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How the LGBTQ community is pushing cannabis legalization forward

 Karen Paull (left) and Wendy Robbins of  The Marijuana Show .

Karen Paull (left) and Wendy Robbins of The Marijuana Show.

You can thank the LGBTQ community for that legal joint you’re smoking.

During the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, those afflicted with the horrific disease (most often gay and bisexual men) found comfort and healing from cannabis use. It helped them sleep, alleviated pain, stimulated appetites. Compassion coalitions – spaces that provide pot to patients – popped up, particularly in San Francisco’s famed Castro district, but without legalization it was a dangerous business. Lucky for pot’s future, the LGBTQ community was poised for this kind of fight.

In the spirit of New York City’s Stonewall riots of 1969, during which the LGBTQ community took to the streets to fight for their rights, it was clear these activists were ready to organize and take charge. In San Francisco, Dennis Peron (whose partner had passed away from AIDS) drafted the city’s first medical cannabis legislation, Proposition P, in 1991. The initiative received an 80 percent approval from the city’s Board of Supervisors, paving the way for the first-ever public dispensary in the United States. In 1992, he helped open the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers’ Club. Also on board was Mary Jane Rathbun (also known as Brownie Mary), a San Francisco baker who specialized in pot brownies, which she doled out for free to AIDS patients and those undergoing chemotherapy.

Fast forward down the long road to legal weed, and we’ve all but forgotten its LGBTQ founders.

“If it wasn’t for all the sacrifices that the early dispensaries and compassion clubs made, we wouldn’t be here. The LGBTQ community would have suffered even greater losses,” says Renee Gagnon, founder of Vancouver, British Columbia’s Hollyweed North cannabis collective. “I was doing a talk, and I brought that up. Afterwards a woman came to me — an older senior lady, typical silver hippie — and she wanted to thank me because for ten years, her lesbian co-op had been delivering a pound of weed a week to the men’s health center in San Francisco. They would ring the doorbell and run away, and they did this anonymously for decades. She didn’t think anybody knew. All over people were doing wonderful things like that, and they deserve the acknowledgment.”

Just as those early pot pioneers advocated for medical cannabis legislation, LGBTQ women like Gagnon are now working to open up more space in the industry for leaders that don’t fit the hetero-male mold that’s overwhelmingly dominant in most other industries.

Gagnon was one of the first individuals in Canada to obtain a federal license for producing cannabis. Her first company was on an incredible upward trajectory – and today is worth around a billion dollars – when Gagnon went through a very public divorce and, at the same time, came out as transgender. “It was traumatic for me. Everyone around, because they didn’t know what trans was and didn’t have the words to use — just stereotypes and fear — thought I was crazy,” she says. “Rather than pollute the company, I decided to step down into private life, where I could transition peacefully.”

When she decided a year later to reenter the cannabis world, she did so with gusto, launching several successful companies aimed at giving women a leg up in the broadening business world of weed. Hollyweed North runs a grow facility north of Vancouver, and shares that space with companies that are required to have a three-fifths female board mandate (currently, they’re at 80 percent female leadership and staffing).

Washington D.C.’s Laila Makled also saw the opportunity for equity in the cannabis space. She had been at the consulting firm, Stones’ Phones, advocating for Initiative 71 (the capitol’s recreational cannabis legalization initiative), when she decided to launch the D.C. chapter of Women Grow, a female-focused organization that empowers women in all aspects of the cannabis world. “There was this massive, massive opportunity to build an entire industry from the ground up, and I thought that it was critically important that we were doing so equitably and providing space and narratives for other communities who had been left out of things like the tech boom,” she says.

Now, Makled works as a project manager at New Frontier Data, a company that provides vetted, unbiased data and information to businesses and entities concerned with the future of cannabis. For example, a 2017 study discovered that the LGBTQ community supports and consumes cannabis more than heterosexuals; it’s information like this that will hopefully help destigmatize LGBTQ pot usage, and encourage cannabis companies to consider the community as part of their own.

While progress is being made, the LGBTQ community is still underrepresented in cannabis leadership, and general prejudices still exist. Gagnon recalls a text sent by an investor she’d turned down, which was clearly meant for someone else. “Well at least we have closure with the tranny,” it read. Makled, though she says she feels personally supported in her work and community, was abhorred when reading the comments section of High Times’ profile of drag queen and cannabis advocate, Laganja Estranja. “I was absolutely appalled at the transphobia and homophobia and blatant violence,” she says. “It was a glaring example of how much work there still is to be done.”

 Renee Gagnon, founder of Hollyweed North in British Columbia, Canada. (Photo courtesy of  @renee_melody )

Renee Gagnon, founder of Hollyweed North in British Columbia, Canada. (Photo courtesy of @renee_melody)

What can the cannabis community learn from the LGBTQ movement? Everyone I spoke to likened coming out of the “cannabis closet” as being similar to coming out of the closet as LGBTQ (albeit in a much milder form). “I remember being as nervous telling my mom and dad that I was taking that leap [into the cannabis industry] as I was when I came out,” says Makled. “I noticed years ago when I was talking with ladies from Texas and they were saying, ‘What would the neighbors say? What if the church found out?’ and it’s similar to how LGBTQ people feel in that it’s the same language,” says Gagnon. “If you want to normalize cannabis you have to do it in the same way the LGBTQ community has. You have to fight for it.”

One of the biggest fights in this industry, and what women and LGBTQ persons especially lack, is funding. That’s where Wendy Robbins and Karen Paull of The Marijuana Show come in. The couple, married for over a decade, launched the Shark Tank-esque program in 2014 to help get pot entrepreneurs off the ground.

“I was in need of a career transition when Wendy and I looked into owning a cannabis dispensary,” says Paull. “We attended a seminar and there were a lot of entrepreneurs who would come up to us and say, ‘I have this really cool idea for a vape pen. What do you think?’ And we realized there were a lot of good ideas but not a lot of business acumen.” Combined, Paull (an advertising and digital media exec) and Robbins (a filmmaker and business coach, with a reality show Homemade Millionaire co-starring Kelly Ripa) had excellent business sense in spades. “Eventually, we thought, ‘What if we did a business show about cannabis?’” says Paull. “We were literally smoking a joint one night when The Marijuana Show came to fruition.”

Within two weeks, the couple headed to Denver, found a crew, auditioned over 200 people, and started filming. The show takes entrepreneurs in the marijuana space from initial pitches through the business-building process with big funding rewards; season one offered a $5 million prize. The show is entirely self-produced and hosted on their website, as well as Amazon Prime. They’ve also launched a ‘Bud Camp’ accelerator program for other burgeoning startups.

Currently, they’re preparing to audition for season four, and setting their sights on Canada and Europe. The Advocate has dubbed them the “lesbian millionaire godmothers of pot,” and they’re focused on spreading that money to women, LGBTQ persons, and the minority community as a whole — something that everyone agrees the industry can use more of.

“I figured that if I create a company that’s welcoming and supportive of women and LGBTQ people, it tends to be supportive of everyone,” offers Gagnon. “There’s nothing special about being an LGBTQ company. We don’t have pride day every day, there are no free Jello shots. It just means that, in our workplace, you know you’re not going to get fucked with for who you are. We’re not a political party, we’re not a religion; we’re where you work and when you come to work, we’re going to support you. Hopefully we’ll provide an example to show other companies that they can successfully do the same.”

Story by Amanda Zurita

Van der Pop does not endorse or condone the illegal consumption of cannabis.

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