It’s no exaggeration to say that the cannabis industry is booming - and in a major way. In the United States alone, the legal cannabis industry is forecast to have an economic impact of $92 billion in 2021, according to MJBizDaily, and it can seem like every time you check the news a new state has passed some sort of sweeping legalization measure.
We’re living in exciting times for the legal industry, but is everyone getting a seat at the table?
While there is still a lack of diversity when it comes to race in the cannabis industry, women may be more represented in the ranks of cannabis executives than the national average. According to a July, 2019 Marijuana Business Daily survey, women held nearly 37% of senior level jobs at cannabis companies in the United States, as opposed to 21% of all companies in the country.
There’s still progress to be made, but it’s clear that women are making their mark on the industry - and then some. Here are some of the most influential women in weed to look out for.
Sheriff and prosecutor might not sound like the typical resume for a cannabis industry executive, but if Andrea Cabral was typical she probably wouldn’t have been named as one of the Forbes 15 Power and Innovative Women in Cannabis.
Cabral is the former Suffolk county (Massachusetts) sheriff and public safety secretary, and since 2018 the CEO of MassGrow LLC and of Ascend Mass LLC, which operates the first recreational cannabis dispensary in downtown Boston.
In 2017, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey appointed Cabral to serve on the Cannabis Advisory Board, where she served as a law enforcement expert for the board’s Public Safety and Community Mitigation Subcommittee.
In May, Ascend Wellness opened in downtown Boston, across 16,000 square feet and several floors of prime real estate. It is described as the largest recreational dispensary on the East Coast, and it joins the company’s other locations in Illinois and New Jersey.
As a female executive and a woman of color - not to mention a former law enforcement officer - Cabral brings a world of insight to an industry seeking to expand its diversity and reach new audiences.
Cannabis is a major growth industry (pun intended), and this is definitely true for Gia Moron.
Gia Moron is the President of Women Grow, a for-profit that describes itself as “a catalyst for women to influence and succeed in the cannabis industry as the end of marijuana prohibition occurs on a national scale.”
Founded in 2014, the Denver-based Women Grow counts in its membership ranks more than 500,000 professionals in the US, Canada, and elsewhere. It also holds events in chapters across the country, to provide cannabis industry networking opportunities and educate members on opportunities in the marijuana business.
Like many executives in cannabis, Moron took a path that didn’t quite start in a head shop or a basement grow room. She previously worked for 15 years as a media relations officer in the corporate communications department at the Goldman Sachs group, and in 2012 she founded GVM Communications, a leading public relations brand and business development firm.
Moron said she “fell in love” with cannabis after learning about the uses of the plant - though when she tried it in college and early in her career, it “really wasn’t [her] vice.” Moron has stated that one day she watched a documentary on CNBC on cannabis and “it blew my mind on many levels. Coming from where I come from people went to jail for selling “weed” and here was a series discussing the legalization and the money these cultivators were making in Colorado and California. I was pissed yet inspired. I didn’t want to be left out of what I saw immediately as a long term successful opportunity.”
For women in cannabis - and everybody else - it’s a good thing she was watching CNBC that day.
In 2017, Dr. Alex Capano attained a striking credential: she was the first person to earn a PhD in cannabinoid studies. The degree was the culmination of a journey that began when Capano was a nurse practitioner and became fascinated with all the myriad ways that cannabis can alleviate health conditions.
“I observed patients, and I was reading case studies highlighting the potential therapeutic aspects of cannabis - mostly CBD - and it was very obvious that there was a major knowledge gap with clinicians and also a stigma,” Capano said in a 2019 interview with Know Your Value.
Capano was awarded her doctorate from Thomas Jefferson University as the cannabis industry was booming, just before the passing of the 2018 Farm Bill. She was scooped up to serve as the medical director of the hemp technologies company Ecofibre Limited (which also owns Ananda Hemp), where she now serves as the chief science officer.
And while she is a true believer in the health benefits of cannabis, and in breaking down stigmas around its use, she also believes that women can do well for themselves in the industry.
“For women in STEM, we're sometimes held back from opportunities that are financially lucrative, or maybe felt like we had to do something for the greater good and have to be scraping by, and I didn't want that anymore.”
For Mara Gordon, the path into cannabis was personal, and very close to home.
In her retirement, after a successful hi-tech career, Mara Gordon and her husband began to suffer from chronic pain. Gordon was using a fentanyl patch “and at least 26 pharmaceuticals" to deal with the pain wrought by a back injury and bacterial meningitis, and her husband was facing badly needed back surgery.
They began to look at alternative forms of medicine, which led Gordon to start making her own cannabis oils while experimenting in the kitchen.
Those self-taught recipes would lead to Gordon founding Zelda Therapeutics and Aunt Zelda’s, which produces full spectrum cannabis extracts, cannabis infused olive oils, and cannabis infused coconut topicals.
The company also produces educational videos, blogs, consultations and podcasts to help medical cannabis patients optimize their treatment. Science and data drive the formulations, and Gordon eschews the typical “as much THC as you can” approach that can seem to motivate many in the industry.
Gordon is also the founder of Octopi Wellness, a medical platform for physicians to prescribe (recommend) cannabis accurately and with confidence.
But Gordon may be best known as an industry-leading expert on medical cannabis and can be seen just about anywhere that people in the industry are discussing cannabis.
When it comes to changing the face of cannabis, few have taken the cause to heart more than Ophelia Chong.
Chong is the founder of StockPot Images, billed as the first stock-photo agency to focus exclusively on cannabis-related imagery. The agency describes its goal as reaching “far beyond the small number of stereotypical images currently offered by major stock agencies and refocuses on aesthetic, content, and feeling.”
Helping change perceptions can also be seen in Chong’s work as a co-founder of Asian-Ameicans for Cannabis Education (AACE). Chong has stated that she founded AACE after attending cannabis conferences where “I was the only person of color in the room.”
The AACE states that Asian American “face unique issues relating to cannabis use and acceptance due to differences in history, culture, and social stigma.”
Chong has stated that she believes that the AACE could provide “sort of a permission to go into cannabis. It’s so that they can say, “Look, Mom and Dad! This woman went to Yale, and look how well she’s doing, because she is advocating for the plant using her degree.”
But whichever path people take to get into cannabis (or wherever they dream of being), Chong advises that they seek power, strength, and inspiration in themselves, and that “who you are is who you present to others, and you are an unstoppable force when you stand tall and say ‘I am here.’”