute. His and hers. Booze hath no boundaries here, which 23-year-old me would’ve really been into. Nauseated, I stepped outside for a small walk on the Strip for some fresh air. In the sky was the surreal Caesar’s Palace, a Pantheon on stilts, where Jupiter might shoot craps, or oddly futuristic ruins of a world ravaged by rising ocean water—an absurd building design that seems frighteningly more practical by the day.
Eye level was a tad less inspiring. A four-mile zoo parade of warbling Midwestern women sipping souvenir cups, plastered and bouncing off the partitions lining the road, which do double duty saving the lives of tipsy tourists and making it harder to exit the strip. Maybe they were actually sober; anyone would feel drunk from the sensory overload of just walking through the crossfade of Top 40 hits as lights and sights flash into your skull. It’s disorienting by design—and for a nongambling, at the moment sober chap like me, each attraction only tempted insofar as it offered respite from the rest of them.
Early that evening, the drinks started flowing as the suite swelled with all sorts of people, now diverse and young movers-and-shakers from places like Rolling Stone and Penske Media. I did my very best to play it cool and pretend I knew some things, not all things, but a few.
Suddenly it was time to leave for an infused dinner by 99th Floor, held in the Flamingo’s Stirling Room. Not on the list, I lingered around the table of nametags until it began, choosing, at the all-knowing Frank’s discretion, to be the stand-in for a “Joe.” With a renewed sense of purpose in Joe’s identity, I went forth.
The multicourse meal ensued, each plate and drink noted with the milligrams of THC you’re signing up for. It was all tantalizing, but despite being quite hungry, I was afraid to have much of anything. So was the blonde lady next to me, and we kept ordering non-infused rolls, each time lamenting having to specially request the carbs we typically take great pains to avoid. Girlfriend, we are so off.
“Y’know Joe, it’s so funny how at these things people have a tunnel vision of what they’re after,” she said as everybody mingled between courses. Totally! I squealed out, and 15 seconds later, a lady appeared out of nowhere and asked me what I did in cannabis. Not long after I replied, she deadened her gaze, began mumbling and twirled away again into the networking waltz. Joe wouldn’t have taken it personally; he, I presumed, was a seasoned professional at the top of his game. So I wasn’t going to either. I needed to be strong for Joe, whoever he was.
Several hours and three warm, smudgy glasses of chardonnay later, with our party itinerary for the night all but shot, we piled into a SUV for the end of the Acres Field dispensary party. I got a wristband from a girl who was leaving, and we snaked past the abandoned step-and-repeats to find Astroturf and a dance floor out back.
The beats there were slappy—the gyrating trolls and circles of mad chiefers, getting happy stupid in a dense fog of smoke, would definitely back me up on this. Finally, here, I saw a slice of the joy of cannabis culture, away from the straight-laced business types that have stormed the field. Cannabis is growing as a medicine, but it will also always be a silly, social way to let your hair down and get weird. The enduring virtue of getting high is that no one quite has all their bearings on reality, so in slightly mistrusting our perception, we give other people the benefit of the doubt—a kind of tonic to the anxiety-fueled seriousness and pretense that, these days, we need just as much. Ok, you can put your tissue away, I’m done now.
The next morning, we waited for what must’ve been nine months for breakfast to be delivered. Michael Frid was sitting at the bar, in good, well-rested spirits, firing off jokes at a fast clip:
“Rene Descartes walks into a bar. ‘Having coffee?’ says the waiter. Descartes says ‘I think not’ and disappears.”
Silence. The exhausting night some of us had before made for a tough crowd. While others prepared for flights home, Michael and I went to do some reconnaissance work at Planet 13—the turnstiled crowds and video projected onto the ceiling made felt a bit like museum on free admission day.
I found Michael talking to a cute budtender and self-described “sweaty sleeper” named Amanda, who said she loved the Manna Patch, it helped her with her anxiety and pain, and that she could start feeling it within 10 minutes of putting it on. That’s how it is for me too, although we technically say 30 minutes. I had one on my lower back for a hangover, and considered flashing her when she said it, but I did not want to move that much.
Another night, another bar, then I woke up to a text from Nial, saying he’d checked out of the hotel. I frantically jumped up and called to see when checkout time was, ordered an egg sandwich from room service, and boxed up the remaining products we brought and went down to the FedEx. I got back to the suite to find a note under the door from room service. Room service arrived again, 5 minutes before official checkout time, and because I had no change or sense of customary tip, and they had no card reader, I paid $50 for an egg sandwich I had five minutes to eat. Woof.
One morning, as I was leaving the pyramid that is the Luxor Hotel, my phone died in the lobby, forcing me to camp next to the fake tombs and the fake ‘50s carhop, hungover and decomposing in the recycled air, drinking a coffee with fake pumpkin flavor as slot bells screamed like a firehouse in the distance. Someone won again. Or fake won; they were far too frequent to be real. I sat in a stupor. Was my life on fire? Is 2019 on fire? Is this whole planet on fire? Maybe, mostly, yes.
It was funny and oddly relaxing, the way things going up in flames sometimes can be funny and relaxing. In a world combusting with deep fakes, fake news, fake users, and fake songs by fake artists on Spotify, Vegas held a brand of fake I was more sure of, an innocent fake that made me feel realer by contrast. It was a phony relief—a fake that isn’t trying to be something else. It’s claims to authenticity these days that makes me uneasy.
The flight back was 2.5 hours, not three, as one man, seen boarding between a herd of cowboy hats, loudly pointed out, accounting for the earth’s spin to move Tulsa closer from the other side, like burning something at both ends.* Is time actually faster when the world moves against you? I thought, leaving a city the way probably many do: listless and ever so briefly touched by thrill. Perhaps, in Vegas, time flies when you’re having anything. If you play your cards right, each moment is a total crapshoot.
*Disclaimer: Manna is well aware of the Coriolis effect, and therefore does not support this belief.