Greenlit

Women in weed: charting change for male-dominated cannabis culture

There's hope for the fledgling new industry, but women say it's becoming more like other every other business out there: owned and funded by men.

Women face uphill battle to reach top of cannabis business, but there are signs it can be done

Jamie Shaw has worked for nearly two decades in the cannabis industry, including serving as president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries. (Tina Lovgreen / CBC)

Jamie Shaw wasn't seeking a career change when she visited her doctor to help her deal with anxiety.

To her surprise, she was encouraged to try medical marijuana and visit the B.C. Compassion Club Society.

"I thought it was the funniest damn thing I ever heard," she said, adding she didn't expect to be prescribed marijuana.

She took her doctor's advice, left her career in the film industry and in less than two decades went from a newcomer in the city's cannabis scene to one of its leaders and strongest advocates.

"Going to the club, that changed everything about how I approach cannabis."


This story is part of Greenlit, a CBC Vancouver series exploring ways the legalization of marijuana will affect B.C. Other stories in the series include:


Shaw now works as government relations director for MMJ Canada, a chain of dispensaries with locations in B.C. and Ontario, while also helping industry newcomers secure proper business licences.

Jamie Shaw inspects one of her products at an MMJ dispensary in Vancouver. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

Recreational marijuana is scheduled to become legal across Canada this summer. And with StatsCan estimating Canadians spent a whopping $5.7 billion on marijuana last year, the business is rife with leadership and business opportunities, spurring hopes that women could play key roles in the emerging industry.

While B.C. is home to some of the Canadian cannabis industry's most influential women, financing and gender stereotypes leave others struggling to find their own path to leadership positions, resulting in an industry that near its outset resembles many other male-dominated business sectors.

"It's not that the conversation hasn't been had," says Shaw of women's involvement in the industry. "It's just that it doesn't seem to be registering anywhere or leading to anything."

Financing issues

Of the 90 licensed producers listed by Health Canada, 19 are in B.C., and all of the B.C. producers have a man at the top of their corporate pyramid. 

As of last summer, an analysis by the Canadian Press found that only five per cent of the board seats at publicly-traded marijuana producers were occupied by women, compared with 12 per cent on the nearly 700 TSX-listed companies.

"If you don't see a lot of women CEOs in those positions you might think they aren't that good at it. That's not the case at all," Shaw said.

Those are particularly unsettling conclusions in a city like Vancouver, which is home to several notable female leaders: activist Jodie Emery, Compassion Club co-founder Hilary Black and online cooking host Mary Jean "Watermelon" Dunsdon among others.

Shaw says many of the difficulties women confront in the fledgling sector come down to financing. "If you're trying to raise funds and you're trying to sell your company as a powerful thing and all the other companies are led by men, there's almost an instinctual response to want to give your money to [them]."

American experience

There may be reason though to draw hope from the U.S. experience, where nine states have legalized recreational marijuana and 13 more have decriminalized the same.

"The interest is really growing. Women see an opportunity for a new career or to launch a business," said Gia Morón, executive vice-president of Women Grow, a Denver-founded networking group that aims to connect and educate newcomers to the cannabis industry.

Gia Morón says women are a growing force in America's legal cannabis industry. (Gia Morón )

A report it commissioned found what it termed "a relatively high level of gender diversity" in upper management, and that the cannabis industry offered greater potential for American women to advance to leadership roles compared to other businesses.

How that changes if more states relax cannabis restrictions remains to be seen, and the same report found that many women still face familiar issues like low pay and limited benefits.

Morón is nonetheless optimistic. "I still believe that women will lead this industry."

Entrepreneurial expertise

Andrea Dobbs is an unlikely cannabis entrepreneur. Despite a lifelong aversion to cannabis, an interest in natural health care drew her to it to help treat symptoms of perimenopause.

The experience changed her and drawing from years of working in retail, she recognized the potential to operate a dispensary differently.

"We wanted to do something that was sustainable, that was about health and wellness and that promoted some politics."

Andrea Dobbs says while women are often found working in cannabis in government, non-profit organizations and in retail, they are much less common in an increasingly corporate for-profit sector. (Tina Lovgreen / CBC)

In 2015, she and her husband opened the Village Bloomery, a dispensary that bills itself less as a place to score weed and more of a cannabis-powered alternative health service.

She advises aspiring cannabis entrepreneurs that it's important to know both the industry and why they want to get into it.

"Be authentic to your vision and what you enjoy about cannabis," she said.

"Don't try to come up with the angle, or where you think an opportunity might lie."

Dobbs is hopeful that her example, along with those of other B.C. women, will inspire others.

"At the end of the day, this is a female plant. We should honour her."

Do you have a question about what will change in our province when pot becomes legal? Email us your story idea at cbcnewsvancouver@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Matthew Black

@TheMatthewBlack

Matthew Black is a B.C.-based writer, producer and reporter. He writes mostly about sports and has worked for CBC in Toronto and Vancouver as well as abroad in London.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.