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CES Cannabis Conundrum: Makers of Award-Winning Product Can’t Mention Its Purpose

January 7, 2020, 9:30 PM UTC

For the second year in a row, organizers of tech trade show CES have found themselves in an awkward position after handing out a prestigious award.

Keep Labs won an Innovation award this year for its flagship product, a high-tech stash box that lets people discretely store their cannabis and monitor their inventory via their smart phone. However, the CTA, the group that organizes CES, informed the company that it was banned from referencing marijuana in any of its signs or marketing material, nor could any cannabis be shown in the storage device (though weed is legal in Las Vegas, where CES is held).

It’s a case of semi-déjà vu for the show. Last year, adult sex toy company Lora DiCarlo was given an Innovation award for its Ose, but that reward was later rescinded after show organizers realized the product’s purpose. After a deluge of complaints, organizers returned the award to the company months after CES ended.

Show organizers this year say the situations are vastly different.

“Marijuana is illegal at the federal level—as well as in public parks and hotels in the state of Nevada,” the CTA said in a statement. “Because of this, CES does not cover cannabis. Keep Labs was able to exhibit under the terms they’d showcase their product as a home appliance or storage device—the category they submitted their innovation award for.”

Keep Labs hasn’t had to relinquish its award, but because of the restrictions, it chose not to display its product at CES this year.

“We are honored to be the first cannabis-adjacent product or company to ever be awarded as a CES Innovation Honoree,” said Philip Wilkins, CEO of Keep Labs. “We obviously planned to exhibit in Las Vegas this year, … [but] watering down our product in order to showcase would not only be going against our brand, but would have done the entire cannabis industry a disservice at a pivotal moment in time when the stigma associated with cannabis needs to evolve. We are not a general home storage device. We are intentionally designed to store cannabis products responsibly.”

Keep Labs takes a high-tech approach to cannabis storage. Using biometric security (the device uses facial recognition), it alerts owners when anyone accesses or moves the unit. And it’s a discretely shaped and designed device that could easily be confused for a digital assistant. The product’s maker is currently in the middle of a fundraising campaign, which came with its own hurdles after online fundraising services Kickstarter and IndieGoGo refused to allow the company to use their platforms (again, because of the word cannabis).

Officially, of course, CES has no category for cannabis products. Then again, it didn’t have one for sex toys last year, and Lora DiCarlo still won. The complaints the followed the company’s reversal was one of the chief reasons organizers created an adult novelty/sexual health section on the CES show floor this year.

And cannabis-themed companies have certainly been at CES before, albeit in a roundabout way. For the past two years, Pax Labs has shown off its vaporizers at an unofficial, but heavily attended event in Las Vegas that coincides with CES. And both years, it has handed out cards to attendees, inviting them to try the product as it was intended to be used at a local dispensary the following day.

Cannabis-focused companies have sharply criticized CES for continuing to ban them from the official show floor. Last year, over 175,000 people attend CES along with nearly 6,400 members of the media, which can result in tremendous exposure for a company, especially a startup that wins a prestigious award.

“They are perpetuating outdated stigmas,” said Cortney Smith, founder and CEO of DaVinci, another vaporizer company focused on cannabis. “And as a result, visionary companies that advance useful consumer technology are pushed away because they don’t fit a specific narrative. … CES gives new innovators a platform and legitimizes revolutionary industries, and it’s a missed opportunity when they exclude those innovators over an obsolete fear.”

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