Today, weed is a burgeoning, multibillion-dollar industry: Marijuana is legal for recreational use in 10 states and for medical use in 33. Sure, it was once associated with hippies and the stoner stereotype. But weed underwent a rebrand to become cannabis, and now the industry consists of artisanal edibles, organically grown crop, high-end glassware, and wellness products.
It’s a highly intriguing world (see what I did there), so it was perhaps only a matter of time before someone gave marijuana the “interactive experience” treatment lately applied to ice cream, avocados, pizza, eggs, colors, candy, and more. That someone: J.J. Walker, the entrepreneur behind Cannabition, a new interactive cannabis museum that opened in downtown Las Vegas in November (the name is a nod to Prohibition).
Walker’s aim is to educate visitors about cannabis, from the beginning stages of its seeds to its extraction, and serve as a fun and immersive space for cannabis consumers. For $24 a ticket, museum visitors can walk through psychedelic art installations, study a cannabis grow operation, dive into a pool of giant cannabis buds, and admire the “world’s largest bong” — all of it tailored for Instagram, of course.
I chatted by phone with Walker a few weeks ago about why he thinks cannabis is primed for a social media-friendly museum experience, why Vegas is the best destination for such an attraction, and how he deals with the constant evolution in marijuana regulations. This interview has been edited and condensed.
What is your background in the cannabis space?
I grew up in Colorado [which started selling cannabis recreationally in 2014]. I worked as a nightclub promoter for many years, but once Obama came into office, there was a lot of talk about the legalization of cannabis.
My close friend Matt Brown, who is a well-known cannabis lobbyist, recommended I get in early. In 2008, a buddy and I started our dispensary [for medical marijuana], the Health Center, with about $10,000 in Denver. We were, like, the seventh dispensary to open the state, and when we opened, there weren’t any licenses or regulations yet, so we got a horticultural license. We operated throughout the entire regulatory process, which was a wild and crazy ride.
We sold our business in 2011 and then explored other cannabis experiences. I’m a marketing type of guy and thought a lot about cannabis destination events. For a while, I had a cannabis tour company called My 420 tours, which sold packages to events like High Times Cannabis Cup or the Red Rocks 420 Eve on the Rocks concerts, and would take people around on a bus and set them up in hotels where you can smoke on the balconies. We’d had the tour company for four years when we thought about expanding it to Vegas, and I decided on this exhibit.
What gave you the idea for this type of museum?
I read a lot about cool, immersive attractions like the Museum of Ice Cream, the Color Factory, 29 Rooms, and thought that it could work really well with cannabis. A lot of entrepreneurs in cannabis now are focusing dispensaries or grow houses, but I believe the future is the social experience of cannabis. Right now, there’s no experience in it.
Imagine if there were just liquor stores but no place to drink it! I think cannabis needs these type of fun, hip, immersive, Instagrammable attractions that give consumers an engaging experience and also help normalize it.
How is the museum “interactive”?
It’s a 40-minute experience and there are 12 different exhibits. We call it “a journey from seed to celebration.” There’s a room with a giant bed of seeds, where visitors can lie and look up at cool lights. There’s a grow room, which shows the cannabis grow process. There’s also a harvest room, with huge 7-foot buds we’re calling Hug-a-Bud.
There’s a part of the exhibit where you get “smoked,” so you go up a staircase through giant red lips, and then down a slide. The exhibit hits all senses, so there’s also a terpene smell station, where visitors can smell the different types of terpenes [which are the fragrant oils of cannabis].
There’s also a lot of big art installations, like a giant stoner caterpillar, and we also have the world’s largest bong, which is a 24-foot Jerome Baker bong. We encourage visitors to touch and feel everything. Every room is Instagrammable and has both “discovery” moments and an educational side.
What sort of educational elements? Like, teaching people how to roll joints?
There’s going to be the history about the fight for legalization, the difference between sativa and indica and all the different types of strains. The exhibit teaches about the methods of extraction, the medical aspect of the cannabinoids, and how CBDs impact people’s lives. As you go through the exhibits, there’s a message behind each of them that relates that to why cannabis is legal — and why it should’ve been the entire time.
Why open a museum instead of a private cannabis lounge?
Vegas has a ton of regulatory issues. There might be 43 million tourists who can buy cannabis there, but there’s nowhere to smoke it. It’s going to take a while to get those rules passed, but in the meantime, I figured there’s a better way to set up a cannabis space in Vegas that’s similar to all these new attractions. Plus, I wanted a fun experience that suits being stoned, not a boring lounge like San Francisco has where people sit around and smoke and then have to leave after 30 minutes.
Why open it in Vegas, as opposed to legal states like Colorado or Washington?
Vegas legalized recreational marijuana officially in 2017, and I believe it’s going to be an exciting place for the legal marijuana industry. There are 43 million people that come [to Vegas] every year, and that’s a lot of potential to be exposing people to cannabis. I know some people might thinking of Vegas as just gambling and drinking, but downtown is changing a lot. There’s a lot to do that’s interesting and alternative, and there are tons of fun and cool experiences.
Do people have to come to the museum stoned?
No! Being stoned definitely will enhance your experience, and the exhibit will be more fun, but you don’t have to. It’s a really immersive art exhibit, and so even if you’re a nonsmoker, it’s a fun way to get a taste of cannabis without having to actually consume any of it. The narrative of the museum, with the lights, the colors, and the journey, is to make you already feel like you are on cannabis.
Are you selling any pot for visitors at the exhibit? Does that come with a ticket?
No, right now Vegas regulations don’t allow us to. We’ve got a partnership with some nearby dispensaries and Lyft, so we’ll be taking visitors on a free ride to go directly from the museum [to the dispensaries]. But right now, Cannabition is set up as an interactive museum, not as a place that sells cannabis [or has visitors smoking inside].
But we’ve built the space so that it’s designed to grow and develop as the laws change. If Vegas does pass a social consumption ordinance, then the museum is going to get elevated. The goal is to turn the museum into a space where you come in, buy cannabis, consume it, and then have the experience. But that crossover hasn’t happened yet.
Who are the type of people you think are coming to this museum?
It’s 21 and up. We’re expecting a lot of millennials, but also a ton of baby boomers. The thing I’ve learned about being in this business is that marijuana brings everyone together. People who smoke pot are interested in learning about the industry, but there are also people who just want to know about it and will want to see something cool and unique.
In the history parts of your museum, will you address the history of cannabis and racial discrimination? And how a lot of the people in the cannabis industry are white, while the people who are arrested on marijuana charges are disproportionately black or nonwhite?
I wouldn’t say that everyone in the space is white. There are a lot of very powerful groups that are full of diverse business owners. We have not gotten into that, but I love the thought of teaching visitors that portion of history.
Are you a pot smoker?
No, not really.
Really? That’s interesting, seeing as you’re in this business.
Yeah. I’m not a nonsmoker, but it’s not something I do often. I am just more passionate about advocating for its legalization. I was on the medical side of it for several years, and the benefits of it are incredible. On the recreational side of it, as someone who worked in the nightclub entertainment industry, I see huge opportunities to create new types of experiences. A “night out” has [traditionally] been around alcohol, but now people can be uplifted by something other than alcohol.