In case you missed the memo, most of the top cannabis companies are dominated by white men. In some areas of cannabis culture—like the bro-oriented Cannabis Cup, for instance—a lot of the diversity and “weirdness” (for which cannabis is known) gets overpowered by bikini-clad babes hitting bongs. As a budding industry, cannabis is in a unique position to be different and do better. It doesn’t have to follow the path of so many other industries, through which the sexism, racism, and homophobia of everyday society permeates.
According to the women and nonbinary advocates we spoke with, the future of cannabis looks like a lot of things, but one thing it won’t be is homogenous. “It’s a blue ocean, no one’s been here,” Hollyweed North’s Renee Gagnon says. “We have an opportunity and, I believe, an obligation to fix some of the things that normally have occurred in industries that tend to make them fairly monoculture.”
Cannabis has always had a diverse user base—it was first introduced to the wellness mainstream in the late 80s by the LGBTQ community, when HIV/AIDs patients requested the plant to treat pain and appetite loss. “The industry better start resembling the consumer base,” Gagnon says. “That’s where equity is important. There needs to be representation and it needs to be legislated because it doesn’t happen on its own.”
Here are seven women and nonbinary industry leaders on their vision for the future of cannabis—and what needs to be done to get there.
“First and foremost, we need to worry about education,” says cannabis advocate and RuPaul’s Drag Race star Laganja Estranja. “We need to be educating people on this plant and what it can do, and we need to have smart people talking about the plant, not bros or rap stars in their Versace, we need to have smart people who can really change the stigma because they can reach the masses through their knowledge of what this plant can do.”
Jackson, who’s nonbinary and uses she/her pronouns, wants to move the industry beyond the Cheech and Chong stereotypes. “We’re not just fun potheads, we have knowledge, it’s a medicine, we’re helping people,” she says. “Overall the feeling of exclusion is because these events are generally populated by bros,” she goes on, “that type of atmosphere is what makes the LGBTQ community feel like they’re not welcome. If you were a feminist, you probably wouldn’t want to be in that atmosphere either.”
“There’s still a lot of misinformation and lack of education about cannabis, and not only for the public but for people in government, pharmaceutical agencies, and insurance agencies,” says Dr. Janice Knox, founder of American Cannabinoid Clinics (ACC), a health and wellness cannabis organization. “The misinformation and poor education about what cannabis can do is still a major hurdle.”
At ACC, Knox studies the endocannabinoid system, which regulates various physiological and cognitive processes—from appetite to mood to fertility—and how cannabis can be applied to modulate that system. “What cannabis has allowed us to do is see how important this physiology is, to identify it, and now create products and services that address it, which in turn will disrupt the way healthcare is going to be delivered,” she says. “The sky is the limit.”
“People need to remember that it was members of the LGBTQ community and our allies that actively pushed for access,” says Felicia Carbajal, executive director of the Social Impact Center, an LA-based intersectional community hub. “They actively broke the law to make sure that compassion was at the core of our values. I think the history is being erased by both the LGBTQ and cannabis communities.”
While it’s easy for queer people to feel forgotten in a cis, hetero-dominated industry, Carbajal has hope for the future. They’ve seen the world come a long way: “For me, as a young adult, access to medicine was just an extension of LGBTQ liberation.” They believe cannabis can be more diverse, but say it’ll require a well thought-out inclusion plan that involves some of the biggest names in social justice. “Inclusivity is the practice or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized,” they say. “It’s throwing a wide net that allows everyone to be respected for just being.”
Small Business Centric
“The future of cannabis is bright and it’s in the hands of you and I,” says Maya Shaw, founder of Shaw., a curated online lifestyle shop featuring work by women, intersexual, queer, trans, and nonbinary creatives. She launched Shaw. to “create a friendly space for every pot smoker,” she says, and highlight the work of artists who often get overlooked in favor of larger companies within the industry.
“It is up to us, the consumers, to support the small business we have always supported,” Shaw says. “Sure, big businesses are going to have the fancy branding and the Instagram influencers but, wow, it is way more important to put your money in the pocket of someone you know and someone you know is doing the right work. When cannabis goes corporate, and it already has, it is up to us to stay community-driven and grassroots. That’s the core of this healing plant. This plant is about community and love.”
Equal + Just
“The greatest challenge is getting those with the most power to learn cannabis history in order to move forward righteously, with equity and humanity at the core of what we create as an industry,” says Solonje Burnett, co-founder of Humble Bloom, a cannabis advocacy company that curates immersive educational experiences and consults cannabis-focused brands on growing consciously. “We have an opportunity for true innovative thought and strategy in crafting cannabis culture in our individual states as we work toward national legalization.”
Burnett not only feels it’s important to heal wounds from the US government’s ongoing War on Drugs, but that the entire cannabis industry should work to be better than so many industries before it, that are plagued with pay disparity and racial and gender discrimination. “Industry leaders should lead with listening, integrity, and inclusion,” she says.
“We have the chance to do better. To address, reverse, and repair injustices. To learn from the mistakes and missteps of newer industries like tech and crypto, where we see widening racial and gender-based economic disparity, gentrification, and displacement of indigenous communities for corporate gain, and ignoring social, environmental, and community impact until the moment they are called out and retroactively attempt to repair damage.”
Out + Proud
“The future of cannabis is going to boom very similar to the wine and spirits industry—it already is,” says Joy Victoria Clarke, founder of Mahogany Mary, a cannabis-focused events company, and High Tide Tours, which offers unique cannabis-based activities throughout LA. “West Hollywood just gave out 16 licenses for consumption lounges, places you can go, similar to Amsterdam, where you can consume onsite, purchase edibles, have tea, and have that kind of experience.”
Clarke believes this will bring people out of the proverbial “cannabis closet” and encourage them to be more open about their consumption. “Right now, a lot of people’s experiences are personal,” she says. “People have to consume in their home or in private places, so having these lounges is really going to take down that stigma and allow people to have more community and collaboration and more of a lifestyle as a cannabis consumer. It’s about really amplifying that social aspect of it, and everybody coming out of the closet with blunts a‘blazing.”
Women + Minority-Owned
“There's a market now, there's funding for it, there’s an appetite for it,” Gagnon says of women and minority-owned cannabis businesses. “And it’s time that women make the conscious decision to not worry about how we will be perceived if we don’t have men.” The CEO and advocate feels the industry has come a long way—she was shunned for coming out as transgender four years ago and is now invited to speak on panels for the same reason—but knows that legislation is still needed to protect the rights of women and minorities in cannabis.
For instance, in California, a certain percentage of retail stores must be owned by women and minorities—which might explain why the state leads in women and minority-owned businesses. “It creates space for those opportunities and then it’s merit-based and then the market decides if they survive, but you have to create that equity,” Gagnon says.
“When they plan cannabis legislation, you have to actually build in equity wording, so that in areas where traditionally there’s been a super high preponderance of minority discrimination over cannabis, those minorities need to be included in any roll-out plans. So in Canada, that’s First Nations and in the United States, that’s the African American and Latino communities, who’ve paid a disproportionate price for providing that product for decades to the very same people that are now launching companies.”
Cannabis is currently at a crossroads. It can follow the path of other industries before it or it can be different—build up women and minority-owned businesses while making as minimal an impact on the environment as possible. Consumers can do their part too, by buying consciously and being vocal advocates for communities disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs.
It is possible to make the cannabis industry resemble its consumer base both physically and in terms of values, it will just take time and coordinated effort. Fortunately, with women and nonbinary advocates like these in the industry, that future feels attainable now more than ever.