California’s first cannabis hackathon came to S.F., and the brightest minds in tech and marijuana addressed chronic industry problems.

Historically, marijuana has not been the most technologically advanced industry. Until recent years, cannabis commerce has been an underground network of secret grow operations and street dealers who were not particularly keen on record-keeping or regulatory compliance.

That all changed in the mid-2000s, when state zoning laws legalized dispensaries and commercial marijuana grows, and the industry attracted big-money venture capital investments. Ganja enthusiasts may feel like we’re home-free now that recreational marijuana is legal, but the industry itself is still in dire need of custom solutions to thorny legal issues, the hassles of being cash-only, and the unique challenges of distributing a drug that is still federally illegal.

A two-day meetup last month called the HighTech Hackathon sought to solve some of these problems. The S.F. headquarters of delivery service Meadow hosted some 50 cannabis-loving techies, industry activists, and marijuana-policy nerds for a marathon two-day coding competition hosted by hackathon organization AngelHack and cannabis networking group High NY.

“This is the first cannabis-focused hackathon in California,” High NY founder and CEO Michael Zaytsev tells SF Evergreen. “In California, you have Silicon Valley and the Emerald Triangle, which are the epicenter of innovation in their respective communities.”

If you’ve never been to a hackathon, they’re generally weekend-long contests where teams bang out a bare-bones but functioning software product. The HighTech Hackathon broke the crowd down into teams no larger than five, and each team had exactly 24 hours to create some kind of brand new technical tool to help marijuana growers, investors, and buyers navigate the new reality of the cannabis industry.

“The cannabis industry is underserved in terms of technology utilization,” says Bryan Castillo, a partner at investment bank Ackrell Capital.This has very much been a cottage industry, mom-and-pop growers. It’s growing up quickly. It requires a lot of sophistication to address the increased regulations.”

Regulations, pest control, and mold contamination were just a few of the emerging industry problems these hackers hoped to crack. Fueled by sushirritos, cans of LaCroix, and carafes of coffee, the teams set out to reprogram the California cannabis landscape.

“Compliance is a bitch, because we live in California,” says Amanda Reiman, head of community relations at craft cannabis brand Flow Kana. “We really need all of the bright young minds we possibly can have to help these businesses.”

Reiman was previously manager of marijuana law and policy at the Drug Policy Institute, and helped draft Prop. 64 that legalized recreational marijuana, and has been involved with legalization efforts in other states.

“Even though cannabis is legal in California and a smattering of other states, it’s still federally illegal,” she tells SF Evergreen. “Anything we can do in states that allow us to explore and normalize the cannabis space isn’t just helping California. It’s helping those other states as well.”

Not all of this hackathon’s projects were super-serious and wonky. One team built an app for ordering custom-rolled joints, with options to have the jay have dipped in CO2 or coated with keef. But other projects had higher aspirations, using machine learning, neural networks, and augmented reality.

Technologies like these attracted one computer science student all the way from Bogotá, Colombia.

“I came to San Francisco to attend the meetups and hackathons you have here,” Ignacio Gomez says. “It helps me to code with real people. My partner is an employee of [a large eCommerce company we cannot mention]. You work with the people that are actually building the tech.”

The creative process at hackathons is inherently stressful and not always pretty. At 9:30 Saturday night with a
1 p.m. Sunday deadline, one team hadn’t even settled on an idea, while other teams tried to hash out their product’s secret sauce.

“If there’s a secret sauce, then it’s a secret to us, too,” one developer muttered.   

But if people in the marijuana field know one thing, it’s how to relax in stressful situations. “You imagine the hackers being super-hardcore, and the cannabis people are more relaxed and easygoing,” says Hermenio Garcia, a programmer in Los Angeles’ cannabis industry. “It was exciting to see what the dynamic would be like.”

Furious coding and testing continued into the wee hours Saturday night, with the hard deadline called a “code freeze” looming early Sunday afternoon. SF Evergreen saw sleepless teams wring their hands for hours over technical roadblocks and snafus, then encounter eureka moments celebrated with high-fives and “Fuck yeah!”s.

That code freeze deadline did arrive, and this hackathon concluded, as these things often do, with live demo sessions where each team showed off their work to a panel of judges. The judges were an elite group of cannabis-industry investors, asset managers, and founders.

One co-founded a company that uses 3D printers to make cannabis-infused transdermal patches similar to nicotine patches “We apply 3D-printing methodology to automate production tasks in cannabis operation,” says Manna Molecular Science co-founder and CEO Nial DeMena, whose patches are available in L.A. and San Diego.

The winner was the team that created NuggIt, an augmented-reality app that helps educate consumers about the cannabis they’re buying. The judges loved the app’s ability to deliver consumer-friendly information about strains typically sold under slang nicknames, which don’t always make sense to everyday buyers.

“There isn’t a lot of technology catering to recreational consumers from an educational perspective or access perspective,” the investment banker Castillo tells SF Evergreen. “Where do these people get educated about cannabis? Those are exciting opportunities for people to tackle.”

The big tech companies are still pretty unfriendly to cannabis. Facebook, Google, and Twitter won’t allow marijuana ads, leaving marijuana out of the online retail revolution. But if the biggest names in tech aren’t willing to help trim the cannabis industry’s problems, people like the  HighTech Hackathon programmers are determined to crack the code.