Popaganda: Puff, Puff, Progress

This week, Popaganda’s HEAT season heads away from the fire—and marches directly toward the smoke. In this week’s episode, host Carmen Rios talks to a slew of “puffragettes” fighting to end the drug war, foster a more equitable cannabis industry, and forge a feminist future in weed.

2019 has already heralded in a whole lot of victories in the fight for laws that decriminalize and legalize cannabis possession and distribution—and studies show that more women are lighting up than ever before. When the marijuana business boomed, the number of women in leadership positions in the industry fell, and the national patchwork of drug laws leaves people of color at risk for criminalization and incarceration every day. But women aren’t surrendering to the patriarchal and corporate forces threatening the future of cannabis. Instead, they’re organizing at the state and national level for comprehensive marijuana laws, building networks for women in the business of bud, and creating space for marginalized communities to reclaim and redefine weed culture.

Carmen talks to policy experts, business leaders and community-focused stoners in this episode—digging into the importance of comprehensive drug laws with Karen O’Keefe from the Marijuana Policy Project, talking shop with The Incubator founder Amy Margolis and Ellementa co-founder Aliza Sherman, envisioning queer cannabis culture with 420 Queer co-founder Irene Urias, and appraising the landscape of the sector with Mary Janes: The Women of Weed filmmaker Windy Borman. 

Carmen came to every interview with the same question: What does a feminist weed culture look like? She came away with the knowledge that there are a lot of moving parts—and a lot of work ahead—in the fight to create equity in cannabis. But she’s hopeful, like the women she talks to, that the future of weed is feminist—and that together, we can take down the capitalist stoner bros trying to convince us it never was.


Image via BadGalRiri/Instagram

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DAHLIA BALCAZAR: Are you trying to do it all flawlessly, and you just end up tired or beating yourself up over little things? Do you have a brilliant idea but fear you might fail? Break away from the cult of perfection with Reshma Saujani by subscribing and listening to the Brave, Not Perfect podcast. Reshma’s the incredible founder of Girls Who Code and an international best-selling author. Each week, she explores ways we can be a little more brave in our everyday lives because bravery isn’t about slaying dragons; it’s a habit you form. She wants to help you build that muscle so when it really matters, you’re ready to take on the challenges life throws at you. To fear less, fail more, and live bolder, listen and subscribe to the Brave, Not Perfect podcast wherever you’re listening right now.
[theme music]
CARMEN RIOS: Hi again! Carmen Rios here—feminist writer, editor and digital media superstar—and the host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast. This is the fourth episode in our HEAT season, in which we’ve spiced up our lives, talked about the heat of the moment, and dreamt up a feminism beyond burnout. But this week, we’re leaving behind the fire for smoke and figuring out whether women can save weed.
[“Like Smoke” by Amy Winehouse plays]

♪ “I never wanted you to be my man/
I just needed company/
Don’t want to get dependent on/
Your time or who you spend it on/
But I lose it when you love me/
Like smoke, I hung around in the unbalanced/
Woah, oh….” ♪

CARMEN: Marijuana is having quite a moment. Laws legalizing or decriminalizing cannabis use are taking the nation by storm. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, 27 state legislatures in 2019 alone considered bills to legalize cannabis use, and Illinois became the 11th state to pass one. Three states also decriminalized possession, joining 23 others in refusing to jail folks for carrying cannabis. In just the first six months of 2019, MPP wrote in their annual report, hundreds of bills improving marijuana policies were considered in states and territories, and dozens passed.

These laws create new opportunities, particularly for women and people of color who have been invested in cannabis culture but had more to lose indulging in it before it was legally sound. Even today, there’s a lot of room left for improvement in protecting consumers and entrepreneurs in the world of weed, especially in communities of color. Patchwork laws are leaving them at risk. But right now, cannabis is also becoming a new frontier. And in the wild west of weed, women are staking out space for themselves against a lot of odds and in defiance of patriarchal norms that attempt to squeeze them out of the sector.

Eaze found in their 2018 State of Cannabis report, based on data from 450,000 consumers and surveys with 4,000 of them, that first-time use of cannabis exploded last year by 140 percent. The total number of women consumers that year also skyrocketed by 92 percent, and women became 38 percent of all cannabis consumers overall. Eaze declared that by 2022, they were hopeful that women would make up half of all cannabis consumers. This kind of data was echoed by another study from Rabobank, one of Europe’s leading financial institutions, which revealed that cannabis posed a threat to the wine industry because women loved it so darn much that they actually preferred it to their daily glass. Thirty-four percent of the women they surveyed said they expected to increase their marijuana use following legalization.

But those numbers don’t add up with the data coming back from corporate. According to a 2019 report by Vangst, based on data from 166 cannabis companies in 17 states that have more than two employees, 38.5 percent of employees in the cannabis sector are women. In some states, women even make up more than 50 or as much as 75 percent of the industry’s workers. But only 17.6 percent of those women reported that they were executives or directors. Forty-three-point-four percent of the companies that were surveyed had workforces that were over 50 percent female, but only 12.6 percent had zero women directors or executives, while 41.2 percent had one. Seventy-four percent of the companies Vangst surveyed, including the largest one in their study which had 500 employees, had 10 or less women working there.

It wasn’t always like this. In 2017, Marijuana Business Daily reported that the number of women executives in the industry had fallen from 36 percent in 2015 to 26.9 just two years later, and that women-owned or founded cannabis businesses made up only one quarter of the industry. That same year, they also found that minority representation in cannabis was dismal AF, with only 17 percent of marginalized racial and ethnic communities running shit in the world of weed. What these numbers prove is that women and people of color aren’t uninterested in shaping the emerging cannabis sector. It doesn’t show us that they’re put off by the thought of lighting up. Instead, these numbers prove that they’re being pushed out of leadership positions and erased by the corporatization of cannabis. And now, feminists are fighting back in state legislatures, business meetings, and community convenings across the country.

[Film trailer for Mary Janes: The Women of Weed plays]

WOMAN 1: I realized I wasn’t just starting a business; I was like joining a revolution.

[upbeat music]

WOMAN 2: I grew up in the DARE generation of “Just say no,” “marijuana’s a gateway drugs.”

CROWD: [Chanting.] No more drug war!

WOMAN 3: We’re a movement, an industry, and consumers that are all working together.

WOMAN 4: We got the power! [Laughter. Cheers.]

WOMAN 5: I’m doing this film, and I’ve never consumed cannabis! [Laughs.]

WOMAN 6: The plant is the core of the whole industry.

WOMAN 7: Cannabis is now medicine. Cannabis is medicine.

WOMAN 8: We want everyday doctors to be able to look at cannabis as just part of your toolbox.

WOMAN 9: How are we gonna figure out why this plant works so well if you don’t even know what you’re taking?

CARMEN: Those voices you just heard are from women across sectors and lines of identities fighting for an equitable cannabis culture. Windy Borman calls them “puffragettes.”

WINDY BORMAN: Yeah. So, the word “puffragette” comes from a combination of “pot” and “suffragette,” so the people that helped women get the right to vote and believed women should have the right to vote. And we came up with that word because we were really struggling with a way to describe women who believe in the corporate social responsibility of cannabis. You know, cause if we’re looking at the intersection of gender parity, social justice, and sustainability, I mean those core values really tie in with social responsibility. So, if the words “Mary Janes,” “Women of Weed,” you know, they were like “ganja girls,” [laughing] and all these cutesy words that become hashtags on social media, and it just didn’t really feel like it was doing their work justice. So, we felt we needed to create a new word and introduce that to the community. And it’s been really wonderful to see people adopt the “I’m a puffragette” moniker, I guess.

So, the definition of a puffragette is a woman or a man who is working for a gender parity, social justice, and environmental sustainability in the cannabis industry. So, we’ve actually gone through the wonderful process of trademarking the word and the logo for that so we can continue to tell stories of puffragettes in the cannabis industry.

CARMEN: Windy’s 2017 documentary, Mary Janes: The Women of Weed, followed puffragettes working to transform cannabis culture through legislative means, across cultural means, and even in business and product development. Windy had never even smoked weed when she decided to make the film. She just noticed that there was an untold story unfolding as cannabis grew as an industry and that it was an untold story starring a whole lot of badass ladies.

WINDY: Well, I found myself in Colorado in 2014, and that was right when legal sales of what they were calling “recreational marijuana” or what came to be known as “adult use of cannabis.” And I had never tried cannabis before, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that there were so many women having success in this industry. So, I really came at this from the feminist perspective of tell me more. Out of all the industries, why are women having more representation in senior leadership in the burgeoning cannabis industry than they were anywhere else? So, in 2015 Marijuana Business Daily came out with the statistic that 36 percent of senior leadership in the cannabis industry was women. And the national average at the time was 22 percent. So, there was something about cannabis that was more attractive for female entrepreneurship or female leaders.

So, I just started talking to people. I ended up interviewing over 100 people over the phone to really wrap my head around the idea of cannabis and women. And what I came to realize was cannabis was not only the intersection for gender parity, it also tied in social justice and environmental sustainability. So, at that point, cannabis became an intersectional feminist movement, and I didn’t need to use cannabis to understand the importance of that. So, I dove in, and we ended up filming 40 women from 10 different states, and we put that in the film.

CARMEN: By the time Windy’s film came out in 2017, that number had fallen, and she knew it was because of the growing corporate influence on weed. But she also remains hopeful that women have a fighting chance at taking cannabis culture back and changing what it looks like in the years to come.

WINDY: So, what I attributed to that dip in 2017 was, in the fall of 2016, we had something like eight more states legalize cannabis, either for adult use or medical use. And when you have big states like California and Massachusetts come on board, that opened the doors for more traditional funding. And what we see when we look at startup culture is that women receive less than 3 percent of startup funding, and people of color receive less than 1 percent. So, if you’re a white man, you are receiving the majority of the funding for startups. And that model was getting applied to the cannabis industry. So, we had more traditional funders looking for traditional founders. And so, the activists who were a great mix of people: There were men and women, but there were people of color; there were veterans; there were people from the LGBTQ community; there were people for disability and accessibility rights. You know, it was this wonderful mix of activists. Well, if they didn’t have the business degrees or they didn’t have connections from Harvard, they weren’t able to compete in that market. So, we had the more traditional, rich white men giving money to other rich white men. And that kind of pushed other people out.

Well, in the past couple years, we’ve seen more states legalize. But I think because we’re having this conversation and we know that consumers make better choices once they’re educated about the brands. They don’t necessarily want to use a plant that is covered with terrible pesticides, right?

CARMEN: Mm, yeah.

WINDY: Nor do they want to give something to their children if it’s not benefiting the community where they’re coming from. So, as that story started to come out about how women and people of color were being pushed out of the cannabis industry, I think there was a rallying from consumers saying, hey, that’s not the type of brand that I actually wanna support. So, we’re seeing entrepreneurs come back into cannabis. They may not be able to compete and raise millions and millions of dollars for a cultivation or a cannabis grow in a warehouse, but they can create other companies. I mean there’s so many more opportunities. And this is what I found really appealed to women and why they were coming to cannabis in the first place.

The first thing I like to say is women are smart. They saw the same opportunity everybody else saw, right? But what they also saw was an opportunity to create the corporate culture that they wanted to work for. They could hire the people they wanted to work with, and then they could create the type of products that were gonna fit into their lifestyle. You know, there’s this general pinkwashing that happens in marketing, right, where if you ask a bunch of dudes what women want, they’re gonna take what they like, make it smaller and pink, and then, “Hey, this is the women’s version, right?!”

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

WINDY: We’ve seen this with pens and Doritos and like all kinds of weird stuff! So, if you ask a woman what she needs, she’s gonna tell you. And better yet, why don’t we just show you, right? So, women are creating the products that are gonna fit discreetly in their purses, or maybe they create the purses to begin with, you know, with the odor-locking technologies, so nobody needs to know what’s in your bag, right? Or they’re creating more opportunities or inventive ways for microdosing, right? Cause we can’t get high at 4:20 every single day. We have stuff to do. We’ve got lives to run, maybe children to take care of, businesses to run, right? Maybe cannabis fits into our life differently. And we’re leading those conversations about those products.

And then the other thing women are really great at is if we like something, we tell everybody, right?

BOTH: [Laughs.]

WINDY: If we hate something, we also tell everybody. But it’s wonderful word of mouth marketing, right? So, we are the educators of our communities. We’re also the chief medical officers of our households. So, we will decide what comes into our home, and that includes cannabis and hemp products.

CARMEN: Well, and you know, the puffragettes come from so many backgrounds. You have nonprofit leaders who advocate for incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated women. You have women who are developing new strains, who are baking new edibles. You have female lawyers. You have so many women from different backgrounds who are playing a different part in shifting cannabis culture listed as puffragettes. And I think that that’s a perfect representation of how many moving parts there are in this fight, right, to build a feminist weed culture. And what is it gonna take to really cause these seismic shifts?

You touched on a lot of these things before when we talked about the valid concerns that women have, the ways in which the industry doesn’t address not only those concerns but their sort of aesthetic needs and their day-to day-lives when they’re developing products. But what is it gonna take sort of in the business culture, but also in laws and in the culture at large? What do you think it’s gonna take for weed culture to really become feminist and for things to become equitable in cannabis?

WINDY: Mmhmm. Well, as you said, there’s a lot of moving parts on this one. So, I’d say on the legal side of things, what it’s gonna take, we need to federally legalize cannabis. We need to stop this crazy war on drugs against the cannabis industry. We need to allow research at the levels of other countries, and that’s really gonna open the door for other types of investment too. I don’t necessarily want the cannabis industry to be absorbed by Big Pharma, but there is other research that we could be doing that we’re just not able to, the cannabis industry isn’t able to fund itself. It’d be great to have a government grant to study the efficacy of cannabis as opposed to just the harms for cannabis, and we’re not quite there yet.

On the business side of things, it’s really similar to looking at other startup cultures, right? What we know that when we have equitable access to funding and when we provide mentorship, that women and people of color succeed. So, we really need to invest in that within the cannabis industry too, right? So, I always say that if you are lucky enough to have a seat at the table, make sure you turn around and bring a seat for other people from your community too, right? We can’t be happy with just one diverse face in the boardroom. And that is really what we need to work at. We might have 37 percent of senior leadership in cannabis as women, but who are on the company boards? How many of them are CEOs? How many of them are getting the billion-dollar merger and acquisition deals? That is still a very male and a very white thing that we end up seeing.

So, mentorship is really important to help the activists who have become the entrepreneurs, help them navigate that. They may not have a business degree from an Ivy League school, but that doesn’t mean we need replace them. They might just need coaching of like, here’s what a QuickBooks spreadsheet looks like, you know? [Laughs.] Because when you were in the illicit market, you weren’t keeping records like that, right? [Laughs.] So, that’s part of it.

And then what we really need is funding, funding focused on supporting women and people of color. There are a couple groups who are popping up saying they’re doing that within business at large and within the cannabis industry, but we need more because the people who have access to wealth, they’re used to putting it in specific areas, right? So, it’s really hard to get them to change their mind about their formula for what works. So, what we really need is new investors. We need new collectives. We need new groups of people coming together and saying this is important. Let’s create a cohort to fund these types of businesses.

I think we could also offer grants. If we use the model from like the Small Business Administrations in cities, they will say we’re gonna invest in business to redevelop this part of town, or we really want to give people basically free rent for a year so they could get their businesses up and running. Or we’re gonna coach them through how to do all the legal paperwork so that’s not a hindrance to what they’re doing. You know, we’re starting to see that in some cities. They have social equity plans where, you know, we see it in Oakland where there are groups who have helped people of color, women and men, go through the process of getting their cannabis licenses and business registration and all of that stuff that they need to do so that they can be the cannabis entrepreneurs in their community. Because we know that they were targeted by the war on drugs, unfairly targeted.

So, we also have a program in Massachusetts, which is statewide, where they’re looking at the number of licenses that they’re granting and making sure that they represent the community. But that’s not been applied everywhere. Right. And when it’s not a goal, it’s forgotten. Everybody likes to check things off a to-do list. And so, if it’s not part of the to-do list, well then, look at it later and be like, oops, I guess we didn’t do it.

CARMEN: [Chuckles.]

WINDY: So, if we look at it from the beginning and we build this thing right from the beginning, we won’t have to then look back on it like the tech industry or the film industry or any of these other industries we’ve recently seen built and go, oh, we really screwed up. How do we fix it?

CARMEN: After I talked to Windy, I reached out to puffragettes from across the country working to shift culture, policy, and purse strings around cannabis. Like Windy said, there are a lot of moving parts in the fight. So, I wanted to know what it would take, in dispensaries, on Capitol Hill, in the media to make a feminist future in weed possible.

ALIZA SHERMAN: If we talk history, cannabis was in the hands of women who were healers over the course of centuries. And women have been using cannabis even in ancient times up until really the early 20th century as a means of ameliorating female reproductive issues and pre-labor, during labor, postpartum as treatments for all the things that women’s bodies were experiencing: to relieve pain, to induce labor as needed to help postpartum as well for everything from mood lifting to pain relief to a sleep aid. So, we’ve been using this medicine, and it was taken from us, not because it was dangerous, but it was taken from us by greed, industry, and a few very powerful men.

So, what I can tell you about today is the opportunity in the cannabis industry: so, there’s two sides of it. There’s how do women benefit from cannabis and access it? And then how they can participate in the industry to truly impact it. So, there’s a cultural and really just a health component to it. And then there’s the sort of political and business side of it. And women are instrumental in all of that, but we’re facing just basic societal norms where we don’t get a seat at the table, where we don’t get the money and the funding that we need to grow our businesses that have much more of an attention to care. And we don’t always have access. And not to mention the social justice piece of it, where a lot of women, a lot of people of color are being penalized still for possession of marijuana. You know, even in this day and age, it is still treated as a terrible crime all based on false information. So, I could tell you that there’s a lot of opportunity for women to truly have impact and make change and to access this medicine and help themselves and their families. But wow, we’re facing a lot of deeply-entrenched issues that are barriers to all of us.

CARMEN: That’s Aliza Sherman, the cofounder and CEO of the global women’s cannabis wellness network Ellementa.

ALIZA: I always tell the story that I was the girl who had the science fair project close encounters of the worst kind. It was all about marijuana being a gateway drug to heroin because back in the ’80s, that’s what we were taught. And we did not have the internet. I had to go to the library, and all the textbooks told me that. So, it had to be true. And then in high school I, yeah, tried a little, nothing much. It wasn’t really my thing. After college, I decided I wasn’t even going to consume anymore because it just didn’t seem to fit into what I thought my life was supposed to be. And it wasn’t until my early 50s, I was actually researching cannabis as an industry to pursue for my digital marketing company. And as I began to look at it as a business opportunity, it dawned on me, wait, wait, it’s medicine? What are you talking about? That’s not what I learned.

And then I spoke to more and more people, particularly women in the industry, and began understanding how we were all misled. So, I decided to try it again with the guidance of several different women to see if it would help me with chronic pain and insomnia. And it did. And that was the beginning of this whole renaissance, if you will, in my entire life and career, to devote myself to helping more women understand that what we learned about cannabis was wrong and that this is plant medicine, and here’s how you use it properly and how it could help with a lot of the things that we go through during perimenopause and menopause. And so, that began the transformation of my digital marketing company into an educational and data-driven company around women and cannabis, with the crux of it being educating more women, because women will bring that knowledge into the household and into their entire circle. So, that’s how Ellementa was born.

CARMEN: Aliza and her colleagues at Ellementa, through educational efforts and cultural programming that destigmatizes and demystifies marijuana, are working to amplify the voices of women in weed and bring more gender diversity to the forefront of the industry.

ALIZA: An Ellementa woman is motivated to live a better life, to be healthier, and to serve her community and her family in healthier ways. An Ellementa woman, to be part of our company, to be a leader, I mean, we call the women who host our in-person gatherings in now, I think it’s about 62 cities across north America, we call them leaders. We want to inspire women to lead, again with honesty, integrity, and care. We need to take better care of ourselves. I think as women, we tend to take care of everyone around us and forget about ourselves. But in all of my speeches and my writings and my books about women, I’m always saying in order to take power, we have to first empower ourselves and take care of ourselves. An Ellementa woman takes care of herself first so she has the wherewithal to take care of the ones she loves. And that’s what we’re building. We’re building a company based on women who care.

CARMEN: Aliza comes from the world of tech, so she knows what it’s like to come up against a bro culture. She also knows that, much like the tech boom of the ’90s, women have everything to lose in this moment if they don’t claim their power in the burgeoning cannabis sector, which is why she’s working to advance gender equities on both sides of the business.

ALIZA: Well, our company is based on two different audiences. Our consumer-facing side is about health and wellness. We focus on providing women with better information about cannabis as medicine so that they, in turn, can understand how to use it properly to gain health and wellness benefits and to take care of their loved ones. So, it could be their kids, like a child with autism or epilepsy. I mean they’ve seen incredible success with using cannabis and cannabis derivatives—meaning the cannabinoids within cannabis—to treat epileptic seizures. And women are often the caregivers of aging parents. So, to have cannabis in their hands and have them understand how it could help an aging parent get off of a lot of the medications that they’re on that are giving them terrible side effects. It could also help in the dying process so it isn’t as stressful on themselves or on their loved ones. There’s an amazing array of things that can happen, but if they don’t have the right information, they can’t do this. So Ellementa has the consumer-facing side where we educate women about cannabis as medicine.

And then on the other side, we educate brands about how to reach women appropriately, how to create the products that serve women’s needs, not just themselves for themselves, but for their loved ones as caregivers. So, understanding what women are looking for, not pandering to females, not making a pink box and calling it “women’s weed,” but to truly understand the transformational power of cannabis in women’s lives and producing the products that work really well for their multifaceted roles.

So, that’s what our company does. We aren’t business oriented, so the women grow and they focus on professional career and business. We’re not a consumption organization, but there’s Tokeativity. And Tokeativity is a wonderful place for women who want to try cannabis for the first time, or they love cannabis, they love consuming it, and they wanna be in an environment where they can do so freely. There’s a lot of other organizations or companies that address more political aspects, more business aspects. We’re really focused on health and wellness and making sure that the brands are not leaving women behind.

CARMEN: Awesome. Yeah. And you know, one of the reasons I wanted to do this episode is because I always felt when, you know, when I was in college and dabbling in weed culture, I always felt like it was very male-dominated and sort of male-oriented, like very, you know, your idea of what do you think that when you think of weed culture is you think of bro stoners, and you think of sort of disheveled college-age dudes on the beach or something. And then in turn, I noticed that a lot of the advertising at smoke shops and other sort of paraphernalia places that you could go—because weed wasn’t legal—were also very sort of what you used to see in the ’60s for alcohol, like just women’s bodies selling bongs and pipes and all this stuff. And so, it’s amazing to see organizations really trying to position women as the consumers in this space. And what changes have you seen reverberating from that focus of the work that you’re doing to both bring women in as medical users in this space? And then also working with companies on that other side to make sure that those women feel comfortable and welcome and seen. What’s been the reverberating impact on the culture at large, would you say?

ALIZA: Well, I think it’s really hard for a major culture shift. It takes a lot of time, and it takes the effort of many. I will say I came from the tech industry. In fact, my two business partners, Melissa Pierce and Ashley Kingsley, also came from the tech industry. And that was an industry that is and has always been extremely male-dominated. There was an opportunity early on where a lot of women were getting involved, but it is an extremely male culture. Did we make an impact? Have we changed things? Not really. You look at the board of any tech company, you’ll look at the heads of any tech company, and you will rarely see women or people of color. So, it is a major undertaking to try to create fundamental change because we’re not just fighting the old ways of doing business. We’re fighting an entire deeply-entrenched societal attitude toward or against women.

So, you’re right, the stoner due to culture was something that Ellementa as a company has wanted to combat. And that’s why we try to educate brands and saying things like, “That image will not work with our audience, with women, scantily clad or practically see-through outfit to talk about your cannabis products. No, that’s not what we’re looking for.” And so, we have been able to get brands to change their messaging, to change the imaging that they use when they’re promoting products. That’s just one by one; that’s small impact.

We are able to educate women to ask for or demand better products, test results, transparency in production so that they understand what kind of products they’re getting. But in terms of that culture, it still exists. And frankly, not every woman is offended by that. Not every woman even notices that. But I think that the majority of women who we’ve encountered would rather see the benefits of the product, would rather see images of what this product can do for me to improve my life. And we’re not against just casual consumption for relaxation or enjoyment at all. That’s part of wellness: to relax, to laugh, to enjoy your food! [Laughs.] All those things that can be the byproduct of consuming cannabis? Nothing wrong with that. So, it’s trying to find a new language and putting more women into the places of power, into those seats at the table that will actually begin to shift change.

I was just looking at a venture capital firm and a holding company firm’s website, and it looked exactly like this other holding company that I was looking at, you know, cannabis holding company with multiple products. It’s very homogenous. And no offense to white males, but it’s all white males and all middle-aged white males. All of it except for the one lone, usually blonde, white female. Literally, if you go to these venture capitalist pages and if you go to these holding companies, the people who hold the purse strings, the money that’s going to help us grow this industry, they all look the same.


ALIZA: That is not changing. And until that changes, we’ll see the same old-same old thing. Maybe not the stoner culture, but we’ll see a lot of pharmaceutically-produced cannabis synthetics and products that are tested on men and not even on women. So, it’s kind of a scary prospect of where things may go if we keep bringing the old ways of doing business and thinking into cannabis marketing and cannabis products.

CARMEN: Yeah. And what value would you argue that women are bringing to the cannabis space? How do you feel, even if it’s not in major ways that they’ve been sort of transforming or shaping, I guess, this sort of brand-new culture of medical and recreational cannabis?

ALIZA: Well, it’s the same value that women bring to any industry they can bring to cannabis. So, back in the early days of the new media tech industry, back in the ’90s, it was proven through research and studies that if you had women on your tech development teams, that you produced a better product. You produced a product that was better serving people, human beings. So, women bring a certain humanity to the process. They bring a certain kind of creativity that, not to say that men aren’t creative because absolutely they are, but we all have to come to the agreement that male brains and female brains and all the effects that hormones bring—and we have different hormones—they operate differently. And that’s a good thing. There’s nothing bad about that. One is not better than the other. But those differences, when you bring them together, it’s much more powerful.

So, women bring a certain creativity. They also bring a certain care. So, a lot of the women-owned cannabis companies, if you take a look at how they operate, they have some kind of giving back to the community embedded into the absolute DNA of their companies. That it’s a given. It’s a given that if you’re gonna make money as a woman, many women—and again, I can’t count every single woman out there, you can’t say a blanket statement, but just to say this—every woman that I have met in the cannabis industry who has started her company, she may have an eye towards the money. She also has an eye toward giving back. So, it’s the triple bottom line. More women, I believe, buy into and truly believe in and fundamentally don’t even think twice about a triple bottom line, taking care of not just profit but the planet and other people. And so, that is something of great value that women bring to any industry. And cannabis should not discount that. The cannabis industry can be stronger and better when more women are in power positions.

CARMEN: Totally. What do you think a feminist weed culture would look like?

ALIZA: [Sighs.] Well, we all, as feminists have always said, feminism isn’t about women being better than men or women having more than men or women getting greater opportunity than men. Feminism is really humanism. It’s really all of us being equal and all of us benefiting and all of us collaborating and cooperating and building this together. So, to me, feminist weed culture is really human beings being happier and healthier, taking care of one another, taking care of the planet. And doing that through the cannabis industry means more sustainable practices. It means more human care when you are building a company, really thinking about the people who are working for your company and their lives and caring about them. It’s about producing products that yes, you do wanna make money from, but you also wanna make sure they’re healthy, that you’re giving medicine that doesn’t have chemical compounds in it that are known carcinogenic compounds. Just being transparent and honest, having integrity: that’s feminism.

That is what the world needs now, really: less hate, more love.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

ALIZA: I think that that’s what it would look like. And there would be a lot more color. I’m Hispanic, so as a Latina entrepreneur, I have a lens where I am looking for the color. And I’m always dismayed, even in my own company, when it sometimes seems too white. Nothing wrong with white. White is fantastic. I mean I’m very pale on myself, but the color, the fabric of weaving the tapestry of our diverse cultures and stories, that richness is going to make cannabis as an industry stronger and better. That’s what I believe feminist cannabis culture is.

[“Do You” cover by Phoebe Ryan plays]

♪ “Do you like drugs, do you like drugs/
Me too, me too, me too, me too/
Do you like love, do you like love/
Me too, me too, me too, me too/
oh….” ♪

CARMEN: One of the reasons women’s share of leadership in weed is going down is because capital is rushing in. And where money goes, men and other folks with social and structural power typically follow. When weed exploded, so did the investment interest in that sector, which led to men being brought in from other corporate cultures to head it up in large numbers. In other words, when weed went mainstream, it started looking like other businesses. And most of the time, when you look around a C-suite, there aren’t a lot of women pulling up seats at the table.

Amy Margolis is trying to change that by hitting the patriarchy where it hurts and getting more money funneled towards the ladies fighting for leadership opportunities in cannabis. Along the way, she hopes that shifts cannabis culture at large.

AMY MARGOLIS: There’s so much riding on this industry, right? It’s the first new industry in a long time. It is still a wide-open playing field. I don’t think we really know who the winners are. We fundamentally disagree that the space is already saturated. And so, we’re hoping that by creating and supporting female leaders that they are going to be able to create some wealth for themselves. They’re gonna create diverse workplaces. They’re gonna help work on what national and global policy looks like. So, if we can take women—and this is a very capital-intensive business—we know that female founders don’t get funding anywhere close to how male founders get funded. And we know that women of color in particular get 0.2 percent of all venture capital. That statistic is disgusting. And so, if we can take these women, we can provide them the funding, the scaffolding and the support, we think they can be just as competitive as male founders. And we’re hoping that by creating that wealth, by creating that leadership, that they’ll also step up and be policy makers. Because we don’t want a bunch of white men making and creating global cannabis policy. That would be a huge shame.

CARMEN: Amy comes from a law and policy background. She was a criminal defense attorney who represented folks being unfairly prosecuted for drug crimes, and she went on to run national advocacy organizations and PACs dedicated to advancing marijuana policy and protecting marijuana users and entrepreneurs. But these days, you’re more likely to find her at The Commune, her new coworking space for women in weed, than in a courtroom. And she’ll probably be working to lift up the women leaders in the cannabis space participating in her incubator program, The Initiative, designed to equip them for takeoff.

AMY: I consider it some continuity between the policy work and this work. I mean, we started the initiative with the idea that women were being rapidly pushed out of this space and that there really was not investment capital being spent on women, that women weren’t receiving really too much support, and that we could change that, right? We could take women, we could bring them into the cohort, we could hold the retreats that we already have—the next one’s called Female Up Front—and really put some tools in women, female founders’, toolboxes as well as through the cohort, really intensively educate and help fundraise. I mean that’s what we do. And so, to me, it is this ongoing policy work. I mean it’s making a statement that we believe this industry should be equitable as it relates to gender. And separately, really how you keep people of color involved in this space or get them involved in this space. So, I think of it as its own kind of policy work. It’s just that we’re doing what I used to call when I did criminal defense in the trenches work, right? So, it’s not necessarily advocating with the legislature or traveling to DC. It’s like in the trenches, how do we make ground-up change?

CARMEN: And what is the landscape look like now for women in cannabis on the business side?

AMY: You know, it’s really interesting. I think that women are doing some of the most important and valuable work. It is my perspective that there’s value in cultivation, there’s value in retail, but we really have not seen too many strong brands emerge. And that there are certainly gonna be brands in the next 12 months, 18 months, 24 months that are going to be the very first to capture the hearts and minds of national consumers. And so, women are touching that space in particular. So, whenever I’m talking to a female founder, there’s always some cultivators and some people doing retail, but there are really a ton, a ton of founders who are working in the CPQ space. And so, I think that they’re having challenges raising money, they’re having challenges growing, but they have not had challenges creating amazing, innovative, disruptive products. So, we’re not seeing them or talking about those brands as much as we should be, but we could see be the right support. But you know, almost all the female founders that we talked to have had challenges raising money. It’s hard for everybody to raise money, but they’ve had particular challenges. And that is really what we’ve seen as the biggest pain point, and it’s why we’re so focused on it.

CARMEN: Amy’s program brings in cohorts of women board members and founders from the weed world and walks them through what it will take to get funded, helping them strategize and piece together pitches, and then connecting them to investors. The program flips the same script pushing women out of weed on its head and gives them a shot at changing the game.

How have you seen women sort of leading and shaping the cannabis industry? Like what happens when they’re given these opportunities? What’s the reverberation across the sector?

AMY: That’s such a great question. We haven’t really seen it happen, so I can extrapolate on what I’ve seen women do that’s really amazing, which is that, we hold these retreats. This will be our second one in September, and we bring together for this one in Palm Springs, we’ll have 275 female founders coming together, which is kind of an extraordinary number when you think about it. And what we saw at the last one, we’re expecting, founders started doing business together. They started supporting each other. And by supporting, I don’t mean emotionally supporting, I mean that the processors started making deals with dispensaries, started talking to the growers, and the support services were putting scaffolding around them. And men, I think, men in business’s biggest strength and opportunity is the network that they have, right? If they need to raise money, they lean into their network. When they have questions about growing, they lean into their network. And I think women, and I heard somebody talk about this the other day, and I thought it was pretty insightful, is that women have these siloed networks. Like you have your mommy friends and you have your college friends and you have your work friends. And men just have the network. And they golf with their people from work, and they’re like much more intertwined. And I think that when I’ve seen women given the opportunity to learn, women given the opportunity to talk to funders, and to be collaborative with each other, that they are really building that network. And it’d be super cool for that concept to be borne in cannabis and work in cannabis. So, that’s what I’ve really seen is that, they’re choosing to do business with each other, which is a fundamental way to support women in the space.

CARMEN: Supporting those women could also shift weed culture way beyond the boardroom.

AMY: I mean women are like the forgotten consumers, right? Cannabis advertising and marketing is aimed toward, we call them dude bros. Like they’re aimed toward guys who like to get high and that age bracket of like 18 to 32. I just made that age bracket up, but I think it’s about right. And they forget that women are consumers and that women make purchasing, most of the purchasing decisions for homes and especially when it comes to health and wellness. So, by bringing women in as founders, we can see them creating brands for a more broad and appropriate audience, right? They’re taking the conversation farther than just how high can you get? How much THC is there? And so, it does change the consumer landscape, and I think it also changes the entire approach to marketing. And it will create, I think, a downstream effect of women feeling more comfortable going in and buying the product that they want to consume.

CARMEN: What do you feel like a feminist weed culture would look like?

AMY: I mean, it’d be amazing, right? A feminist weed culture would be one that encourages exploration beyond just the THC numbers and beyond just intoxication factor. I mean it would be something where the stigma around women consuming is so different than the stigma around men consuming that we would see that sigma fall away. And weed’s just as acceptable to have a joint when you get home as have a glass of wine. I mean it would be something where we were actually looking at women’s health, specifically at women’s health, so when we think about wellness products and vaginal health. And I think that would be a huge and fundamental change, and it’s my perspective that that’s not gonna be created by.

CARMEN: Putting women at the center of the emerging cannabis industry is really important, but the fight for a feminist weed culture doesn’t begin or end there. In Los Angeles, that fight unfolded most recently downtown, in a courtyard on an unassuming Saturday afternoon—my birthday!—when a collective called 420 Queer invited LGBTQ stoners to smoke up together.

IRENE URIAS: 420 Queer was something, an idea that came from my boyfriend, Urs, who’s not here today, but he works in the industry and came from the East coast and out here for a cannabis job that he was working with over on the East coast. He used to work with High Times, and that was how he came out here to the West coast, and then we met. I do and run a lot of LGBT-focused parties. I DJ and I event produce, and I’ve been, I mean, Southern California, I grew up here my whole life, so I’m like an old ’90s raver that grew up and has her own parties and stuff now. But I also did hair for over 20 years and still sometimes do hair, so I had a lot of just network here. But I remember being really excited to go to my first cannabis event when I met him, and then I got really bummed when I got there!

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

IRENE: It was just really straight. It was for the most part really white and just really commercial. And it was like we were kind of just invisible walking through the events.

CARMEN: That’s Irene Urias. After that shitty weed party, she launched 420 Queer with her boyfriend, a community event series focused on making space for LGBT stoners.

IRENE: You know, there’s a huge gay history, there’s a huge LGBTQ history within cannabis has been really erased too. You know, we wouldn’t be here with access to weed in this commercial form if we didn’t have a lot of gay and lesbian elders that we lost to the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s. And those were some of the first advocates for medical marijuana was for AIDS and HIV patients. And a lot of activists of that timing really helped get the first legislations through for medicinal weed were people of the LGBTQ community, but we don’t talk about that now when we were having these big bro fests, you know?

CARMEN: [Laughs.] 420 Queer venerates the queer history of weed, and it forges a queer future in weed, too, through partnerships and creative relationships with LGBTQ folks in the industry that might not have come along in the mainstream, corporatized cannabis culture that’s starting to push diverse voices out.

IRENE: That was something too that Urs was really adamant about in our first event, and he compiled a bunch of facts that people don’t know about how LGBTQ history, so at the beginning of a lot of legislations. So, he put a lot of facts together that people didn’t know and statistics of just the LGBTQ community likes mostly like 75 percent more than straight community. And that’s because we go through a lot more, you know?

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

IRENE: Just to get here, just to be alive and be able to exist. So, there’s a lot of things like that that, that we talked about and were like, god, nobody else is talking about this. Or it’s not that important to other people, so let’s just try to get to see what we can do. And we’ve met a lot of other great people that are doing great things in the business that are queer and gay, and it’s just good to see more and more. It seems like an industry that you can do if you’re this weird, eccentric person that doesn’t necessarily want an office job. Like you can really carve a little niche for yourself as an entrepreneur within the industry that way.


IRENE: You know, but it’s just great to see more and more people that are coming through, that are coming to us, that are coming to the DMs, that are hitting us up on email that are just like, “I just found out about you guys, and I wanna know more.” And we’re like, okay.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

CARMEN: Well, and what do you think? When you envision sort of a longer-term impact or work like the work that you’re doing sort of collectively happening, what does a queer weed culture look like? What does a feminist weed culture look like, you think?

IRENE: I think it’s important to connect with other queers and women and folks in the business worldwide. And we get DMs all the time from people in other places that are like, “I wish something like this existed where I live,” or “bring it to my city,” or “this is who I am and where I’m from and what I’m about and I’m new and I wanna make friends. And you guys seem like a linkup opportunity or you guys seem like a hub for stuff that I wanna be about, so just like please invite me to your stuff or reach out to me.” We just have so many great queer and gay folks that are just coming in from all different places that are about weed for different reasons or have different stories for why they have relationships with weed. You know, it’s not all just about recreational. There’s so many different levels to it.

CARMEN: What do you think needs to happen to make that sort of queer feminist weed culture actually possible, and where do you see 420 Queer fitting into that?

IRENE: I think that where we fit into it is that we are a bit of a hub to just give people a platform or visibility to just showcase themselves that they’re not the stereotypical stoner and that gay in weed exist. [Chuckles.] There’s a lot of us.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

IRENE: There’s a lot of us. And so, we just wanna be able to have that moment so that people can intersect and find out about each other, you know? Cause a lot of times it’s like you might be gay, but you’re working for this straight company, and you’re just like a face in the company. You’re not actually a part of their image.


IRENE: You know? They don’t, there’s just so many different ways that you can go about it, but like I said, we’re meeting a lot of great companies that share the same vision, that are excited to work with us, are excited to engage. It’s just been really, really overwhelming.

CARMEN: The response Irene has seen proves that there’s a community waiting to be activated in the cannabis world on their terms. And if people like Irene can foster spaces where new voices feel safe, welcome, and seen, they might even be able to dismantle those corporate structures threatening the weed culture that many of us have called home for a while now.

Do you feel, I mean, obviously your space is different than these straight white bro stoner spaces that the industry has created. But fundamentally, what do you think is the difference? Is there a difference, and what would be the difference between sort of the energy, the spirit, the operating practices of these queer cannabis companies? And then what would you say is the difference in the experience of being in these communities and queer cannabis business owners? What do you think sets them apart besides just the fact that they’re queer-owned?

IRENE: I mean your politics. I mean, I care a lot about that. I definitely do. I think there are a lot of companies out there that don’t have our community’s best interest in mind.


IRENE: And I care about that. I know that we care about that. So, I will definitely try to steer clear of brands that I know have contributed to anti-LGBTQ politicians or anything like that. Just those things matter. Those things I definitely care about as far as where I’ll place us, you know.


IRENE: It’s just, yeah, we’ve definitely been approached by people that wanna activate or how can we help you guys grow? And it’s just we don’t need to do that.


IRENE: I remind myself all the time. I’m just like, I don’t need to take money from investors that I know the money comes from a gross place. I don’t need to do that. I think what we’re doing is just small, and we like that it’s small.

CARMEN: Mmhmm.

IRENE: We like that it’s not a huge trade show floor. We like that it’s not this massive festival. We like that it’s just something small for now. And if in the future, we wanna go to other cities and we wanna meet these people that are coming into the DMs, we wanna go to the other places that have the communities to where we can just drop in and do something to help people link up and connect with each other or meet other queers where we’re able to take videos and do their stories like we’ve profiled other people on the page. But that all just takes time I guess.

CARMEN: Yeah. Well, and I’m willing to venture— Cause I feel like it’s also this very interesting thing where I would say queer folks, women, people of color who are part of this larger weed culture probably see it as inherently political, right? I feel like I always have been sort of like, well, yeah, I mean marijuana legalization is so connected to the carceral system and shutting down the prison industrial complex and stopping people from policing bodies and all of these different issues. Do you feel like those spaces you were in where you were uncomfortable were sort of apolitical? Do you feel like there was any political energy in those places, and do you feel like there’s a political energy?

IRENE: I think what made me feel uncomfortable in those places that I felt just capitalism breathing down my neck.

CARMEN: [Laughs.] That was the entry.

IRENE: Yeah.

CARMEN: You’re just like, well, now we’re entering into this capitalist world.

IRENE: Yeah, and you know, some of those events you just feel like cattle meandering through a slaughterhouse just kind of like, why am I here? And that doesn’t appeal to me personally, you know.


IRENE: I’m not here for the free dab.

BOTH: [Chuckle.]

CARMEN: It’s like I’m not here for the free weed. I was here for the fun time.

IRENE: I was here to connect! I’m sorry.

CARMEN: [Laughs.]

IRENE: I just wanted to meet other people like me and was hoping that there’s somebody else out here like me and my boyfriend that are trying to make some kind of change or at least make a little pocket for people like me to feel safer in these types of spaces. And now above all, I remember just kind of like, not feeling too safe like, whoa, this is a lot of bro-ness going on around me, and this is a lot of sexualizing of women around me. This is intense. And I don’t even know if I wanna get high here. [Laughs.]


IRENE: And maybe it’s just all the things. What we try to do is just a little bit different and just on a smaller scale, you know. Would I love to see it be a bigger, huge thing? Of course we would. We would love to go bigger with it. But the connectivity is ideally, I think, at the core of it is just having people connect to be like, hey, there is a place for you in weed. And it’s like we’re all here. It’s just hard finding each other I think because there’s so much of the other in the industry. There’s like so much money being poured into the other within the industry, so it’s like kind of hard to seek through it and find each other, you know?


IRENE: But that happens more and more. I think the more that we do this and the longer that we keep doing it, we meet people that just kind of come through that are really excited about it. And it is an event that I think people talk about it. We don’t do it every month. It’s something that we said from their initial get-go, we didn’t want to commit to it being super regular because I already have events in L.A. that I do regularly. But this was a big undertaking because we wanted to do it right. And there was a lot of heart involved with it, and we don’t wanna burn people out.

CARMEN: Well, and hopefully with every 420 Queer meet up, it’s like one step closer to subverting that sort of influence that’s come into cannabis of all the capital and it being invested in this dominant group. That actually, I would say is not the dominant group in real cannabis culture. I feel like if you smoke weed, you’re like, this is not a frat bro thing. This is a weirdos’ thing. This is what we were doing ‘ause we were weirdos, and now suddenly there’s a bunch of straight white dudes making a bunch of money off of it, so.

IRENE: And a lot of them don’t smoke weed.

CARMEN: [Laughs.] But it’s not just the capitalism, either or the pervasive and annoying nature of that white dude stoner narrative that’s stopping us from forging a feminist weed culture. At the core of this fight is the need for comprehensive marijuana laws and an end to the racist drug war that’s not just pushing people out of the industry but pushing them into prison.

KAREN O’KEEFE: Yeah. Well, as long as you don’t have comprehensive nationwide legalization, some people are gonna be suffering, some people are gonna be arrested, some people are gonna be afraid of being arrested, and that’s a huge problem. And as long as federal law has marijuana illegal, which it does now even though it’s not being enforced by and large, there’s tons of other problems that increase inequity in the industry. As you mentioned, nationwide, African Americans and white people use marijuana at the same rate roughly, but African Americans are four times as likely to be arrested. So, if you have an industry that’s federally illegal, even if it’s not being enforced, there’s now awareness of that. And that could prevent people from taking advantage from signing up and opening a business if they think they’re the most likely to be targeted.

And then you also have the issue that we’re a country that’s slavery, segregation, redlining. We have a history of discrimination that causes vast inequality in wealth. And so, who’s the most likely to have the resources and connection to resources to open these businesses? It’s going to be by and large, white people. If the industry was legal, you would be able to get loans. There’s already small business loans, minority business loans, things like that that are not available when it’s illegal. A lot of banks won’t even take accounts for marijuana; about 600 do out of 10,000 in the entire country. I don’t know of any that are actually loaning money to people to start up businesses. So, federal prohibition is definitely making it harder to have an equitable industry. States are doing a lot trying to find a way to improve that, but it’s always gonna be more difficult when this conduct is still federally illegal.

CARMEN: That’s Karen O’Keefe, the state policy director at the Marijuana Policy Project. She’s seen firsthand the damage that our national patchwork of drug policies creates for the communities most vulnerable to criminalization, and she knows exactly how far we have to go toward creating legal protections to stop the harm.

KAREN: Yeah, so we work for basically humane, compassionate, equitable marijuana laws. When I started, we focused mostly on medical cannabis. It was more popular at the time. And of course, if somebody’s suffering and they need relief, it’s a moral imperative that they not be criminalized for using their medicine. And we’ve also worked on decriminalization, which I think is very important to include. Cause once you have legalization, that applies only to people 21 and up typically. And so, we don’t wanna see people under 21 be branded with a criminal record and be stigmatized and deprived of their freedom either. And now we’re still working on both of those things, but we’re also working on legalization and to do it not just to legalize marijuana, but to do it right in am equitable way that benefits those communities that have been disproportionately impacted, that’s inclusive, and that ideally has broader protections as well.

We don’t want it just to be legalization for the rich, so we wanna make sure that if a person is a renter, if their landlord can’t evict them because they use cannabis and things like that. And you know, sometimes you obviously can’t get everything in the legislative process the first time at the bat, but we work to get as strong of a bill as possible. And if we can’t pass everything, then we try to keep going back and improving things and improving things. And also to expunge past records of people so that someone who was convicted previous to legalization doesn’t keep having this scarlet letter that can really just close all the doors and opportunity in their life.

CARMEN: Yeah. And what’s the, I mean, all of this has— I feel like I’ve been like I’ve been paying attention and maybe engaged in the culture since I guess 10 years ago, and it feels like things have changed very quickly since then. It’s really crazy sometimes to look back on the years I was in D.C. before. I feel like it was back when California was the only state, and it felt like it was this foreign nation because of how different the laws and the landscapes were. And so, what’s the landscape now? What’s the lay of the land and the laws? What’s the patchwork we’re living in?

KAREN: Yeah. So, for the laws, 33 states have some kind of what we consider comprehensive medical marijuana law. Of course, they vary in how comprehensive they are. And 11 states have some kind of a legalization law. 26 including those 11 have some kind of decriminalization law where a person won’t be actually arrested and incarcerated for possession of marijuana. And every state but one has something on the books that acknowledges medical cannabis in some way. It might just be symbolic and meaningless, but stepping back the big picture, when I started at MPP there was something like 35 percent popular support for legalization. You didn’t have a news article that didn’t have some smirky little joke and make light of it. And now it’s something that I think nation nationwide, 66 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal, and the tone has shifted. You don’t have the snarky jokes anymore. Even people who aren’t necessarily supportive sometimes just say, oh, it’s too soon. We need to spend more time on the details instead of usually being fundamentally opposed to the idea of making marijuana legal. And I think even among opponents, there’s a recognition that this is coming, that this is just a matter of time in some states. And at state legislative conferences, I remember hearing from legislators years ago that, oh, I can’t take up that issue, or my house will get burned down. I haven’t heard that in a while.

BOTH: [Laugh.]

CARMEN: So, that’s good news. [Laughs.]

KAREN: That’s good news. [Chuckles.] And even in, you know, there are 27 states this past year that had some kind of legalization bill introduced, which was a record. And so, even if they’re not moving, this is something that’s being seriously debated and seriously considered everywhere. So, it’s a huge, huge change. And of course, there was no industry other than in California, they’ve always had dispensaries, but they were kind of underground, not licensed. The feds could bust them when it started. And now we’ve got 33 states that have some kind of industry that already exists, that have storefronts and businesses, and they’re creating jobs. And that’s obviously a tremendous shift.

CARMEN: Karen also knows better than most how powerful a remedy comprehensive marijuana laws can be for the unjust reverberations of the War on Drugs and even the disparities emerging in that nascent cannabis industry. And Karen knows for a fact that its women waging the war for those changes and winning.

And you’ve been doing this work for a while now. What have you seen as sort of, how do comprehensive laws impact what you see in a specific state when it comes to the justice system and how these sorts of things are panning out?

KAREN: Yeah, so, we see one thing that’s been the most exciting is seeing a dramatic decrease obviously in arrests as a whole, but also searches. There’s vast numbers of searches of people at traffic stops where nothing is found. And like pretty much all law enforcement in our country, it’s not equal. And so, the people most likely to get stopped and searched are Hispanics and African Americans. And we’ve seen a plummeting total numbers of traffic searches that are unwarranted as well as plummeting disparities among those searches. So, that’s been encouraging. Once in a while those can be very high-risk and end up in people being shot and killed in some cases, so that’s encouraging. One thing that hasn’t been as encouraging is that there are still arrest disparities. So, some conduct’s still gonna be illegal.

So, one thing for example, it’s just not gonna ever fly to have—maybe eventually, but probably not—to have people smoking marijuana in the street. And so, that’s gonna be illegal. So, the question is what’s the penalty? And we think it’s important that it be at least just a civil penalty that’s reasonable and proportionate instead of something that criminalizes people. It’s also important that people have somewhere to go to use cannabis. Like I said, in our bills we try to always at least say that any landlord can’t prevent people from using cannabis by non-smoked means cause smoking you can smell in the neighboring apartments. But some people will be in federally subsidized housing, and they’ll be forced by federal law now too. So, it’s important to have places that people can go to use cannabis.

But wherever there’s still some illegality, you’re gonna still have some arrests. So, for example in Colorado, in every state, there’s limits on how much marijuana people can possess, mostly because we still have 39 states with prohibitions. So, there’s concern about transporting it to other states. People are gonna use marijuana there from somewhere. So, policy makers don’t wanna have the perception that their marijuana’s being sent to other states. So, you’re still gonna have arrests there. And we’ve got problems with racial disparities that are systemic and that marijuana legalization isn’t gonna solve. So, wherever you still have some criminality, unfortunately you’re still gonna have some disparities. And as a society, we do need to do a lot more to fix that throughout everything. And certainly, the marijuana laws can look to how can we address this? How can we reduce it? But it’s something that’s a much broader problem.

CARMEN: Yeah. What about on the business side? What are the reverberations of better laws for making the cannabis industry more equitable? Cause I also feel like we saw sort of when it first started booming, there were lots of women, and there was a lot of interest from people of color. And now it’s sort of starting to echo these other industries where we see a lot of white folks, a lot of white men sort of capitalizing on and then maybe infusing this cannabis community with this sort of very capitalist structure that excludes women and people of color. So, what are the reverberations of good laws on the business side?

KAREN: So, it’s still very much kind of a laboratory of democracy where states are trying to figure it out. I think you’ve got the step of in all the new states that are working on legalization, there is a awareness that this has to be done in a way that benefits the communities that have been most affected by it. And so far, a lot of these laws are new, so we haven’t seen yet how well they work at that. But they’re trying different things. So, for example, Illinois, which we were very involved in just passed a law that provided the 20 percent of the points—it has a competitive application process for business applications—are reserved for social equity applicants. So, they’re people who either themselves were arrested for marijuana, their parents were, or they’re from communities that are low-income and had disproportionate marijuana arrests.

And so, the idea there is to make sure that there’s incentive for every business to have leadership. And there’s about 10 other things in the bill too, like they have to have reporting in diversity in the industry, and they have to have plans to impact the community. There’s a fund of $30 million to go to these businesses. So, there are a lot of things that are being done. The leadership in the bill in Illinois was four women. Two of them were African-American. They were called the Marijuana Moms. And just the whole conversation was about equity. I think even the marijuana businesses themselves are realizing increasingly this is an imperative. You have to have this industry better looking forward. So, in a sense, that’s one advantage of kind of the state by state approaches. We’ve been able to see, all right, this isn’t working well in the states in terms of making sure that we have a more diverse industry that’s representative of the people that have been hurt by prohibition. So, what can we do better? What can we do better?

CARMEN: When I was putting together this episode, I asked every single person I talked to the same question: What does a feminist weed culture look like? Some envisioned diverse and inclusive spaces that gave all sorts of folks safe chances to connect and foster community. Some envisioned money flowing more freely into women’s business accounts. Some talked about wanting to see more businesses owned and operated by people of color. But everyone had that same core wish for weed: fewer stoner bros and more fearless girls. Less patriarchy and more equity. A hard pass on capitalist corporate culture and a firm push toward something more transformative and transgressive.

Women, people of color, queer folks, and other communities at the intersections have a lot at stake in the fight for a feminist weed culture and a huge part to play, at every level, in making it possible. We need more diversity and inclusion in the corporate world of cannabis. We need better legal structures to keep stoners safe from discrimination and out of the carceral system. We need more space for marginalized stoners to smoke up, and we need more amplification of women’s voices in every part of cannabis’s future.

It’s clear to me now that I’m not the only queer, mixed-race, feminist lady out here trying to light up in peace. And even if it’s gonna take a mighty village of puffragettes like me rising up and pushing back to reclaim weed, I’m more hopeful than ever that we can make it happen… right after this smoke break.

[“Habits (Stay High)” by Tove Lo plays]

♪ “Staying in my play pretend where the fun ain’t got no end/
Can’t go home alone again, need someone to numb the pain/
You’re gone and I got to stay/
High, all the time, to time to/
High, all the time, to time to/
High, all the time, to keep you off my mind/
High, all the time, to time to/
High, all the….” ♪

[theme music]

CARMEN: Okay, folks. That’s all for this installment of Popaganda by Bitch Media. This episode was produced by Cher Vincent and hosted by me: feminist writer, editor, and activist Carmen Rios, as part of our HEAT season. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Today’s guests were Windy Borman, Aliza Sherman, Amy Margolis, Irene Urias, and Karen O’Keefe.

The conversation doesn’t stop here. Use the hashtag #Popaganda on social media to share your thoughts and feelings on the show. Follow Bitch @BitchMedia on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get more feminist stuff like this in your feed (algorithm willing). And find me @carmenriosss (with three Ss) for behind-the-scenes selfies and unsolicited excerpts from my secret Tumblr.

Popaganda is produced by nonprofit, independent, Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is funded entirely by our community, so if you loved what you just heard, you can support this show directly by joining The Rage, Bitch’s monthly membership program for fed-up feminists like you, at bitchmedia.org/rage. Members get print and digital subscriptions to Bitch magazine, a members-only Filled With Rage mug, and other sweet feminist swag! If you wanna send me hate mail, you can do that at carmenfuckingrios.com. And if you wanna make sure you never miss an episode of the show, you know the drill: subscribe to Popaganda on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

I’ll be back in two weeks with our next episode, and I’ll be taking you with me to a feminist supper club like no other. Until then, I’ll see you on the Internet.


by Carmen Rios
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Carmen Rios is the host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast. She’s also the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. magazine and co-host of Trigger Happy, a weekly webseries about women’s issues on Binge Network. She has been described as “petulant and idiotic,” “intimidating to some,” “vapid and uninteresting” and “brazenly misandrist.”