Since the beginning of time, women have been at the forefront of cannabis: Egyptian women used cannabis-infused suppositories to ease childbirth and uterine pain, Persian women treated migraines in the ninth century, Margaret Mead told the US Senate it should be legal, and Maya Angelou extolled the virtues of the plant.
Today, women are making music with cannabis plants, curating interactive canna-friendly art experiences, educating and advocating for responsible use as a parent, and creating professional resources for women entrepreneurs. As more states and countries legalize cannabis, women are finding new ways to innovate and collaborate. While this should seem exciting, the sad truth is that the percentage of women business ownership in the cannabis space is steadily declining.
Wanda James, the first black woman to legally own a dispensary and CEO of Simply Pure, says that in the beginning of legalization men were dominating the conversations, since they were the were the preeminent players in cannabis.
“It was obvious men were leading the charge until women started raising their voices and demanded a seat at the table," James told Civilized. "We were seeing men with access to capital, while many of us did not have the means or business relationships. Men were not taking women business owners seriously and did not see them as their peers, nor as their competitors."
A number of women business owners went bankrupt or suffered huge debts, she continued. In 2017, it was reported that women represent 26 percent of business executives in the cannabis industry — a huge reduction from 36 percent in 2016. Despite this decline, James says that as visibility increases, so will opportunities for transition into this industry.
“We want to see more women senior leadership and women owners. We want to see more women filling these board rooms and conference meetings. We are still at the early stages of this industry with more miles to go. Trust me they are coming.”
To keep the number of female business owners from declining even further, people like Amy Margolis are generating ways to secure funding for women. Through The Initiative, Margolis offers a business bootcamp, an accelerator program, and funding resources for female-owned cannabis businesses. The Initiative allows for women to have equal footing by opening doors typically reserved for men.
Lisa Snyder, CEO and founder of Tokeativity, a world-wide social media network and conduit for connection, aims to correct the imbalance created by the War on Drugs. Founded with partner Samantha Montanaro, Tokeativity educates its audience and offers a safe space for women to learn and connect. In addition to online and “real-life” networking events, Tokeativity provides many educational resources to ensure that women get a seat at the table and have opportunities to assume leadership roles in cannabis.
Because men generally earn more money than women, they have greater decision making power and can act more quickly on opportunities as they arise, Snyder points out. "We need to be educating more women on how to build wealth in order to have more decision-making power in the cannabis industry," she tells Civilized. "It will continue to be and feel imbalanced until women understand their worth. We believe this starts with education and building confidence at the root level.”
However, as there more resources for female entrepreneurs come onboard, so too do more male-dominated businesses with big money. As public perception changes, these male-owned businesses are noticing the profitability in targeting women with their products. Because more women are consuming cannabis than ever before, big businesses are making a lot of money by tailoring their products and branding to them.
Newcomers with no cannabis experience and a lot of money who are looking to cash in on the green rush will always present a challenge, especially in an industry with such personal connections. Many women cannabis entrepreneurs came to this space because they were looking for a better option for their health, or for their child’s. Having control over your own wellness is the most feminist element of cannabis.
“The history of cannabis has laid the groundwork for women to take control of their bodies using the power of the plant," says Snyder. "Taking control of your body and your right to access medicine is inherently feminist.”
Cannabis offers a unique opportunity for women to take control of their own wellness, their financial well-being, and the care of their children or loved ones, all at the same time. Since women more often assume caretaking roles, they are also vested with making most healthcare decisions for their families. Hence, many women entrepreneurs in this space entered because they were using cannabis to treat a child or family member.
One of those women is Trista Okel, who started high-quality, plant-based topical company Empower Bodycare after trying to find a safe way to manage chronic pain for her mother. Okel made an acronym for Empower (End Marijuana Prohibition Organize Women Enact Reform) and says that history shows women are uniquely prepared to conquer this industry.
Okel says that one has only to look at the relationship between women suffragettes and prohibition to see the power women can have to shape history. She goes on to say that women can and do make big changes when they band together for a common goal. Women make up the majority of the world’s population, Okel continues, and are a force to reckon with.
“Let’s not forget that the goal of most cannabis producers is to produce the best female plants possible," she said. "The female cannabis plant is where the highest quality flower [and] biomass comes from. It makes sense that growth of the cannabis industry means the growth of women in this business.”
Documentaries like Mary Janes, which highlights women “puffragettes”, books like Breaking the Grass Ceiling by Ashley Picillo, and community-building groups like Ellementa and Tokeativity make it clear that cannabis could be the first truly feminist industry. Even though it’s a simple plant, cannabis can join people from all areas of life, despite their differences: Because most people get into the industry to improve the quality of life for themselves or someone else, there is a commonality that doesn’t exist in other areas.
Wanda James points out that women have been at the forefront of legalization for years, and that there are many reasons women gravitate to cannabis.
“I believe women gravitate to the industry for multiple reasons. When we hear about families moving across country for the proper medicine for their child it is often the mother who is the caregiver," she said. "When we look at the frontlines of our advocates, we see powerful women fighting for our rights. When we saw this industry rapidly growing it was women who said NOT WITHOUT US! I believe we come to this industry for various reasons, but our passion and dedication is to make a difference, and we will.”