Mary Jane has long been a man’s game.
That the common slang term for cannabis — associated with the Spanish-based marijuana — should be feminine belies the reality that the pot world is made up of a large majority of males on both the business and consumer sides.
“More often than not, I’m the only female in the room or at a table,” says Alanna Sokic, a cannabis industry expert with the Toronto consulting firm Global Public Affairs.
“That has sort of just become the norm for me … it’s hard for me to know anything different,” says Sokic, referring to the many pot industry meetings and events she attends.
A little more than a year into legalized cannabis in Canada, however, women have begun to make inroads into the field, Sokic and other experts say.
Indeed, last month, the first pot shop in Toronto to be owned and operated by a female proprietor opened on Danforth Avenue in the heart of Greektown.
“I feel privileged to be perceived as a pioneer,” says Helene Vassos, whose new shop, Canvas, is the sixth cannabis outlet in Toronto and 25th in the province to open its doors.
“And like in all industries, women bring a different perspective and creativity … and I’d like to think this is reflected in the look and feel of the store,” Vassos says.
Her shop is marked by warm tones, soft woods, preserved moss-covered walls and a live tree — separating it from the colder, Apple store look of many other cannabis outlets.
“I remember personally having gone into a cannabis store and feeling it wasn’t warm and inviting enough,” the 58-year-old Vassos says.
“I felt almost awkward being there and I didn’t want that for my location. I wanted to capture a casual elegance that embraces anyone of all ages.”
Vassos points out that in movies, in popular culture and in its illicit iteration, the sale and use of cannabis have been seen as largely male pursuits.
“Many people that I’ve come across identify this as a bit of an issue,” she says. “Some say it’s a male-dominated industry, but if you really think about it … it’s more appropriate to say it’s a corporate-dominated industry.”
Vassos is mainly referring here to store ownership in Ontario, which she says is being overtaken by a few big cannabis players.
But Sokic says the “overwhelming” male dominance in the broader industry has roots in the wider corporate world.
“I think there was a sentiment that when you build a … regulated industry from the ground up, that there was an opportunity to ensure that equity was at the forefront of that process,” Sokic says.
“But with cannabis, I think what we saw (was) a migration of talent from other highly regulated industries that also happened to be male-dominated.”
That lack of gender equity at the top “C-suite” levels is profound, says Jo Vos, managing director of the cannabis resource firm Leafly Canada.
Of about 100 cannabis companies that have made public disclosures in the past year, more than 90 were headed by men, Vos says.
But she sees it as a distinct part of her job to help women enter and rise in the pot business and to be more comfortable with its products.
“I certainly feel really lucky to hold the position that I do as a female leader in the industry,” she says.
“My position is that it’s an opportunity to influence women, to reshape how cannabis is perceived in our Canadian society and, most importantly, to bring other (women) up with me.”
Vos says the creation of workplace cultures and business models that foster individuality, accommodate family demands and allow women greater access to capital are essential for more inclusive access.
“It’s high risk, high stress, it’s super volatile; not a lot of women can afford to take the risk and get into this space,” she says.
“And at the executive level it requires … almost endless amounts of travel, which is a unique challenge for anyone with a family.”
At the consumer level, too, the Cheech and Chong perception of pot as a guy thing holds out in real-world statistics.
Statistics Canada data last year reported that 22 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women consume cannabis in this country, Vos says.
But the introduction of edible and topical products across Canada over the coming months will almost certainly usher more women into the market, she adds.
“Women are almost three times more likely than men to consume cannabis through edibles and topicals,” Vos says.
“So if we’re looking at … some of the new categories that are coming live, I think consumption will continue to rise.”
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Women, Vos says, are more concerned with the stigma of smoking pot than with its legality. She says the new, non-combustible products will also make cannabis more palatable for many women.
“And it’s our responsibility as market leaders and industry leaders to at least lead to educate the nation and normalize cannabis use,” she says.
Whatever the state of women’s cannabis usage, Vos says there’s no shortage of female interest in breaking into the business.
“I have a number of women reaching out to me every single day, every single week, trying to get an understanding of how they can get into this space,” she says.
“And I try to do my part in order to make sure that I’m carving out time to share information.”
Sokic, too, says she feels obliged to help women enter and rise in the industry, to the point that she and her Global colleagues will refuse panel invitations that don’t include other female participants.
“One of my first questions to the conference organizers is ‘Who else is on the panel?’” she says.
“And if it’s an all-male panel, we won’t participate.”
Vassos, whose Greek parents moved her to Greektown as a girl, spent her professional life in the non-profit sector with organizations such as the Children’s Aid Society, ALS Canada and Prostate Cancer Canada.
The once staunchly Orthodox neighbourhood, she says, has enthusiastically embraced her new retail entrant.
“I have been so welcomed by the community, it’s just unbelievable … the positive feedback that I get,” Vassos says.
“It’s very supportive for me as a woman in this industry and at this point in my life.”
Vassos had spent her life largely free of cannabis, but was keen for new challenges — so much so that she gave up a planned retirement when her provincial retail lottery win brought her the chance for a coveted store licence.
And though she’d smoked pot only a handful of times, Vassos says her experience with highly regulated charitable organizations gives her a comfort level with an industry that many say is overburdened by the weight of government rules.
“I became intrigued by the regulatory side and the concept of how responsible we must be to manage this particular business as individuals and retailers,” she says.
“It just fell into that passion of mine in that regard. I was able to say, ‘My goodness, let’s run with this, let’s do this.’ I was invigorated … when I found out I won the lottery.”
Vassos says she eschewed the hip, west-end areas that most of her cannabis shop counterparts chose in order to fill a niche in the place she’s called home for most of her life.
“It’s a bit of a love letter to the place,” she says.
“My first job as a teenager was just down the street and it just speaks to my heart.”