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Women in Weed: Breaking Down Barriers in Canada’s Cannabis Industry

It was October 2017 when the hashtag #MeToo first went viral. American film producer Harvey Weinstein had been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting, more than a dozen women actresses. The movement spread like wildfire from one industry to the next, when in 2019 it hit the cannabis industry.

Through the #MeToo movement, it has become increasingly clear that the cannabis industry was particularly vulnerable. A 2017 survey by New Frontier Data revealed that 18% of respondents had personally experienced harassment.

In the 1960s and 1970s, magazines like High Times, Cannabis Culture, and SKUNK informed how men in the cannabis industry behaved. Splashed across these pages were images of sexualized women covered in cannabis flower or scantily clad babes in suggestive poses selling everything from buds to bongs.

The cannabis industry and the culture surrounding for decades has been largely dominated by men and, despite the recent legalization of recreational cannabis, it still is.

In another report by New Frontier Data, 27% of respondents reveal that they have witnessed sexual harassment in the cannabis industry in North America.

The numbers are high for a growing industry, showcasing that anyone can experience violence and harassment in the workplace, men included. But when we breakdown the inherent power imbalance between men and women, we can see how women, trans, and non-binary individuals can be far more vulnerable and exposed to violence and harassment within an organization.

Systemic issues have permeated the industry are highlighted through the recent outing of Cannabis Culture and its founder, Marc Emery. For years, allegations about the company’s workplace environment was an open secret. Finally, his #MeToo moment arrived.

Marc Emery’s #MeToo Moment: The Dark Side of Cannabis Culture

Lisa “Mamakind” Kirkman of Calgary, Alberta, a former employee of the Cannabis Culture magazine, is relieved. Kirkman officially worked at the magazine between 2000 and 2002 and recalls that Emery created a wildly toxic environment. She says he often called her on the phone to yell about things related to the magazine or her relationship with a colleague.

Because the industry has been very tight-knit until recently, women have stayed silent out of concern that they might not be seen as allies to the cannabis community.

She also says that many of the women involved in the project were underpaid because they were told they were, “giving back to the cause.”

Kirkman told Leafly that if anybody tried to establish boundaries with Emery, they were let go and excommunicated from the Cannabis Culture group. “He wanted women around,” but he purposely encouraged cattiness between us, she said.

After Kirkman left the magazine, she found herself working in the cannabis industry again where the toxicity followed her. “Once I was on the phone when my boss held out his hand like he was going to give me something, and sprinkled his freshly cut pubes into it,” Kirkman shares. It was embarrassing for her. Kirkman tells Leafly that her boss told her he was a “machiavellian” and this was their corporate culture, so she better get used to it.

Speaking Out

Many women have been afraid to speak out against alleged abusers they have encountered over the years. Because the industry has been very tight-knit until recently, they have stayed silent and have been afraid to jeopardize relationships with their co-workers and friends—worried they might lose their careers and concerned they might not be seen as allies to the cannabis community.

Many women who have been successful in the cannabis industry have faced challenges their male counterparts have not. Emma Baron of Toronto found her way to the Lift & Co. conference in Vancouver in January 2019, to network with friends and colleagues and promote her work with The Green Tent, an events company helping to legitimize cannabis for women and which invites people of all backgrounds to find their niche in the cannabis industry.

People across the board continue to turn a blind eye to the unsafe working conditions women have been thrown into—even as powerful men invest in women’s brands and “pinkwash” their portfolios.

Having worked in the industry for three years, Baron knows that women are responsible for 70-80% of consumer purchasing either through direct buying or through influence over someone else’s decision to buy. She was excited to use the conference as an opportunity to meet her peers and tell them about her work. But her experience changed quickly.

Baron says she was rolling a joint at a branded booth when a CEO who she was familiar came into her space and propositioned her. She says he coyly asked Baron to “sit on his lap” while she finished rolling. As an entrepreneur in the cannabis space, Baron told Leafly that it can be hard in these situations because men are often the ones with all the power. “I knew [this person], but if I didn’t… It can be awkward to find your voice in that [kind of] situation a lot of the time. I think especially [when there is] an age dynamic in addition to the gender dynamic.”

In an op-ed for the Cannabist in 2014, Betty Aldworth, the executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and former deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, talked about the sexism she and other women in the cannabis space are accustomed to enduring at cannabis events. In the piece, Aldworth wrote, “Women who are attending conferences are tired of the lingering touches or too-tight hugs, the comments about our appearance and the leering.”

Gender-based harassment and misconduct can often go unnoticed as they can come in many forms included (but not limited to) verbal abuse, threats, humiliation, isolation, withholding resources or information, intimidation, sabotage or damage to one’s reputation due to rumours. Baron told Leafly that although she felt empowered enough to call out her harasser in the moment, she still feels more sexualized in the cannabis industry than any other industry she’s ever worked in—including hospitality, which has long had a reputation for having toxic, testosterone-fuelled “dude-bro” behaviour and dealt with its share of harassment issues.

Ultimately, what she told me is that women in the industry are tired of not being treated as equals amongst their peers and only treated as objects. “I’ve really struggled with people telling me, ‘Oh it’s just the cannabis industry’. But it’s everywhere, and in my experience cannabis is worse than other industries.”

In some way, the industry has matured in recent years, with Newsweek magazine reporting in 2015 that the cannabis industry in North America would be the first billion-dollar industry not dominated by men. But in other ways, it has not.

People across the board continue to turn a blind eye to the unsafe working conditions women have been thrown into—even as powerful men have begun to invest in women’s brands and “pinkwash” their portfolios to create the impression they are allies.

Women in Weed: 5 Women Leading the Charge at Canadian Cannabis Companies

The #MeToo movement has opened up the conversation about the ubiquity of sexual harassment and assault, but men in powerful positions who claim to be allies of women often find themselves contradicting their own personal and political actions with predatory behaviour and harassment.

There is also often a bystander effect: When a person is in trouble, others who witness violence, predatory behaviour and harassment of any kind often fail to intervene. Some bystanders fear that by speaking up, they could become the next target of violence or harassment or they assume that it’s just not their place to act.

Now that the industry has become legitimized, executives from pharmaceuticals, alcohol/tobacco, and the banking industry are moving into the cannabis space. Vee Mercier, a photographer based in Prince Edward Island has said this has become problematic because many of these men have “brought their bro culture to our industry”—a space already dominated by men who have enabled gross behavior.

She shares, “I have had [interactions] with these types of men and [have been] more than belittled.” She notes that these experiences have happened to her and many other women, online and offline.

Because of this, women in the industry have formed whisper networks online and offline to protect one another. These necessary but powerful steps are just one way that women, trans and non-binary individuals are taking steps to protect themselves from objectification and abuse of any kind.

“The issues of sexual harassment and violence have been [brought] to light. This happens when resistance to violence begins to empower people,” Viktoria Belle, founder and director of the Dandelion Initiative, a non-profit for survivors of sexual violence in Toronto, told Leafly.

Belle said that the shift in the industry has been promoted through whisper networks and groups such as Women Grow, an organization founded in 2014 in the United States whose mandate is to help women network and gain leadership positions in the cannabis industry. These tools and groups are helping survivors and allies take a moment to listen, think, act and implement.

Canadian Cannabis Brands for Women by Women

In Dec. 2018, the organization Boss Ladies of Cannabis, an online database of women leaders in the cannabis industry, launched their anonymous #MeToo survey to illustrate the experiences of women working in the cannabis industry. Developed in partnership with market research firm VitalSay, this survey asked women questions about harassment of all kinds in the workplace.

As of press time, Rachel Colic, founder of the Boss Ladies of Cannabis, confirmed that 150 respondents had filled out the survey. She found the responses interesting to look at; many of the women didn’t report harassment until it got to a point that she would consider almost violent.

“These are men that we work with every day. These are men that we see at these events, these are men that sometimes we have to do business with,” Colic told Leafly, sharing that most women don’t necessarily have the words to put a name to the mental and emotional abuse and harassment they are facing. “In a professional environment on top of that, we’re often left not really knowing how to deal with these situations and keep our jobs and our reputations intact.”

Colic explained that the purpose of the survey is not to call out any one person or business but rather to spark a dialogue on where the trouble areas based on individual and collective experiences are in the industry. She believes that as companies grow, there needs to be policies and procedures in place to keep women safe.

Canadian Cannabis Brands for Women by Women

“Cannabis isn’t special in this way. We’re dealing with the same issues every other kind of company on the planet is,” she said, adding that, because there are so many new young male leaders at the table, it could be contributing to some of the issues we’re seeing around leadership, diversity and corporate culture. She notes that if companies don’t begin to take these issues seriously, they can get burned.

The #MeToo movement has started to shift the conversation. Times are changing. Belle believes that this change shows employers that it is necessary to build policies, practices and, conduct that reflect the sentiment that sexual violence and harassment is wrong every single day. It is also necessary to demonstrate that the past behavior of those in the industry will not be tolerated and women will not be silenced.

Moving the Industry Forward

Erin Gratton, founder of High Values in Toronto, agrees with Belle. As a certified human resources leader, Gratton has noticed that companies have fallen short when it comes to providing employees with the support they need and cannabis businesses with the education they need to create a diverse, inclusive and safe work environment.

“For the most part, it’s an industry that’s coming out of an unregulated environment. I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with those businesses that were unregulated, but I certainly believe as a person who’s been into a dispensary and seen the types of postings that are on the wall, it’s a different culture,” she told Leafly.

Gratton believes it is important that there are tools available within an organization so that different conversations about harassment can happen openly and freely without stigma. “Some organizations are so small, and opening their doors pretty quickly. Maybe they don’t have the time to create the greatest policy ever. I just think that the industry can do so much better in so many ways.”

Celebrating Women’s History Month With the Ladies of Leafly

Businesses who prepare these types of policies now will be better able to protect themselves in the future. Gratton admits it is a real shame that women seem to be carrying the emotional labour of this work. She says it would be a shame if their advocacy efforts didn’t end up creating change due to lack of media attention.

The problem of women being mistreated in the cannabis industry can’t be fixed overnight. Many people who Leafly spoke to said they don’t have a solid answer on how to “solve” the issues at hand. But it has become clear that there are individuals and groups who are putting in the work to break down existing barriers and help create a safer place for women, trans and non-binary individuals in the industry.

It may happen slowly but the effort to change the landscape is there because quite frankly, women are tired of this behaviour. This may just be the shakeup and rally cry that people needed, but the long-standing impact will be huge for future leaders.

Amanda Scriver's Bio Image
Amanda Scriver

Amanda Scriver is a passionate storyteller and body-image advocate based out of Toronto. In her spare time, she loves trashy reality television and traveling. Don't ask what her favorite restaurant is, it's complicated. You can find some of her bylines in the National Post, Broadly, High Times, Canadian Living, and more.

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