Vangst, one of the leading recruitment agencies in the cannabis space, recently gathered data from 166 companies across 17 states concerning female and female-identifying employment in weed. Seen here, their findings suggest that out of 631 total female employees, 17.6% held director or executive roles. Additionally, “of all surveyed companies, 43.4% are more than 50% female identifying,” and “38.5% of [total] cannabis employees are female-identifying individuals.”
These numbers are trending up as the market increases and as more states gain access to legal cannabis — but we can do better. Especially considering that out of all those companies on the survey bill, 12.6% do not have any women in leadership, while 41.2% only have one.
And even as women have gained more access to the professional world over the past few decades, what happens once we enter the space speaks volumes to what needs to change and how we should be constantly working for equal conditions and environments across the entire working world.
We recently had the opportunity to speak to two women with wildly diverse cannabis backgrounds on matters regarding race, inclusion, equality and patient advocacy in cannabis. In this candid interview, hear what it’s like to pursue cannabis from a different lens.
Meet our interviewees
Tiffany Bowden: MA and founding President, Former Education Chair and Co-Founder of The Minority Cannabis Business Association, Director of Education for the National Diversity & Inclusion Association, mental health advocate, diversity trainer, activist, writer, educator, and speaker (check out her powerful Ted Talk here).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On pursuing a career in the cannabis space.
WM: Cannabis is so new in regards to its place in the general consumer market, and its rise happened incredibly quickly. What first motivated you to pursue a career in the cannabis industry, specifically? And has that motivational spark changed?
Wilson-Poe: I mean, for me it was the opposite, actually. I was never motivated to be in the cannabis industry at all. I was pulled into the industry because of the science. I started my career as an academic and I wrote my first grant to study cannabinoids as an undergrad in 2004. As a result of doing my undergrad work, my Ph.D work, all of my postdoctoral work looking at the evidence (and being eyeballs deep in it all day every day of my career), it was very obvious to me that here we have a bunch of evidence that’s being completely ignored and disregarded by our policymakers.
And so it was because of that that I became a patient advocate and an outspoken spokesperson for all the harm reduction capabilities that this plant possesses — especially in regards to opioids. So, I was pulled into the industry just because of my passion — and expertise — for the evidence. I never thought that I would end up in this place. But I feel like it’s a moral obligation of mine to my fellow humans to use my knowledge of the literature, and my ability to study this plant, for the greater good.
Bowden: My career started out in marketing and advertising, and I have historically been very interested in the representation of minorities and women in advertising — and in media in general. But then, in the midst of my graduate studies, my father passed away, and prior to my father passing away, he was able to relate to me that he was utilizing medical cannabis for pain relief and support. I was able to watch that process, and some of the other things that he was using originally were actually causing very negative side effects, including opioid addiction and constipation.
Because my dad was not connected to the community, he was getting [cannabis] from a dialysis friend, but once his dialysis friend passed away, he had to go back to the traditional Western approach. The opioids and all the other medications really took him out of his default personality set. So, once I did finally lose him for good, I was very much interested in helping people gain access to a plant that I thought might have possibly been able to help my father.
But before my father, my initial reaction [to cannabis] was actually fairly negative, considering I came up in the “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E era. Given all of the benefits that I saw him have with it, that was what set me out to say, “Okay, well why did I have such a negative reaction if this is a thing that actually does have benefits?” I took on the search to find out those answers. Then I decided to focus my interest and aims on elevating research and patient advocacy.
I also launched an education company and traveled state to state to help bring [cannabis] education to people. In that journey, I found that I was like one of the only black people that was in that space — which was odd to me. So I created the Minority Cannabis Business Association to help advance the conversation simultaneously.
However, I suffered a lot of trauma in the space as it relates to what happens to minorities and women when they get here. There’s a lot of people that talk about getting into the cannabis industry, but there’s not a lot of people talking about what happens to us when we’re here. Our businesses being stolen, being sexually harassed and going through all of those kinds of trauma. And so my recent work has been focused more on that space and harm reduction, mental health and support.
On the science behind cannabis and women’s health.
WM: On the healthcare front, it’s been reported that women are ignored when it comes to receiving care and that our complaints are usually written off. So, we’re sometimes forced to look elsewhere. In response, there seems to be an explosion of weed products for women’s health, in addition to other women-specific cannabis goods. Do you think these items are helpful or do you sense a bandwagon trend happening in the industry? And if you do use women’s health products, what best speaks to modern women with modern cannabis?
Bowden: I think that our industry specifically has a lot of misogyny. And you hear that thrown around with a lot of different industries, but you don’t necessarily understand how that’s operationalized until you are in it. I can say for one that as an African-American woman, I never actually really identified with my gender quite so much as when I’ve been in this industry. Because in any other space, I would consider myself black first, a woman second, and then I don’t really feel my womanness quite so much.
In the cannabis industry, however, my womanness is felt to an extreme, and that is what I feel gets push-back probably the most. Even though the race component is certainly there, I think that the gender component ends up being a bit more explicit, and that’s certainly the kind of thing that I ended up taking on.
There’s a lot of female founders that are losing their companies, women’s health concerns and grievances are not being heard, and then they’re just being written off as drama. People typically side with the men who will form their “good ol’ boy” clubs, and our voices get silenced in the interim. We have to do better as women working together and supporting each other. And when we say things, we have to be willing to believe each other.
In terms of products and such, I do think that there’s an absolute need for women to focus on products that lift and improve the space for ourselves. I particularly like supporting women-owned companies and products. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a woman’s issue, but I just like to support women in general.
Some of the companies that I love don’t exist anymore because of the rampant misogyny. Like Julie Dooley, she had a treat company, but she no longer has control of her space. And there are several others. I also got through my tailbone fracture and — the issues that led me to have to leave my organization — with Mary’s Transdermal Compound, and it’s something that I absolutely swear by. I think that the Foria brand is actually really strong, as well.
Wilson-Poe: Yeah. I look at this issue from a very, very different lens — which is no surprise — through the evidence. One of the women who was a mentor to me and was on my Ph.D. committee was one of the only people to study not only the phenomenon of chronic pain in females but the sex differences in pain and the sex differences in our responses to pain-relieving drugs.
We know that women experience disproportionately more chronic pain than males. And yet, the vast majority of all biomedical research that has ever been done has been done exclusively on males. So, a lot of things that may have been born out in the laboratory simply don’t translate and don’t apply in the real world, because they’ve never been tested in females.
There’s a lot of things that are tied up in female sexuality. Not only the cultural history of all of the oppression and the patriarchal system that we live within but also those subconscious stories and constructs that we’ve been given. Like when you deliver a child vaginally, your body is very different afterward. And maybe it recovers to its baseline for some people, and maybe it never recovers at all for others. So there’s a massive amount of women-specific, childbirth-specific, trauma-specific pain that warrants further investigation and specific treatment.
There is a little bit of literature that supports women with low libido, clinically low libido — that cannabis can provide an enhancement. But we also know that cannabinoids have a direct impact on our normal hormonal function. So you have these competing forces where cannabis could potentially increase your chances of, for instance, getting pregnant, because you’re having more sex since your libido’s increased.
But at the same time, the chronic daily exposure to these cannabinoids could potentially interfere with your normal hormonal processes that would promote fertility and the implanting of the fetus in the placenta. So, there really is a ton of research that still needs to be done regarding these women’s health and sexual wellness products.
I think that in general what we see in this particular segment of the market is what we see with a lot of the cannabis marketing: we have a lot of potentially false claims and false marketing that’s being done with absolutely no evidence, which I’m never a fan of.
What I am a fan of, like Tiffany is, is a women-supportive business that is providing a service to those individuals in a care-taking model the way that it has always been done. I know that there are tons of products out there that were founded by a female founder who is taking care of their mother, or another family member, and has specifically developed a really high-quality product that has anecdotally worked for many people.
Bowden: I just wanted to piggyback off of that, too, because I think that there’s two things that were really great in what you said. In terms of the last one, there are so many different smaller products that maybe people haven’t heard of that are really great. Which has a lot to do not only with supporting women but combating the rampant classism that’s in our industry, as well.
Not everybody has millions of dollars to throw behind their brand. And not everybody necessarily has the know-how to go out and secure funding. So there’s a lot of need for education and resources to go into that space.
But also, we need more rigor as it relates to reporting. To not simply cherry-pick off of the last articles or who you saw at the last conference. We need to be more diligent about actually scoping out people who are doing the work, but maybe they don’t have the recognition that they deserve.
In terms of women disproportionately experiencing pain — this is true. And then I would add to that, that black women, in particular, are frequently not believed for their pain disproportionately more than any other group. I’ve tried to advocate for cannabis topicals in particular for black women who are experiencing pain because it can titrate out quite differently than what Western products generally can.
On being a patient advocate
WM: I know you are both patient advocates, and advocacy is enormous in this space — especially for states who have yet to legalize. What little known facts or issues have you both personally seen come up over and over for medical patients that the average consumer wouldn’t necessarily consider or see?
Wilson-Poe: I’m a big-time harm reductionist, and harm reduction is all about an evaluation of risk. Especially because we were singing the anti-prohibition song for so long, and we’ve been working for so many decades trying to repeal these ridiculous laws, there is a real sentiment in the advocacy community that you can’t talk about the risks of cannabis.
You can’t even acknowledge that there are any risks, which is inherently untrue. For us to fail to acknowledge that there are some risks with cannabis use, is no better than Jeff Sessions completely denying cannabis’s medical utility. So, for us to have a sustainable and effective relationship with the plant, whether it’s for personal or medical use or all of the above, it’s extremely important to manage the risks that there are.
We know that repeated exposure to THC puts you at a higher risk for cannabis use disorder. Repeated exposure also puts you at a higher risk for cannabinoid hyperemesis disorder. And granted, those risks compared to other pharmaceuticals or alcohol are lower. And that’s why cannabis is such an important harm reduction tool.
But I think that there is a largely held misperception about cannabis, and sometimes an intentional ignoring of those risks. It’s simply irresponsible not to have those conversations. Just like Tiffany, I was a D.A.R.E. kid, and I was lied to. I was told that this drug is just as dangerous as heroin, just as dangerous as methamphetamine. And that’s clearly not the case.
So we need to have honest conversations. Some people might be vulnerable to cannabis use disorder. We should be having those transparent conversations so that we don’t end up repeating some of the mistakes that we did like we did with the opioids, for instance.
For me, the biggest piece in the advocacy corner is that proper advocacy includes a discussion of the relative risks.
Bowden: Mm-hmm, yeah, I completely agree. And I think that those are such valid points. I stress those things as well.
One of the misconceptions that I run into is that when people are in pain, they always assume that what they need is dry flower or a vape. And that’s not always the method of ingestion that they need. Sometimes people can take in and consume cannabis and it can increase their pain because THC has a way of making us hyper-aware of things. It could relax you to the point where you’re not thinking about your pain, but it also can cause you to focus in on that pain. It really just depends on the person.
I’m also a very, very strong advocate for topicals. Topicals are actually my number one application. I’m not really a big fan of the psychoactive aspect, just because I have so much going on during the day that that’s not really my method.
I have done dispensary trips with the elderly — taking patients into dispensaries and doing shop-alongs with them. They really have no idea what they’re looking for and they’re generally intimidated on that first trip, but after they’ve been able to go the first time, they’re good. They know exactly what they’re getting.
But I have been a little disappointed with the cannabis technician, historically called budtenders, and their level of education. If someone comes in and they’re saying that they’re in pain, they will usually defer them to a vape or to a pre-roll of some sort. So we need to challenge that a little bit and have some more education about the various ways that people can enjoy cannabis medicine and cannabis therapeutics.
We need to keep moving towards full-spectrum experiences, which is ultimately what we need for overall healthy and sustainable space from a health standpoint. There needs to be greater clarity and education on how to select for quality as it relates to those types of products.
On the progress made in the cannabis industry
WM: What do you think has been the greatest leap in the industry when considering inclusion across the market? Where do you see this lack of consideration and how can the industry do better as it continues to expand?
Wilson-Poe: From my perspective, I think that the one thing that has been done right — and I can’t say that it’s necessarily because of cannabis — is that the conversations are at least being had. We’ve never seen a more active industry involved in social justice. We’ve never seen more legislators talking about the negative impacts of the War on Drugs. We’ve never before seen such a magnifying glass on how many board rooms are completely full of white men over 50. I would say that the biggest leap that we’ve had is that there is a rampant ongoing conversation about all of these acknowledgments of these inequities.
However, the other side of that coin is that despite all the conversation, we still have a long way to go. There are still far, far too many inequities. And despite all of this conversation, there are still relatively functional programs to alleviate those issues and to rectify them. So I do think that this has been a model time, if not a model industry, for all of these things to come out into the open and come into the collective public awareness, but we are still in the process of actually doing something about that.
Bowden: Just to reiterate some of the other things that I said, we’ve done a great job about talking about inclusion and getting minorities and women into the industry. I think that we are making strong grounds on that. There are so many different programs that are kind of popping up. But even to the extent that we’ve done a great job of talking about getting women and minorities into the space, we’re not talking about what happens to us when we’re here. And that is, for me, the next wave and the next push that needs to happen.
That means being able to support people if and when they have to have lawsuits to be able to develop certain funds so that people can fight for what they’ve created. We do need more whistleblowing activity as it relates to being able to support people who want to be able to have the healthiest and safest work environment — how you can actually protect yourself with that transparency and visibility.
The whole point of diversity and inclusion movements would mean that if people are being oppressed, if they’re going through those types of things, we should have mechanisms in place to pull those people up, not push them down for speaking up. Diversity is mostly about your demographics. Inclusion is about being able to get those voices heard, and equity is about making sure that we’re having restorative justice on different elements.
I also think that we need to broaden the conversation beyond race and gender to include things likeability. We are not having very many conversations as it relates to able-bodiedness, mental health and things of that nature.
To add, diversity and inclusion training is something that I do with organizations. We have all these startup organizations that are being created and people look at human resources as a thing to kind of put in place “at some point.” So you have these organizations that are running but they don’t have any human resources, they don’t know anything about employment law. It should be a standard that we have human resources at the start, but also that we have laws that govern our own industry, that regulates us at smaller increments than what the EOC would in terms of how many employees work in the space.