On March 12, 2019, under a giant x-ray of the screws in her neck, Courtney Dorne tells the audience at Blunt Talks about how she found the cannabis industry by using it to treat her own pain after discovering she was allergic to opiates. Then, she went on to explain why she was inspired to speak about her personal struggles to the crowd. “My friend who had cancer wouldn’t use cannabis because of her law degree. No one should suffer like that. But how do you tell the PTA you’re using cannabis? How do I tell my kids? I’m putting a face to that.”
But Dorne is much more than just the face of a sympathetic story, she’s also the President of Vertical Companies, one of the largest Cannabis Management companies in the U.S. According to its website, Vertical currently manages 4 million square feet of cultivation, 35 brands of cannabis and CBD, and has over $50 million invested. Dorne has just as much to say about raising venture capital as she does about using cannabis in cancer treatment.
Blunt Talks is a unique event where discussions of multi-million dollar investments in licensing and corporate structuring blend seamlessly into topics like therapeutic whole-plant medicinal use and cultivating a cannabis culture. It’s a professional networking night that also manages to be an educational and enjoyable evening for industry outsiders, by merging business talk with heart.
A.J. Horne and Sam Zartoshty are the two young wunderkids who run Blunt Talks with their company Paragon. The early twenty-somethings met a few years ago after Horne graduated from Duke University and moved to California. Horne quickly bonded with California native Zartoshty over their shared interests in cannabis and business. Zartoshty said, “He was one of the first people to reach out to me when I moved here. I bought him some books on entrepreneurship as a gift. I figured he’s the kind of guy that would read the book and appreciate it. He says, ‘No way, I can’t believe you bought me this. I have to tell you about a business idea I have.’ That’s when we decided to work together and pursue some kind of startup in the industry.”
The pair helped friend Flavia Arsenault throw the first Blunt Talks as a one-time event, but were inspired to grow it into something more. Zartoshty said, “At first the main driver behind it was fun. We’ve realized over the past few months that there’s a lot of value we’re giving and that the general public, business owners, and people working in the industry all really love our events. We actually stopped doing our events for a little while and had so many people reaching out to us asking when we were going to do them again, that’s why we got back into it.”
Horne explains, “Paragon’s original mission was to be a platform to help professionals find work in the legal cannabis industry. Neither Sam nor I are very good with tech, so we thought, we can take our mission and physically execute it in events.”
Chris Carroll recently joined the growing Paragon team. “I was drawn to the authenticity of what Sam does. Other places are like, ‘Buy our things’ or ‘Listen to our pitch’, but Sam is like, ‘What can I do for you? What kind of value can I give to you?’ That’s why I work with them, I’m a big believer in that.”
This sentiment of quality and value was echoed by attendees of the event as well. Judd Weiss, founder of the artisan cannabis company Lit.Club, says he has been a vendor at multiple Blunt Talks events because “it’s a sophisticated space in cannabis. They’re intelligent, they give talks, and I like the crowd that they assemble in the industry.”
The variety of companies they attract is noteworthy. Habitat was there serving CBD drink samples next to a company that handles credit card processing. There was a table for a cannabis project management and development company next to one from Heavy Hitters, an edgy vape company known for its potency. Vet CBD, a company that makes tinctures for pets, was nestled between a flower company and CCTL, a company that handles lab testing for cannabis companies. All of this gathered around a long bar with complimentary refreshments, beautifully crafted tiny cupcakes and tacos freshly prepared by Chef Rudy Sta Ana of Cannabis Catered Events.
Michelle Martinez has worked multiple Blunt Talks events for Vet CBD. “I’ve done two events in Long Beach, one at Hitman, and this is my first here. A lot of the people speaking are really innovative and have good insights into the industry as a whole. Everyone is very open and inviting, you can ask great questions, it’s an all around good vibe. This is a very fun space, the art they have here ties in with sativas that help creativity.”
With a psychedelic painted school bus functioning as the sound booth for the speakers, and a full-sized fire truck with a sign that states the “Playground Rules” parked in another room, the space lends a perfect atmosphere for a cannabis event all about innovation.
Blunt Talks began at Expert Dojo in Santa Monica, then moved to the now defunct smoking-friendly venue Hitman Coffee shop. While they’ve had difficulty finding another consumption-friendly space, they have found a welcoming home in ToolBoxLA. Zartoshty says,”The owner is really nice and supports the cannabis industry. Also, over a quarter of the cannabis licenses for LA are in the valley, so that’s another reason we like to be up here.” Their next event will be held in Long Beach on April 23rd.
The other speakers of the night were Christopher Malcolm, CEO of 3C Farms, and Ted Lichtenberger, CEO of Flower Company. Both spoke about the challenges of creating cannabis companies, managing complicated licensing processes and the difficulties of navigating an ever-changing legal landscape. One of the biggest themes of the night – next to the importance of vertical integration – was the giant economic cost that running a cannabis business has become with licensing and compliance regulations, making cannabis entrepreneurship a millionaire’s game.
Horne says these informative talks have boosted their goal of bringing industry professionals together. “We wanted to have more of a traditional networking event at first. But what we’ve found is that a lot of times with the quality of the speakers we’re bringing, those are the people everyone wants to talk to, and those are the companies everyone wants to work for.”
Part of what makes Blunt Talks so unique is that is gives people in the cannabis industry a place to share their unique experiences and insights to a truly receptive and welcoming audience. During the audience Q & A after her talk, a woman asked Courtney Dorne if she actually had any advice for parents regarding navigating the PTA about cannabis use.
Dorne answered, “It was harder when they were younger, but now I have a better time. It’s a legal business, so I’m open and honest about it. And some parents don’t want to hang out with me. Some parents don’t want their kids hanging out with my kids. But more often than not, I am definitely the most popular person at a birthday party.”