Cover Story

Buzzed on Diversity  by Winter 2021
Buzzed on Diversity

Like many other business sectors, the Canadian cannabis industry is male dominated. However, years after Ottawa passed the Cannabis Act, a growing number of female entrepreneurs, including many women of colour, are working to blow away regressive attitudes about gender and race, and about cannabis use itself.

The involvement of women in the industry is also an encouragement to many female users of the plant who are no longer reluctant to admit to using cannabis for medical conditions, including to relieve stress, inflammation, pain and other chronic conditions.

In addition, the increased presence of people of colour in the legal industry also serves as a countermeasure to the racially driven raids by police that were common when cannabis was prohibited. Reena Rampersad, the owner-operator of High Society Supper Club in Hamilton, Ontario, explains that when marijuana was illegal in Canada, a disproportionate number of people of colour were imprisoned for growing and selling cannabis. When Ottawa announced it would legalize cannabis, she saw an opportunity to correct an imbalance and started her own canna-bis-infused catering company. While her business has been a success, Rampersad has observed that women of colour haven’t necessarily been welcomed to the industry table by many male cannabis entrepreneurs.

“I noticed that we were essentially missing from the new cannabis industry,” she says. “And considering the price that our communities have paid when cannabis was illegal, I felt it was unfair that not more of an effort was being made to include us in the mix.”

Rampersad believes that greater diversity makes for a healthier business community. “Small business owners and event organizers like myself have the ability to perform small-scale change by performing restorative and inclusive measures.”

With the changing times, the cannabis market is also changing, according to Lisa Campbell, CEO of Mercari Agency in Toronto. Campbell describes her company as a sales and marketing agency that helps cannabis companies bring their products to market. Mercari represents craft cannabis brands, including Legend chocolate, which is sourced from fair trade and organic ingredients.

Campbell observes that while legalization has opened up opportunities, it hasn’t necessarily opened up views towards women business owners. “There is still a lot of sexism in business, but things are changing. Still, gender equity is an issue when it comes to cannabis executives, boards of directors and even panels at cannabis conferences.”

Despite encounters involving “toxic masculinity” in the cannabis industry, Campbell is convinced the industry has the potential to flourish healthily. “Now that cannabis is legal, we can cast out those bad actors and focus on collaborating with people of all genders who share our values beyond legalization.”

Jessika Villano, owner of Buddha Barn Craft Cannabis in Vancouver, got her start in the business after her mother, who used both tobacco and cannabis for 30 years, decided to quit putting smoke into her lungs. Villano began baking with canna-bis to help her mother, who had emphysema and a heart condition and relied on cannabis to treat her anxiety. Thus, the labour of love fostered a baker within Villano, and her passion for cannabis led her to eventually found her own retail cannabis store that now makes $3.5 million in annual sales. The popular downtown store with seven employees features a variety of cannabis goods including gummy bears, CBD-infused chocolates, THC beverages and packaged pre rolls. 

Villano, who is dedicated to meditation, yoga and “clean eating,” believes, “women need more women to lift each other up and celebrate one another’s talents.”

“I had an amazing mentor when I was a mortgage broker,” she recalls. “She was the first woman who believed in me and my abilities and it made a huge difference in my self-confidence.”

The Buddha Barn Medicinal Society was founded in 2014, when weed was still illegal and Villano took the risk of going to jail. The Cannabis Act passed on October 17, 2018 and by mid-2019, the Buddha Barn was licensed by the province to sell government-inspected cannabis. While going to jail is no longer a fear for Villano, she has concerns that the new system unfairly penalizes those who grew pot when it was still illegal to do so. These growers are known as “micro legacy growers.”

“Our micro legacy growers are ready and able to supply our industry,” Villano insists, “but the federal government is keeping them out of the legal system with too much red tape and paperwork.”

In fact, Villano believes that her company has suffered because it can not legally purchase cannabis from legacy growers. “Since we have abandoned our legacy growers, popularity at Buddha Barn has declined,” she says. “Recreational users are seasoned here in British Columbia and it is difficult for government to change the mindset of our community because we know what good weed looks like.”

The government’s high degree of regulation when it comes to cannabis growing is, in Villano’s words, “force-feeding licensed producers product which is mostly radiated and chopped down after what appears to my naked eye as a six-week growth period.” Although Villano says there is a plan to introduce legacy growers into the system in 2022, she believes growers of craft cannabis need support now. 

Villano sees herself as part of a health products industry that includes many women leaders, from farm to retail. “Women are the heart of home, health and nurturing so it seems an easy fit for us to be involved with this healing plant. We have many single mothers working in cannabis; some need help simply putting fresh food on the table for their children.” Villano further opines that the common trait with every woman in the industry is that all of them “love cannabis.”

Gill Polard is the founder of The Her(B) Life, an online company that sells weed-print leggings, sweatshirts and jewelry for “dope ladies” and also publishes a magazine, Her(B) Life, dedicated to The government’s high degree of regulation when it comes to cannabis growing is, in Villano’s words, “force-feeding licensed producers prod-uct which is mostly radiated and chopped down after what appears to my naked eye as a six-week growth period.” Although Villano says there is a plan to introduce legacy growers into the system in 2022, she believes growers of craft cannabis need support now. 

Villano sees herself as part of a health products industry that includes many women leaders, from farm to retail. “Women are the heart of home, health and nurturing so it seems an easy fit for us to be involved with this healing plant. We have many single mothers working in cannabis; some need help simply putting fresh food on the table for their children.” Villano further opines that the common trait with every woman in the industry is that all of them “love cannabis.”

Gill Polard is the founder of The Her(B) Life, an online company that sells weed-print leggings, sweatshirts and jewelry for “dope ladies” and also publishes a magazine, Her(B) Life, dedicated to “celebrating the feminine cannabis experience.” Polard says that when the new cannabis industry started, it offered women a chance to get in at the ground level and an opportunity to help their communities.

“I spent a lot of time speaking with our local community about keeping the neighbourhood safe, which was a huge concern for our neighbours,” says Polard, who started working for a licensed producer on Vancouver Island in 2014 when “there were less than 10 federally licensed producers [for medical marijuana] throughout Canada.”

During the relatively short time in which the industry has grown, Polard observes that many male cannabis store owners have adopted “old, traditional corporate structures and are phasing out the original strong show of female leadership.”

Polard would like to see a cannabis industry that more closely reflects those who work in canna-bis businesses and consume cannabis products. According to Statistics Canada, 18 percent of Canadians reported using cannabis in the first quar-ter of 2019 and an estimated 37 percent of users are female. In terms of leadership, a 2019 analysis by the Canadian Press found that women occupy only five percent of the board seats at publicly traded marijuana producers. By comparison, 12 percent of the directors of all 700 publicly traded companies on the Toronto Stock Exchange are women.

The lack of diversity at the management level is more than an issue of equal opportunity. Many of those interviewed for this article say that the male-dominated cannabis manufacturers and sellers focus on male consumer needs, which can differ from those of female consumers.

“As such, the cycle perpetuates their exclusion by not creating women-focused products,” says Campbell.

Polard believes it’s important for cannabis sellers to be knowledgeable about female consumers and how their products can be beneficial to them. For example, cannabis can be useful in treating the symptoms and pain associated with endometriosis.

“We are only at the very beginning of our understanding,” Polard explains. “It wasn’t until recently [1993] that women were required to be included in biomedical research that was funded by government money. Our reproductive systems have long been considered ‘complicated’ and our gender is not always taken into account during clinical trials. However, we do know that women metabolize drugs differently than men do.”

As female cannabis entrepreneurs continue seeking inroads, many see a strong need for advocacy to improve the system for medical marijuana users and others. “Medical patients are being charged excise taxes, making cost a barrier for some which is unacceptable,” Polard says. “And our government still hasn’t moved to expunge the records of Canadians charged with non-violent cannabis offences and that’s a massively important goal to work towards.”

Rampersad believes everyone in the industry has a role to play in ensuring that women and businesspeople of colour are treated fairly. She recalls how, two years ago, at a meeting of cannabis producers in Toronto, she was subjected to “racist rhetoric” from an employee of a licensed producer while engaging in a conversation about the harms of prohibition. 

Polard would like to see female cannabis activists form their own network and offer mentorship, sharpen skills and help minority stakeholders take care of each other. She encourages women who want to create change to “give yourself a break when you’re feeling overwhelmed or exhausted. It’s okay to put yourself first sometimes. This is a marathon and there’s a lot still to be done.”

Campbell advises sister weed sellers: “Do not shy away from the spotlight or be intimidated by the corporate world—lean in!”

“It is important that we continue to push for change, and specifically insist on inclusive and equitable policies for the various aspects of this new regulatory framework,” stresses Rampersad, “so that we actually remedy, instead of compound-ing, this very important concern.”

Equal opportunity and equitable treatment are at the root of all anti-sexist and anti-racist movements for change and the billion-dollar cannabis movement is no different.

“An equitable environment is not just about economics,” says Rampersad, “but more so about the factors that create the conditions to foster everyone’s well-being and therefore a more har-monious society.” 