Culture

Women in Weed: How Legal Marijuana Could Be the First Billion-Dollar Industry Not Dominated by Men

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08/28/15
COVER STORY
Attorney Amanda Connor in the offices of her client, Nevada Pure. Connor and her husband have started one of the first law practices that cater to the newly legal marijuana business. Female pot entrepreneurs could make marijuana legal nationwide, help reform the criminal justice system and build gender equality into a billion-dollar industry. Isaac Brekken for Newsweek

Updated | It seems fitting that a plant called Mary Jane could smash the patriarchy. After all, only female marijuana flowers produce cannabinoids like the potent THC chemical that gets users buzzed. Pot farmers strive to keep all their crops female through flowering female clones of one plant, called the Mother. And women are moving into the pot business so quickly that they could make it the first billion-dollar industry that isn’t dominated by men.

[Related: Marijuana Is a Wonder Drug When It Comes to the Horrors of Chemo]

In Washington, Greta Carter says she’s the mom with the most mother plants and the most lucrative female flowering crops of any legal pot farm in her state. A former Citibank vice president and mother of five, Carter is just a little bit country: She has a gap-toothed smile and a shaggy platinum bob the same hue as Dolly Parton’s. Of the 2,400 people who applied for the first recreational marijuana growing facility licenses in the Evergreen State in 2012, Carter was the 71st approved. Her first weed ranch, the 45,321-square-foot farm Life Gardens near Ellensburg, is now one of the biggest and oldest legal recreational marijuana farms in the world.

08_28_Weed_01 A jar of the marijuana strain Island Sweet Skunk sits on the counter in front of a mural of journalist Hunter S. Thompson at Denver Kush Club in Denver, Colorado on January 1, 2014. The first legal sales of marijuana in the world took place in Colorado at the start of the new year. Seth McConnell/The Denver Post/Getty

Three years ago, Carter had a vital and potentially dangerous mission: find as many still-outlawed marijuana strains as possible in just 15 days. The 2012 ballot initiative that authorized the recreational sale of marijuana didn’t specify where the newly certified growers could obtain them, and there was just a 15-day window during which Carter says the government agreed to "close its eyes." To start their weed farm, Carter and her partners had to acquire plants from illegal dealers—and did they ever. They amassed about 1,600 plants of 70 or so different strains.

The hardest part was smuggling the contraband to her farm. “It was scary,” says Carter. “We had so many plants that, technically, we weren’t covered under Washington law.” She loaded her 1,600 plants into the back of a semi and didn’t look back until she reached Life Gardens. “It was such a relief when I arrived home,” she says. “Everything within those fences is protected by the state. Otherwise, the feds could have arrested me.”

Carter would know: She helped write Washington’s Initiative 502, the measure that legalized pot for anyone 21 and older, and hatched the state’s first marijuana trade organization, the Coalition for Cannabis Standards & Ethics. She says that when sales of recreational pot were proposed in 2012, the state Liquor Control Board approached the CCSE for information. “The board didn’t know the difference between butane extract and cannabinoids,” she says. “We all kind of grew together. I was able to influence some of the rules and regulations, and I’m still influencing those rules and regulations.”

[Related: Chronic Marijuana Use in Male Teens Not Linked to Later Issues]

Carter didn’t birth I-502 alone: The author of the measure was Alison Holcomb, a director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and self-described “soccer mom.” You might not expect a Venn diagram containing “soccer moms” and “weed” to have much overlap, but a decade ago, Jenji Kohan created a TV dramedy exploring that odd intersection. Weeds, which ran on Showtime for eight seasons, starred Mary-Louise Parker as a “hemptress” who dealt dope in an upper-middle-class, white suburban neighborhood. “We scream inappropriate,” Kohan told EW.com about the show. “And there are consequences for the impropriety.”

Not so much anymore. During the past few years, hundreds of women have been screaming along with Weeds—but as models of propriety in the newly regulated marijuana industry. Indeed, many female entrepreneurs are striking Acapulco Gold. Though the industry is still predominantly male and employment statistics are somewhat vaporous, the power and influence of women are, by all signs, on the upswing. In the summer of 2014, Women Grow—a professional marijuana women’s networking group—launched with just 70 people; today, the monthly chapter meetings in 30 cities attract more than 1,000 women nationwide. The two-year-old Marijuana Business Association, a Seattle-based B2B trade group, started a Women’s Alliance in 2014 that now boasts 500 members. In just two years, Women of Weed, a private social club in Washington, has seen its membership swell from eight to 300.

Drug reform activist attorney Shaleen Title runs a marijuana recruitment agency, THC Staffing, entirely owned and run by women. She says half of the employment placements her company makes are women. “I am especially seeing more women with corporate ‘mainstream’ experience looking to join the marijuana industry,” she says. “With time, there will be more women with marijuana experience.”

Just like in Washington, women in Colorado were important players in the crafting and implementation of the legalization measure amendment. Title joined the Amendment 64 campaign in the summer of 2012. “As a senior staffer, I worked with several other women on the campaign,” she says. Most notably, attorney Tamar Todd, now the director of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance; Betty Aldworth, the primary spokeswoman and now executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which supports other young women activists; and Rachelle Yeung, now an attorney with Vicente Sederberg, a marijuana-focused law firm. Title says women were chosen deliberately in order to reach women. “Betty had a particular ability to relate to the mainstream. I had previously helped with California’s Prop 19 campaign in 2010, where we had trouble securing women's votes before the initiative ultimately failed. We knew that women's votes were crucial.”

In Colorado and Washington, the key demographic in the legalization movements were 30- to 50-year-old women, according to a study by the Wales-based Global Drug Policy Observatory. “I think women can help demonstrate that it's a reasonable choice for a lot of people,” Title adds. “And it's not going to turn you into Cheech or Chong.”

08_28_Weed_03 The interior of a commercial medical and recreational marijuana grow facility in Denver. Jon Paciaroni/Getty

Most recently, Title helped draft an initiative in Massachusetts to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Another pending ballot initiative, for California in 2016, is sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project.

Marijuana legalization has been billowing through the states in the past three years faster than most people can say “Sensi Star.” “It’s one of the fastest-moving social issues I’ve ever seen,” says Nevada Representative Dina Titus, a pot advocate in Congress. To date, 40 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the drug in some form, primarily for medicinal purposes. In four of those states (Alaska, Oregon, Colorado and Washington) and D.C., recreational marijuana is allowed and anyone over 21 can purchase it. But the war on drugs is still being fought, and when it comes to ending it, “we have a long way to go before we get there,” Titus says.

[Related: D.C. Decriminalizes Marijuana, But Congress May Halt Future Legalization Efforts]

Despite its illegal federal status, the marijuana business is one of the nation’s newest and fastest-growing industries. Regulated weed (medical and recreational) made $2.7 billion in nationwide revenue in 2014 alone, up from $1.5 billion in 2013 (medical only, the first recreational shops weren’t open in Washington and Colorado until January 2014). By 2019, the pot sold in all states and districts with legalization is projected to reach nearly $11 billion yearly, according to estimates by ArcView Market Research, an Oakland, California-based pot-focused investor network and market research company.

As pot legalization spreads, women are taking over more roles in the industry. There are female cannabis doctors, nurses, lawyers, chemists, chefs, marketers, investors, accountants and professors. The marijuana trade offers women a shortcut to get ahead in many avenues, and women in turn are helping to organize it as a viable business. Mary Lynn Mathre founded and is president of the American Cannabis Nurses Association (ACNA), a national organization with 315 members — 271 of whom are women. ACNA board member and director Eloise Theisen in Lafayette, California, created her own medical cannabis treatment clinic, Green Health Consultants. Emily Paxhia analyzes the cannabis financial marketplaces as a founding partner at the marijuana investment firm Poseidon Asset Management. Meghan Larson created Adistry, the first digital video advertising platform for marijuana. Olivia Mannix and Jennifer DeFalco founded Cannabrand, a Colorado-based pot marketing company. In Berkeley, California, three female lawyers—Shabnam Malek, Amanda Conley and Lara Leslie DeCaro—started the National Cannabis Bar Association, and Conley and Malek also started Synchronicity Sisters, which hosts Bay Area “Tupperware parties” to sample pot products made by women for women.

Among the most successful pot pioneers are the women who spot a void in the marketplace and fill it. In Washington, Carter’s latest marijuana brainchild is a co-op, along the lines of the autonomous associations that unite the state’s apple and produce farms. Within the marijuana community, it’s believed that the federal government will legalize marijuana soon, and Carter plans to open cultivation and processing centers in Nevada, Alaska and Florida.

Maureen McNamara is starting a statewide certification program in Denver for people in the pot business. Many marijuana edible chefs take her Food Safety classes and her Sell Smart program is popular among marijuana retailers. She has been working directly with Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division, and her curriculum has been approved to become the first certified responsible vendor program, much like those in the bar and alcohol business.

Cannabis science seems to be where women are making the most progress the fastest. Genifer Murray, a scientist who runs a Colorado cannabis testing facility called CannLabs, says she employs mostly women with advanced science degrees. “In a typical science, like environmental or medical, it would take them 20 to 30 years to become something,” she says. “We’re in the infancy. My scientists are going to be cannabis experts—some already are.”

Murray insists that women are better suited for the cannabis industry and will keep flocking to it. “This is a compassionate industry, for the most part, especially if you're dealing with the medical side. The medical patients need time and consideration, and women are usually the better gender for that. T he industry is flat-out geared for women.”

08_28_Weed_02 Attorney Amanda Connor in the offices of her client, Nevada Pure. Connor and her husband have started one of the first law practices that cater to the newly legal marijuana business. Female pot entrepreneurs could make marijuana legal nationwide, help reform the criminal justice system and build gender equality into a billion-dollar industry. Isaac Brekken for Newsweek

Amanda Connor is an attorney who, along with her husband, launched a Nevada-based practice that focuses on weed business law. Though particularly adept at navigating the murky waters of the regulated marijuana industry, Connor calls the weed industry a “legal minefield,” because anyone who gets into the trade is a criminal in the eyes of the feds.

A former kindergarten teacher, Connor is a mother of two who lives on the grounds of a country club in the Vegas burbs. At the elementary school her children attend, some parents won’t let their kids hang out with hers. “The mothers and fathers don’t approve of my work. You’ve got to be willing to have taboo associated with you. Not that I feel like I’m committing any crime at all.”

Pot is currently classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a Schedule I drug, which, according to the agency’s website, is “the most dangerous of all drug schedules,” with a "high potential for abuse” and "no currently accepted medical use." Marijuana shares that classification with heroin, bath salts and what CNN has called the “ flesh-eating Zombie drug,” Krokodil. Crystal methamphetamine and cocaine are Schedule II drugs—which means the feds consider meth safer than marijuana.

[Related: Legalizing Marijuana Doesn’t Lead Teens to Smoke More]

“On account of its federal status, most big law firms don’t want to touch weed,” Connor explains. “Ethically, lawyers aren’t supposed to give advice about illegal activities. Major firms are afraid to lose clients.” Her boutique firm may be the only one in the country that takes marijuana providers through the entire byzantine process, from licensing to opening a shop.

08_28_Weed_05 Attorney Amanda Connor talks with her client Kathy Gillespie, CEO of Nevada Pure, a medical marijuana dispensary set to open later this year, August 13, in Las Vegas. Isaac Brekken for Newsweek

Another renegade is Boulder, Colorado-based marijuana tax law attorney Rachel Gillette. She recently sued the IRS—and won—on behalf of a client who was denied an abatement of a 10 percent penalty for paying his taxes in cash. But cash was the only option: Because of federal law, marijuana enterprises deal only in cash, as banks shun them. “It’s a difficult situation for many marijuana businesses, with regard to banking,” says Gillette. “Most banks do not take marijuana business accounts, even in states where it is legal. They can't afford the compliance cost. It’s too risky.” So far, Gillette has been the only marijuana attorney to beat the IRS on this issue.

Women face more problems than just snoops from the DEA or IRS—they also have to worry about Child Protective Services. Fortunately, there are women working in cannabis-specific roles to fix that too. “There's an incredible amount of misogyny in both the political movement and the industry,” says Sara Arnold, co-founder of Family Law & Cannabis Alliance, which helps mothers who have had their children taken away by CPS due to an association with medical marijuana.

Arnold became involved with the issue when she was investigated by CPS for her medical marijuana use. “At the time, no one else was talking about CPS, custody battles or anything regarding cannabis and parental rights,” she says. “So I started talking and writing about it, and then helping people on my own.... I consider this my life's work.”

The scariest moment of Dale Sky Jones’s career was when she thought she’d have her kids taken away. Sky Jones, a longtime-marijuana activist and founder of the California medical marijuana training school Oaksterdam University, was pregnant with her second child and watching after her first kid ( 2½ at the time) when she was asked to participate in a press conference on pot. She took her toddler with her to the conference (there wasn’t any marijuana there, only a room full of reporters) to discuss legalization in Mexico.

Later, one of the reporters, columnist Debra Saunders, called her and told Sky Jones the subject of her article was the fact that she had brought her son to a pot press conference. “I started to cry because I knew what she could do,” Sky Jones says. “I could get my kids taken for bringing one of them to a cannabis conference. She put a target on my back and on my kids’ foreheads. [But] nothing ever happened. Thank God.”

The standard-bearing men in the weed industry have taken notice of all the new women. “It’s common to find women running businesses throughout the industry and holding key positions in dispensaries, retail stores, cultivation operations, infused products companies and ancillary firms,” says Chris Walsh, founding editor of Marijuana Business Daily, a marijuana news source and host of a national industry conference . “When planning our Marijuana Business Conference & Expo these days, we have a wealth of women leaders to choose from.” ArcView CEO Troy Dayton says he’s seen a flood of women in the marijuana industry over the past year, and adds that it ’s also “become very unfashionable very quickly to have scantily clad women repping products at B2B trade shows.”

But women’s presence in the pot industry does more than just close the gender gap—their participation is necessary to legitimize marijuana as a business. “The mom in her 40s is the one with the power to push marijuana into the mainstream once and for all,” says Title, the drug reform attorney.

08_28_Weed_04 Harborside Health Center is one of the most influential cannabis club in California. Exact numbers are difficult to check due to legal matters, but the dispensary pays over $100,000 in taxes every month. Owner Stephen DeAngelo is a legendary activist, one of the original members of the first public pot smokeout in front of the White house in the 70's. He uses Harborside as a tool to raise money and awareness for marijuana issues. Domenico Pugliese/Eyevine

During the Clutch Plague, a New York society dame named Pauline Sabin played a key role in overturning Prohibition. She had been part of the national temperance movement, composed mostly of women, who believed that drinking liquor was destructive and that banning it would solve America’s social ills. But after the 18th Amendment was ratified, in 1919, Sabin became distressed by the hypocrisy of politicians, the ineffectiveness of the law and the growing power of bootleggers and gangsters. In 1929, she founded the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform. She testified before Congress, lobbied both political parties and built support for the amendment’s repeal. By 1932, the WONPR had 1.5 million members. Sabin was so formidable that Time magazine ran her picture on its cover. Drinking suddenly had a new face—and it belonged to an exceedingly proper lady.

Today, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws annually bestows its Pauline Sabin Award on a female activist “in recognition of the importance of women in leadership positions in organizations dedicated to ending marijuana prohibition.” This year’s award recipient was Ellen Komp, deputy director of NORML California. Komp says she received the award for her longevity: She’s been speaking out about marijuana reform for 22 years—or, as she puts it, “since the days when I was often one of the only women in the room.”

[Related: Tech Startups Bring Science to Marijuana Dispensaries]

But the woman who appears to have united the most women in the marijuana industry this year is Jane West, the founder of Women Grow. West, by her own admission, is “one part Martha Stewart and one part Walter White.” In 2014, she was fired from her corporate job in Denver after vaping on camera in a local news interview. A clip of the segment played on national TV. Afterward, she launched her own marijuana event-planning company, Edible Events. “When I first entered the industry, I joined all the women's groups,” she says. “I tried and waited for four months in Denver, but there wasn't a single meeting. Weed had just become legal, and all of the women in the Women’s CannaBusiness Network told me they were now too busy with their businesses to hold meetings. That's when I decided to start Women Grow.”

Soon after, she was joined by Jazmin Hupp, whom she met at a National Cannabis Industry Association conference. Hupp had previously started a group for female founders in tech called Women 2.0, the group West modeled Women Grow on.

This past February, West’s newsletter featured an open invitation to accompany her to Washington, D.C., and help lobby Congress for cannabis legalization. She didn’t expect anyone to show, but 78 women—all wearing red scarves to show solidarity—came from 14 different states for the three-day event. Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Representative Jared Polis of Colorado spoke at the news conference Women Grow hosted at the National Press Club.

08_28_Weed_06 Jill Alikas St. Thomas, founder of the Mad Hatter Coffee and Tea Company, which produces marijuana edibles, shows her wares at the Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition at the Javits Center in New York, June 18. With New York about to become one of the states to allow legal marijuana, about 2,000 attendees came to a cannabis business exposition to network and to check out new products. Sam Hodgson/The New York Times/Redux

This month, Representatives Titus and Eleanor Holmes Norton, of the District of Columbia, spoke at Women Grow events. Norton believes groups like Women Grow and the women in the legal pot business increase the chances of federal legalization. She says she’s noticed that the female potrepreneur population is “growing faster than” the marijuana legalization movement itself. She’s equally impressed by the number of women who have entered the D.C. cannabis industry “so early on.” (D.C. legalized recreational marijuana only a few months ago.) “How in the world are there so many women entrepreneurs in this very new commercial field?” she asks. “Women aren’t even seen as particularly entrepreneurial.” She was even more excited about how these women “pioneers” were changing the public perception of the pot business.

For Norton, legalizing marijuana is more than just creating a booming business with gender equity in her district. It’s also about ending the war on drugs and reforming a racially biased criminal justice system. “A concern in the District of Columbia was the disparity in who gets arrested. We think we’ve licked that with the legalization that we have been able to do.”

More than $51 million is still spent annually by the U.S. on the war on drugs. Five years ago, police in the U.S. made a pot-related arrest every 37 seconds. According to the ACLU, 7 million citizens were busted for weed in this country between 2001 and 2010. Studies have shown that although marijuana usage rates among blacks and whites are roughly equal, blacks are almost four times more likely to be booked. But Norton says that her colleagues’ reports show that since D.C. legalized marijuana, the illegal market has pretty much dried up. “Even teenagers smoke less than they did before legalization,” she says. “So what’s to be against here?”

Marijuana legalization and the recent efforts to reform the DEA have become bipartisan issues. For Democratic pot advocates, it’s “tied to criminal justice reform,” says Titus. “For the Republicans, it’s more tied to issues of states’ rights.”

Recently, Congress passed three legislative amendments to prevent the DEA and the Department of Justice from undermining state marijuana laws. Some $23 million was trimmed from the DEA’s budget, which is shifting its attention to child abuse, rape kits, the national deficit and internal police corruption cases.

Titus is skeptical, though: “It’s an ideological as well as a pragmatic problem. I don’t know if any of these budgets or appropriations are going to really move forward.”

She says Women Grow is inspiring her to bring together other women in Congress to push for legalization and drug reform laws. She’s teamed with Representative Barbara Lee of California, the only other woman who’s advocated for weed in Congress. Will they start their own Women Grow in Congress? “I think that’s a possibility, and that’s what we should be working on,” Titus says. “I have traveled with Barbara in California, and I think she’s amenable to that. So I guess we need to get Eleanor on board too.”

08_28_Weed_07 A man identifying himself as Canna Santa, the jolly green counterpart to Santa Claus, shops for cannabis in the recreational marijuana section at Cannabis City in Seattle, Washington. Cannabis City opened in July 2014 as the state's first licensed store for recreational marijuana use. Didier Ruef/LUZ/Redux

Earlier this summer, I visited Gecko Farms in that other Washington. Gecko Farms is a charter member of Greta Carter’s co-op. The first thing I noticed was the ladybugs crawling all over the pot leaves, their bright red shells conspicuously juxtaposed against the greenery. “Ladybugs eat mites off marijuana plants,” Carter explains.

Buzzing and crawling, the cute insects instantly changed my perception of the grow house from an illicit drug den to a charming indoor or outdoor garden. Slowly, the ladybugs speckled my arms and legs with a Lily Pulitzer-like pattern.

And just like the ladybugs in the grow house, women in the brave new legal world of marijuana are doing important work while helping to alter perceptions of this Schedule I drug.

Within the immense covered garden, horticulturists misted the leaves by hand. Nearby, in Gecko’s drying rooms, counterculturalists got dressed in what looked like hazmat suits. Contamination is a big concern, Carter explains, and s tate inspection is stringent. “It’s funny how scared people are of a plant,” she says.

 

This story has been updated to reflect that Maureen McNamara's Responsible Vendor curriculum has been approved to be the first certified Sell-SMaRT program by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division. This article has also been updated to with several clarifications. We have added new membership statistics broken down by gender from the American Cannabis Nurses Association. 

Corrections: A previous version of this story misspelled Troy Dayton's name. This article originally incorrectly stated that Eloise Theisen started the American Cannabis Nurses Association. Mary Lynn Mathre started the American Cannabis Nurses Association. Eloise Theisen is on the board of American Cannabis Nurses Association and started her own practice Green Health Consultants. This article originally incorrectly stated that Jane West was fired from her job in Denver in 2012 the night Amendment 64 passed. Jane West was fired from her job in January 2014.​ Adistry is the first digital video advertising platform for marijuana, not the first digital advertising platform for marijuana. A previous version of this article said that half of the employees of THC Staffing were women. The company is in fact wholly owned and run by women. Half of the employment placements the agency makes are women.

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