Janice Hardoon is no stranger to being the lone woman in a sea of men. In the mid-’80s, at 23, she was working on Wall Street as a financial consultant, one of just three women in an office of 86 people. “I survived that,” she said, “and I guess I’m surviving the cannabis world.”
Women-owned businesses make up roughly 13% of licensed retail and distribution operations in Los Angeles, according to a Leafly analysis.
Hardoon, now 56, is the owner of KoreaTown Collective, a medical and adult-use shop located on a trendy stretch of Melrose Avenue. She entered the business in 2008, in the early days of California’s dispensary boom. LA’s cannabis industry, she said, has long been a “good ol’ boys club.”
By most accounts, it’s still that way today. KoreaTown Collective is one of just 18 women-owned cannabis retailers or distributors in Los Angeles to have obtained licenses. As of March 19, women-owned businesses made up roughly 13% of licensed retail and distribution operations in the city, according to a Leafly analysis. Of 143 licenses granted so far, 16 others went to businesses co-owned by women, while 101 were awarded to businesses headed by men.
(Even getting an accurate headcount is a difficult feat. The Bureau of Cannabis Control, which oversees California’s legal cannabis system, doesn’t keep demographic information on licensees, said agency spokesperson Alex Traverso. Leafly’s review was based on listed owners in the Bureau of Cannabis Control’s public database. The identities of some owners could not be determined, and some businesses did not respond to Leafly’s follow-up inquiries. Those businesses were not factored into percentages used in this story.)
“It’s definitely a man’s world,” said Gloria Chavez, co-owner of DTPG Collective in Downtown Los Angeles. But at this pivotal moment in the industry, she’s not stepping aside. “I want to go down in history and one day look back and say I was part of that movement,” she said. “It gives me a sense of purpose and fulfillment.”
Chavez, 30, has been in the cannabis business for about a decade. She had been working at a law firm before joining DTPG, and she spent her early years advising the dispensary on legal issues and going to court to help defend its right to operate, she said. “I was fascinated, I believed in the cause, and I helped fight for it.” In 2010, she became a dispensary co-owner, along with male partners.
The hardest thing about being a woman in the male-dominated industry, according to Chavez? “Having to work 5 times as hard to prove your worth.”
“They are not going to be interested in having their names in the paper, but they’re part of the engine which moves this thing along.”
Back in 2007, when the city created its initial registry of medical marijuana dispensaries, about 10% of the roughly 187 names on the list were women, said Sarah Armstrong, director of industry affairs for the nonprofit Americans for Safe Access.
The scarcity of women was a surprise even then, Armstrong said, noting that she’s been involved with cannabis since 2005 and has worked alongside many female colleagues, from business entrepreneurs to policy advocates like herself.
The majority of women in cannabis, she said, seem to be toiling quietly, working behind the scenes by serving on boards of directors, managing or consulting with dispensaries, or working to support ventures led by their partners.
“I think there are many more women in this industry than you think,” Armstrong said. “They are not going to be interested in having their names in the paper, but they’re part of the engine which moves this thing along.”
The shaky legal status of cannabis has hindered equity in the industry. Between about 2005 and 2014, Armstrong said, the industry—in Los Angeles especially—was a dangerous place. Many local leaders were hostile to cannabis, and federal and local law enforcement routinely conducted violent, smash-and-grab raids, she said.
Not only did the raids risk landing operators in jail. Many women in the industry were mothers, Armstrong said, and didn’t want to send mixed messages to their kids by telling them not to do drugs while at the same time selling marijuana.
“You would never see these women in the dispensaries really,” Armstrong said. “Now that it’s much easier and much safer, you see an amazing amount of young women trying to transition to some aspect of the cannabis industry.”
By at least some measures, the national cannabis industry appears to be doing better than other sectors in terms of women in leadership. According to a 2017 study by Marijuana Business Daily, 27% of executive roles in the national cannabis industry were held by women. That’s better than the broader US job market, the report said, where women held 23% of executive roles.
There are also countless industry-adjacent operations run by women that may not show up on state cannabis registries—things like public relations firms or human resources companies. Amy Berliner, for example, is the founder of Aegis Biotech and the Los Angeles market leader for Women Grow, an organization aimed at promoting women as leaders in the cannabis sphere.
“It’s so important for Los Angeles to come together as women first,” Berliner said. “There’s a lot of opportunity here for everyone.”
Opportunity is one thing. Actualizing it can be much harder said Lanese Martin, who runs an Oakland-based nonprofit called The Hood Incubator. Martin and her team work to match cannabis entrepreneurs with tools, training, and access to capital they need in order to enter the legal industry. The incubator has no trouble recruiting women, Martin said—in fact, more than half the program’s applicants were women—but that’s just half the battle. State and local regulations aren’t doing a great job of accounting for the need of small businesses, she said, many of which are run by women and other minority groups.
“There’s a great representation of [diverse] folks that are involved,” she said, “just not a great representation of folks that are funded.”
At least some in Los Angeles, however, feel that change is on the horizon. LA dispensary owner Janice Hardoon, for one, predicts that broader legalization could finally help quash the industry’s antiquated dynamics and entice an increasing amount of women to get involved. “It’s going to be just a tremendous job opportunity and job market,” she said.
On the consumer side, women already are “probably the biggest-growing demographic in cannabis,” Hardoon said. They often use the product for health and wellness reasons—to battle cancer, promote sleep, or settle nerves, for example—and have helped create a huge market for cannabis topicals, such as make-ups and medicated lotions. As the industry grows, so too could the role of women.
“It could end up being women-to-women,” Hardoon said, “which would be awesome.”