"The first person through the wall in this industry can make billions. They can also lose everything, and you don't know who you are yet."
Dale Sky Jones made that declaration while sitting inside Oaksterdam University, a 7-year-old facility in Oakland that educates would-be marijuana entrepreneurs.
Sky Jones is executive chancellor at Oaksterdam, and on the day she was interviewed, an instructor had just finished teaching a class about the best pest-control methods for growing cannabis. Presumably, the students were there to learn how to grow medical pot as a patient, a caregiver, or as part of a cooperative dispensary — the only legal methods allowed in California.
But as recreational marijuana has become legal in Colorado and Washington, and as other states consider decriminalizing possession, there is a Wild West rush to be first "through the wall in this industry." A variety of companies are sprouting, many of them public — mostly high-risk penny stocks — with no clear winners yet.
Some recent stories suggest at least a few pot stocks are in bubble territory.
One company trying to figure out the right long-term strategy is mCig. The firm sells an e-cigarette-style product for marijuana, while at the same time is expanding into products that don't involve pot at all.
E-cigarettes for marijuana are already widely available, but the mCig is different. It's something of a hybrid between an e-cig and a joint, in that you can put "dry herb" in it and heat it to the edge of combustion.
"When you burn something, you burn about 50 percent of the material, whereas with this, you can turn off the power and nothing continues to burn," said mCig COO Mark Linkhorst. "It's very much more efficient than smoking it." He said the mCig is less harmful than traditional smoking, and it can make the same amount of marijuana last twice as long.
The mCig is rechargeable and sells for the relatively low price of $10. It's made in China.
"We believe that by disrupting the price, and being at the head of the line in innovation, we can sell it at a minimal profit, because we want to sell millions of the product," said Linkhorst. Last quarter the company reported a small profit.
MCig recently bought Vapolution, a firm created by Chico State graduate Patrick Lucey, who helped develop a pure glass vaporizer that enhances flavor. "We've been a very grass-roots company," Lucey said.
Linkhorst believes the vaporization market is largely untapped. "We think there's maybe 150 million marijuana smokers in the world. Only 1 percent of them are vaporizing."
"Marijuana's not going anywhere. It's been around for a long time, and whether the Justice Department says it's legal or it's not legal, people are still going to continue to use it."
At the same time, mCig is trying to hedge its bets with products that don't involve marijuana at all. It's releasing the VitaCig, a $2 e-cig that the company claims vaporizes vitamins with fruit or spearmint flavors. The company is pitching the product as serving two purposes — providing an alternative for people who can't or don't want to swallow vitamins in pill form, and also as an aid to stop smoking.
"People who are trying to quit smoking can use this product to satisfy their hand-to-mouth motion and not go back to smoking cigarettes," said Khari Bryan, who helped develop the product as part of mCig's medical advisory board. One could argue it could also do the opposite, leading someone to move from vaporizing vitamins on to something else.
"What's remarkable about the cannabis industry now is the opportunity for people to come in and not even touch the plant itself," said Oaksterdam's Sky Jones. She believes the risk in the industry is now moving away from legal concerns "and starting to go into the nice, normal business risk that every business has to tolerate."
Perhaps, but the entire industry is coming out from the shadows knowing it could all go back underground at the whim of the Department of Justice. Much of mCig's business model, and that of the legion of marijuana startups, assumes that the momentum behind marijuana legalization doesn't stall, let alone the building backlash against electronic cigarettes.
"It's always in the back of my mind, I won't lie to you, but to say that I'm worried about it and I think about it every day, I don't," said Vapolution's Lucey. "Marijuana's not going anywhere. It's been around for a long time, and whether the Justice Department says it's legal or it's not legal, people are still going to continue to use it."
In the meantime, mCig continues to experiment with new products that might sell regardless of pot laws. Up next, the company hopes to roll out the LiqCig, which will vaporize alcohol.
"We've got some things in the pipeline, so to say," Linkhorst said, without a hint of irony.