Women (and a few men) in the weed industry

Jonah Raskin

Jonah Raskin 

I’ve been writing this column for nearly a year and haven’t devoted a single one to the subject of women and weed. Hopefully, this month’s column will make up for that omission. Women have certainly played a key role ever since hippies and homesteaders from the Bay Area moved to the North Bay and began to cultivate the herb for pleasure and profit nearly 50 years ago.

Today, women are more involved than ever before in every aspect of the industry: from growing and selling to packaging, promoting and politicking. They’re the cannabis Earth Mothers and the marijuana goddesses, and they’re as savvy about business as any guy with an MBA. As activists and lobbyists, they’ve helped to change the laws.

The west county women who created the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana (SAMM), including Kumari Sivadas, Marsha Cameron and Mary Pat Jacobs, educated police officers, district attorneys and their fellow citizens about the therapeutic benefits of the cannabis plant. But there are also women opposed to the spread of marijuana, including Third District Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who argued against the cultivation of marijuana on property zoned Rural Agricultural and Rural Residential.

Men have tended to dominate the cannabis world in magazines, movies and on the internet. Marijuana growers, dealers and distributors have often been depicted as macho outlaws living on the fringes of society. Women often resent that misrepresentation and demand respect as equals.

Alicia Kelley Rose thinks that women are more cooperative than men in the industry. “Women work together, learn together and share information with one another,” she said. “They’re effective healers and nurturers.” She added, “Women are also redesigning the cannabis industry.”

Rose is turning the industry and its clichés upside down and in a positive way. She’s even beginning to change the conversation about marijuana. “I’m the Lorax,” she told me. “I speak for the marijuana trees.” For those who don’t remember, the Lorax is a Dr. Seuss character who belongs to an endangered species and aims to protect all forests.

Rose also uses big words like “homeostasis” when she explains what cannabis does inside the human body. “It creates a state of balance,” she said. “Which makes it all the more important to grow it in a state of balance, or homeostasis.”

The founder of HerbaBuena — which translates from Spanish to English as “good herb” — Rose aims to provide consumers with good, clean cannabis. That means herb without pesticides and herbicides, which is harder to find than one might think. Growers often care more about the level of THC in their cannabis than they do about health and wellness.

Samantha Miller, who runs Pure Analytics, a cannabis testing service in Santa Rosa, told me that growers often don’t want to know if there are industrial chemicals in their product. “They just want to know the potency,” she said. “They go for immediate financial gains and not for long term social and environmental benefits.” Despite their shortsightedness, Miller continues to be enthusiastic about cannabis. “For the past 25 years it has been a dynamic and an ever-present part of my life,” she told me. “Cannabis always centers me.”

At HerbaBuena, Alicia Rose thinks holistically. “My company is health-centric,” she said. “What matters to us is the triple bottom line. We want to be sustainable environmentally, socially and economically,”

Born and raised in Vermont to “old hippies,” as she describes her parents, she calls herself “a New England girl,” though she doesn’t really sound like a New Englander. Perhaps that’s because marijuana and horses played a big part in her life when she was growing up. Rose attended Syracuse University in upstate New York, studied science, moved to California in 2001 and went to work in the wine industry. She still works as a consultant for viticulturists.

Until about two years ago Rose didn’t tell her wine friends and associates that she worked in the cannabis world. “In 2016 there was a sea change when California voters approved Proposition 64 that ushered in the era of recreational cannabis,” she said. “Previously there was a big taboo against cannabis among wine people. I was terrified they would find out about HerbaBuena and that I’d lose the respect and recognition I’d built for years.”

Rose isn’t the only person to straddle the worlds of wine and weed. Mike Benziger, who helped make his biodynamic family winery a watchword, now grows pot at GlenTucky Farms in Sonoma. He sells to HerbaBuena and to dispensaries like OrganiCann.

Phil Coturri, the founder and CEO at Enterprise — a company that manages vineyards — also grows marijuana, for his own enjoyment, and not for sale. He emphasizes the similarities between weed connoisseurs and wine connoisseurs. Recently he came out of the cannabis closet. Coturri has been growing marijuana in Sonoma County for 40 years. Big and bearded, a Deadhead, a poet and a hippie, he’s not a macho grower and he likes to point out that there’s a long history of cannabis in Sonoma. “Some cannabis consumers enjoy the aroma and the bouquet as much as getting stoned,” he said.

Coturri and Rose agree that Sonoma has overregulated the marijuana industry. “The people who will have the hardest time in the brave new cannabis world will be those who grow the plant as medicine, outdoors and in sunlight, not in a warehouse with artificial light,” Coturri predicted.

Recently Rose chose not to grow a marijuana crop in Sonoma, but in Mendocino County where regulations are not as tight. “Sonoma pretty much slammed the door on cannabis,” she said.

She has a challenging row to hoe, but if anyone can do it, she can. “I’m a working mother,” Rose explained. “I’m also self-financed and what I’m doing now is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Making a solid business plan takes huge amounts of time and energy.” Rose took a deep breath and added, “we need to push forward everyday. I need to push forward everyday.”

Jonah Raskin, a professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is the author of Marijuanaland, Dispatches from an American War, published in French as well as English, and shares story credit for the feature length pot film Homegrown.

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