LGBTQ people helped create the legal marijuana industry. Then they were left behind.

·11 min read

When Melissa Vitale first entered the cannabis industry five years ago, she didn’t feel comfortable being open about her identity as a queer woman.

“It was a total bro fest,” she said.

Now, Vitale, a cannabis industry publicist based in New York, said her queerness is no longer such a curiosity, with more of her coworkers and contacts in the industry also openly embracing their LGBTQ identity.

“Now it’s like a badge of honor,” Vitale said. “And whatever representation there is, there’s a lot more to come. It’s still such a baby industry.”

LGBTQ Americans make up significant numbers of cannabis industry workers and have long been on the frontlines of marijuana legalization. But they remain vastly underrepresented in the industry's positions of power, such as boardrooms or executive roles, a situation LGBTQ advocates say needs to change.

Nearly 14% of people working in the cannabis industry identify as LGBTQ, according to a survey of 1,200 industry employees released this month from Vangst, a cannabis industry recruiting platform. Meanwhile, about 7.1% of the general U.S. population identify as LGBTQ, according to a 2021 Gallup poll.

Andrea Brooks, CEO and founder of Sava, a cannabis-focused e-commerce company based in San Francisco.
Andrea Brooks, CEO and founder of Sava, a cannabis-focused e-commerce company based in San Francisco.

“Cannabis, on the whole, has a debt to the queer community,” said Andrea Brooks, founder and CEO of Sava, a personalized cannabis shopping and delivery service based in San Francisco. “All people in cannabis should be mindful of how they got to be here and give back and pay it forward.”

The bonds between the LGBTQ community and the cannabis legalization movement date back to the 1980s, when medical research efforts to address the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic were falling short and many turned to cannabis for medical relief.

With the disease disproportionately affecting gay men, it was LGBTQ activists who led the way in the fight for the legalization of medical marijuana, ultimately leading to California’s passage of Proposition 215 in 1996.

In this Nov. 6, 1996 file photo, Dennis Peron, right, leader of the campaign for California's Proposition 215 and founder of the Cannabis Buyers Club, smokes a marijuana cigarette next to Jack Herer, of Los Angeles, in San Francisco. Peron, who died in 2018, at age 72,  was a driving force behind a San Francisco ordinance allowing medical marijuana - a move that aided the 1996 passage of Proposition 215 legalizing medical marijuana use statewide.
In this Nov. 6, 1996 file photo, Dennis Peron, right, leader of the campaign for California's Proposition 215 and founder of the Cannabis Buyers Club, smokes a marijuana cigarette next to Jack Herer, of Los Angeles, in San Francisco. Peron, who died in 2018, at age 72, was a driving force behind a San Francisco ordinance allowing medical marijuana - a move that aided the 1996 passage of Proposition 215 legalizing medical marijuana use statewide.

Now, 37 states, along with Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana for medical use, and 19 of them, as well as Washington, D.C., now allow adult recreational use. Legal recreational cannabis sales in the United States are projected to reach $25 billion by 2025, according to Statista, a marketing and consumer data company based in Hamburg, Germany.

As the industry boomed in recent years, some LGBTQ leaders have complained that the community was being left out as employees and forgotten about as consumers. And while that has changed markedly in recent years, some say significant gaps remain.

Brendon Lynch, executive vice president of retail for Jushi Holdings, a cannabis-focused company based in Boca Raton, Fla., with 33 stores in six states.
Brendon Lynch, executive vice president of retail for Jushi Holdings, a cannabis-focused company based in Boca Raton, Fla., with 33 stores in six states.

“There’s a decent amount of representation at the store level and at the cultivation level, but there’s a significant miss right now at the leadership level,” said Brendon Lynch, executive vice president of retail for Jushi Holdings, a Florida-based, multi-state cannabis sales company whose LGBTQ-friendly climate appealed to him as a gay man living in Los Angeles. “This started as a straight-white-male industry, and it still is in a lot of ways.”

That shows in the continuing practice of so-called “rainbow washing,” the once-a-year bursts of LGBTQ cannabis marketing that dissipate like a puff of smoke once Pride Month is over, a pattern Brooks said befalls other marginalized groups as well.

“There’s a difference between wanting to uplift a community versus just wanting to market and sell to them,” Brooks said. “But for retailers to be the best allies possible, they have to allocate shelf space to those communities year-round. You see queer-owned companies get extra shelf space in June, but those can go away in July. That to me is not adequate.”

LGBTQ women comprise less than 1% of U.S. corporate-level leaders, according to a 2020 McKinsey & Company report. Brooks is one of the rare exceptions, well aware of the obstacles the community still faces despite its many gains.

"The gay community is under attack in this country," she said, noting that she has attended a number of local Pride events but, "This is the first Pride where I was concerned for my safety."

There have been some recent improvements in the marijuana industry for LGBTQ advocates, with an increasing number of brands offering more dedicated or even year-round support through extended marketing of LGBTQ products or items whose sales benefited LGBTQ causes. LGBTQ purchasing power in the United States is estimated at $1.3 trillion, according to asset management firm LGBT Capital, based in the United Kingdom.

For example, Etain and Her Highness, female-focused cannabis companies based in New York, this year offered Pride-related products whose proceeds partially benefit a local LGBTQ health care organization and cannabis-related criminal justice reform, respectively. And Rythm, a cannabis product company based in Chicago, offers Pride-Month-related products benefiting 10 national LGBTQ organizations, including PFLAG Orlando and New Haven Pride Center.

But overall, the lack of LGBTQ cannabis executives and business owners leaves the community largely absent from influence and decision-making – in an industry that its voice was instrumental in creating.

Women account for just 22% of executive positions in the cannabis industry while racial and ethnic minorities make up 13%, according to Marijuana Business Daily. Meanwhile, about four in five cannabis owners, or 81%, are white, the publication found in a 2017 reader survey.

Kassia Graham is director of community and strategy for Cannaclusive, a U.S. cannabis advocacy and marketing firm operating mostly out of Los Angeles and New York City.
Kassia Graham is director of community and strategy for Cannaclusive, a U.S. cannabis advocacy and marketing firm operating mostly out of Los Angeles and New York City.

Kassia Graham, director of community and strategy for Cannaclusive, a cannabis advocacy and marketing firm based in Brooklyn, New York, said that while she's seen the number of LGBTQ people climb in the industry, that doesn't necessarily translate into influence or acceptance.

“You can’t throw a stone without hitting a queer person in the space,” Graham said. “But are those people, whether they’re on the dispensary floor or in an office – are they being listened to? Do they have to tamp down who they are because straight or cis folks won’t like it?”

Graham, who identifies as Black and nonbinary, said that while continuing to hire LGBTQ people is essential, “it doesn’t mean anything if people don’t have a voice, if the things they say are not being turned into action.”

Funding and 'bro culture' remain barriers for some

LGBTQ cannabis professionals say a lack of funding access, as well as the industry’s lingering “stoner bro” culture, are the main barriers to executive representation and business ownership. Funding tends to favor those who have financial connections, leaving many people from marginalized communities behind.

“Cannabis revolves around bro culture,” Graham said. “Even within the queer community, there’s still lots of white, cis people at the helm.”

From pricey license fees and high insurance costs, cannabis can be more challenging than a typical small business, Brooks said.

“Most people I know in the industry are in it because they love this plant and what it can do for people’s health,” said Brooks, a queer woman whose previous experience was in the nonprofit sector. “But it’s a bumpy ride, and you need to be well-capitalized to last. Cannabis is way more of a marathon than a sprint.”

Many women are exploring potential uses for cannabis in female wellness.
Many women are exploring potential uses for cannabis in female wellness.

Brooks came to cannabis after suffering a disabling spine injury, with severe nerve damage to her arms. She was told she’d never work a desk job again and prescribed opioids and other pain medications. Nothing seemed to work until a friend put her on a cannabis protocol.

“I was blown away by how effective cannabis was for managing my pain and how uplifting it was for my mental health,” she said. “I allowed me to do the other work I had to do to recover. And because I had such a transformative experience, my big question was, ‘Why was this not on my radar?’”

That’s what led Brooks to create Sava in 2015. But as a queer woman, entering the industry wasn’t easy.

“I looked different than the average person trying to get funds,” she said. “Funding is a huge barrier, and white men inherently have outsized access to that.”

Omar Riney, head of people for Lantern, a cannabis delivery service based in Boston, Mass.
Omar Riney, head of people for Lantern, a cannabis delivery service based in Boston, Mass.

In Salt Lake City, Utah, Omar Riney, head of people at Lantern, an online cannabis marketplace, said addressing the issue requires states to consider social equity while regulating the allocation of business licenses and prioritizing applicants from historically marginalized communities.

“It’s $100,000 minimum just to get a license to grow cannabis for medical use in Utah,” Riney said. “For people who’ve had felonies, who’ve been in jail for something cannabis-related, their ability to attain $100,000 is slim to none. Regulators need to try to get licenses to people who’ve been in the illicit market and give them the opportunity to have ownership.”

In New York, State Sen. Jeremy Cooney has introduced a pair of bills that would add LGBT individuals to the list of communities eligible for social-equity consideration for cannabis businesses. The two bills could be combined before the Legislature reconvenes in early 2023, he said.

Cooney, who represents the Rochester area, was among the key players behind the state’s March 2021 passage of a law legalizing adult-use marijuana but said it wasn’t until one of his constituents reached out that he realized the need for the community to be included along with women and other minorities.

A customer buys cannabis products at MedMen in West Hollywood, Calif., one of two Los Angeles-area pot shops that began selling marijuana for recreational use in January 2018.
A customer buys cannabis products at MedMen in West Hollywood, Calif., one of two Los Angeles-area pot shops that began selling marijuana for recreational use in January 2018.

Unable to apply for social-equity marijuana license consideration as a transgender man, the constituent said his lawyer had urged him to apply as a woman, the gender he was assigned at birth.

“He said, ‘I don’t identify as a woman,’” Cooney told USA Today. “For me, it was a wake-up moment. We think we’re being inclusive and waving all the right flags, but when someone has to go through the government process and misgender themselves, there’s something wrong with that.”

Finding connection within the industry

While much progress remains to be made, LGBTQ cannabis professionals say marijuana's counterculture origins make the industry a natural fit for the community, with grassroots players in particular leading the way on LGBTQ community fellowship, outreach and professional progress.

“There are so many sects within cannabis,” Riney said. “You can have large operations owned by wealthy white men who aren’t thinking about that. They just want to build a brand. But then there are folks who are more grassroots, who understand who their community is and want to invite that community into the industry.”

Melissa Vitale of MAVPR, a publicity firm based in New York with a focus on the cannabis, sex and wellness industries.
Melissa Vitale of MAVPR, a publicity firm based in New York with a focus on the cannabis, sex and wellness industries.

Vitale, the New York publicist, said that once in the industry, people then seek community in those who have also spent life on the fringes as both cannabis users and members of the LGBTQ community.

“We really gravitate toward wanting to connect with others like us,” she said. “I have never been in a queer space where people were judgmental of my cannabis consumption. We tend not to yuck each other’s yum because we’ve been yucked so much ourselves.”

Cannabis industry culture now includes networks such as Women Grow and Proud Mary, both of which conduct meetups at conferences and events to offer a safe and welcoming interaction space for women and members of the LGBTQ community.

“I know I’m going to get in,” Vitale said. “I’m not going to have to convince them that I’m worth talking to.”

Michael Conway, regional vice president of retail for Ascend Wellness Holdings, based in New York City.
Michael Conway, regional vice president of retail for Ascend Wellness Holdings, based in New York City.

The industry has grown noticeably more inclusive in the last several years, said Michael Conway, a regional vice president of retail for Ascend Wellness Holdings, a multi-state cannabis operator based in New York C.

“I think the industry in general is going that way,” said Conway, a gay man who also co-chairs the company’s LGBTQIA+ employee resource group. It’s a change he attributes to the overall push for social equity in the United States.

For LGBTQ representation to find its place at leadership levels requires year-round intentionality, Conway said, including efforts like the employee resource group he helps lead.

“Focusing on team members makes it easier and more organic to reach out to the communities they’re serving, to ask which events we should be out there at,” he said. “If you’re not listening to your own voices, it’s difficult to actually show up authentically.”

Conway said the group, which launched earlier this year, has opened his eyes to LGBTQ representation at levels of the operation that, as a retail-focused executive, he hadn’t considered in his plans to, say, distribute company rainbow T-shirts.

“I was shocked that 60% of our involvement was people from cultivation and manufacturing,” Conway said. “It seems like a very small thing to do, but just to be seen and included in that way is so important. I have to make sure I’m showing up for all my team members.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cannabis industry: LGBTQ growth strong but belies lack of influence