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Women in Cannabis: The Struggles, The Successes, and Beyond

women cannabis
Written by Alexandra Hicks
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The cannabis industry is flourishing at an astounding rate, and although it seemed like a market that was particularly friendly and open to the idea of women in leadership positions, the number of ladies in senior roles isn’t growing as expected.  

According to a recent survey conducted by Vangst, a cannabis career recruitment agency based out of California and operating in North America, just under 17.6 percent of director or executive roles in the industry were held by women. This was out of 166 companies observed across 17 different states. Out of all the companies on the survey bill, 12.6% do not have any women in leadership, while 41.2 have only one.

Recent statistics from Catalyst state that in North America, women hold 31% of senior management roles. Much higher than in the cannabis and hemp industries. This can seem a bit discouraging, but the industry will continue to become more inclusive over time, we just have to keep pushing it in the right direction.

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Cannabis and Hemp – A Look at The Numbers

A report from Arcview Group and BDS Analytics released in January estimates the global cannabis market will hit  $42.7 billion by 2024. “The legal cannabis market grew by 46% in 2019 despite challenges caused by overregulation and overtaxing in the two biggest markets; California and Canada,” said Troy Dayton, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of The Arcview Group.

“That is a true testament to just how popular cannabis is among consumers and the ongoing impact of new markets coming online and maturing. The possibilities are boundless as political progress opens up more markets across the world, and struggling markets sort out their regulatory framework,” he added.

Just the hemp market alone is expected to reach over $20 billion by that time. The cannabinoid industry as a whole is currently the fastest growing industry in North America, and this will soon be true for many other countries as well.

There are few key factors driving this significant growth. Legalization of both hemp and cannabis cultivation, functional properties of cannabis and hemp seed and oil, growing use in different food applications, and increase number of chronic diseases,” are among the reasons.

A Woman-Friendly Industry

The percentage of women in executive positions varied depending on their sector, however, even most of the niches with the least amount of gender diversity still have some women in higher-level jobs. 

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According to Cassandra Farmington, co-founder of Marijuana Business Daily and former Citigroup employee, “I hit that glass ceiling at 100 miles an hour. There’s no question this is a huge area for entrepreneurship, and there are so many women fed up with the corporate arena who find cannabis more appealing.”

Similar to Farrington, many of the female cannabis executives and business owners already have considerable experience at banks, law firms, insurance agencies, hedge funds, consultancies, and other highly-regulated industries so they are well-aware of what’s required to deal with all the regulations and bureaucracy.

“I just got up one morning and read all the Colorado rules,” commented Peggy Moore, who spent 33 years working for United Health Group before becoming the CEO of Love’s Oven, a successful Denver-based cannabis bakery. “After dealing with all of the insurance industry’s regulations, it wasn’t that complicated.”

The Boys Club

While this is definitely promising news, it doesn’t mean that sexism and misogyny is non-existent in the cannabis industry. This is what Sabrina Ramkellawan President at Clinical Research Association of Canada and Cannabis educator at The Michener Institute of Education at UHN, had to say on the subject.

“The cannabis industry is definitely a boy’s club. A lot of cannabis companies try to make it look like they have women so they’ll have one on the board. But there’s still not enough women CEOs and other executive levels. It makes it challenging as a woman to work. I find the focus is on today—how do we make money today and tomorrow? There’s no long-term vision.”

“It’s not the easiest thing. Your voice isn’t heard sometimes. You don’t really feel part of the team. You have to push yourself a lot as a consultant. For research, you have to think long term. I find that some guys are different in the workplace.They talk about how amazing they are all the time. Me, I’m more honest about what I can and can’t do. I deliver, but it’s realistic. Whereas I’ve worked with guys who talk up a lot and don’t do anything. How do these people get these roles?” she continued in an interview with Leafly.

3 Fearless Female Leaders in the Cannabis Industry

The Knox Women

So technically, this is a 3-for-1, but the first place in our list belongs to the brilliant Knox women: Janice and her 2 daughters, Jessica and Rachel. Together (along with husband/father David Knox), these women became some of the leading cannabis industry physicians. The Knox family founded the ADVENT Academy as well as The American Cannabinoid Clinics. They also own a family medical practice and operate the ABBI medical cannabis chatbot.

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These women have dedicated their lives to the medical cannabis industry, at a time when the industry needs both reliable doctors and more women. Not only do they offer numerous resources to patients in need, they also train other medical professionals who need to learn more about cannabinoid-based therapies.

Brandi Leifso

At her lowest ebb, after moving to a women’s refuge to escape an abusive relationship, Brandi Leifso found the inner strength to launch a beauty CBD business, Evio Beauty. This set in motion a chain of events which resulted in her business being courted, and then purchased, by Canadian cannabis giant Aurora.

Brandi Leifso says: “I was given a shared room decorated with women’s rights riot posters from the 1960s and ’70s, and my own list of chores. I was exhausted and an emotional wreck, but I didn’t let anyone know. While I was in the shelter, I needed something to distract me from my situation. I had daydreamed many times about starting a makeup line, and now I had the time and space to focus on it.”

“I had no experience in running a business, but I didn’t let that stop me,” she continued. “From the shelter, on my laptop, I watched Photoshop tutorials on YouTube and learned the basics of web design. Then I put my new skills to work. I built a website and created a catalog of products featuring lip glosses, bronzers and lipsticks by downloading stock images and photoshopping my brand name, ‘Karmaface’ (old business name) onto them.”

She made the best of a troubling situation and propelled herself into a position of  authority and success in the cannabis industry.

Charlotte Hanna

Charlotte Hanna is the founder of Community Growth Partners, a company that offers benefits to those who were directly and negatively impacted by cannabis criminalization. Hanna’s company allows these people to be employed in the now legal, and financially lucrative industry they were once shunned from.

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After years of working at Goldman Sachs, Hanna witnessed the effects – both good and bad – that power and money can have on the world, which is what pushed her to the sector of advocacy and activism.

“I have developed my own opinion about how capitalism can be used as a force for the greater good. People have lost faith in the institutions and many of us are increasingly expecting companies in the private sector to help solve social problems,” says Hanna. 

She was inspired by San Francisco AIDS activist Ruth Brinker, with whom she worked on various projects to help the homeless population. “She didn’t let anything stop her from actualizing her dreams,” said Hanna about Brinker. “And sometimes they were big ideas that seemed unattainable. When I asked her how she did it, she told me if you can reinvent yourself, you can transform any situation.”

Women You Know

Do you know any amazing women making it in the cannabis industry? Are you one of these women yourself? If either of these statements ring true, then we’d love to hear from you to set up an interview! Contact me directly at [email protected].

Also, make sure to subscribe to the CBD Business Weekly Newsletter to stay up to date on all things cannabis-related.

About the author

Alexandra Hicks

Alexandra is the managing editor at CBD Testers. She has always been interested in alternative and natural remedies, and the versatility of cannabis as a healing plant is something that greatly appeals to her. It's for this reason that she decided to work as a cannabis industry journalist and editor, to help spread accurate information about the benefits of this plant.

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