(Hilary Black, Jamie Shaw, Andrea Dobbs, Mary Jean Dunsdon, and Shega Youngson (A'mula) will be panelists at the Georgia Straight's upcoming event, Grassroots: An Expo for the Cannabis Curious on April 7 and 8, 2018. Get your tickets now.)
One of the first lessons a marijuana enthusiast learns is to purge a grow operation of males. Only the females of the cannabis plant—identifiable by pistillate flowers, in contrast to a male’s staminate flowers—produce the cannabinoid chemicals sought for their psychoactive effects. So gardeners pull the male plants out by their roots and discard them as useless.
On the human side, nobody is actively purging Vancouver’s burgeoning marijuana industry of men, but many facets of the business are similarly dominated by women.
“Here in Vancouver, women have been at the forefront of this industry from the very beginning,” said Jamie Shaw, president of the Canadian Association of Medical Cannabis Dispensaries (CAMCD).
She recalled that one of North America’s first marijuana storefronts, the nonprofit B.C. Compassion Club Society, was founded in 1997 with feminist ideals at its core.
“In our early days, 70 percent of the Canadian workforce was male, so we made it policy that 70 percent of our staff had to be female,” Shaw told the Georgia Straight. “And we still have that policy.”
Hilary Black, who cofounded the Compassion Club alongside Shaw, recalls that things happened a little more organically.
“I was 20 years old,” Black recounted. “We were all in our mid- to young 20s. It was just a group of women who were willing to engage in civil disobedience and provide services for marginalized and chronically ill people.”
Regardless of how conscious the group was of its feminist bent back then, Black said the tradition is something worth keeping alive today.
“Women were the roots and the pioneers of medical cannabis in this country,” she emphasized. “And I think it is really important that we continue to see them having a leading voice and influence as the movement moves into an industry.”
Almost 20 years after the Compassion Club opened its doors on Commercial Drive, there are plenty of Vancouver women following in its footsteps. Shaw pointed to Dori Dempster of the Medicinal Cannabis Dispensary, the Village Dispensary’s Andrea Dobbs, and Jessika Villano of Buddha Barn Medicinal Cannabis. Women are also behind some of the city’s most popular oils and edibles, Shaw continued—Brina Levitt of Green Penguin Delights, for example, and Apothecary Labs’ Gabriele Jerousek. Another is Mary Jean Dunsdon, better known as Watermelon, whose online cooking show has earned her an international following. (Dunsdon also appeared on the cover of the Straight back in 2008.)
It’s not just in the dispensary industry that women are running the show.
UBC’s Rielle Capler has focused on marijuana and patient care as a research area for more than a decade. Before that, she was another woman involved early with the Compassion Club. More recently, Capler has become a big contributor to evolving legal frameworks, having helped draft the standards and certification program for dispensaries that the City of Vancouver adopted last June.
On the research front, Capler called attention to a cannabis study that was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review on September 14. Bucking the academic trend of papers often being dominated by men’s names at the top, that study was coauthored by eight B.C. researchers, including Capler, plus Kim Crosby, Lynne Belle-Isle, and Susan Holtzman.
“To do the dispensaries, that was civil disobedience,” she said. “And research was an area that needed pioneering as well because it is still a taboo topic.”
Of course, the Canadian cannabis movement’s most visible face is also a woman’s.
Jodie Emery has carried the crown since her husband, Marc, began a five-year prison sentence in 2010. He was released in August 2014 but has appeared content to see Jodie remain the lead spokesperson for the push to reform marijuana laws.
In a telephone interview, Jodie Emery speculated that one of the reasons women have risen to the top of marijuana reform is that pot—or at least its more legitimate areas—is a relatively new industry that’s going mainstream after efforts began to force old-boys’ networks and institutional sexism out of the workplace.
“Because the legal or semilegal marijuana industry is new, there are positions available for women that men may have otherwise filled before,” she said. “Women have had an equal opportunity to be involved.”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, she added. For example, Emery agreed that her husband’s name often still comes first in media reports on the reform movement, despite Marc taking a back seat for some time.
“Something that women have always dealt with is being somebody based on their husband being somebody,” she said. “I struggle with it.…But I’ve never encountered anyone belittling a female [marijuana] activist.”
At the Village Dispensary in False Creek, Dobbs similarly told the Straight that the marijuana industry is better to women than most but is still far from perfect.
“You get a lot of people calling you ‘darling’; you get a lot of references to ‘the kind of girl that smokes weed’,” she said. “Or, ‘She’s pretty for a girl that smokes weed.’ So there is a lot of that kind of stuff.”
Dobbs also noted that as Canada inches closer to legalizing recreational marijuana, she has started to see the industry adopt chauvinistic advertising strategies, like those on display in beer commercials.
“You see a lot of young, hypersexualized girls handing out leaflets and flyers feeling kind of excited to be part of it but not recognizing that they are not being taken seriously,” she explained.
Working to counter that sort of sexism is Women Grow, a professional association with groups in more than 40 cities across North America.
The Vancouver chapter was founded by Shaw and Shega A’Mula, CAMCD chief operating officer and a relatively new face in B.C.’s marijuana movement.
In a telephone interview, A’Mula gave credit to the women who blazed a trail for her and said she hopes Women Grow can help do the same for the next generation. She invited anybody interested to the group’s next meeting, a networking event scheduled for this Thursday (October 1).
“It’s a really empowering environment,” A’Mula said. “It’s not all big business, like other cannabis events.…It’s a way to have fun, connect, and have conversations you probably can’t have elsewhere.”