Canada’s Budding Marijuana Industry Is Helping Women Break the Glass Ceiling

Once the domain of potheads, stoners and no-good wake ’n’ bakers, weed has gone from illicit gateway drug to buzzy new investment in just a few years. In the United States (where marijuana is legal for adult recreational use in nine states and Washington, D.C.), gleaming Apple Store-esque dispensaries sell designer herb alongside artsy pastel-hued pipes; trendy fashion publications profile cool creatives and their favourite strains; and bud brands are even getting in on the ubiquitous streetwear trend, selling logoed tees and hoodies to the millennial masses. Canada, meanwhile, where federal legalization of cannabis was just passed, is starting up what experts predicted in 2016 could be a $22.6 billion industry.

Perhaps what’s most exciting about the so-called “green rush” is the opportunity it presents for women. Because in the current economic landscape, despite all the leaning in on and seemingly daily takedowns of powerful men behaving badly, when it comes to real decision makers and actual women leaders, we have a lot of catching up to do. At the end of the workday, according to a 2016 diversity disclosure practices report conducted by Osler, women account for only 15 per cent of executive officers at TSX-listed companies and only 13 per cent of board members.

Women account for only 15 per cent of executive officers at TSX-listed companies and only 13 per cent of board members.

Weed, in a lot of ways, is poised to blaze a different path. According to a 2015 survey by Marijuana Business Daily of the legal cannabis space in the United States, women made up roughly 36 per cent of leaders, including 63 per cent of high-level positions in testing labs. And there’s more evidence: Women-run dispensaries are popping up stateside as well as here in Canada; last year saw the launch of Broccoli, a stylish cannabis magazine for women that was founded by the former creative director of Kinfolk; cannabis social clubs for women are a thing now; and fem-forward accessories are dominating our social feeds. (Rose-petal rolling papers, anyone?)

April Pride, the founder of female-focused cannabis lifestyle brand Van der Pop (which is now owned by Toronto-based Tokyo Smoke), is the unofficial godmother of the women and weed movement. A serial entrepreneur with a background in design (she trained as an architect and went to Parsons for grad school), Pride launched Van der Pop in 2016 as a fashionable weed accessories brand after she noticed a severe lack of good design in what she knew was a soon-to-explode industry. (She’s based in Washington state, where marijuana has been legal for recreational use since 2012.)

“In the United States, women made up roughly 36 per cent of leaders, including 63 per cent of high-level positions in testing labs.”

A few months after launching the site, she noticed that most people on it were looking for advice and information about how cannabis relates to women’s issues. “Women were coming to me about their own lives, and men were coming to me about their relationships with their wives,” says Pride. “After a while, I was just like, ‘Why am I not doing this?’”

And so she did. In November 2017, she took Van der Pop’s female focus a step further, collaborating with Ontario-based licensed producer WeedMD to launch a line of cannabis strains specifically designed for women’s needs: Cloudburst, which has a profile that’s similar to varieties known to help with pain management and stress, and Eclipse, similar to strains that promote relaxation and help you sleep. “Canada has a distinctly progressive attitude toward cannabis,” says Pride.

“Women were coming to me about their own lives, and men were coming to me about their relationships with their wives. After a while, I was just like, ‘Why am I not doing this?’”

“It has the potential to be the global leader in cannabis, and our brand wants to be part of that momentum.” For Van der Pop, it’s a logical—and likely lucrative—next step because, chic accessories aside, the industry reality seems to point to actual cannabis as the real money-maker. In Canada, this means being, becoming or—like Van der Pop—working with licensed producers.

Currently, only companies holding an ACMPR (Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations) licence are authorized to produce or sell marijuana through the medical system. Now that it’s legal, it might get easier, depending on where you live, since provincial governments will be overseeing licensing and distribution instead of Ottawa. But if you do the math, this means that the quietly illegal dispensary you frequent now could easily be just as illegal now as it was before legalization.

“It’s a hugely capital intensive industry, so there are constant meetings with investors, bankers and shareholders.” In other words, it’s hugely white-male intensive.

“In the legal regulated market, we have high standards set by Health Canada that require significant costs and attention,” says Alison Gordon, CEO of 48North Cannabis Corp., an ACMPR-licensed company based in Toronto. “It’s a hugely capital intensive industry, so there are constant meetings with investors, bankers and shareholders.” In other words, it’s hugely white-male intensive.

“It seems that there are some women leaders in the lifestyle or culture side of the business, but unfortunately I don’t see many women at executive or board levels in the companies in the legal regulated space, which is where the industry is going. This is still very male dominated,” continues Gordon. “I am the only female CEO of the 92 licensed companies that I am aware of…but it’s hard to keep track as the list of licensed companies changes weekly.”

“It seems that there are some women leaders in the lifestyle or culture side of the business, but unfortunately I don’t see many women at executive or board levels in the companies in the legal regulated space, which is where the industry is going. This is still very male dominated,”

Before joining the cannabis industry, Gordon was the executive vice-president of Rethink Breast Cancer, which she co-founded in 2001. When a close family member was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer and began using medical marijuana to help with sleep, anxiety and pain management, Gordon realized that the cannabis industry had a persistent image problem. “I was like, ‘Someone needs to rebrand this. Why does it always have to be just about hippies and rappers?’” she says. “I realized that I have this perfect storm of experience with marketing and fundraising and working with patients, physicians and government, so I jumped into the industry.

Her first role was chief marketing officer for a cannabis producer—technically a demotion. Three years later, she took on a similar role at 48North. And less than a year later, she was appointed CEO. “It’s a challenge across the board, whether it’s women or men, to find people who’ve worked in the cannabis industry,” says Gordon. Her best advice for boss bitches wanting to get in on the lucrative legal action? “It’s a new industry, and we do move very quickly, so if women can get in now—maybe not at executive levels but at the senior level—and get a few years under their belts, they will be the leaders of this industry because we’re at such an early point in time,” she says. “I’m considered a veteran because I’ve been in it for five years.”

“It’s a new industry, and we do move very quickly, so if women can get in now—maybe not at executive levels but at the senior level—and get a few years under their belts, they will be the leaders of this industry because we’re at such an early point in time.”

Of course, as with any industry on the brink of a boom, there’s always the risk of failure. But when it comes to marijuana, the ROI is about so much more than the bottom line—especially for women, many of whom aren’t just jumping on the cannabis bandwagon because it’s edgy or trendy or a buzzy investment. For most, it’s about taking control of their own health.

According to a Van der Pop-sponsored survey of 1,530 women who use cannabis multiple times a month, the top four reasons why they consume it are wellness-related (pain relief, relaxation, stress and anxiety). Which means the same woman who does yoga, drinks cold-pressed juices, meditates with her crystals and adds spirulina to her kale smoothie in the morning is probably also open to smoking a little pot to unwind or deal with a headache or get “in the mood.” And if you consider how massive the #selfcare movement has become, wellness is very likely going to be the thing that breaks weed into the mainstream.

“As more people leave their ‘respectable’ nine-to-fives and start taking best practices from the established industries, I think we’re going to see an incredible rate of innovation. It’s exciting—we get to make the rules and break the rules at the same time!”

“Women are starting to realize, especially in the States, that decisions are being made on our behalf either by the government or by pharmaceutical companies,” says Pride. “Those in positions to make the decisions around which medical challenges to pursue regarding product research and development and/or regulatory change have rarely been female, so our true array of needs have rarely been met. As more people leave their ‘respectable’ nine-to-fives and start taking best practices from the established industries, I think we’re going to see an incredible rate of innovation. It’s exciting—we get to make the rules and break the rules at the same time!”