Marco Renda and Treating Yourself Go International
I had the pleasure of attending the 2nd-Annual Treating Yourself Medical Marijuana and Hemp Expo in Toronto earlier this month for Cannabis Culture, and it was exactly that: a pleasure.
Marco Renda, the publisher of Treating Yourself Magazine and the hands-on head organizer of the Treating Yourself Expo, donated a booth to CC and the Free Marc Emery campaign. Though we haven't always seen eye-to-eye, I have to give the guy major props for the size, scope and success of his sophomore venture and his drive to patch up differences with others in the movement and make amends.
Renda, a medical marijuana patient who started Treating Yourself Magazine in 2000 with part of his family fortune, was ecstatic about the results of the Expo, and revealed to me in several interviews after the show that he has already started planning next year's event.
But that's not all he revealed in our interviews. He also gave me details about 3rd-Annual Treating Yourself Expo; the scoop on a new retail store called One of a Kind he plans on opening in Toronto this summer; info about his growing seed company, Medical Marijuana Seeds Wholesaler; the latest on his multi-million dollar lawsuit against Health Canada; and his Global aspirations for the Treating Yourself brand.
Treating Yourself Expo 2011
The TY Expo is the largest marijuana trade show in the country, and this year's event was undoubtedly bigger and better than last year. In its second year at the high-class Metro Toronto Convention Centre, just next-door to the landmark CN Tower, the Expo featured more vendors from all sides of the marijuana industry, more activist groups presenting information, more music and scheduled speakers, and, most importantly, more attendees.
"Everyone had a blast this year," Renda told me in one of our interviews. "We doubled our attendance and had about 15,000 through the gate over the three days. We really went all out this year with the glass, the grow room, the lounge and everything else. It was a lot of fun, but a lot of work."
The increased numbers of vendors and attendees definitely made the event seem busier than the year before, and the new layout of the main stage and "World's Largest Vapor Lounge" on the same floor as the Expo was much more convenient and far less confusing than the spread-out design of the previous year's event.
As I walked through the aisles of the large main conference hall and weaved through the many kiosks and displays, I was impressed with the number of big-name cannabis-related businesses and activist groups that took up shop to display and peddle their wares, including RooR bongs, Green House Seeds, Advanced Nutrients, WeGrow Hydroponics, SKUNK Magazine, and many more.
In every direction there were seed companies, head shops, glass-makers, medical cannabis dispensaries, hydroponic stores, nutrient companies, visual artists, media companies both print and digital, and hemp-product manufactures.
Renda was able to secure seed-sales as part of the contract with the Metro Convention Centre; and 33 companies, many from the Netherlands, set up impressive displays and handed-out catalogues and free samples.
Media groups, both amateur and mainstream, pointed their cameras and microphones at the crowds and vendors, and trailed Renda and some of the other cannabis big-wigs looking for interviews.
"I was really happy to see everyone there," Renda said. "The whole West Coast crew coming to support, coming to help educate and to show the solidarity that's amongst us was great. We have to work together to eliminate this crap that's going on with the Conservative government."
The event featured an endless supply of marijuana-related paraphernalia and information, but also a seemingly endless supply of amazing marijuana. The TY Expo features a Medical Marijuana Cup, where some of the best strains in the country are submitted and judged. I managed to get my hands on one of the Judge's Sample Packs and was higher than the CN Tower for the entire time. In a ceremony on the final day, Renda handed out glass cup to the winners in several weed-growing categories, as well as the Expo's Marijuana Music Awards, which celebrate some of the finest performers in the cannabis community.
Musicians like DJ Slim and speakers including Dr. Robert Melamede, Dr. Paul Hornby, and Irvin Rosenfeld took to the main stage intermittently throughout the weekend. There were so many speakers and musicians that I could hardly keep up and didn't get to see them all.
Part of the reason for this was probably because I spent so much time in the "World Largest Vapor Lounge", a 4,200 square-foot space housing some of the finest vaporizers on the planet, including the Volcano, The herbalAire, The Verdamper, and a new (and expensive) RooR vaporizer that made me nervous just touching it.
As far as networking opportunities in Canada's cannabis community go, it was by far the best of the best. Most of the movers and shakers of the movement were there; I made a lot of new friends and connected with a lot of old ones, and managed to hook up with a lot of potential interviewees.
My only complaint was about the food – both at the Expo and at the Friday night dinner party. There was no hot food to be found, other than a lone pulled-pork sandwich stand that looked like it was serving up warm cow manure with a large spoon. The only other food place offered cold, pre-made sandwiches and $3 bottles of water. The dinner party spread wasn't much better and didn't include any vegetarian dishes (I saw a woman bite into what was marked as a veggie samosa, only to spit it out and say "Ahhh – this thing is full of meat.") According to Renda, I wasn't the only one who noticed.
"We were just totally unhappy with the way things went this year with food," he told me. "Especially on the Friday night dinner party. I put in a complaint and so did my show manager. I paid close to $40,000 for that night and the food was crap. It looked like we served leftovers. So we're going to be taking it offsite next year. We are also looking to take over the food vending from the convention centre."
There were no complaints from police or reports of undercover cops in the crowd, but Renda said officials at the Convention Centre complained about lax security at the Vapor Lounge. He also said 2011 would be the last year he would put guests at the Intercontinental Hotel.
"There were just too many people in non-smoking rooms hot-boxing the hotel," he said. "The hotels really should allow smoking for medical patients or provide vaporizers, and we are going to try to find something more accommodating."
Renda said he thought the Expo was a success overall.
"All the vendors had nothing but good things to say," he said. "Every single one was happy with the way things turned out." Though, he notes, "we still lost money, but not as much as last year."
From my perspective, the Expo was a huge success in promoting Canada's cannabis culture. These trade shows undeniably help legitimize the cannabis business community and show that we indeed mean business! It was a marijuana event on an impressive scale, and I can't wait for the 3rd-annual event.
Treating Yourself Expo 2012
Because I can't wait, I asked Renda for a few details about what he has in store for next year's event.
"I don't want to give away too much," he told me, "but probably one of the coolest things is next year's Flame Off."
He went on to describe an on-site glassblowing competition that would feature 3 teams of 4 blowers making bongs and other pieces, to be voted on by all in attendance.
Other notables of next year according to Renda: the pricing will be back up to $20 (from $15 in 2011 and $25 in 2010), there will be a focus on local musical talent, more vendors and "more seeds vendors, believe it or not."
"There will be some new features in the vapor lounge," Renda said. "I can't really indulge and let the cat out of the bag but there are some European companies involved that will make the lounge that much livelier, lets just say that."
The 3rd-Annual Treating Yourself Medical Marijuana and Hemp Expo will take place from May 25 - May 27.
One of a Kind
In our conversations, Renda also told me about another of his projects, a new retail and wholesale store in Toronto called One of a Kind.
His vision, which he hopes to realize this August, is a new "showroom"-style store location "on Bloor street in a high-end area" that sells "high-end glass, vaporizers, grinders, seeds" and more.
"I'll know on Monday if the lease goes through," he said. "I just really wanted a place to show off some of the highest-quality glass and other products and sell both retail and wholesale."
Medical Marijuana Seeds Wholesaler and Health Canada
Renda is also part-owner of Medical Marijuana Seeds Wholesaler, a fast-growing company that specializes in bringing high-quality seeds from Europe and other places into Canada.
"We're strictly a wholesale company," Renda said. "We supply retail outlets throughout Canada with quality genetics and original breeder packs. We do it for med patients; Health Canada only offers one strain, and there are over 1,600 different varieties available."
In November of 2008 on his way back from the High Times Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam, Renda was stopped by Canadian Customs at Toronto's Pearson Airport with a large amount of marijuana seeds. Border guards confiscated the seeds and refused to give them back until Renda threatened legal action.
"We told Customs if they didn't release the seeds in a week, we would be suing them," he said. "Our lawyer contacted them and they told her it was Health Canada. She contacted Health Canada and they said it was Customs. So she went back to Customs and they said they would go to court on our behalf. So we are suing Health Canada, who says we don't have 'authorization' to have the seeds, in a multi-million dollar lawsuit."
Renda said the seeds were worth more than a million dollars at the time, but would be worth less on today's market.
"With the success of our seed company," he said, "we've managed to lower the price of seeds by 70% over the past few years by getting all the breeders to work with us."
The lawsuit isn't just about getting the seeds back, but about changing the laws in Canada to allow for more of the same kind of activity, he says. "We want to open the gates, not just for MMSW but for everyone. We want to make it so that anyone can order seeds and not have them confiscated."
The legal proceedings are expected to start on November 23, 2011.
Treating Yourself International
Renda says that since he decided to take Health Canada to court, he has been the target of unfair harassment by Revenue Canada.
"I'm getting harassed galore," he said. "My lawyer has been in court; [the Government] tried to say I was evading paying taxes. We went to court, and all of a sudden they found the tax papers that were submitted. And then I get a letter from the taxation office saying 'okay, you've been cleared, everything is good.' Then they came back with something else and that went away and then something else again. Every single week they come up with something different."
The harassment, Renda said, made him say "enough is enough", and he now has plans for a Treating Yourself International headquarters in Malta.
Renda, who was born in Malta, says setting up an office there will allow him to make stronger connections with European countries who are squeamish about working with North Americans.
"It will allow me to get European nutrient companies to advertise," he said, "which they wouldn't before because they didn't want to advertise in a Canadian publication, because it's distributed in the US. Yet they advertise in Weed World, which is a
European publication distributed in the US. The difference is because they're European they'll advertise."
For his efforts, Renda has had a considerable amount of success - and the Expo is a great example.
"It's working," he told me. "Look who was at the Expo, internationally renowned companies; a lot of the big players in the industry were there. It's because of the relationships I've built with these companies and they just keep getting stronger and stronger every year."
In the months ahead, Renda will be heading to Germany to meet with high-end glassmaker RooR to negotiate to be their Canadian distributor. "They're sure a lot of things on the go," he said.
Renda says he was partly inspired by others in the movement and hopes to inspire others as well.
"Marc Emery was really great at inspiring others to get off their asses," he said. "I want to influence other people and get them out of their shell and show them that it is possible."
Though he said his company is now self-sustaining, Renda admits "it's taken 12 years to get it there." and that he has subsidized many of his projects from his personal bank account.
"I don't really make money," he said. "Like I've said before, my family is fairly well-off and I'm the only child. I do what I do to help those that don't have the resources I do."
Going international, he thinks, may put him in a better position to fight prohibition not just in Canada, but around the Globe.
"The ultimate goal is the worldwide elimination of prohibition," he said. "We can't stop at anything less."
Find out more about the Treating Yourself Expo.