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Marijuana growers wrestle with cannabis' high-tech, industrial future

You can't hand-prune the plants for a $32 billion business.

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A PathogenDX sample holder can be used to detect 40 bacterial contaminants in each of 12 samples with a 6-hour test process. The company showed a new version of its technology at the New West Summit marijuana show.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

You'd have thought marijuana legalization would have made life easier for pot growers in areas like Northern California with decades of expertise.

Instead, cannabis cultivators are grappling with industrialization issues as production that once was hidden in closets and deep forests becomes just another part of American agribusiness.

Some growers will continue tending plants by hand and try to preserve natural traditions for a boutique marijuana market. But for the mainstream, the future lies with technologies like genetic testing, robotic harvesting, crop data analysis and even yeast-based manufacturing, said experts at the New West Summit marijuana conference in Oakland.

"Boutique is always going to have a place, but it's not the fast track to get cannabinoids to the mass market. To get to that we have to do more industrialization," said Michael Key, chief executive officer of Impello Biosciences, which sells biological products to help marijuana growers. "A lot of the market now is trying to use boutique practices, trying to scale up, and realizing that's not practical."

You might not concern yourself with the details of marijuana making, but it might well affect you, because the industrialization of cannabis is powering massive growth in the industry. It's helping propel marijuana out of the tie-dye pothead set and the medical marijuana markets into mainstream market cannabis-infused candy, gummi bears, pastries, body oils and butter.

"The stoner stereotype is not exactly what the cannabis consumer looks like today and definitely not what the cannabis consumer looks like tomorrow," said Liz Stahura, president of BDS Analytics, which closely tracks the cannabis market. "It looks very much like the target consumer for just about any other consumer product."

So it's no wonder businesses are trying to cash in. The global market will expand from $13 billion this year to $32 billion in five years, she said.

"Legal cannabis is one of the fastest growing industries around," Stahura said.

Weed meets the sportcoat set

The New West Summit, now in its fourth year, aims to provide a forum where people can learn about some of the tech angles of the business.

At the show, vendors tout products like the internet-enabled, phone-connected Stashaweigh "smart scale container" to track your marijuana usage and the SeedERP vending machine to let marijuana dispensaries sell products based on weed's principle drug, THC. Plenty of attendees wear traditional Silicon Valley tech conference attire: sport coat and khaki pants.

Panelists field questions about the lockup period for shareholders hoping to cash in on marijuana startup stock sales. And a drug-sniffing German shepherd patrolled the Marriott hotel in downtown Oakland where the conference took place, nipping any plans for psychoactive explorations in the bud.

At the same time, marijuana's distinctive odor pervades the conference, and plenty of people hail from California's traditional marijuana industry, a business that dates back decades into countercultural, underground circles. One of them is Swami Chaitanya, the "West Coast Cannabis Holy Man" who co-founded Swami Select. The licensed company grows marijuana "under sun, moon and stars" in the Emerald Triangle, northwest California's Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties.

Swami Select marijuana farmer Swami Chaitanya

Swami Chaitanya, marijuana grower who co-founded Swami Select

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The attendees may come from different backgrounds, but they share enthusiasm for marijuana one way or another. It's legal now for adults to smoke or otherwise consume it in nine states -- California, Washington, Massachusetts, Vermont, Oregon, Nevada, Maine, Alaska and Colorado -- and there's an optimistic vibe at the show that it'll spread further.

Marijuana becomes legal in all of Canada on Oct.17, and the UK government is set to legalize medical marijuana, too. Nobody seems overly concerned by the continuing federal disapproval of marijuana or by Attorney General Jeff Sessions' opinion that "Good people don't smoke marijuana."

Tough transition

Industrialization will bring us to marijuana's future, said Ed Rosenthal, the "guru of ganja" who co-founded High Times Magazine. He wrote "Ed Rosenthal's Marijuana Grower's Handbook," but now he argues in favor of greenhouses where robots plant and transplant marijuana plants. Optical systems will guide pruning lasers, he predicted.

"Every part of what you can do will be industrialized and should be industrialized," he said. It's like knitting sweaters: "The way you know it's handcrafted is the imperfections. The reason why humans have always gone to machines is because it provides better service than we can do ourselves."

It's not an easy idea for some.

"What this does is put the machine between you and what you're making," Chaitanya said. "I"d maintain there's something inherently different with growing something with love."

But the tech is coming.

Genetic testing and big data

Another example: a 4-year-old startup called PathogenDX whose technology checks cannabis products for 40 types of bacterial contaminants like E. coli, staphylococcus and aspergillus. It uses genetic tech like polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and microarrays so a grower can screen a set of 12 samples in six hours. In comparison, traditional petri dish tests take four to six days, said Chief Executive Milan Patel.

He believes the technology will work for mainstream food and water testing, but he's starting with the cannabis industry.

"We would have probably died as a company trying to get FDA-approved. The cannabis lets us show that the technology actually works," he said. "State levels are much easier for the regulatory approval process."

PathogenDX CEO Milan Patel explains his company's microbe-detecting technology at the New West Summit marijuana show.

PathogenDX CEO Milan Patel explains his company's microbe-detecting technology at the New West Summit marijuana show.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Computer analysis is available now, too.

Growers with small crops may remember their experiments and methods, said Jeanette Horton-Ward, communications vice president at MJ Freeway. But for those with bigger crops, her "cannabis technology platform" company offers data analysis tools so growers "can decide what plants to grow [based on] better yields, fast turnaround or the best sell-through into the market," she said.

Cannabis connoisseurs

Even if the bulk of the market produces cannabis products by the ton, there still will be room for a more refined product, said Chrystal Ortiz, founder of High Water Farm and a board member of the International Cannabis Farmers Association.

Most consumers want a tomato that's round and red, she said in an analogy to marijuana. "That's not my people. My tomatoes are warty, purple and amazing," she said.

Marijuana companies would be wise to aim products at cannabis connoisseurs, BDS Analytics' Stahura said. People in that category are wealthy, very knowledgeable about what they're buying, and use marijuana for both recreation and wellness. "They often integrate their cannabis routine with their exercise routine and nutrition routine," she said.

That market might appreciate an effort from Chaitanya. He's pushing for a marijuana equivalent to France's appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) system that regulates wines so you know a champagne comes from Champagne and a bordeaux comes from Bordeaux.

"We're working to get cannabis considered like French wine, like where certain regions have a certain taste," he said. Plants would have to be grown in natural conditions -- with sunlight and in the ground.

Rosenthal sees an entirely different development direction: genetically engineered yeast that makes cannabis the same way brewers make beer in a vat.

"You can take the genome of marijuana and put into yeast, then put that yeast into a bucket of water and sugar," Rosenthal said. "You're going to get that same THC in five days. That's the future. It's not going to be grown under the lights and sun, it's going to be grown in a bucket."

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