Jane West is all about Mary Jane. The former corporate-event planner from the suburbs of Denver, Colorado founded an eponymous cannabis lifestyle brand and a pot-party planning company, Edible Events, in 2014. She believes women should be flooding the legal weed business. Now. Before men lock it down.
“First, I want every woman to know that there’s a place for you in this industry, and there will never be a better time to find it,” West says. “The legal cannabis industry doesn’t have the entrenched patriarchal power structures that dominate most of professional life, and the sector is growing fast, so jump in and find a way to apply your skill set. Create your vision, and think big.”
The advice isn’t entirely selfless. She seeks industry allies—sisters, if you will—to help her establish a corporate culture that aligns with women’s needs generally and, more specifically, with those of working moms like her. “We need to demand our seats at the table now to ensure we continue to lead this industry in the future,” West told Quartz.
She’s done some of the heavy lifting already. West is the founder of Women Grow, the first professional network for ladies working in legal weed. She started the organization in 2014 and it now connects women in 45 cities across many aspects of the industry, including agriculture, food, design, finance, law, medicine, marketing, and sales. “I had to create my tribe myself,” West explains. “When I was entering the cannabis industry women weren’t in the spotlight the way they are now. Women weren’t as accessible as colleagues and mentors.”
West is unabashed about connecting and sharing her enthusiasm for cannabis because she believes it’s a healthy alternative to alcohol and pharmaceuticals. She advocates for its daily use to treat anxiety, depression, and pain especially.
Increasingly, people agree with her, even conservative politicians—or, at least, they are becoming more willing to investigate the question in a meaningful way. On Sept. 13, US senator Orrin Hatch, an 83-year-old Republican from Utah, introduced the Marijuana Effective Drug Study Act of 2017. It would allow American scientists to finally study marijuana extensively, and would force the federal government to grow more high-quality weed for research purposes (researchers currently complain that weed grown with federal approval for study is moldy and impotent). When introducing the bill, Hatch noted that many Americans are opioid addicts and medical marijuana could be a safe, non-narcotic pain treatment. He urged his colleagues to vote for the bill’s passage, despite the fact that marijuana legalization is “a difficult issue.”
Similarly, West argues, “It’s important to challenge the stereotypes and stigmas that are keeping this plant out of the hands of so many who would benefit from legal access.”
Jessica VerSteeg, Miss Iowa USA 2014 and reality-TV-star-turned-marijuana-entrepreneur, can personally attest to the need for destigmatization of the herbal remedy. She was once vehemently opposed to cannabis because she thought it was dangerous and now regrets it.
VerSteeg’s deceased boyfriend, football player Tyler Sash of the New York Giants, died in 2015, at age 27, from an accidental overdose of pharmaceutical painkillers taken for injuries he sustained during his playing career. After his death, Sash was also diagnosed with severe chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease which could only be confirmed posthumously and may have influenced his decision-making.
Still, VerSteeg believes Sash’s death could have been prevented if she—and the National Football League—had had a different attitude about cannabis when he first got hurt and was still playing, before he got hooked on prescription painkillers. He even considered using marijuana for his pain because he was scared of getting addicted, according to VerSteeg, but she urged him not to risk his career. “I thought it was a ‘bad drug’ and I was uneducated about the medical side of cannabis,” she says now.
Today, VerSteeg is working to help legitimize weed in the eyes of those who still oppose it. On Sept. 15, she began sales of Paragon Coin (pdf), a cryptocurrency for her new cannabis blockchain, Paragon. This digital public ledger allows members along the supply chain—growers, labs, MDs, customers, and retailers—to store and verify data, so vendors can check doctors’ recommendations, say, or farmers can supply and certify harvest information.
Tiaras and marijuana aren’t a traditional mix, and you wouldn’t catch a former Miss Anything in the cannabis business just a few years ago. But VerSteeg’s initial negative view of therapeutic marijuana was until recently common among all sorts of women in the US, not just beauty pageant contestants.
Women have historically been discouraged from smoking generally because it was thought to be unladylike. They also have reason to be especially wary of the consequences of getting caught with cannabis—illegal federally since 1937 in the US—according to Ellen Komp, author of Tokin’ Women: A 4,000 Year Herstory.
Komp, a weed advocate since 1991, creator of the blog Tokin’ Woman, and current deputy director of California NORML, suspects ladies were, and to some extent still are, circumspect about weed—even when aware of its therapeutic qualities—because they’ve feared governmental interference with their parental rights for marijuana use. “They’re afraid their kids could be taken away by Child Protective Services,” she told Vice in 2016.
West’s assessment is similar. As a mother herself, she says she is especially conscious of this unique risk moms caught with marijuana face in states where it’s still illegal. In light of that, women who use cannabis legally should be open about it, West believes, to try to minimize the stigma that still surrounds marijuana use in some parts of the country.
Targeted female advocacy groups like NORML Women’s Alliance and West’s Women Grow, make it easier for women to speak freely about marijuana use and to build business networks now than ever before. Those have “taken off like a rocket,” Komp says.
The normalization of cannabis also help moms working in marijuana manage their somewhat delicate positions. Rosie Mattio founded a cannabis PR firm in Seattle, Washington in 2014 and she admits, “I think some people, including my family, may have been surprised, even shocked, when they discovered I cater to the cannabis industry. I am also a carpooling dance mom packing lunches for four small daughters, so it’s a bit of a juxtaposition to be the ‘weed mom’ as well.”
But the times they are a-changin’ and ladies are even now starting specialized marijuana businesses—for women, by women. VerSteeg’s first cannabis venture was AuBox, a female-oriented delivery service in California; Whoopi Goldberg is behind medical marijuana products for menstrual pain; former ad executive Jeanine Moss is making handbags with secret compartments for discreet cannabis fashionistas; and West’s lifestyle brand creates products like fancy glass bongs for “sophisticated” lady cannabis consumers.
There is also Ganja Goddess Getaway, which offers cannabis retreats in California for ladies who like to chill, do yoga, and smoke blunts—or partake using whatever one’s preferred modus operandi (and there are so many now: oils, tinctures, vapes, edibles, capsules, and sprays to name just a few). According to its website, the Ganja Goddess “tribe” uses cannabis for spiritual and creative purposes and gathers to promote love and friendship: it “welcomes all goddesses,” or at least those over 21 who can legally use marijuana.
“The vision is to offer women a way to connect with their divine feminine and to connect to each other as sisters, and we feel that cannabis is the ideal tool to accomplish both,” company co-founder Sailene Ossman told lifestyle blog Well and Good.
Her language hearkens back to a time long ago, an ancient world women might rightly view with nostalgia. Way back in the day, goddesses ruled, there was no professional glass ceiling, and marijuana served as both an herbal remedy and a spiritual sacrifice, or so the old stories go.
The Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, worshipped about 5,000 years ago, was said to demand offerings that included the healing herb cannabis. At that time, writes Komp in her book, societies were matriarchal and there were few prohibitions on women’s activities. Among the many roles women played in the society was herbal healers, and cannabis was one plant in their therapeutic arsenals.
In addition to using weed medicinally, women ingested it in temples smoky with marijuana incense burned in tribute to Ishtar. That is, until they, and the goddess, lost power around 2600 BC with the advance of Semitic culture and patriarchy. In the Bible, prophets repeatedly warn the Hebrews to stop burning incense to Ashtoreth—Ishtar’s biblical name.
In other parts of the world, weed continued to be grown and used medicinally by women. In the fifth century, Mayan women in what is now Mexico took baths full of herbs, including cannabis, for menstrual relief. This tradition later continued with the Aztecs.
Meanwhile, in 11th-century Europe, women used a cannabis ointment to reduce premenstrual breast swelling. Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century German Christian mystic and medical expert, noted hemp’s effects in her book on herbal medicine, The Physica:
Its seed is sound, and it is healthy for healthy people to eat it. It is openly gentle and useful in their stomach since it somewhat takes away the mucus. It is able to be digested easily; it diminishes the bad humors and makes the good humors strong. But nevertheless, whoever is weak in the head and has a vacant mind, if that person will have eaten hemp, it easily makes the person suffer pain somewhat in his or her head.
About 700 years later, Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt and some of his French troops encountered hashish there, became fond of the stuff, and brought it back home with them when they returned to France.. They introduced hash to Europeans artists and intellectuals, who also quickly took to the stuff. Apparently Harriet Martineau, the 19th-century a social reformer, novelist, and the first female sociologist (and great-great-great-grandmother of Princess Kate Middleton), wrote of happy encounters with the hash pipe on her exotic desert travels. She noted that, as a service to Jewish neighbors, Arab women blew cannabis smoke in their faces on the Sabbath, an example of what is now known as “shot-gunning.” In 1890, Queen Victoria of England reportedly used a cannabis tincture to ease the pain of her cramps.
Soon after, though, marijuana developed a bad rap. Thanks largely to early 20th century propaganda like the film Reefer Madness, it was made illegal in the US (and also in England, France, and other European countries).
But efforts in the early 1990s eventually developed into a national medical cannabis movement and widespread legalization—and these efforts were led by women, writes Natalie Ginsberg of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Jane Street. For example, the oldest, continuously operating medical-marijuana collective in the country was founded in Santa Cruz by a woman. Valerie Corral started the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in 1993 after she discovered weed stopped her epileptic seizures. Corral’s mother, now in her 90s, is famous as “Nonna Marijuana” for the gourmet Italian cannabis edibles she perfected to help her daughter.
Today, weed appeals to women not just because it connects them with the traditional healing arts and the glory days of Ishtar, but also because it’s a chance to start fresh in an emerging business with lots of promise. The green economy is booming and women would be wise to get into the marijuana industry now, according to Emily Paxhia, managing director of Poseidon Asset Management, a hedge fund that invests in cannabis businesses.
Arcview Market Research reports that in 2016, the legal marijuana business in North America generated $6.7 billion, up 30% from 2015, when marijuana was the second-biggest growth industry in the US (after peer-to-peer lending platforms). Paxhia told Quartz she believes it’s important for women to “show up” in all industries but that marijuana is especially promising now and it won’t always be this way.
“Once something is set into motion, it is much more difficult to influence it than to get it going ‘right’ in the first place. For example, the tech industry was born out of a mainly male group of ‘Founding Fathers’—and some courageous women have had to fight to make a space in that industry,” Paxhia says. “What if cannabis can be formed by ‘Founding Mothers’ or ‘Founding Sisters’ and this industry can be more balanced in its leaders?”
Lena Davidson is in market relations at Botanica Seattle, a multi-million dollar gourmet cannabis edibles bakery, and she feels similarly. While Davidson told Quartz she is wary of being overly focused on gender in business and wishes there was no need for it, she urges women not to be shy. “It is a great time to dig in, bring your insight and make sure that women’s influence on the cannabis market is far more than skin deep. Pull your seat right up to the main table.”
The marijuana industry did until just recently seem to be heading in a remarkably egalitarian direction. In 2015, women represented 36% of executives in the legal cannabis industry, according to a survey by Marijuana Business Daily. But in 2017, the industry is bigger, and only 27% of executives are female.
This is still more than US businesses as a whole, where women occupy only 23% of executive positions, notes cannabis-industry analyst Chris Walsh. He points out, however, that women aren’t found in every segment of the industry—the 2017 survey found that they tend to start labs or cannabis-related companies but that there are still few women in marijuana investment.
Indeed, Paxhia says that being a woman at the intersection of finance and cannabis can be a lonely experience. She’s often the sole female in the literal and figurative rooms.
Davidson, too, has at times been frustrated that there aren’t more women in marijuana and that men aren’t more conscious interacting with those who are. She’s worked in weed for six years and recalls slights, like an angry marijuana company CEO calling her “young lady” pejoratively. Davidson hung up on him. “I was so mad and scared for my job,” she says.
But she believes cannabis companies generally do understand the important role women can play in the industry, and attitudes have improved since then. Davidson takes the long view: “Incremental changes in attitude and approach brought us legal cannabis, and incremental changes in attitude and approach can make it the strongest, most inclusive industry on the face of the planet.”