This year, like every year, Americans will celebrate the 20th day of April in parks and backyards across the country. But unlike every year, 4/20/2015 comes amid some sweeping changes in how we think about weed.
More than half of Americans now think recreational marijuana will be legal across the country in less than 2 decades, according to a recent Bloomberg poll — and a similar number support legalization. By the end of this year, Alaska and Oregon will have joined Colorado and Washington in legalizing pot.
And, in 2014, we had our first glimpse into what relaxed drug laws look like; Colorado generated over $50 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales — and California collected twice that in tax revenue from medical dispensaries alone. As for the much-warned-about descent into drug-addled anarchy that weed would bring? It never came. Studies show teen pot use is dropping — even as drug laws loosen.
As pot continues its march into the mainstream, it has added an untold number of new jobs — both legal and still illegal. Weed workers are behind the counters of dispensaries, growing weed out of far-away farms, and dealing it on the streets. There are lawyers who deal with sticky federal law, infusers who blend cannabis oil into tinctures and treats, and small-business owners who want in on the Green Rush. We asked 10 of these women about their work and the changing culture of weed in America.
Because marijuana is still illegal in the states where they live, some of these women asked to remain anonymous. Interviews have been condensed.
This article was originally published on December 17, 2014.
The Budtender: Taylor Laiacona
Taylor is a budtender at The Green Room, a recreational weed dispenser, in Boulder, CO.
At The Green Room, we do one-on-one service — the budtender goes over what our strains are and what we have available, and we help the customer make a decision. I’m really interested in the pathophysiology of it all — like, how the cannabinoids are working in the body. Then, there’s also subjective knowledge from trying the products.
I’ve heard that dispensaries like to hire women budtenders, but I think it's more important to have passion for the product, passion for the industry, and the experience of being around marijuana. Most places don’t work on tips like a bar, so it’s not as important to have a “hot girl” working. The people who are the most successful with the customers in our shop are the ones who know their stuff; the customers can come in and know they got accurate information.
Medically, we’re helping customers feel the best they can; recreationally, we’re tailoring the experience to what they want — whether it's a creative experience or a relaxing experience or something in between.
It’s a really chill, laidback job, and we have a good time while we do it. Just like any customer service job, sometimes you have unhappy customers, and that’s always the most challenging part. But, I’d say 99% of people leave with a smiling face. We help customers pick the right strains, and then they’ll come in and be like, “That’s the best sleep I’ve had in 10 years!” And it’s like, success! We did it!
The Dispensary Owner: Toni Fox
Toni runs and owns 3D Cannabis Center, the first dispensary to make a legal recreational sale in Colorado.
When I started to get involved in the marijuana industry in 2009, very few of us were women — I’d say less than 1%. This really solidified relationships between us; it became an amazing support group.
I worked at a medical dispensary for three years before I converted to recreational sales, and the competition was tough. There were so many medical dispensaries and a very limited number of medical marijuana red-card holders (those who could actually buy from us). But, I knew, even back in 2009, that recreational marijuana was going to pass and I was going to be able to open a retail store. I fought for it, I worked hard for it, and it actually worked — and my dispensary made the first recreational marijuana sale in the state of Colorado.
The process of converting from a medical store into a retail store was very intense, and we had to have a public hearing. I had leaders of the community — like the head of the National Western Stock Show, the Denver City Council member from my area, the head of a neighborhood business group — testify against my obtaining the recreational license. It was all based on their morals and the fact that they didn’t believe in recreational marijuana. That delayed my process of being approved, so I didn’t know until about 72 hours in advance that I was going to be able to pull this off. We were up for 72 hours straight doing the transfers in preparation for that first recreational sale, and we had people camping out in the parking lot overnight — on New Year’s Eve, in Denver. We had probably close to 1,000 customers when we opened our doors; the line wrapped around our building and around the block. It was pretty crazy. I still look back on it and just want to pinch myself.
The Tech Expert: Brandy Keen
Brandy Keen is the vice president of Sales for Surna, a company that creates technology for the cannabis market.
Whenever you grow marijuana, your biggest cost is your operating expense — rent and payroll. Your second-largest monthly expense is your electric bill. About two-thirds of that goes to lighting and one-third to the climate system. We saw an opportunity to really develop technology, to make growhouses far more efficient — primarily for reduction in energy consumption, and secondarily for reduction in cost per gram.
Never did I imagine that my life would revolve around weed. We have people who apply for jobs every day who are like, “We just want to work for this industry,” which is very cool because the talent pool is large and we get to be selective.
In some ways, it's like Silicon Valley: This will be the next major American industry. The signs are pretty clear. But, there was never an underground Silicon Valley. There was never a black market version of the Internet. So, the juxtaposition of those two things has been interesting, because you have all this new talent and all this new innovation coming in, and it’s colliding with what already existed. That’s why it’s so important to introduce technology to a market that, in some ways, has had an old-school mentality — they think that the same things that worked when they had four lights will work when they have 400 lights.
The Trimmer: Naomi Gibbons
Naomi was a trimmer for a farm near Humbolt, California.
When marijuana grows, it's surrounded by big leaves. When the product is ready to be cut down to size, a trimmer sits there with small scissors and trims off all of the leaves, all of the sticks, and gets it down to the very nug that is sold.
When you’re trimming on a farm, depending on how large the farm is, there are usually about 10 trimmers. During high season, there can be up to 25 people trimming in a room. You’re with these same people for eight-plus hours, doing the same thing over and over, and so you really start to get to know them; you have really interesting conversations about life. There’s always music playing. Especially if you keep going back to the same farm, you get really close with the people you trim with.
In trimming, there are about two women for every man. Growers often like women trimmers more because we’re detail-oriented and our hands are more nimble, so we can really get into the nug. We also maybe eat less? That’s a big thing, because when you’re in the middle of nowhere and you have food for two weeks, you need to conserve. Trimming basically pays $200 per pound. It depends on how fast you are, and whether the weed is light and fluffy or thick and dense. There were girls on my farm who had been trimming for six years; they would trim a pound in two hours, which is four pounds a day.
There are so many good reasons for marijuana to become legal, but once it does it can easily become commercialized and commodified. A really great product could become shittier and shittier. A big reason why it isn't legal in California yet is because there's so much money and so many people invested in the underground marijuana world. These growers who have huge farms in Humbolt, they don't want marijuana to be legal; they don't want to be taxed. I know dispensaries hire people to trim for them — these are weird kinks that everyone has to figure out once it starts to become legal. Whom do I go work for? Do I work for a legal farmer, or an illegal farmer?
The Lawyer: Rachel Gillette
Rachel Gillette is an attorney who specializes in cannabis businesses.
I started my practice in 2010, right around the time that we passed House Bill 1284 in Colorado, which was essentially the nation’s first for-profit marijuana-business licensing bill. I wanted to start representing these new things called “marijuana businesses.” So, I quit my job and began to search out clients.
Back in 2009 and 2010, when people were operating marijuana businesses, they did so with more reservations — from a criminal liability perspective. Now, we see big business getting into the industry. We see hedge funds, we see lots of money coming in. It’s sort of morphed from mom-and-pop shops run by passionate advocates for reform of marijuana laws — those people still exist within the industry, and thank goodness they do — to people who have never had any experience in marijuana saying, “Hey, I see a financial opportunity here, and I want to get into this industry on the ground floor.”
The federal government has obviously been slow to embrace this change. For decades, they’ve been saying that marijuana has no medicinal benefit and that it’s more dangerous than cocaine as a Schedule I substance. That’s got to change. One state after another is going to continue to say, “Why are we wasting our time and money and precious resources in prosecuting people for their use of cannabis, when we can tax this and regulate and oversee it and make sure it’s safe for the consumer?”
I think the next wave will be more states; I have a lot of hope and faith that the federal government will make a change. My hope is that they de-schedule marijuana — not reschedule it, but de-schedule it — so it has a similar federal treatment as alcohol and tobacco. There are new marijuana businesses developing every day. And, it's not stopping.
The Dealer: “Alice”
“Alice” is a marijuana dealer in New Orleans.
I’ve been dealing weed on and off since I was 13. Back when I was kid, it was kind of just shitting around, and I wasn’t really serious about it. Now, I’m 33, and with my partners and I, it’s business.
There’s this dude who's basically my boss; he has a connection to a grower and three people on my level to sort of divide up the territory of New Orleans. I have another full-time job, so I use this to supplement my income. I make maybe $800 a month.
At this point, I can pick and choose my clientele, so I stay with people I’m comfortable with. When I first got to New Orleans and didn’t know anybody, I ended up finding a lot of shady people. It was scary to realize that a big, tough dude could just beat me down in one second. We'd have $500 sitting between us; he could easily take that from me and take all my drugs, and I’d be done. I’ve put myself in those situations, and I’m just glad that nothing serious ever went down.
I’ve only met two other chicks who are dealers. Ever.
The Spokeswoman: Sabrina Fendrick
Sabrina is the director of strategic partnerships for NORML.
When I was in college, I became really interested in marijuana prohibition. The more I learned, the more furious I got, because it was very clear to me that this policy was based on nothing but ignorance and racism stemming from the 1930s. The second semester of my senior year, I decided to switch my thesis to the evolution of Reefer Madness propaganda through the ages. The arguments to keep marijuana illegal have changed — but it’s stayed illegal. That really calls into question the legitimacy of the policy.
One of my dream jobs was to work for NORML. So, I applied and I got hired as the executive assistant, about six and a half years ago. Bush was still president and John Walters was still the drug czar, and I don't think anyone could've imagined that policy would change so quickly. It's been an exciting ride. I feel really lucky to have been a part of it.
In January of 2010, I founded the first women's outreach program for marijuana law reform, called the NORML Women's Alliance. It was incredibly successful: We had groups all over the country, community organizers reaching out to women, creating an environment for women to feel comfortable. We need more women in leadership positions in the marijuana and drug-reform movement. Especially around parenting issues — there are still child custody problems in states with progressive marijuana policies, because child custody laws can still be beholden to federal policy, and marijuana is a schedule I drug. There's more acceptance for [parents using marijuana], but there needs to be a change in child protective services' policy. That’s something I would really love to see change.
The Grower: “Kiva”
Kiva runs a grow in Humbolt, California.
As a grower, my job is managing each aspect of the cannabis plant's life cycle, from seed to consumer. It starts in December, when I begin securing genetics, property, and a crew, and it lasts through November when I finish the trim, the packaging/delivering, and the extraction of leftover plant material. Each grow site is unique and I've managed up to five separate gardens in one year. These grows have ranged from indoor, 12-light setups to 60-light warehouse grows — from 99-plant outdoor gardens to full-sun operations on 400 acres.
There are countless things to take into consideration when growing, outdoors in particular: What is your particular microclimate? Since each strain grows differently, what are the appropriate genetics for your property? Are you planting in ground or in containers? Are you growing seeds or clones? How will you supplement the light, what is your water source, who are your neighbors, what is security like, will you process on- or off-site, hand-trim or machine-trim, are there helicopters hovering, do you have your patient paperwork in order and a good lawyer, is winter coming early or late, are you planting organic or using conventional fertilizers, is your crew solid and ready for a good six months out on the hill? These are a few of the many factors, large and small, that can determine whether you have a successful season.
Outdoor growing can be intimidating for a woman: You need to access and manage heavy equipment — generators, bulk soils, building materials for greenhouses, irrigation and water pumps, fencing — and you need to consider having round-the-clock security. Some properties can be two hours out a dirt road, so the logistics of getting equipment and resources in can be tricky. You also need to be able to move the final product, which means making and keeping up connections.
Many women start out trimming. Some move into the garden as caretakers. Quite a few of my male grower friends say the success of their gardens is because of highly skilled and attentive female crews. But, I don't see many women taking the next step: acquiring their own property and building their own gardens. That's not to say these women don't exist...since cannabis is still a gray market in California, part of being successful has been staying under the radar.
The Weed-Infuser: Lindsay Topping
Lindsay is the director of marketing for Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, an edible manufacturer.
It started with our flagship elixir — a “pot soda." From there, over the past five years, we’ve grown into an infused-products company that really focuses on innovative delivery systems. We don’t make cookies or brownies; we make things that have science behind them to aid in uptake, from pills to topicals to sublinguals.
Marketing is hard in this industry, because few consumers want to share openly that they consume cannabis; there’s still a pretty big stigma around it. Our primary consumers are really 35 and older. A lot of that has to do with how discreet an edible can be. We have a five-milligram mint, for example, that's much more discreet than smoking. People don’t necessarily want to smoke around their families, so this is a way to consume cannabis in a way that isn’t as overt.
The doses [on edibles] need to be reduced and need to be more clearly marked, and that's happening: Starting February 1, 2015, the edibles that you’ll see in Colorado will be wildly different from what you see today. [Ed note: they'll be limited to 10mg of THC apiece.] That’s a really good thing.
At the same time, there’s only so much we can do to prevent over-ingestion. At the end of the day, you can tell someone to take 10 milligrams and if they choose to take 30 and have a bad experience, that’s awful, but there’s nothing I can do as a manufacturer.
A lot of the products on the market right now are more like a bottle of tequila. You’re not going to sit down and drink that whole bottle and have a good evening. People need to take the same approach to edibles. We launched a product line called Dixie One, which includes a watermelon cream elixir. There are five milligrams of THC in the whole bottle; it’s designed to be consumed all at once. It's more like a beer than our 75-milligram elixir, which is like bourbon — you take a shot of it. We’re starting to see this more and more: the product variety in the market, adapting to consumer preferences, which is really interesting and fun.
The Botanist: Christie Lunsford
Christie runs a cannabis think tank and is launching a line of cannabis-infused topical products.
I’ve worn a lot of hats in the cannabis industry. In the beginning, I developed a product line of clinical herbal products — tinctures, topicals, and tonics. I found it incredibly hard to get a bank account and I went through several different investors who wanted to invest $300,000 or $400,000 in the company, but for a variety of reasons — the political landscape and the banking issue and the taxation issue — I couldn’t get any solid financing. What we were doing wasn’t very sexy, because it was truly medicinal in nature.
That was back in 2010. The political climate has changed so much, so I’ve gone back to the types of products I was making back then. In early 2015, I’ll be launching a line of topics — very simple, elegant formulations of cannabis paired with other companion plants — called Wildwood Apothecary.
People need to move away from thinking of cannabis as a drug and toward thinking of it as a companion plant. We only think of it as a drug because of politics and history. The first time I heard somebody say “you should consider cannabis like a tomato and just grow it in your outdoor garden” it was my “aha moment.” I had been spoon-fed this very precise vision: to be fearful of cannabis. But there should be no fear — it’s truly an ally.
We are biologically hard-wired to use this product: We have receptor sites out of our peripheral nervous system, so you can literally rub cannabis on your body and the pain will go away. We know this is effective — we have more research about the effects of marijuana than we do about Tylenol. It really is a companion plant, because our bodies are designed for it.