Puffragettes: Breaking the Glass Ceiling

Meet the ”Women of Weed” who cultivated the Bay Area cannabis movement, as we kick off Women’s History Month on a high note.

Women have been at the forefront of the Bay Area cannabis scene ever since Brownie Mary was baking medicated treats for HIV patients in the early 1980s.

In that same era, Randi Webster established one of the city’s first dispensaries, the San Francisco Patients Collective on Divisadero Street, to help AIDS patients with bone disease. Lynette Shaw famously fought the feds while opening California’s first dispensary north of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1997. Valerie Corral’s Santa Cruz group Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM) was the first medical-marijuana collective ever awarded legal nonprofit  status by the U.S. government.

A March 8 celebration of International Women’s Day will commemorate the women who built the medical marijuana movement and what we now call the cannabis industry, at the Bay Area premiere of the documentary Mary Janes: The Women of Weed. The event will feature a conversation with activist Beata Poźniak, who led the campaign to get the U.S. to recognize International Women’s Day.

SF Evergreen spoke to many of the marijuana industry movers and shakers featured in the film, along with leaders of the female-owned cannabis companies and social justice organizations you’ll see at the event’s cannabis marketplace and social mixer.

“We felt International Women’s Day was the perfect time to launch this event,” says cannabis educator and brand consultant Tali Eisenberg, whose Geter Done Productions & Design is producing the event. “Gathering a group of likeminded ‘Puffragettes’ and community together to celebrate the female pioneers and leaders growing this pioneering industry is of landmark importance.”

The film Mary Janes highlights how the cannabis sector has so many prominent women in leadership positions. Women held 36 percent of executive or ownership positions in cannabis, compared to an average of 21 percent in other industries.

Unfortunately, the key word there is “held.” Those numbers are declining as cannabis becomes a bigger business.

Art by Sophia Valdes

“The statistics for senior leadership actually went down during the production of the film,” Mary Janes director and producer Windy Borman tells SF Evergreen. “By the time the film came out, it had dipped to 27 percent. From 36 to 27, in 18 months.”

Borman blames the gender bias of venture-capital investment.

“We had eight more states legalize in some capacity in 2016, and that opened the floodgates for funding,” she says. “The people who are coming in are looking for a more traditional funding model. We see old white men give money to other old white men.”

Amanda Denz, co-founder and CMO of the Potrero Hill-based delivery service Sava, adds that “you see a lot of women as educators, and as owners of small craft brands in the industry. You don’t see as many women in the technology space, or in the delivery and logistics part.”

And you don’t see as many women-owned cannabis businesses that get investors and get funding. That’s an area that needs growth.

Women got a huge head start in establishing themselves as the captains of this industry during the pre-tech-boom early days of legal marijuana, when cannabis was more of a social advocacy cause than a big business.

“Back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, there were a lot of success stories because women were such an integral part of the movement,” says Amanda Reiman, who sat on the first regulatory commissions that established Oakland and Berkeley cannabis laws, and is now VP of community relations for Sonoma distributor Flow Kana. “Once all this started to shift from a movement to an industry, which really started in the mid-2000s, we started to see some of the same business heads that we’ve seen take shape in other American industries. We started to see more men come into the cannabis space.”

In 2003, the very appropriately named SB 420 truly legalized California dispensary sales by establishing the medical marijuana card  system. San Francisco created its first framework for legal dispensaries in 2005.

Dispensaries were originally defined as “non-profit collectives.” But the for-profit forces of big business saw lucrative opportunities, and the green rush mentality would change the ganja game.      

“I would go to conferences in 2007, 2008, and they would have booth babes,” remembers Lindsay Robinson, executive director of the trade group California Cannabis Industry Association. “From a female perspective, there seemed to be a lot of misogyny.”

“I’ve seen a dramatic improvement in the visual depiction of women in the industry,” she tells SF Evergreen. “There is still a gender gap. But there’s also an equity gap, and a minority gap in terms of really reflecting the cannabis industry.”

No one’s addressing those equity and minority gaps quite like Oakland’s Hood Incubator, a nonprofit determined to increase industry ownership for entrepreneurs of color and Drug War victims.   

“I started selling cannabis since at 12, 13 years old,” says Linda Grant, whose small cannabis business OakTown Distribution is an alumni of the Hood Foundation. “I’m 50 years old now.

“I got kicked out of junior high school at the age of 14 for selling weed in the girls bathroom,” she adds. “Fast forward to when they legalized cannabis in 1996 — hey, I was happy.”

With the help of the Hood Incubator, Grant got access to investors and founded a successful delivery business.

“The Hood Incubator is the main place for women and people of color to get into the cannabis business,” Grant says. “It’s one of the only programs in Northern California that’s making sure that Black and Brown people get equity in cannabis.”

The influence of women on the Bay Area cannabis scene has kept a social justice focus intact even as the industry becomes more lucrative. “There’s still so much opportunity in cannabis,” Borman says. “Women see that. Women are smart.”

“If we leave it to men to decide what women want, they’re going to take what they want and make it smaller and pink. They don’t ask. So it’s a lot easier if we create things that we know are going to fit into our lifestyle, and chances are it’s going to work for another woman.”

Women have been saying “Yes, We Can-nabis” since the “Just Say No” days of the Ronald Reagan era. The modern day cannabis business still needs to weed out some gender bias, sexism, and racial inequality, but the industry’s strongest resisters are the sisters.

The Bay Area premiere screening of Mary Janes: The Women of WeedFriday, March 8, 7 p.m., at Neyborly, 95 Linden St., Suite 1, Oakland. $20; 707-867-1428 or geterdoneproductions.com