Business conferences are seldom sexy, but cannabis business conferences are their own strain of weird. On a blazing Friday afternoon in late September, the Los Angeles Convention Center swarms with hundreds of cannabis entrepreneurs and other industry insiders for the Cannabis World Congress & Business Exposition (CWCBExpo) —an annual trade show and professional summit that takes place three times a year in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston.
Anything containing THC is prohibited from the premises and the crowd of mostly middle-aged professionals in suits look stone-cold sober, although a sharply-dressed young woman is overheard inviting a new acquaintance to smoke a joint outside by politely asking, “Do you partake?”
Any vestige of weed’s subcultural appeal is in sharp contrast with the air of corporate dullness hanging over the venue’s carpeted hallways and fluorescent-lit conference rooms, where hour-long panels range from “The ABCs of CBD” and “Sustainable Cannabis Cultivation” to “Creative Ways to Push Through Marketing Restrictions.” Watching the pros swap business cards and gripe over insurance plans is a reminder that the industry is in a bit of a confusing and awkward phase as it transitions away from its shadowy past and navigates an uncharted future.
I was at CWCBExpo for “Wellness, Women & Cannabis,” a panel on cannabis products framed around women and self-care.
The panel included Mistress Matisse, a pro-dominatrix with a line of cannabis-infused lubricant called Velvet Swing; Nina Parks, the co-founder of Supernova Women; and Ashley Asatu, a plant-based wellness enthusiast, and was moderated by Maya Elisabeth, who co-founded a cannabis line for period cramps with Whoopi Goldberg in 2016. I wanted to know if there is a big difference between a male and female stoner—and if the industry is really as welcoming to women as recent headlines have made it seem. How women are re-shaping weed has been a particularly buzzy topic lately, with countless listicles highlighting female cannabis entrepreneurs. Female stoners have also been changing how cannabis is perceived as less of a recreational drug and more of a medicine, by using it to treat health issues around sex, menopause, and menstruation.
It didn’t take long for the conversation to inevitably pivot to sex. During the audience Q&A section, a young man eagerly shot up his hand to ask the first question: what strains are best for it?
“When I’m recommending strains of cannabis for people about to embark on an orgasmic journey with a partner, it really depends on what kind of lover you are,” said Asatu, who uses a combination of cannabis, yoga, meditation, and other practices to help women “increase their orgasmic pleasure” as part of a healing practice.
“If you’re a starfish, and you’re just going to lay in the bed, you don’t need indicas,” she said about the strain that’s known for its physically sedating effects, pausing as the room erupts in cackling laughter. “Everybody’s different,” Asatu continued. “I might love this strain, but you’re lazy as hell and gonna fall asleep, so you might need a sativa.”
Then, the conversation shifts to rubbing weed on your vagina. When Elisabeth asked the panelists how men and women cannabis users might differ, Matisse posits that women need to know all the info on a new product before they try it. “Men are more like, Oh she’s gonna have more orgasms? Great, let’s go!” Matisse said with a grin. “Women are like, ‘No, let me see the box, I want to know exactly what’s in it.’” While this might sound like an over-simplification, recent research supports this hypothesis; according to a report by Brightfield Group, nearly all women are willing to pay more for lab-tested cannabis.
Parks, co-founder of a collective for women of color in cannabis called Supernova Women, chimes in with a counterpoint. When she ran a delivery service in Oakland, Parks says, she noticed that male customers did a lot of their own research too—they just nerded out in a different way. “It gets really bro-y. Most of the time they’re like what’s your most fire shit?” Parks said. “On the women’s side, it’s ‘what’s gonna make my body feel good?’”
“It didn’t get bro-y until it went legal, in my experience,” Parks elaborates to me after the panel. “There was more of a dynamic of women in leadership where we were helping each other out. When it went recreational, it became a competitive economy. Before, we had a compassion economy. The tone changed to get really aggressive.”
Parks’ concern is warranted. Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics found that marijuana had become a $16 billion industry by 2017 with nine states and Washington, D.C. legalizing it for recreational use. The industry started out as an unusually welcoming space for women, who held 36 percent of executive positions in 2015, according to a report by Marijuana Business Daily —a 10 percent difference between the national average of women in executive positions in S&P 500 companies. In the early days of major U.S. legalization, the report says, the cost of getting a license and starting a business was relatively low, which opened the door for women to enter the industry.
But in 2017, that number dropped from 36 to 26.9 percent, due to a rising number of senior-level male executives from more traditional companies entering the industry. “Consequently, the executive structure of businesses in the traditional economy has begun to seep into the marijuana industry,” the report notes.
Parks tells me that the goal of her Supernova collective is to help women and minorities figure out cannabis’ new legal and political ecosystem. “I’m standing in this room with white men in suits and their logistics are not as traumatic as everything we had to navigate [as people of color],” she says, adding that she started her delivery service after her brother was arrested on pot charges. “He isn't gonna sit in jail for this to pass by and have a felony on record. Fuck that. We’re gonna build this company, we’re gonna fight for this.”
Minorities are disproportionately targeted in the war on drugs. In New York City, 93 percent of cannabis possession arrests in the first six months of 2018 were people of color, according to The Police Reform Organization Project. In Washington, D.C., 86 percent of people arrested for marijuana-related crimes are Black. Additionally, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that Black people were nearly three times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that Black and white people use marijuana “at similar rates.”
“I’ve never bought weed from white men in suits, but that’s who is at these conferences, making decisions and hiring lobbyists,” Parks continued. “People in cannabis don't necessarily have that experience as political influencers. It’s a very patriarchal construct that [traditional] businesses have the knowledge to navigate because it’s the same system that governs other industries.”
At the end of the panel, someone in the audience asks how the healing properties of cannabis could be a balm in today’s fraught political climate. All of the panelists repeat the same idea: women have to create their own spaces and build power within each other. Then Asatu heaves a deep sigh. “It’s exhausting,” she said, shaking her head at the crowd. “Come see me if you need your pussy steamed.”