LOS ANGELES &MDASH; Three decades ago, Bruce Perlowin was smuggling hundreds of thousands of pounds of Colombian marijuana to California in fishing boats passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. His childhood friend, David Tobias, was trafficking dope across turquoise Caribbean waters to Florida and Georgia.
On Saturday, at a Los Angeles medical marijuana trade show teeming with entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on California's legal pot market, the two chums were reunited as business consultants marketing "solutions for an emerging industry."
Their Medical Marijuana Inc. booth is one of scores of competing exhibits at Hemp Con 2010, a three-day event promoters say will draw 30,000 visitors to the Los Angeles Convention Center this weekend. The once unfathomable expo signals the reach of California's fast-budding cannabis economy and the intense lure of both pot seekers and entrepreneurial dreamers to get a toke of the action.
Inside the 70,000-square-foot exhibit space Saturday, an Azusa sheet metal worker and his cousin, a former cultivator, were marketing $35,000 to $105,000 Tow and Grow trailers for growing medicinal weed.
A Santa Ana leasing agent was pitching retail space for marijuana dispensaries in a glistening new building. A retired Los Angeles lawyer was marketing a home delivery company for medical cannabis users. A communications specialist was selling a telephone service that gives driving directions to get any marijuana patient, anywhere in California, to the closest pot store.
"Thousands of jobs are being created in this industry overnight," exulted one convention speaker, Michael Lerner, publisher of the Kush pot magazine in Southern California and operator of dailybuds.com, a site billed as "the Facebook for medical marijuana."
"The movement has happened. We're not stopping now," he said.
Amidst it all, marveling at this new, seemingly wide-open business world were Perlowin and Tobias, chairman and vice president of Medical Marijuana Inc. The Orange County firm sells training seminars in marketing, accounting and tax compliance for people running marijuana dispensaries or cultivating the crop.
Two guys who each served nearly a decade in prison for pot smuggling – Perlowin in California and Tobias in Georgia – are now telling newcomers in the trade how to go legit.
They even developed a special "tax remittance card" that pot shop employees can scan to make sure they pay California sales tax on all marijuana transactions. And their company is publicly traded with an over-the-counter stock – listed as MJNA – for "Mary Jane Non-Alcoholic."
"This is a lot less stressful," said Perlowin, a purported Northern California pot king who authorities said was once raking in $16 million a year from marijuana trafficking. "I'm not a fugitive. And I don't have to hide."
While no longer involved in any marijuana distribution, Tobias wonders if their past misdeeds as pot smugglers could have helped pave the way for today's medical marijuana market. Voters approved the Proposition 215 medical use law in 1996. Dispensaries sprouted in abundance over the past year as the federal government signaled it wouldn't target outlets serving pot patients in states that allow medical use.
"Really, without guys like us," Tobias mused Saturday, "it may have never come to this."
John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Peace Officers Association, a group gearing up to fight a marijuana legalization initiative expected to be on the California ballot in November, found little about the massive trade show amusing.
"I think it shows the fraudulent nature of the medical marijuana law," Lovell said. "When people voted for Proposition 215, they thought they were voting to ease the pain of the terminally ill. But it was creating a subterfuge in order to sell dope.
"The fact they're holding a trade show at the convention center really underscores that reality."
Convention promoter Edwin Kwong, whose Mega Productions firm previously staged tattoo expos and computer, home and auto shows, said he knew he had a sure-fire convention draw with medical pot. He spent $200,000 in advertising, posting 15 Hemp Con billboards along Los Angeles and Orange County freeways and running 700 radio and 40 television spots to promote the event.
"I'm always at the forefront of a new trend," he boasted.
Cousins Rick Probsti, 42, and Nick Parks, 37, are hoping they're ahead of the market as well. Probsti runs an aluminum fabrication shop. Parks says, discreetly, that he knows a little bit about marijuana cultivation.
Together, they led convention attendees Saturday through a demonstration trailer bathed in hydroponic lights and meticulously equipped with growing trays, irrigation and air filtration systems. They have sold two units since starting their business in October.
The cousins say they have no interest in cultivating pot themselves. Instead, they see themselves as outfitters for California's marijuana rush – just as earlier entrepreneurs made fortunes clothing and supplying gold-seeking 49ers long ago.
"We don't want to be the gold miners," Probsti said. "We want to be Levi Strauss."