By Alexa Peters
For thousands of years, women have been mavens of plant-based medicine, using cannabis to treat everything from menstrual cramps to polycystic ovary syndrome. Still, when it comes to the industry of cannabis, it has long been dominated by men—particularly white men.
For instance, in a 2019report from Vangst, which surveyed 166 cannabis businesses across 17 states—38.5 percent of employees identified as women, but only 17.6 percent of these women held leadership roles like “Executive” or “Director.”
What’s more, according to a Marijuana Business Daily survey of 389 cannabis businesses in the U.S., only 19% of respondents who had launched a cannabis business and/or had an ownership stake in a cannabis company were racial minorities.
The reasons for the lack of diversity in the cannabis industry are complex, and inevitably tied to broader systems of power that perpetuates sexism and racism. When those systems intersect with the cannabis space, it spells a long history of white men having better social and economic access to cannabis.
After all, as far back as the American colonies, the cultivation and distribution of hemp was controlled by entirely by white colonist men, and that precedent continued throughout the long history of cannabis prohibition, according to Vice. Culturally, too, marijuana has been made a pillar of hyper-masculine groups like the jazz musicians, hippies, rappers, skaters, and now the corporate leaders that have dominated the industry.
There’s very little women’s representation in cannabis’ past and present, so it’s no wonder that many women continue to feel excluded from and intimidated by the legal cannabis industry. That said, as cannabis legalization has gained more steam over the last decade, some womenhave emerged as leaders and vital role models to the next wave of canna-curious women.
With authenticity, grit and purpose, these 7 women have forged their own paths in the space and are creating a more inclusive cannabis industry in the process.
For about a decade, Massachusetts-based lawyer Shanel Lindsay made edibles to treat painful ovarian cysts. In that time, she encountered every edibles-making challenge in the book—in particular the difficulties of decarboxylation, the delicate-but-necessary process of heating cannabis to activate the psychoactive THC content.
“I knew how frustrating [it could be], from the fact that it smells and it's hard to do right, and there's literally no way to look at [heated cannabis] and see whether decarboxylation has been done right,” said Lindsay.
Inspired to improve access to quality homemade edibles and the tools necessary to make them, Lindsay formed Ardent Life, Inc. in 2015. Ardent’s flagship product is the Nova Precision Decarboxylation device.
“Before it was like, I'll water boil a crock pot, or the oven—that was the only way [to achieve decarboxylation.] We are the first device that actually honed in and went to decarboxylate in a particular machine that is controlled in order to meet the time and the temperature parameters necessary to do it right every time,” said Lindsay.
This home decarboxlyator has totally changed the making-edibles-at-home game and made consistent, accurate cannabis dosing a reality for many medical cannabis patients. And, in just a handful of years, Ardent has become a company worth millions.
For her part, Lindsay hopes her device can make the space less intimidating for the many women who’ve otherwise felt excluded by cannabis culture, so they can reap the plant’s benefits for issues like menstrual cramps, cysts, and more. After all, her success stems largely from embracing her experience as a woman.
“I think there are so many women who have never even considered cannabis as an option and could be benefiting from it, and there are many stories out there of women who have stopped taking everything from opiates to other types of medicine [because of cannabis,]” she said.
“I think that stoner women, if you want to call them that, women who are in traditional cannabis culture, are so under-served in this community. I'm almost 40 right now and I've never really felt like there were more than one or two brands at any given time that have spoken to me as a consumer.”
Best friends Gina Dubbé, a serial entrepreneur, and Dr. Leslie Apagar, an OBGYN, also saw benefit in being women when they opened their Maryland-based dispensary Greenhouse Wellness in 2017.
“When we entered this market, there was just nothing that was attractive to women. It was embarrassing. There was “Pootytang” and “G-spot,” there were just a lot of strains so obviously directed at men,” said Apgar.
“We really found that there needed to be a better way. If she and I find something attractive, or she and I like the idea of something, chances are a lot of other women will feel the same. So, when we are true to ourselves and when we represent ourselves authentically, everything we do seems to work out well.”
Hence, the pair designed a sleek dispensary that left room for their kind of feminine—like Dubbé’s personal favorite, fresh flowers—while bringing medical value by providing solid, supported information about cannabis in an approachable way to all their customers, including women.
Eventually, they even created their own line of women-focused cannabis-infused products calledBlissiva. Still, they say their approach has been met with many raised eyebrows.
“Honestly being a female in business is always harder. As a society, we don't assume that women are in charge. If you meet a woman in the airline industry you assume she's a flight attendant, you don't assume she's a pilot. Why is that the case?” said Apgar.
Still, Apgar and Dubbé believe so much in their unique perspective as women in the industry they wrote a book about it called High Heals.
“It's a gift for us to be women in this industry because we bring a totally fresh perspective and women are the ones who initiate healthcare for their entire families, for themselves and their families,” said Apgar.
“So, it's really important that we are here and we are very vociferous in sharing what we think the market needs, and what we need to provide to the market. And it's been very well received.”
3) Mary Pryor — Co-Founder of Cannaclusive, Chief Marketing officer for TONIC CBD
(Photo credit: ericalovejones)
In 2013, Mary Pryor discovered she had Crohn’s disease, and the autoimmune disorder completely “ravaged” her life. Then she found cannabis.
Cannabis worked so well to address her suffering, Pryor was inspired to learn more about cannabis as medicine and transition into the industry. But, as she got acquainted with the space, she was appalled at its racial and gender inequities.
“I made a transition out to LA to kind of like get into the industry and then I realized that it was super racist, and not really as open as people think. And I ended up kind of having to create my own space with a few others,” she said. “It's mostly white males. Whenever we got to an event, you always feel like one of the few for sure.”
In response, Pryor got together with friends Tonya Rapley and Charlese Antoinette and formed Cannaclusive in 2017, a collective focused on elevating minority voices in the industry and facilitating their fair representation. The collective addresses this issue in particular by providing more diverse stock photography through theirFlicker photo series, and by offering educational events and cannabis career consultation for women and people of color.
“We wanted to find a way to promote positive imagery of people using cannabis. [People who use cannabis] are often criminalized for it, and we wanted to do our best to find a way to do events to make people feel more comfortable. Cannabis events can be very one-way, super, super white, and not really diverse at all. Eventually we found ourselves being educators and people who bring awareness to what's really happening in the space,” she said.
Along with educating and consulting on diversity, Pryor and Cannaclusive are loud advocates for more progressive cannabis legislation.
As Pryor told the blog MJLifestyle, “Progressive cannabis legislation looks like a law that supports community reinvestment—programs, incubators, and job training to work within the cannabis industry. Not everyone needs to be a grower or dispensary owner, but there are a lot of jobs created by legalization, including ancillary businesses. Progressive cannabis legislation looks like releasing non-violent drug offenders for cannabis. You can’t have large amounts of black and brown bodies behind bars, while cannabis businesses turn a profit.”
A veteran of the San Francisco mobile app boom, entrepreneur Kimberly Dillon had an inkling early on that cannabis would be the next big thing for health and wellness. In 2016, she joined the team at Papa & Barkley, and became one of the first marketers to craft the conversation around CBD, THC and wellness.
“In 2016, a lot of the yoga studios and gyms wouldn't necessarily allow cannabis but I could talk about hemp. So, I would say things like ‘it's a CBD rich balm,’ [and talk about how] mainly CBD as a topical and [as] non-psychoactive. With the passing of the Farm Bill, CBD exploded and this whole vision of wellness became ubiquitous,” said Dillon.
Once the CBD space exploded, Dillon left Papa & Barkley to form her own business—Plant & Prosper—in June 2019. Plant & Prosper is a California-based consulting collective of executives and experts that provides marketing coaching and assistance to start-ups in the burgeoning hemp/CBD market.
“My motivation when I got into the space was to de-stigmatize cannabis and also how to promote a wellness version of the plant. And that vision has mainly come true, so now my vision is twofold - how can [the industry] be more inclusive, and [more innovative.]”
One way she is being more inclusive, is by bringing mental health into the cannabis wellness conversation. In fact, Dillon is also working on adaptogenic haircare line using cannabinoids—one of the first of its kind. “It uses different cannabinoids and adaptogens to address hair loss due to stress,” she said.
As for issues of women’s representation in the industry, Dillon says she feels even more aware of sexism in the cannabis industry then she did outside of it, and that its especially hard for women in a new industry with so few official mechanisms in place to protect them.
“There was an incident that happened with a colleague of mine who was a CEO of a pretty well-performing cannabis brand here in California and she had a pretty offensive thing happen to her and she was like, 'who can I talk to who has power to help me navigate this situation?' And that was fascinating, because who has power that can help you navigate that and it was a very short list of people, right?” said Dillon.
Because of this, Dillon says women have to work the back-channels and suggests they align themselves with both the growing community women in cannabis as well as male allies with power.
“Sometimes you need access to money and power and often times the people with money and power are not yet women,” said Dillon. “I also feel like there's a lot of conscientious men in this space so it's about making sure you're mentoring up. I find that women sometimes mentor across at the same level.”
After cannabis helped Elana Frankel recover from a traumatic brain injury in 2015, she decided to form created two cannabis businesses, united in the mission to create more access, education and inspiration in the cannabis space.
First, Frankel formedIndigo and Haze, a highly-curated marketplace for women to learn about and sell their own cannabis products, which she modeled off of the underground “cannabis Tupperware parties” she used to host.
“[They were like] Tupperware parties for women, except [with] CBD. I would go to women's houses all over the country, they would invite ten friends, we'd sit around and we'd talk about cannabis. We'd talk about the stigma, the power of it, the therapeutics of it, the fun of it, and everything that sort of was going on in the world of cannabis,” said Frankel.
“Lots of women didn't know about it, lots of women were curious about it, some women had already heard about it but didn't know what it was, so we spent a lot of time educating women, talking to women, and eventually I started bringing samples with me to these events.”
Indigo and Haze, an e-commerce site, helps create better access for cannabis-interested women—but Frankel also wanted to create a resource for education and inspiration.
So, Frankel, previously a content producer for Conde Nast, New York Times, and Hearst, formedWomen & Weedmagazine. In March 2020, she also published a book,“Women and Weed.”
“I approached a publisher to create Women & Weed magazine to fulfill that sort of need, so it not only provided really good, truthful, authentic, reliable information for women, written by journalists, because it also gave women jobs,” said Frankel.
In the end, Frankel says women’ in weed is a very complex issue—influenced by many political, social, cultural, economic, one can’t control, as well as the fact that cannabis is so quickly evolving. Her secret to success as a woman in the field has been similar to other women in this list—trusting your intuition.
“You need to go with your intuition, and it's really important because there are so many voices in this industry, especially CBD, so many voices, so many people, everybody's doing the this, everybody's doing that,” she said. “
You really have to quiet the noise, go deep inside your own intuition and trust in that. That's what I've done.”
Shaleen Title has long been a vital part of the cannabis advocacy efforts in the United States and has worked toward the goal of fair regulation in cannabis from the perspective of activist, lawyer, entrepreneur, and now, government regulator.
“After several years as an activist pushing for legal cannabis for medical patients and for adults over 21, I got to work on the campaign to legalize marijuana in Colorado in 2012. I also worked on the campaign to legalize marijuana in 2010 in California,” said Title. “I practiced law after that with a focus on small businesses, and seeing how hard it was for them made me advocate for policies to support small and local and minority-owned businesses. In the meantime, I started a recruiting firm emphasizing diversity in cannabis.”
In the more than a decade Title has been in the industry, she’s accomplished much—but her newest position is her most influential yet. In September 2017, she became the Commissioner at the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission, which is dedicated to safely and effectively implementing the laws for access to medical and adult use marijuana in the state.
“I would guess my prominence is related to honesty – people trust me to call it like I honestly see it. That credibility has always been very valuable to me, more than money or any particular career path, and I work to keep earning it,” said Title.
Title says the best thing about being a woman in cannabis is the sisterhood, and the worst thing is that the initial gains women made in cannabis’s early years are being stamped out by corporate greed and all that comes with it.
“The worst thing is that we are starting to lose the initial gains we made in the early years, when it was easier to become a leader based on skill because we didn’t have an entrenched status quo, because the industry has now been infiltrated by greed, and it has brought traditional power structures, racism, and sexism along with it as who controls capital has become more important than skill,” said Title.
Bearing this in mind, Title recommends women who’d like to get into cannabis lawmaking or lobbying educate themselves on cannabis issues, acquaint themselves with their elected officials, and try not to be intimidated by all the men in suits.
“Even though in my experience there are many more male lobbyists, women are likely to have the skills that you need to be effective at citizen lobbying, just because of all the relationships and work we already have to balance,” said Title. “Know your stuff (and you probably know more than you think), know what you want, ask for it, be persistent and follow up, and don’t be annoying or rude. Basically, don’t think that you are not worthy of influencing the laws and regulations that affect you. You are just as smart as the people creating them.”
Ophelia Chong has long been an advocate for Asian American women in the cannabis industry first as the founder of Stock Pot Images, the first stock photo agency specialized exclusively in cannabis-related imagery, and next as co-founder of the Asian American for Cannabis Education.
Chong formed Stock Pot Images in 2015 after noticing overt racism while working for Getty Images.
“I went to Getty and I typed in the stereotypical words people use: 'stoner,' 'weed,' 'pot.' And the images that came up were African American men, and the key words for these images were 'criminal,' 'addict,' 'drug dealer,' 'illegal.' And then if you clicked on a white guy it was 'cannabis user,' 'recreational,’” said Chong. “I was appalled because Getty is a billion-dollar company that had overt racism in their key-wording.”
Shortly thereafter, Chong doubled down on her inclusion efforts by founding Asian Americans for Cannabis Education, an advocacy group designed to connect and empower Asian communities in cannabis, and to educate the public on cannabis issues affecting Asians all over the world. Through social media, education, events, and networking opportunities, AACE offers members the chance to connect and learn about where cannabis and Asiana heritage intersect.
As Chong emphasizes, Asian Americans face unique issues relating to cannabis use and acceptance because of historical and cultural differences, as well as social stigma. But she also notes that Asians are natural members of the cannabis community because they have practiced plant-based medicine for millennia.
“It is almost as though I'm reliving my own Chinese ancestral history of using the plants that they had discovered, not that they were the first to discover but they wrote a lot about it,” said Chong. “And realizing that I'm following the path of my grandfather who was an herbal doctor. Looking back in my ancestry I have a long connection to plant medicine.”
Chong is taking that ancestral connection even further with her new company, Mogu.Care, which ventures into the world of psilocybin mushrooms as an ancillary company that provides access to a supply chain for this medicine.
“I have found that people, Asian Americans, are as much into cannabis as they are psilocybin. It is not just cannabis, THC, CBD, THC-A—all that. There's also other plant medicine too. Asians have a history of 2000 years of mushroom growing and mushroom medicine,” she said.
Chong’s advice to women looking to enter the cannabis (and now psychedelic mushroom) industry is to be proud of and work with what you got, just like she did.
“I’m female, I'm short, and I'm Asian. That's content. I can just be female and in cannabis, that's still good, but I also had the extra kick! Asians in cannabis, don't see many of those! Which is still true. I really used that,” said Chong. “For women going into business, I would really look at what is it about you that's different.”
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