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Women of Weed

Published on: April 13th, 2015

Thanks to last year’s new laws, the average cannabis consumer in Colorado has evolved. Men and women of all ages (obviously 21+), colors, sizes, sexual orientations and financial standings can now purchase recreational marijuana any day of the week. That means that we might now see elderly people at the dispensaries in line next to a dude with dreadlocks and sandals. Times have changed.T

Even though the market-base has shifted, much of the advertisements and marketing is targeted towards the stereotypical “frat boy,” with scantily clad women sprawled out on top of pot leafs. Just check out the national ganja magazine’s covers.

Of course, these advertisements are working on some level. But since Colorado’s legalization, it’s not just the young stoners who are walking into dispensaries, and the ads are less than effective on a middle-aged woman.

“Obviously, High Times and [cannabis industry] ads sexualize women,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told journalist Valerie Vande Panne. “It’s not an issue in the policy world.”

So why are these ads, and the stereotype that they perpetuate, still located in certain dispensaries?

Robin Hackett

For Robin Hackett it’s all about who the dispensary targets. People will go where they feel comfortable, and she has made it a point that all are welcome at her dispensary. None of the products she sells at BotanaCare are riddled with sexist undertones, and that’s because she’s not in the industry of a quick high, but of compassion.

Hackett literally fell into the cannabis industry at age 45.

Working as a steelworker, the first female journeyman steelworker in Colorado in fact, Robin fell 35 feet suffering a spinal injury. At first she turned to western medicine and grew dependent on Percocet, morphine, Neurontin and Etodolac. Her liver was failing, which would soon mean that she couldn’t take her medication. It took a friend three months to convince her to give medical marijuana a try.

“I thought ‘this is a crock, people do it to get high,’” Robin said. “I thought ‘this isn’t what is going to help me, morphine does. I could do heroine and I wouldn’t be out of pain.’”

But her friend was relentless, and knew that something in Robin’s life had to change. For two years she had been a shut in. She didn’t leave her house. She didn’t pick up the phone. She didn’t open the mail. She could barely function, as the opiates she took to recover from her fall attacked her mind.

Eventually, Robin bit the bullet and decided to give cannabis a try. She stopped taking her medications cold turkey, and for 30 days she went through hell and back. Staying in her home, she shook, she vomited, she paced and she consumed a lot of THC.

After 60 days, Robin was no longer a shut in.

After her conversion to medical marijuana, Robin knew that she wanted to get into the business of helping others by introducing them to the wonderful world of cannabis. She called up her sister, Cheri Hackett, and asked her to start a new business. At first Cheri was reluctant, giving Robin a strong no. But an hour after she hung up the phone, Cheri called her sister back and agreed to give the industry a try.

BotanaCare opened its doors in May 2011 as a medical dispensary, but unlike any other in the state. Unlike any other in nation. The Hackett sisters made a game plan to make sure every customer was treated as an individual, no matter how much work that entailed. After jumping through every hoop, no matter how high, they finally opened their doors.

“I expected 50 percent of people to come in and exploit the system just to get high legally,” Robin Hackett said. “I was so wrong. What I saw were people with extreme disease and injury. People that have suffered beyond what a human could bear. I had no idea what suffering was before I saw these people.”

She realized that 85 percent of her customers were in need of the medical qualities cannabis offers, which range from pain relief, acne, anxiety, nausea, insomnia, bone growth, inflammation, blocked arteries, psoriasis, seizures, etc.. These people were in the same boat that Robin was in just a year before, and they were turning to medical marijuana as a final resort. BotanaCare was their final stop.

They walked into the store with a tiny drop of hope that these two sisters could help them in any way, even if it was just to alleviate some of their pain. After these people walked out, the Hackett’s realized that they meant so much more to these people than they ever imagined.

“These people were putting their trust in us because the word ‘medical’ was in the name, and we have not earned that. That scared me.”

Robin Hackett

“We realized that these people needed our help,” Robin Hackett said as her eyes began welling up with tears. “These people were putting their trust in us because the word ‘medical’ was in the name, and we have not earned that. That scared me. Also, they thought we knew what we were doing and we didn’t, but I wasn’t going to let a soul down.”

So Robin hit the books, and began studying exactly what cannabis had to offer. She barely slept. She read nearly 8,000 research papers. She was determined to find the answers to help these people’s problems, no matter how much research and time it consumed. She would tell every customer that came in, as she held his or her hand, that she would do everything in her power to help them as long as they continued to come in. It had to be a team effort.

She created an online database that tracked every strain, every attempt and every visit for every single customer brave enough to work with her. She was, and continues to be, the only medical marijuana dispensary in the nation that keeps a detailed database of costumers and the products that work for them.

That’s what makes the Hackett sister’s dispensary a stand out. But it’s only part of the equation. The dispensary also consults with every new costumer, and will even develop a new medication to their needs. The sisters started their own tests on marijuana, but they weren’t the only ones.

Karin Lazarus has worked with the Hackett sisters for years. Running Sweet Mary Jane, a commercial bakery in Boulder that creates cannabis infused sweets, Karin adds her pastry chef savvy to the world of medical marijuana. The Hacketts and Karin have worked together for years, as Karin creates special edibles that caters to the Hackett’s customers.

“I would call Karin and say, ‘I’ve got a special patient and I need to mix this plant with that plant, and I need it a special strength in this material because they have a food allergy,’” Robin said. “She stayed beside me as we went through this together.”

The Hacketts searched out the seven different businesses that she called “the elite group of Colorado cannabis,” six of which are owned by women. Sweet Mary Jane was one of them, and for good reason.

Karin started Sweet Mary Jane with $10,000 she snagged in Scharffen Berger’s “Chocolate Adventure” contest. The New York native has been baking since she was a little girl, always finding ways to bake even when her jobs had nothing to do with the food industry. After winning the prize money she searched for a profitable way to start her own business. She stumbled upon an industry that would send her baked goods skyrocketing: cannabis.

She found a tiny space, hidden in the foothills north of Boulder, bought a tiny, $60 oven and started her business in 2010. At first, she had no idea what she was doing. She had played around with weed and baked goods during college, but that wasn’t nearly enough. So with one other person, Karin started from scratch and realized she had knack for it. There was a strong sense of trial and error in the early days of Sweet Mary Jane, as Karin took her products to dispensaries in hopes of selling them.

“I remember going to this one dispensary with some strong samples and the guy just said, ‘everyone thinks theirs are strong,’” Karin said. “While I was sitting there he ate one, and I knew he was going to get so high. About two hours later he called and placed an order.”

It was her resilience and determination that spread the word about Sweet Mary Jane, and the product that transformed the small business into one of the most sought after cannabis bakeries in the state.

Today, Karin and her team of more than a dozen people are still crammed into the small kitchen hidden between valleys. Although it can get crammed, the team has found a way to work around the island in the middle of the kitchen that takes up the majority of the floorspace. Now cooking with multiple ovens, Karin has held onto the $60 oven that she started with, a memento of her humble beginnings.

She has been nationally recognized as “the Martha Stewart of weed baking” by New York Magazine. Her treats, such as the “Smashing Pumpkins,” the “Walnut Fantasy” bar, carrot-cake cookies, “Big S” oatmeal cookie and award winning “OMG Cheesecake” brownie are delicious with a faint hint of ganja. But don’t underestimate the strength, as her team knows exactly what they are doing.

In the kitchen, the women run the show. It’s not something that Karin meant to happen, she just wanted the best of the best, and the cards fell onto three very extraordinary women. One of which happens to be her daughter, Lucie Lazarus.

Lucie is a jack of all trades. Sitting at the corner of the island in the middle of the kitchen, she zoned out the organized chaos happening around her as she worked diligently at her computer.

Lucie graduated from college in 2012, and stayed in Washington D.C. for a few years working for Divine, a chocolate company, before moving back to Colorado and into her mother’s kitchen. Her first job was to help her mother test the products that are going into Karin’s new book “Sweet Mary Jane: 75 Delicious Cannabis-Infused High-End Desserts,” due on the stands in June.

I addition to testing the recipes, Lucie also helped with the presentation and arrangements for the photos. Now, that the book is finished and just waiting to be released to the public, she holds one of the most important jobs in the office: tracking the metric system. The metric system is the way for Colorado to track exactly what business within the marijuana industry does with every plant they grow. Like the UPS tracking service, it follows every plant from seed to consumption. It is something that every business must pay special attention to.

The weight of everything that leaves the small kitchen falls on her shoulders.

“At first it was a bit hectic and stressful,” Lucie said. “Now it’s interesting, because it is another piece of the industry that is developing and growing as well. It’s almost like a foreign language you have to learn.”

But even though it may be one of the most important jobs for the business, she has it under control. She knows that nothing is to leave the kitchen without a tag.

It’s something that Ali Lansing, who uses the metric system to track the concentrates that leaves the office knows a lot about as well. But it’s not the only thing Lansing does in the kitchen.

Standing directly behind Lucie’s stool, Lansing stood grasping an oven’s handle waiting to check the concentrates cooking.

Lansing started out in the industry working at the now closed dispensary located upstairs from Sweet Mary Jane’s kitchen. She met Karin while working there, and as the dispensary fizzled out of business she was taken under Karin’s wing.

“She saved me,” Lansing said. “This job saved my life. It gave me the opportunity to feel whole. I get to learn new stuff while helping other people. When you’re young you always just want to do a job that makes you happy, and I found that.”

Lansing is the one of the only females in the state who specializes in making concentrates, but she doesn’t only just grind out the same thing day after day, she is constantly experimenting with new ways to cook them.

“My favorite new one is that I’m taking the wax, and I’m not activating it so that I can put it in a capsule and take it orally,” Lansing said. “That way you are only responding to the medicinal affect of the plant, not the high.”

While most of the dispensaries just use the umbrella term of wax, Lansing is always exploring new consistencies and aesthetic of the product so it has more mass appeal. She wants everyone from young males, to older women to use her product. The price will remain the same, but she wants to please the customers.

She always checks back to see if her new product is selling, or if she needs to cease the experiment.

“I think because I am a girl, I have a detail-oriented eye,” she said.

“I think because I am a girl, I have a detail-oriented eye.”

Ali Lansing

Although, she is doing her own thing in the kitchen she still gets to work closely with those working on the edibles.

Not far away, as nothing is in the kitchen, Grace Gutierrez stood over a hot stove mixing ingredients in a metallic pot. Gutierrez is the head baker for Sweet Mary Jane, and much like most of the other women in the kitchen just fell into the industry.

One Thanksgiving Gutierrez met Karin, who was looking for employees, and immediately joined the team. She never thought she would be in either the food or the marijuana industry, as she studied art in college. She had always enjoyed cooking, and baking but never thought she could make a career out of it.

Before she joined Sweet Mary Jane, she was all over the place. She worked as short order cook. She worked retail. She screen printed shirts. And she had some reservations about working in the industry, but her preconceived notions of what working with cannabis meant were thrown out the window once she stepped into the kitchen.

“I just thought about the people closest to me would think about it, but honestly they were excited,” Gutierrez said. “I had been jumping around from job to job, and I finally found one that stuck.”

Now, she makes all the base products for Sweet Mary Jane, and Karin keeps her around because the sweets speak for themselves. With all the accolades, and demand for the product, Sweet Mary Jane is moving to a bigger location where she’ll expand both the company and the staff, which includes applying for a recreational license.

“We don’t ever want to be the biggest, we just want to be the best,” Karin said. “I’m going to keep it in mind when I’m hiring new hands in the kitchen. I’ll base it off of their talent, not the gender.”

Although Karin is just now expanding her business to the recreational side of the industry, the Hackett sisters jumped on that train as soon as the laws were passed. The expansion was the natural step for the sisters, as they were already dominating the medical side of the industry. And even after they expanded, Robin was shocked that even on the recreational side, she was still catering to the older generations as the majority are in their late 30s or older.

It just shows her that it’s not just a stoner thing. People are reaching out for help, which pushes her into the activist role. Hackett often travels to different cities and makes a point to get her message across.

“I reach out and grab their hand and introduce myself and what I do, and most often they shrug me off,” Hackett said. “But I don’t let go of their hand I just politely say, ‘I’ve seen more suffering than you can imagine and I want you to remember my name, because when you or someone you love begins to suffer call me and I’ll be happy to help. That usually gets them to listen a little more.”

Throughout their time in industry, the Hacketts, the Lazaruses, Lansing and Gutierrez have never faced sexism from their colleagues in the industry. And this isn’t an uncommon occurrence as the marijuana industry may be riddled with just as much sexism as the beer industry, or the sports industry. It’s there, but it’s not as prominent as people perceive.

“I look at it as an island and we are fighting to get off the island together,” Robin Hackett said. “We can’t afford to fight amongst ourselves, because we all want the same goal.”

“If you look at any industry, sex sells and by large, people might find women more attractive than they find men.”

Danielle Fornbacher

And although it may pushed to the back of their minds, there is still sexism in the industry. It’s something that Danielle Fornbacher, activist, co-founder of NORML Women’s Alliance, publisher of Ladybud Magazine and formerly managing editor of Skunk Magazine, has faced first hand. She has been a part of the marijuana movement for 20 years.

She knows what it looks like, and it’s not much different than the systematic sexism that plagues the country. It’s clear that most industries, now and throughout history are male dominated.

“I wouldn’t say that it is any worse off than the car sales,” Fornbacher said. “If you look at any industry, sex sells and by large, people might find women more attractive than they find men.”

But it’s not just in imagery of how some dispensaries and ads in magazines target their audience, but also within the movement itself.

Fornbacher got caught with weed in college. She had started smoking to help her PTSD, but even having it on her in Pennsylvania got her arrested.

She started going to movement meetings and sharing her story. When she went to the meetings, she got the stares and glances because she was woman, but it wasn’t different than what she had experienced in her everyday life. This didn’t stop her from speaking at the conferences, sharing her emotional story.

“One day I stood up and told the room that my mom committed suicide and I had PTSD from it,” Fornbacher recalled. “I started to get a little emotional, and although I kept my face straight, my eyes betrayed me as they filled with tears. A normal emotion. And after my speech one of my funders leaned over and said ‘you really shouldn’t cry when you speak. Men get turned off when women do that.’”

It wasn’t the only time, but it’s one of the instances that stood out the most.

For the women dominating the medical marijuana industry in Boulder County, it is something they have yet to experience. And Robin Hackett knows the importance that came with the 25 year old men trailblazing the industry.

“His skill was ignorance and no fear of repercussion, so they brought us here,” Robin Hackett said. “It was the females that brought the compassion to the industry.”

When growing marijuana plants, growers weed out the male plant. It’s the harvested female plant that holds all of the value in the industry. The male ruins the growing process by pollinating the females, which then create seeds instead of buds.

As an analogy for the women pioneering the cannabis industry, it’s quite fitting.

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