Marijuana prohibition in the US is quickly losing ground, with 13 states having passed decriminalization laws since 1973 and at least 20 states poised to vote on similar measures in 2016. As cannabis inches towards broader legalization, it has created the country’s fastest-growing industry––and women are investing early. While people have been using and consuming the plant for ages, its ‘official’ market is growing almost from scratch, allowing female entrepreneurs to carve out a space for themselves in it from the beginning.
More women hold executive positions in the cannabis industry than in any other
The cannabis industry, like many others, is stereotypically thought of as largely male-dominated, but today women hold more executive positions in it than in any other field. Melissa Meyer, head of the New York chapter of women cannabis entrepreneurs networking group Women Grow said women’s participation has grown due to women supporting and educating each other through groups like these, and women from other fields being drawn in by the flexibility of the burgeoning industry.
“Many industries that attract really smart women, like tech, media, and finance are largely male-dominated,” she said. “Some very talented women aren’t satisfied there, and are bleeding from those industries and taking the opportunity to start a culture from scratch. In the cannabis industry, we are able to set our own agenda, so even though it is still male dominated in terms of numbers, we are creating a space where the cultural agenda is being set by women.”
Decriminalization of marijuana has resulted in an emerging industry
Meyer is the founder of HealthMJ, a resource that helps patients to learn more about the benefits of medical marijuana. She founded the company after two close friends died of cancer and she saw that drug prohibition had created a dearth of accurate health information about cannabis use. HealthMJ is an example of what is called an ancillary business––one that serves the main cannabis industry in some way, but does not actually distribute cannabis products. Such ventures can include informational services like Meyer’s, as well as software and hardware, like vaporizers for consumption. In places like New York, where medical marijuana is legal but dispensaries are few and far between due to heavy regulation and a costly licensing process, ancillary businesses are more common than in Colorado, where recreational marijuana is legal and dispensaries are plentiful.
Meyer said Women Grow’s national membership is split between women owners of ancillary businesses, growers, distributors, and average consumers and advocates who just want to learn more about the business. Its 34 national chapters hold meetings, workshops, and networking events for all of these constituents, and the organization is growing rapidly, recently becoming the largest networking group in the industry. According to Meyer, only eight people attended the first meeting for Women Grow in October 2014. Now, there are 15,000 people on its mailing list, and more than 90 attended the most recent networking event in New York City last week.
Racial diversity a key focus for entrepreneurs
Last week’s event was held in the headquarters of Marley Natural, the official Bob Marley cannabis product line, and focused on the importance of diversity in the cannabis industry. Much of the panel focused on how to increase racial diversity alongside gender equity in the industry as it grows. The drug war and marijuana prohibition disproportionately affected minorities and poor Americans, leaving many with criminal records that now render them unable to fully participate in the industry as major companies swoop in on legal marijuana profits. Speaking on the panel, Heritage Link Brands co-founder Selena Cuffe said entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry should work to extend ownership to people hit the hardest by these laws.
“Now that [cannabis] is legal, how do people of color—who have been oppressed by the laws that were made—how do you bring them into the industry? Not just as employees but as owners who also get a piece of the pie,” Cuffe asked. “Now that we are at the beginning of that process, the biggest challenge is figuring out a way to bring people that were most affected by these laws in.”
Cuffe got her start in the adult beverage industry, co-founding the largest importer of black-produced wine from South Africa. She created the company after seeing that less than 2 percent of vineyards in the country’s $3-billion wine industry were owned by black vintners. As one of the few vineyard-owning women of color in the US today, she said she is now seeing similar issues in the cannabis trade, though she feels race plays a larger role than gender in the industry due to the history of racial discrimination tied to drug use and prohibition.
“I have never felt that being a woman didn’t allow me to have a seat at the table as much as I did being a person of color,” she said.
Whoopi Goldberg’s Weed Startup Is a New, Potent Way to Fight Period Cramps
Why diversity in the cannabis industry matters
Kassandra Frederique, New York director of policy for reform advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, said that, because of this, all women should be lifted up as the industry grows.
“I think the marijuana industry has the reputation of being male-centric, but I think it’s rapidly changing,” she said. “Making sure women have the capital to enter the industry is something that is really important, and specifically making sure that when we talk about gender parity that women of color are also a part of that.”
Beyond race and gender, many are finding the cannabis industry is also one of the most inclusive in terms of age. Jyl Ferris, who bakes and sells her own edibles, said as a graphic designer she has faced age-based discrimination when searching for jobs that require coding. This industry is far more welcoming, which she attributes to baby boomers’ role in popularizing recreational marijuana use in the 1960s and ’70s.
“I do think this industry has given me, as a baby boomer and as a woman, the fairest chance at starting a business of anything in the whole entire country,” she said.
In addition to glass ceilings to be broken, there are still prohibitive laws and red tape standing between women and industry success. In New York, for example, licenses are costly and time-consuming to obtain, with only eight awarded this year after millions of dollars were spent to open their doors.
While many activists believe the legalization of marijuana has reached a tipping point, there is still a long way to go before a federal stamp of approval allows start-ups to fully enter the market. But if Women Grow accomplishes what it has set out to do, female entrepreneurs will have an arsenal of tools at their fingertips to succeed when that day comes.