Puff Piece

08.06.144:10 PM ET

The Mary Janes of the Marijuana Industry

In the growing business of legal weed, women are dealing themselves into the movement.

As a self-proclaimed “straight-laced tech geek,” former director of social media at PETCO and Microsoft digital campaigns lead Katherine Smith is not your typical pot proponent. Last week, Smith announced that she will be joining Weedmaps, a tech startup that boasts the world’s most heavily trafficked dispensary locator and digital cannabis resource, as chief marketing officer. As the marijuana industry grows, women are rapidly taking leadership positions in every aspect of the business—from legislative reform and medical testing to technology and retailing. As Nancy Botin of Showtime’s Weeds would say she’s “the suburban baroness of bud.” The legalization of weed is proving to be incredibly lucrative, and public opinion is evolving with the pot trade. According to The New York Times, 54% of Americans support legalization, and 72% believe the government’s efforts to enforce marijuana laws cost more than they are worth. Passionate and tenacious women who have a background in mainstream industries are staking their claim in the multibillion-dollar market opportunity of weed. 

At the 2014 Colorado Cannabis Summit in May, women made up at least a third of the attendees, an interesting contrast to the meager 15% of women delegates that made up this year’s World Economic Forum. “Women are emerging in the marijuana industry because they see the profitability and medicinal possibilities,” says Smith. She credits this trend not only to increased gender equality, but also to “the nurturing and compassion side of women, the desire to help children who suffer from epilepsy or patients with terminal diseases.” Smith can personally verify this desire to improve the lives of others. Growing up with a Vietnam Vet father who suffered from PTSD, Smith was able to see the powers of medicinal marijuana; at a young age, she saw his quality of life drastically improve with the help of cannabis.

The medical marijuana industry also turns out to be a new small-business opportunity, offering a compassionate environment in which women can thrive. Brooke Gehring, founder of Patients Choice, is a prime example of the new female ganjapreneur. Gehring, who previously had a career in finance, opened her first store in Denver in 2009; today, she owns and operates four dispensaries and two cultivation facilities that employ 85 people.

Although any small business must be competitive to survive, new organizations such as Women Grow are emerging to mentor, educate and empower the next generation of ganjapreneurs. Jane West, who also owns high-end catering company Edible Events, founded Women Grow because as a new market, the pot trade does not have the history and resources available in established industries. “We educate the next generation of women and let them know they shouldn’t be afraid of succeeding in this new market,” says West, “but we also believe reverse mentoring is important. It’s about sharing solutions and ideas.” And why is this new market so enticing for women? “You have the ability to set your own hours, work from a home office, if you choose. You can make it flexible, and there are lot of different options.”

It may be that the pot business adds a spin on the age-old question, can women do it all? Take it from Dr. Bonni Goldstein, former chief resident at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, now the medical director at Ghost Group, a marijuana technology operating company. “I tried to make it work,” says Goldstein. “I was going crazy. Mom during the day, and doctor working all night… sacrificing a lot of sleep.”

Like Katherine Smith, Dr. Goldstein was turned on to the benefits of medical marijuana when she saw an ill loved one’s quality of life drastically improve. The medical cannabis industry is about helping others; being a caregiver and nurturer is part of a woman’s DNA.” According to Dr. Goldstein, of her 100 patients suffering from severe epilepsy, 75% have seen a significant reduction and 10% are seizure-free. Children who have previously had 40 seizures a day are now living normal lives, thanks to Charlotte’s Web, a strain of medical marijuana processed into an extract that is high in cannabidiol (CBD). This particular strain has medicinal benefits without psychotomimetic effects of THC – that is, these children benefit from the medicinal effects of cannabis without feeling “stoned.” Unfortunately, this strain of the drug is not being distributed to all who need it. The federal government has set restrictions on how many plants a particular grower can cultivate: 99. There is a waiting list of patients, many of whom are children. The alternative is a traditional prescription medication that has serious side effects.

According to Dr. Goldstein, 30% of children who have epilepsy do not respond to conventional medication, which may be toxic and can impede brain development. She says she has young patients who used to lack speech but once weaned from traditional epilepsy medication were able to say their first words and live a normal life, free of daily seizures. One patient of Dr. Goldstein’s was a toddler with epilepsy who happened to be a twin: When he took traditional medicine, the toxic side effects delayed his ability to speak; his twin’s development was much more rapid. Once his prescription medication was replaced with Charlotte’s Web, the child was able to say his first words, had decreased seizures and began catching up to his twin.

As marijuana legalization and public opinion evolve, the opportunities are likely to increase. “The future of the marijuana industry can be seen in the success of legalization in Colorado,” says Gehring. This year, Colorado projects $578.1 million in combined wholesale and retail marijuana sales to yield $67 million in tax revenue, according to the state general assembly. “As more data is collected and more states legalize, social policy will change,” says Gehring. “Women with professional skill sets will have many opportunities.” It sounds like the grass will only get greener.