Perspectives: Gender Inclusion in Cannabis
Gender inclusion is generating a lot of discussion in cannabis. What does “gender inclusion” mean to you? Would you be surprised to learn that it means something different to others?
Perceptions on inclusion can be heavily influenced by a person’s background, life experiences, and other sources of oppression. The latter is known as intersectionality. There is no one single way people experience inequality or discrimination.
As part of an extended International Women’s Day #BalanceforBetter campaign, I interviewed nine cannabis thought leaders who possess the spirit of advocacy to hear what they had to say about inclusion. Individually, their work improves conditions for vulnerable communities. Together, their work is a great sampling of collective inclusion efforts happening in cannabis in 2019.
I encourage you to explore the lessons offered to us by each of these fierce advocates to gain a perspective that may be different than your own.
Caelan Hart, Founder and Blogger at The Cannaisseur
Caelan is a queer and transgender cannabis writer, blogger, and human rights activist. Through outreach work with their local LGBTQ2S community, Caelan volunteers with Project Rainbow Medicine Hat, and previously volunteered with Medicine Hat Pride Association.
Being openly transgender in cannabis doesn’t come without challenges. They described the ‘old boys club’ vibe as a toxic part of cannabis culture that can leave LGBTQ2S folks fearful to be their authentic selves in the industry.
In order for us to see progress with inclusion, Caelan believes attitudes around gender stereotypes need to change.
“You can't really make a whole lot of progress on LGBTQ issues until you tackle the overarching issue: that the patriarchy tells men in our societies that anything feminine is bad, or that it’s weak somehow.”
Caelan sees the need for people of all genders to learn from each other so they can co-exist and thrive together.
“Gender inclusion and queer inclusion in the workplace isn't about necessarily taking anything away from the cis-gendered heterosexual men who are in [leadership] positions already. It’s not about wanting to take power away from them. It's not about wanting to take the torch; it's about wanting to share the flame.”
Caelan recently attended Medicine Hat College’s ‘Cannabis Medicine for Herbalists’ course. The long-term plan is to work towards a degree in naturopathic medicine, focusing on holistic nutrition and sexual health with women and sex and gender minorities.
Rachel Colic on behalf of Boss Ladies of Cannabis (BLOC)
BLOC is an open-access database of women currently working in cannabis. The tool was inspired by a lack of inclusion of women and people of colour being featured on event panels and other speaking opportunities. BLOC simplifies the process of seeking a women’s voice and expertise.
The list grows weekly, featuring bosses working in cannabis globally. BLOC is referenced by news outlets, conference planners, recruiters, and more. The database serves to dispel the myth that there aren’t women working in the roles stereotypes suggest are not commonly held by women, such as cultivation, operations, or science.
Rachel describes BLOC as a tool that removes gender barriers, “…by demonstrating that women have expertise in every category and… can stand next to any other man, and compete with any other man, that you think is perfect for that role, or that piece, or whatever it might be.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that women in cannabis face similar challenges as women in other industries. Cannabis events have their share of ‘manels’ and a regurgitation of the same voices often featured.
Recruiters in the industry continue to struggle to attract a diverse pool of candidates. Rachel believes there are some unique factors causing challenges in attracting top diverse talent.
First, she explains that the industry has a high percentage of CEOs lacking experience that generally comes with such an established role. “There is a lot of new young male leadership at the helm. Most of these companies are not only run by men, they're run by young men. Men who arguably have not done this before.”
On the other end of the skills gap, women in cannabis struggle to secure funding. “There's no shortage of women who are running small businesses, especially in cannabis. But the challenge is, how do you take that leap into big business? Or how do you scale and become noticeable?”
With cannabis being a fairly new industry, Rachel believes there’s a great opportunity to build inclusivity. She explained that health and wellness are areas that woman hold purchasing power, so it makes good business sense to ensure there are opportunities for them.
“Who else is standing beside us to make sure those opportunities are equal for everyone? There are endless opportunities in this industry; they're just not currently equal to everyone.”
This International Women’s Day, BLOC launched an industry challenge which called for cannabis companies to have at least 20% of their board and executive team be held by women by the year 2020.
Caryma Sa’d, Founder and Principal at [s]advocacy
Caryma is a lawyer practicing out of Toronto, Ontario who’s devoted to defending civil liberties. One aspect of Caryma’s practice focuses on cannabis related legal matters, such as landlord-tenant disputes, criminal cases related to consumption and possession, and business related matters.
Initially drawn to social justice law, Caryma finds creative ways to reach to audiences of people who have barriers accessing representation. She explained that injustices related to cannabis have disproportionately impacted vulnerable minorities. Cases range from tenant evictions despite having legal medical authorization to aiding cannabis business owners being pushed out of the market in favour of corporate interests.
Caryma also spoke about the need for reparations, which could level the playing field in this growing industry.
“There's a lot that should be done to rectify what has been historically unjust enforcement of cannabis prohibition. Some jurisdictions are taking that into account and are giving licences to individuals who are affected by the War on Drugs, and we're not seeing that in Ontario.”
Lawyers specializing in social justice law also experience barriers within the legal field, making it difficult to deliver affordable services to vulnerable clients. Women and racialized lawyers face barriers to finding early employment, often resulting in working independently as a solo-practitioner. This limits chances to connect with mentors and advance their career. It can also limit their ability to take part in parental leaves without significant financial consequences with their practice.
Caryma is currently running in the 2019 Bencher Election. This is an opportunity for her to protect public interest by shaping rules and policy at the Law Society of Ontario. In this role, she plans to improve support for women and solo practitioners.
“We need to revisit our parental leave programs because more support at that level could assist with retaining women lawyers. I also think that we need to give more support to those who are breaking out on their own.”
Debi Facey, Founder at EveryTing Canna
Debi made an early entry to the industry landing retail positions at local Toronto head shops, The Friendly Stranger and Roach-o-Rama. She’s held several roles since then, including educator, journalist, photographer and she’s a long-time cannabis enthusiast. Debi also advocates for the mental health community and sits on the Empowerment Council Board of Directors (CAMH).
Prior the boom of big business, cannabis was a very different space. Debi described passionate advocates and professionals who helped progress the industry but are no longer a part of it. Some of these people are no longer with us, some left, and some were left behind.
These people were authentic – a trait I’ve learned Debi highly respects. She describes a community where support is offered with no expectation of something in return. A community that shares with each other and enriches the space for all.
Despite the impersonal algorithms that drive social media engagement, Debi describes her followers as people who provide valuable support, “They [social media followers] support us in what we're doing and where we're going, and hopefully we bring them along. I feel like that's what we, as people in this industry, should be thinking about - how to add to our lives.”
In discussing gender inclusion in cannabis, Debi described the important role men have played in supporting her professional growth through education and positive reinforcement.
“I have been helped by many men that have cared enough about me to want to see me not disappear. To be a person that I could call on in my life. These are people that don't use, ‘Good luck’. They say, ‘Go get em’.”
Debi is currently working towards deploying her latest cannabis content project, The Bottom Bag. The term bottom bag describes the remnants of loose flower found at the bottom of a weed bag. Some believe these leftovers have little value – but not Debi. She often sees the value in what others choose to look over, and we can expect The Bottom Bag to reflect this concept.
“The Bottom Bag; potent content you’d regret leaving behind”
Kira London-Nadeau, Student at University of Montreal
Kira is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Psychology at the University of Montreal. Her research focuses on cannabis use and mental health in adolescence, with a focus on 2SLGBTQ+ youth. She serves as a national board member of Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP), and is the Central Regional Representative with NICHE Canada.
Queer pride and a connection to the 2SLGBTQ community shines through in Kira’s research and methodologies. Kira would like to see a change in how researchers interact with 2SLGBTQ communities being studied. Conferences and white papers are rarely presented in ways that are meaningful to sex and gender minorities.
“There's the sentiment in the [queer] community that researchers just kind of come in, take all this information from us, and then transform it into non-digestible pieces that researchers use amongst themselves. And then nothing really comes back to the community.”
From a queer perspective, Kira described how professional spaces and events can be “gender codified”, which doesn’t inspire feelings of inclusion for many 2SLGBTQ folks. She described some workplaces having a mentality that emotional dialogue and femininity are signs of weakness. This gender bias can be harmful to women and those accustomed to having emotion as a part of healthy dialogue.
Before starting her PhD, Kira wants to spend more time working in the lab, introducing a knowledge translation component to her work.
Kira wants the way she approaches her PhD to be, “an example of how you can actually meaningfully include one the communities that you're working with, and to be applied to research to make sure that you're doing the research for people and not on people.”
Barinder Rasode, Co-Founder and CEO at Grow Tech Labs
Grow Tech Labs is a cannabis business accelerator located in Vancouver, BC. A quick Google search on Barinder shows that she’s been championing for inclusion of women and minorities for years, and this is now reflected in Grow Tech’s structure and priorities.
The Grow Tech Labs team is women-led and senior management currently has one male of color. The work space aims to remove family-oriented barriers by making it child-friendly.
Inclusion is a key aspect of the accelerator program, featuring separate streams of funding for women-led and indigenous-led businesses. Grow Tech Labs also finds opportunities to partner with women in the industry, which is reflected in their cohort mentors.
“It's about making sure that we're partnering with women in the space… our most prominent mentors are women, and we’ve done events with those women.”
After several years working in public service and advocating for change, Barinder has seen both progress and regress in gender inclusion. “I am sad to say that we’re talking about the same things our moms were talking about.”, she said.
Barinder believes that the cannabis industry provides a clean slate offering new opportunities for women and minorities wanting to enter the industry. Women are both influencers and decision makers in the home, and they also comprise of 82% of people working in Canada’s health sector.
“…women and minorities in the space can be extremely bold, and put their hand up, and not wait to be asked to be at the table. Pull up a chair. Create your own table. Because the success of this industry (even though boardrooms are controlled by men) lies in the hands of women and probably middle-aged women like me.”
Abi Sampson, Educator and Activist
It’s difficult to track down all of Abi’s cannabis advocacy projects. She a busy cannabis educator, activist, and enthusiast, in addition to working in customer care with Tweed. She is dedicated to influencing sensible cannabis law reformation at federal and municipal levels of government. Abi also recently hosted a public cannabis education meeting to help remove cannabis stigma in her local community, Pickering, Ontario.
She sits on the Dandelion Initiative’s Board of Directors, a not-for-profit organization that's led by survivors, for survivors of sexual assault. Dandelion Initiative prioritizes voices of LGBTQ2SIA, black, and indigenous racialized sexual assault survivors.
During our conversation, Abi explained how it’s such critical time to support indigenous communities and people of colour in cannabis. She described communities living through multi-generational oppression, only for history to repeat itself. She explained that support can come in the form of resources, opportunity, and upholding the right for indigenous communities to self-govern.
“It's important and imperative to support indigenous people of Canada, especially women, to succeed in the cannabis space for our collective healing. For our healing, for the healing of indigenous people, and the healing of Canada as a country.”
Balance in gender is not truly achieved without a balance in racial representation. Currently in cannabis, too few speaking opportunities are given to the women of these communities – and it’s silencing.
Abi explained, “The struggles of black and indigenous women of colour are not the same as the struggles of white women, especially in cannabis criminalization and we need to recognize that. We need to include these voices and hear their stories and be a true embodiment of diversity and inclusion.”
Abi is ready to continue community engagement efforts, and plans to engage more within the Filipino community. She sees a strong potential for Filipinos to find meaningful career opportunities in cannabis. We can anticipate hearing more from Abi during Filipino Heritage Month this June.
Ashleigh Brown, Founder at SheCann Cannabis
SheCann is a patient-led and oriented support community providing members with access to educational resources related to medicating and consuming cannabis. The group’s mandate is to empower members to find their voice and share their stories with to encourage healing.
Canada’s medical cannabis program was established in 2000, when the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that prohibition of cannabis for medical purposes was unconstitutional. The program has since evolved but challenges for compromised patients remain; especially for those living with chronic and severe long-term disabilities.
Issues around supply, access, and taxation are particularly challenging for patients who live below the poverty line and have limited benefits. This is particularly troubling as the industry matures and patient needs often aren’t at the forefront of industry decisions.
Ashleigh explained, “…patients cannot always grow or make their own medicine, and they find other creative ways to afford it. They're relying on consistent supply and also in compassionate pricing programs, which are not always accessible or sufficient.”
The cannabis industry is enticing to activists and medical patients interested in gaining employment in the space, however, there are barriers to overcome.
Ashleigh would like to see more diverse representation at the leadership level, “…diversity really extends beyond gender into disability, race and socio-economic conditioning. I think that when we look at those things, and we look to serve these populations in Canada, we really need leadership and opportunities that are reflective of that population - especially the long-standing patient population.”
Renee Gagnon, CEO and Founder at Hollyweed North Cannabis
Renee has a history in the cannabis industry that few can claim. Prior to Hollyweed North, she founded Thunderbird Biomedical Inc. (now Emerald Health), the fifth company in Canada to receive a licence under the MMPR program. Now she’s leading Hollyweed North, a women-led and openly LGBTQ friendly cannabis company specializing in risk mitigation, manufacturing, licensing and production.
Renee knows the game. She knows the players. She doesn’t hesitate to share her knowledge with women entering the industry.
Scaling up can be difficult for small businesses with limited funding. Hollyweed North’s resources and manufacturing capabilities have the potential to make success more attainable to small businesses, founders and entrepreneurs.
“This is my way of keeping everyone in the game, whether they're minority, female, or LGBTQ. I'm trying to help in my own way, which is scaling up. That's the hardest part. It’s not coming up with the idea. It's crossing the chasm.”
Renee believes many women would benefit from being taught how to create pitches and presentations, and then be ready to deliver pitches at the drop of a hat. This would help women who are unfamiliar with the practices involved in turning a startup into a success.
“They need to understand more about the ritual of the game… You need to learn their language, sister.”
While many cannabis recruiters report that few women are applying to leadership roles, Hollyweed North has no difficulty attracting diverse candidates. What’s their secret? Inclusion was built into the fibre of their culture from the beginning. Regardless of gender or sexual orientation, Hollyweed North welcomes and accepts people for who they are.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find bro culture and misogynist undertones at Hollyweed North.
“Rule number one is as long as you work for this company, you will never have to have sex with anyone else in this company.”
It really is that simple.