Cannabis tech was barred from CES 2020, like sex tech was last year

Sex tech is allowed at CES this year for the first time. Is cannabis tech next?

Daniel Van Boom Senior Writer
Daniel Van Boom is an award-winning Senior Writer based in Sydney, Australia. Daniel Van Boom covers cryptocurrency, NFTs, culture and global issues. When not writing, Daniel Van Boom practices Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, reads as much as he can, and speaks about himself in the third person.
Expertise Cryptocurrency | Culture | International News
Daniel Van Boom
4 min read

Keep got an official Innovation Award nod, but you won't find it on the CES show floor.

Keep Labs

A 15-year veteran in enterprise technology, Phil Wilkins has epilepsy and uses cannabis medicinally to ease his seizures -- but he also has three children. Alongside a business partner, he created a solution: Keep.

On the outside, Keep looks like a charming little smart alarm clock. But it's all deception. Keep is a safe, subtle way to store cannabis. It was effective and well-designed to the point where it scored an official nod as an Honoree for the 2020 CES Innovation Award.

Yet Keep Labs, the company that makes Keep, is nowhere to be found in any of the sprawling show floors that make up CES in Las Vegas. The reason? CTA, the organization behind both CES and the CES Innovation Award, barred Keep Labs from using the word "cannabis" on its booth or on any marketing materials -- in spite of marijuana being legal to buy in Nevada.

So Keep Labs said no.

The biggest marijuana dispensary in the world just got even bigger

See all photos

"We are a cannabis storage device, we are not a generic storage device," Keep Labs' co-founder told me in a phone interview. As I spoke to Wilkins from my hotel room I could see a warehouse-size weed dispensary from my window. "It would be a major disservice to the industry and to our brand if we water down and say we were a generic storage device. So we decided not to attend."

The CTA said in a statement that "marijuana is illegal at the federal level, as well as in public parks and hotels in the state of Nevada," and that Keep Labs could have exhibited if it labelled itself as a home appliance or storage device -- as it did when it submitted itself for an Innovation Award nomination. "They decided not to exhibit," the statement reads.

It's a shame, because there's impressive tech behind Keep. The device, as with almost everything at CES, connects with your phone for biometric security. Once locked, it can only be unlocked from your phone with facial recognition or a fingerprint scanner. You'll get a notification on your phone if anyone touches your Keep. An internal scale weighs the stash inside to let you know, in the app, how much is left at any given time.

For those who pay attention to CES, the world's biggest tech convention, there's deja vu here. Last year, sex tech company Lora Dicarlo won a CES Innovation Award but, after the CTA apparently got cold feet on giving such an honor to a sex tech company, the award was rescinded. Controversy ensued and, as a result, sex tech is officially allowed at CES -- for 2020, at least.

Weed-tech companies have historically dodged CTA's cannabis-tech ban by showing their wares at events that surround CES, and by having unofficial booths in hotels throughout Las Vegas.

Pax is one of those companies. On Tuesday night Pax exhibited its new Era Pro oil vape at Pepcom, an event related to, but separate from, CES. It's a device designed for two purposes: Make vaping safer, and make it a more curated experience.

The Era Pro is made up of two parts: An oil pod and the actual vape. Pax sends its oil pods to around 60 THC oil makers, who then sell the oil-filled pods to dispensaries. This walled-garden approach to vaping means the Era Pro can tell you exactly what's in your vape, since Pax has the THC oil makers release lab reports on all their product. You'll know how much of the oil is THC, CBD or any number of other three-letter acronyms.

More importantly, you'll see what's not in the oil.

A November report from the Center for Disease Prevention and Control found that 47 deaths and 2,290 "lung injury cases" have been linked to vaping. That number includes e-cigarettes, but it's still thrown a spotlight onto all manor of vaporizing. The lab report linked to each pod certifies the oil within is free of pesticides and other poisonous ingredients.

"Almost all of the illnesses and unfortunate deaths that have occurred have been due to fillers used in the illicit market," said Pax Senior VP of Product Jesse Silver. "Part of the reason that we make our own pod format and don't rely on the generic format is that we want to be able to control what partners actually fill those pods with. We have some control over what standards they're building things to."

Robert Shmerling, an associate professor at Harvard, said in a December blog that though vaping can be viewed as "a lesser of two evils" compared to smoking, "until we know more [you should] think twice about vaping.)

CES 2020: All the sex tech on display

See all photos

Each oil pod also stores information about what its makers think is the ideal temperature to smoke it, which the Era Pro automatically sets itself at. Further, it has a dose control feature that will limit the vapor output to precisely how many servings you select. This is particularly helpful for medicinal users, Silver pointed out.

"Pax is a really great example. Look at the innovation they just released," said Keep Labs' Wilkins. "And they can't even show at CES." (Though it was at Pepcom, a CES event, Pax doesn't have a booth at the actual CES show.)

Both companies are eager to shed the image of weed consumers as stoners. Pax's Silver insists that technology can be used to make vaping safe. Wilkins notes that he was a business-to-business professional for 15 years and his business partner a venture capitalist. The stereotype of weed smokers being negligent, lazy and frivolous, he said, is dead.

"In order for cannabis tech to become widely accepted and for cannabis to come out of the shadows, we need organizations like [the CTA] to be at the forefront helping to educate the population on what [the industry] can look like moving forward."

The weirdest new gadgets at CES 2020

See all photos

Originally published Jan. 9.