The cannabis industry is a boys’ club.
And while there have always been plenty of powerful and dynamic female cultivators, retailers, and founders (whether you know their names or not), the numbers don’t lie. Less than 25 percent of the women in cannabis hold leadership positions; only eight percent of cannabis CEOs are women.
Sure it’s true that many industries lack diversity in management, but one may presume a sector focused on the divine feminine energy of the cannabis plant could and should be going above and beyond to ensure there is equal representation from the greenhouse to the board room.
Instead, a frat boy party culture has begun to permeate the legal industry, distracting the narrative from the true potential of plant medicine. A culture where blatant sexism and harassment are commonplace, and testosterone-fueled pissing matches have become more prevalent. A culture, while perhaps a product of our society, is on track to potentially destroy the integrity and passion that generations of legacy operators have built in the shadows. And while sexism in the industry is nothing new, it’s become more visible than ever before thanks in part to legalization.
Nowhere is this more apparent than during “Cannabis Week.”
Last week saw tens of thousands of cannabis industry professionals gather in Las Vegas for MJBizCon, MJUnpacked, and a bevy of after-parties, mixers, and networking events. A city that is arguably one of the most anti-cannabis places in the country despite the fact that possession is legal for adult use; a place where bouncers will 86 you from a club for simply having your Puffco out (I’m looking at you Mandalay Bay).
It’s important to note that virtually zero farmers were able to make it to the event due to organizers moving it from December to October, a time when the majority of cultivators are busy with harvest season. However, the lack of grower presence was not entirely new, since MJBiz generally tends to attract more suits in general. Predominately male ones at that.
To be fair, MJBizCon, the largest cannabis B2B trade show in the game, made a concerted effort to offer a wide mix of female-led programming and networking opportunities. It was a similar story across town at the brand and investor-focused MJUnpacked.
However, the vast majority of people I interviewed noticed a clear lack of female representation on both the trade show floors and at affiliated events (myself included). With the reality of the demographics on full display, many of the women I spoke with reported entering the week with new strategies in order to level the playing field.
Past experiences lead to pivoted approach for industry women
At a product launch party in an upscale suite on one of the first days of MJBizCon 2021, I ran into my pal Gabby Pavelko of Good People. We were among the only women at the event, something not wholly unusual but a fact we noted. I asked if she had noticed the wider gender disparity in our industry and if it had impacted her career growth. If so, how had she remedied that notion?
“Lately when I am in a business scenario or conversation, I ask myself ‘What would a man do?’ and then I do that thing.”
I was stunned but intrigued. Apparently, this was advice Eva Longoria was once quoted as receiving when she began her career.
Gabby’s strategy highlights the ways in which women strive to understand the way men conduct business effectively.
“I have been studying the delicate balance between masculine and feminine energy this year, and it really is a spectrum on both sides,” she later told me.
However, I’ve heard plenty of dynamic female leaders say: “don’t wait to be invited to the table, just sit down.” But when the patriarchy rears its ugly head, that often feels easier said than done.
Hope Marian, a patient advocate, and consultant echoed Gabby’s sentiments.
“In the past (at MJBizCon), I’ve had negative experiences, especially ones I know would be different if I was a man. But, this year, I went in with a more assertive approach and felt more respected at the convention than ever before,” she said.
Kait Caridi, a social media marketing consultant and event coordinator from New York, said she purposely surrounded herself with a squad meant to inspire in order to maintain thier positive energy.
“Most of my week was (intentionally) spent with fellow female advocates and leaders, but I couldn’t help but notice the entire conference floor was white male-dominated. Luckily, I was in the presence of many dynamic women during this year’s event. I was invited as a guest to the Blunt Brunch dinner, hosted by Parisa Rad and Adelia Carillo. The entire room was full of female leaders and executives in the space and I left feeling empowered!”
Blunt Brunch, an intimate gathering of women designed to facilitate meaningful conversations and connections, was indeed a shining example of female unity in cannabis. It was refreshing to be in the company of so many powerful industry voices.
“As women, there is a stigma that we are filled with drama when you bring us all together, and that is far from the truth,” Adelia Carrillo, CMO of EventHi and Co-founder of Blunt Brunch. “When you provide a space where guests feel empowered and are able to be themselves, true relationships evolve. When you fill the energy with empowerment, compassion, intention, and authenticity, it truly allows us all to unite and come together.
“Like other more established industries, women are finding it harder to get a true seat at the table in cannabis, and if they do, they are likely the only one, and that just does not work,” Pavelko added.
“We must ensure that everyone is included and there is a path to retribution for those who have been mistreated in the ‘war on drugs.’ Equity in cannabis looks like executive teams at every company that are at least 50% BIPOC, female, LGBTQIA+ and other racial and ethnic minorities.”
What happens in Vegas…
The Sin City environment, perhaps combined with an insatiable desire to party hard (especially post-COVID lockdown) compounded by a pandemic-related deficit in navigating social situations appropriately, topped off by copious amounts of alcohol and cocaine, seemed to be the perfect recipe for disaster at this year’s MJBiz and its affiliated after-events.
And while I have nothing against either of the aforementioned substances (I believe people have the right to consume whatever compounds they desire), the overindulgence of these chemicals at times seems counterintuitive to what our industry is aiming to accomplish, especially considering the energy those drugs tend to invite.
We are under incredible scrutiny as an industry, and there are plenty of people waiting for us to make a mistake. Not to say the booze and blow are to blame for the bad behavior showcased last week — but it certainly didn’t help.
Many people I spoke with for this article described various scenes featuring overly intoxicated, aggressive, or rude individuals (both male and female), ranging from bros bragging about their boof to classless attempts at soliciting acquaintances to legitimate bloodshed.
One video circulating online shows one of the Futurola security staff attacking a member of the Packwoods team at the Futurola booth. Allegedly, an argument over an unpaid invoice led up to the altercation, with the footage showing multiple punches being thrown. MJBizDaily hastily released a tweet condemning the incident.
Another widely shared video showed a scuffle at the Spearmint Rhino gentlemen’s club, reportedly a flare-up of the fight that occurred earlier in the day at the Futurola booth.
Sexual harassment was also widely reported. A female friend of mine recounted being DMed by married executives prior to MJBiz asking if she would be around and “wanted to party.” She was told at one point during the week: “your tits sell weed.”
One woman shared a story of a colleague clearly using a strip club setting to rationalize inappropriate conversation, going on to pressure a different male co-worker into getting a lap dance when he was clearly uncomfortable being in that environment in the first place.
Why go to the strip club if it’s not your thing?
To quote Hamilton, he (likely) wanted to be in the room where it happens. We all know the real deals happen after-hours, and if decision-makers are in the VIP section of a strip club, people may feel pressure to show up — even if it’s not their cup of tea.
Gracie Morgan, aka Marilyn Jane, described several distressing moments both on the trade show floor and at parties, noting however the expo itself did appear to be more diverse than in previous years compared with the after-events.
She recalled guys asking her for private dances at both Hustler and Spearmint Rhino, becoming so exasperated she decided to leave the venues. She noted several men putting their arms around her at various times throughout the week, acting like they couldn’t hear in a flimsy attempt at justifying their unwanted physical contact.
“I had somebody say, ‘can I just grab your ass please?” she told me. “I am genuinely intrigued that they thought that was okay. I don’t feel threatened — it’s just odd that something like that is deemed appropriate in their psyche.”
Gracie also described an incident where an exhibitor at MJBizCon put his hand on her neck; she nearly said sorry after defending herself when the guy’s ego was bruised by her rebuttal (an extremely common pattern of thinking for women in our society: be victimized, take a stand against it, and then apologize when the perpetrator expresses discomfort).
She added she is strongly considering attending next year’s show with a bodyguard in order to avoid similar situations.
Another woman who asked to remain anonymous told me about being falsely accused of theft at a club, seeing security interrogate her only to find out that the accuser was using the situation as a pick-up device, describing the incident as “incredibly traumatizing.”
Is this what it’s come to? That we as women feel so unsafe at a cannabis trade show that we literally need hired protection? That we can’t go to a work-related party without being manipulated and harassed? There were plenty of events and moments where everyone felt safe and empowered, but these incidents highlight the ugliness saturated within a space that seems like it should be easily focused on good vibes for everyone involved.
To BizCon or not to BizCon: that is the question
What was once a peaceful gathering of industry OGs at the Rio has evolved into a cookie-cutter copy of any other Vegas convention. One where Chads thirsty for deal flow will say and do literally whatever it takes to close a sale. An environment where fights break out on the tradeshow floor and spill over to the strip club after-hours. A week filled with events at venues where the mere presence of actual cannabis can get you bounced.
A place many industry veterans have now decided to avoid altogether.
“I know what happens at MJBiz nowadays, and I don’t want any part of it,” one friend told me, saying she’ll attend Emerald Cup instead.
“Vegas brings out the worst in people,” another proclaimed.
Not to say that trade shows like MJBizCon are all bad. Our industry is evolving and events like this help facilitate growth and the sharing of information. But when people use them as an excuse to behave in an unsavory and downright disgusting manner, how much progress is actually made?
Fortunately, the majority of women I spoke with had positive experiences at this year’s so-called “Cannabis Week,” reporting feeling invigorated and excited at what’s ahead. It did become apparent that the onus is on everyone to rise to the occasion if we are to see real change.
We as females must come together to voice our concerns — and men need to listen and amplify the message. And luckily, there are plenty of incredible women (and male allies) out here wanting to lift one another up, encouraging each other to do whatever it takes to achieve our dreams.
The key is to remember that we are all writing the narrative for which this industry will be known. The world is watching — what type of message do we want to send? Are we an industry filled with overly aggressive men who want this business to be just like the rest? Or are we an inclusive space where everyone, regardless of gender and sexual identity, race, or socioeconomic status has the right to succeed?