Women Grow’s speed networking event in April began with participants grabbing wine, hors d'oeuvres, and large index cards upon arrival at Galvanize, a tech-focused co-working and event space in New York City’s SoHo. After shuffling into a closed conference room with rows of interfacing seats, dozens of women were granted 4 minutes and 20 seconds (4/20!) to introduce themselves, scribble out their new contacts’ information, and get down to talking about the business at hand: cannabis.
“Green Queen” Jazmin Hupp co-founded Women Grow in 2014 in Denver to help women across North America launch businesses in the now-booming and legal marijuana industry. A for-profit, membership-based company that operates with a “social mission,” Women Grow holds an annual summit, hosts monthly meetings in 35 cities across the United States and Canada and webinars online, and provides discounts for its members to attend other cannabis conferences and events.
Many of the women who attended the speed-networking event were new to the field. Some were mid-career professionals starting very early-stage cannabis ventures; others were in their early 20s and interested in breaking into a seemingly cool, relaxed industry; several women in their 40s and 50s were researching a potentially lucrative career change; and more than a few, particularly the Black and brown participants, came for policy reasons.
“There are the folks who primarily come into this space who are not just only focused on the war on drugs but also fighting for patients’ rights. I believe that if we’re helping to build a new industry, advocacy needs to be a part of all that we do,” says Gia Morón, the executive vice president of Women Grow. “The cannabis industry [is] being built, honestly, on the backs of Black and brown people, without [them] receiving any credit. I want to see more of us in this space and create good business opportunities, not just for women but also for people of color.”
These other businesses are making money. Why can't we be a part of this?
Gia Morón, executive vice president, Women Grow
Morón is a self-described Black Latina who worked at Goldman Sachs for 15 years. She owns her own public relations and business development firm and first started going to Women Grow meetings in 2015. Capitalism isn’t usually a tenet of social justice movements, but Morón doesn’t believe making money in cannabis and agitating for anti-racist regulation are at odds.
“Coming from Wall Street, the one thing that I learned is money isn’t a bad thing — it’s how you use it,” she says. “Here are women that saw an opportunity in this space and said, These other businesses are making money. Why can’t we be a part of this? What’s wrong with making money and doing good business?”
Feminist advocates of marijuana legalization often emphasize that it could be the “first billion-dollar industry not dominated by men,” but unlike Morón, they tend to gloss over the experiences of Black and brown men who built the industry (many decades before the legalization movement) on the street level, and the non-white women who live in communities impacted by disparate drug policing.
Over the last three years in New York City, Black and Hispanic people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges as much as 15 times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people. Harsh sentences have left those individuals serving life sentences without parole over dime bags, not only barring them from future involvement in what is now a multi-billion dollar industry but also taking their freedom.
Last week, New York state health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said he will recommend that the state greenlight recreational marijuana use among adults in an upcoming report, though the document has not yet been finalized.
"The health department’s endorsement of full recreational use is a step in the right direction and one that should be celebrated, but we cannot forget about the individuals and families that have been impacted by the criminalization of marijuana,” Morón told Refinery29 in an email following Zucker’s recommendation. “Full legalization means job creation, business opportunities and expansions across the state. This could be a huge boost to our state's economy, but let’s keep in mind the economic surges we have seen in other states have often excluded low-income communities; we cannot let this happen in New York State."
So, as the so-called Green Rush crests, advocacy seems to be an inevitable component of the work women of color are doing in the cannabis space, whether they set out to develop mission-oriented brands or not.
“Greed is good!” Tamar Victoria declares, only half joking, quoting Michael Douglas’ famed character in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street. “I believe in vibrations and all these different things, but also, from the standpoint of being a woman and a woman of color, I am a vivacious and ferocious businesswoman.”
It’s like a running joke among people who know her, she says: “I’m Gordon Gekko’s love child.”
We are sitting in a new restaurant in a part of Brooklyn that comes with all the usual signs of gentrification (a proliferation of dogs, bagel shops with faux-Tudor architecture and sneakily-zoned residential buildings) and talking about her work as a “drug dealer.” That’s another half-joke: Victoria is a recent entrant into the cannabis industry and is very aware of how her efforts might be received compared to those of white men working in cannabis.
“You’ve got people in jail for 15 years for nickel bags of weed, but I’ve got white boy friends who are growing pounds right now in New York City, and they’re not gonna knock down their doors,” she says.
Victoria, 39, has a background in corporate telecommunications and finance, and an entrepreneurial spirit. (Her startup forays have included lingerie, high-end coffee, and an artisanal ice cream sandwich company.) The first time she smoked weed was at age 19 in college, but her professional interests only turned toward cannabis five years ago. A serious car accident in her early 30s put her out of work for two years and left her with chronic pain and anxiety that weed helped her keep in check.
A few years later, as she continued to self-medicate, Victoria and her sister began slipping their mom pot brownies in secret to help the 62-year-old breast cancer survivor manage the excruciating after-effects of chemotherapy, surgeries, and prescription medication.
“I’m not disappointed in the chemo because I want to say my mother is alive because of it, but it took her through so much mentally, emotionally,” Victoria says. “My sister and I were like, ‘You know, Mom, there are other things you can do to manage your pain.’ We gave her a brownie and the next day she was up on a ladder putting a ceiling fan in, mowing the grass, and thrashing her yard.”
They continued the ruse for roughly two months before telling the truth. (“Well, I feel amazing,” Victoria’s mom conceded.) Victoria and her business partner Emanuele had planned to open a bar together, but they shifted their focus to cannabis about one year ago. “All these things started happening that led to these green roads,” Victoria says.
There are things certain demographics can do that others can't.
Tamar Victoria, Cofounder, Privacy In Public
Their growing business, called Privacy In Public, sources sumptuous products from local vendors, including aromatherapy candles; double-brewed CBD-infused coffee; teas with spirulina, blue lotus flower, and hemp; as well as bath balls, facial cleansing oils, and creams. When we first spoke, Victoria had been looking into gummies and cookies, but she and Emanuele shortly reversed course to be more compliant with businesses that are licensed to operate in New York State.
"We decided to stay away from edibles," she says. "I don’t need the headache. There are things certain demographics can do that others can't."
Make no mistake: In New York, only medical dispensaries can dole out cannabis — and not in plant form. Use and possession are still illegal under state law, though decriminalization (which is not the same thing as legalization), and a federal blind-eye approach to small-scale operations during the Obama administration spurred on growth that is hard to stall.
Victoria and Emanuele decided to work for free for one year and set a modest $15,000 investment goal to buy inventory, since waiting around for a bigger launch pad would be more difficult. “I don’t care how long you’ve been in finance, how many contacts you have. People are not handing million-dollar checks over to black or Latino folk,” Victoria says.
But they were able to get “little pieces at a time” from individual investors in their networks — advertising execs, film producers, attorneys, bartenders, and music engineers who gave them $500 to $5,000 to get going.
She says they’ve since paid back their investors “on the lower end,” are working on a summer promotion, are on the hunt for office space in Williamsburg or Bushwick, and are figuring out how to raise anther $15,000 for that shop, all while courting partnerships with local hotels.
“I remember this area 20 years ago when the boys was on the corner slinging and certain individuals was not here,”she said of the now-gentrified neighborhood where we met. “[Now] that it’s the cool place to be, I’m taking every dollar they’ve got to give.”
There seem to be plenty of dollars to go around. The majority of Americans supports marijuana legalization and many are building and buying in. Market research firm IBISWorld found that in 2017, medical and recreational marijuana revenues topped $4.6 billion and amounted to $766.2 million in profit. The company projects that “as companies rush to capitalize on the cannabis craze,” revenue will increase 31.6% each year for the next four years, stretching to $18.2 billion by 2022.
Nonetheless, forging ahead is often a question of risk tolerance. Do you invest your time, money, and liberty in a space where Black people are both under-resourced and face greater legal scrutiny, or do you play it safe and miss out? Those who feel they have too much to lose may be unwilling to bet on the “inevitability” of legalization, but others, especially those who have already invested a good deal of money in cannabis, think the gamble is in not trying.
Deanna Clark-Esposito, the managing attorney of the Clark-Esposito Law Firm, works with importers and exporters that need help navigating cannabis law. She has observed firsthand how conflicting laws of the land regarding marijuana have created a game of roulette for budding entrepreneurs.
In January 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama-era Cole Memorandum, which laid out the Department of Justice’s plan to “not bother with moms making lotions in their kitchens,” as Clarke-Esposito puts it, or prosecute companies that were abiding by their state’s regulatory structure. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medicinal or recreational (“adult”) use. But the Drug Enforcement Administration still classifies marijuana — in all its derivative forms, including the increasingly popular CBD — as an illegal, Schedule I drug “with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”
Maybe Black cannabis entrepreneurs who want to gamble must be content with playing it smaller.
Victoria is undaunted. “It’s funny when I talk to people and they’re like, ‘Well, I don’t know how successful you’re going to be,’ because that’s the thing — I don’t want to be MedMen. I want to be bought out by MedMen,” she says of Cannabis giant MedMen Enterprises. She might be onto something: Maybe Black cannabis entrepreneurs who want to gamble must be content with playing it smaller.
Ventures like her startup, which nets nets $500-$1,000 per day, she estimates, can technically be shut down and the property seized at any time. Just ask Virgil Grant, who “ran six licensed medical cannabis dispensaries in California” until he was raided by the DEA in California in 2010 and sentenced to six years in prison.
Meanwhile,Victoria’s white whale, MedMen, recently closed a $1.65 billion IPO, so her dreams of making it big are hardly ridiculous. The blockbuster company was founded in 2010 and opened an “upscale” dispensary on Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan on 4/20 this year. Less than two weeks prior, former Speaker of the House John Boehner announced that he was joining the board of advisors of Acreage Holdings, a large-scale cannabis corporation that operates in 11 states, “in every aspect of the supply chain, from seed to sale.”
Despite the number of people flocking to the industry, social progress seems unlikely to catch up to the industry’s growth. Marijuana Business Daily analyst Eli McVey has written that women in cannabis face a “grass ceiling,” as existing companies“are increasingly hiring executives from the rest of corporate America.”
In a 2017 report, McVey found that only about 26% of canna-businesses are owned or founded by women. (That average is higher in California at 34.5% and Colorado at 32.4%.) The breakdown by race is even starker: 81% of marijuana business owners and founders are white, nearly 7% identify as “other,” 5.7% identify as Hispanic/Latino, 4.3% identify as African-American, and less than 3% identify as Asian.
Roughly the same percentages of people by race operate “touch” businesses (directly growing, selling, or handling marijuana or some form of THC) versus “no-touch” businesses (ancillary companies that provide a product or services like packaging or marketing).
Having “touch” access to and control over cannabis supply can be highly attractive, but the expense and legal risks of working directly with the crop are daunting. In many U.S. states — “especially those with tightly regulated medical marijuana programs” — entrepreneurs seeking a license for a plant-touching business must come ready with “hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars” in application fees and liquid capital, McVey writes.
"Regardless of race, most people simply do not have these kinds of resources."
Marijuana Business Daily analyst Eli McVey
“Regardless of race, most people simply do not have these kinds of resources. Factor in the additional hurdles faced by a higher proportion of people of color — including lack of access to investors and business connections — and it’s easy to see why minority business owners have gravitated toward the ancillary side of the cannabis industry,” he says.
Kadeesha, 25, has been a “cannabis consumer” for 10 years and is edging into that space herself. She entered the industry about a year ago and started a fledgling collective called Metropotlitan with her friend Daishu to dispel the stigma against marijuana. Their Instagram account shares news about decriminalization and legalization efforts and the duo is slowly moving into commerce.
Their first event was an hour-long “high power yoga” class on 4/20 (participants indulged beforehand), and they are in the early stages of developing hard-shell, smell-proof cannabis travel kits that can store weed and smoking accessories.
Kadeesha had researched what it might take to start a dispensary — but was intimidated by the “outlandish” cost of doing so. Even successful Black dispensary owners like Wanda James have been vocal about the uphill battle to turn a profit after taxes and licensing, Kadeesha tells me. So, instead, she and Daishu are toying with the longer-term idea of launching a weed retreat. (Think: Korean spa meets ganja.) Like their yoga class, the idea is to “provide a healthy outlet” for cannabis consumption.
Unembarrassed by their novice status, Kadeesha and Daishu have dived headfirst into the community, traveling to conferences around the country, and trying to meet and learn from as many people as they can. Most are friendly, welcoming, and excited about where things are going, Kadeesha says, but a fair number take her less seriously as a businesswoman or don’t share her passion for doing good. She went to last year’s World Cannabis Expo in Boston solo, and found that “it wasn’t so professional.”
“Most of the white men that approached me or wanted to talk were like, ‘Oh, you’re so pretty,’” she says.
And at a different event in New York City, a speaker with a background in cryptocurrency “kind of laughed off” an attendee’s comment that his company’s growth would increase if they hired a woman on their team. He also repeatedly emphasized the importance of “taking the market from black to white” — a term that “just didn’t sit right” with Kadeesha.
“I got it,” she assures. “They’re saying these are the strategies you have to do when you’re taking the cannabis industry from the black market to the white market — meaning taking it from underground to aboveground. I got it — but just, no.”
Kadeesha attended Women Grow’s speed networking event to connect with more women in the industry, get feedback on what she and her cofounder are working on, and see what other women are doing, particularly ahead of the upcoming gubernatorial elections in New York in November.
People need to be released from jail first.
Kadeesha, cofounder of Metropotlitan
“It is up to the states to determine how they want laws surrounding cannabis to be governed within their own lines,” she says. “This is the only time we have to really weigh in on the issue before the laws are decided for us.” Case in point: She calls proposals to expand New York state’s marijuana program to pets “cool,” but adds: “People need to be released from jail first before we think about pets. Pets are okay. Pets are not in jail.”
Other steps toward legalization in New York give her a sense that a bit of progress is being made. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that starting in September, tickets — not arrests — will be issued to people caught smoking weed in public (with some exceptions, including parolees). And the upcoming report from state health commissioner Zucker greenlighting recreational marijuana use among adults is encouraging as well.
“The best thing to come out of [Zucker’s announcement] was that people who are prescribed opioids can now qualify for medical marijuana,” Kadeesha says. “The medical program here is not effective: the qualifications are too strict; the dispensaries that are open don’t have flower (actual weed), plus they are not making any money. We need action — not more reports.”
Amid such uncertainty, Kadeesha remains focused on the places where she can make a difference: in her immediate and expanding circle. She urges others to seek out the few Black-owned dispensaries that exist and buy from them and to support Black women who are working on smaller-scale projects like beauty products, clothing lines, and edibles.
“Find them, connect with them, and support them,” she says. “If we don’t support each other, who will?”