Our second annual tribute to the women who have made an impact on cannabis business
Welcome to Marijuana Venture’s second annual issue dedicated to the women who are leaders and innovators in the cannabis industry. Rather than listing the most important or most successful women, we wanted to highlight a cross-section of farmers and retail store owners, investors and activists. We wanted to feature women who had never graced the pages of Marijuana Venture before, either as contributors or as the subjects of stories.
Enjoy this year’s special on women in the cannabis industry, and please, let us know about the extraordinary women we didn’t include so we can make sure our coverage of the marijuana business is as comprehensive as the industry deserves. Email suggestions to Editor@MarijuanaVenture.com.
Fighting Cultural Misconceptions Part I: Born in Costa Rica and raised in America, Yami Bolanos purges marijuana-related prejudices among Latinos
On the day Yami Bolanos opened PureLife Alternative Wellness Center in Los Angeles in 2006, she stopped at the front door and said a prayer.
“I looked up at the skies and said to my parents, ‘I’m sorry you don’t approve, but I don’t believe I am doing anything wrong. Please protect me from where you’re at.’”
Bolanos says if her parents had been alive, she probably wouldn’t have opened the dispensary.
A few years ago, an aunt in Costa Rica saw Bolanos on the news. Her aunt “couldn’t believe that her brother and her sister-in-law made all those sacrifices to bring us to the U.S. for a better life, and now I was in the streets selling marijuana,” Bolanos recalls. “What a disappointment I was!”
Beyond the usual struggles of being an entrepreneur in an emerging field — particularly in Los Angeles, with its contradictory regulations for cannabis businesses — Bolanos had been perpetually taught that people who sold and smoked marijuana were bad.
“I’m going against the grain, against all the messages that were given to me as a Latina about marijuana,” she says.
The pot prejudice goes way back; Bolanos remembers an uncle who built a school in Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border. She thought he was the model of an upstanding citizen.
“My mother used to tell my sister and I when we went back to Costa Rica that we were not to go near (my uncle) because he smoked pot,” Bolanos says. “That’s the kind of prejudice you deal with in Latin America.”
Now that Bolanos has succeeded as a cannabis business owner, she’s turning her attention to dispelling the prejudice and fear in Latino communities and helping Latinos and women understand that they have nothing to fear from entering the cannabis industry.
That’s a difficult sell, especially when Latinos — and all people of color — have been justifiably cautious of law enforcement for decades.
Overcoming the stigma
Throughout the history of the War on Drugs, communities of color have been targeted disproportionately for arrest, including in states where marijuana is legal for either medical or recreational use.
Research by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that while the majority of marijuana users are white, African-Americans and Latinos are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana.
In 2014, almost half of all drug arrests across the country were marijuana-related, and 88% were only for possession.
Attorney and entrepreneur Lauren Vazquez says many of her clients are young Latino men who were stopped illegally and arrested for marijuana, often because the police trap them into answering questions they don’t have to answer.
“Recently a young man was stopped with his brother, and police asked if they were patients and if they grew, and they said yes,” Vazquez recalls. “The police said they needed to go to the brothers’ house and inspect the plants, which is not true, but the men didn’t know their rights. You don’t have to take the police to your house. The police thought 10 plants were questionable, and they arrested the men and decided to let the lawyers sort it out.”
Black Americans are well-acquainted with the danger they face in being profiled for drug use, according to Dr. Lakisha Jenkins, founder and CEO of the Kiona T. Jenkins Foundation of Natural Health. Jenkins is an advocate not only for marijuana legalization, but for changing attitudes and regulations for all herbal remedies. She says the stigma associated with marijuana prevents most Americans of color from even thinking about entering the cannabis industry.
“There’s absolutely a self-selection going on,” Jenkins says. “There is a stigma in many of these communities that even when it’s a legitimate business, friends and family and the church will say, ‘Oh, you just want to be a drug dealer.’”
There is another aspect of cannabis that afflicts many American Latinos, something that other people of color don’t have: the bloody drug war in Latin America.
“Every Latino in Los Angeles with family (in Central America) knows someone who has been killed or jailed or disappeared because of the drug war,” Bolanos says. “All that killing and violence and all that injustice in Central America and Mexico is attached to marijuana. The War on Drugs put the icing on the cake.”
Bolanos, who was born in Costa Rica and immigrated to Southern California with her parents at the age of 2, believed everything she was taught about cannabis until she was almost 50 years old. That changed when, as she says, marijuana saved her life.
A medical necessity
Yami Bolanos had a liver transplant in 1996 that left her writhing in her bed with abdominal pain for years. It also led Bolanos to smoke her first joint.
“I was a prisoner of my own home, and every medication I took had a severe counter-reaction,” she says. “One day a friend said, ‘Smoke a joint.’ I said, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to break the law and I don’t want to be one of those people.’
“My friend insisted and I tried it. That joint I smoked was the first time I had any comfort since I had the transplant.”
But Bolanos’ ingrained conceptions about the kind of people who smoke marijuana — lazy, bad people, according to her family — had to go out the window. And they did. But most of the dispensaries at the time were not designed for middle-aged clientele. Bolanos says many budtenders at the time had facial piercings and tattoos.
“They were nice people, but it didn’t feel right to me,” she says. “When I would ask, ‘What’s good for a stomach ache?’ they would say, ‘This is dank.’ I’m like, ‘What does dank mean? I’m in pain, dude.’”
Within six months she had opened her own dispensary, focusing on the variety of medical uses for different cannabis strains.
Bolanos encouraged an older crowd to visit her dispensary for thorough explanations of the different products. Now, with a steady stream of regular customers, she’s able to spend more time as an activist.
“I want my people to know the things I know,” she says. “How many people out there like me are suffering when they don’t have to suffer? How many refuse to use (cannabis) because they’re afraid or can’t use it legally? God put this plant here for us to use.”
A few months after opening PureLife, Bolanos started the Greater Los Angeles Collective Association (GLACA), a group that aims to protect patients and the cannabis community, while educating people about medical marijuana. Bolanos wants to bring more women and Latinos into the GLACA family. Right now there are only four Latino business owners in the organization, including Bolanos.
“It’s changing a little,” she says. “Women and minorities used to be non-existent in the industry. Now there are some, but there should be more Latinos. There should be more blacks. But this is still a white man’s game. The jails are full of blacks and Latinos, but there are white men getting rich selling pot.”
Changing the rules
Bolanos says she was enraged and horrified when an acquaintance died after being denied a liver transplant because he tested positive for marijuana he’d used legally to reduce the effects of chemotherapy. Working with Don Duncan of Americans for Safe Access, she helped pass California’s Assembly Bill 258, which ended the practice of rejecting patients for organ transplants if they use cannabis.
Bolanos points out that while medical marijuana is legal in 25 states, only seven have protections for transplant patients. She says she wants to carry the message to other states and help save more lives.
Closer to home, Bolanos is lobbying for lawmakers to fix the patchwork of medical marijuana restrictions in Los Angeles County.
She points to the problems of Prop D, a 2013 voter-approved initiative that was meant to give 135 Los Angeles marijuana dispensaries and their customers some freedom from law enforcement. The fine print of the law is problematic, because it doesn’t legalize or permit cannabis collectives, and marijuana delivery is illegal unless done by a patient’s primary caregiver.
Bolanos says a bill that Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer has submitted in the California House of Representatives could give dispensaries a permit this year.
“I’m all for total legalization (of cannabis), but the state needs to fix medical marijuana right here first,” she says.
Fixing laws is one thing. But Bolanos has found that the bigger challenge is fighting perceptions about marijuana in Southern California’s Latino communities.
She recalls a presentation she gave last year when she testified for a dispensary that was opening in San Ysidro, just north of the Mexican border.
“There was a group of Mexican women living in that neighborhood who didn’t want that in their neighborhood,” Bolanos says. “They didn’t care that marijuana was medicine. All they cared was that their kid or nephew had been killed or disappeared because of marijuana.”
Bolanos’ solution was to create a presentation that didn’t use pictures of people smoking marijuana. Instead she used images of creams, sprays, candies and tinctures. She told people that those products came from the cannabis plant, and that everything was packaged like medicine.
More recently, Bolanos started an outreach program in conjunction with Americans for Safe Access. The 45-minute program is designed to educate the Latino community about cannabis as medicine.
“We don’t advocate for them to smoke,” she says. “We just explain the different medicines that come from the marijuana plant.”
As for her family, they’re coming around. Her daughter, now 33, is a passionate advocate of her work. Her relatives in Costa Rica stopped giving her the cold shoulder after Dr. Sanjay Gupta began talking about the medicinal aspects of cannabis on CNN.
“After I opened my store, when I went to family reunions, the older family members used to say just a few words to me and walk away,” she says. “I guess they were afraid I would sell them pot. After Sanjay Gupta came out in favor of medical marijuana, now older (relatives) call me in the corner and ask about sprays and creams for their arthritis.”
Fighting Cultural Misconceptions Part II:
Despite conventional resistance to marijuana reform, several Asian-Americans have taken a stand to re-brand cannabis
There’s a growing discussion in cannabis industry circles and in the media about whether the industry is too white. It was with that preconception that I went looking for Asian-American cannabis entrepreneurs for this story. I expected to hear about an uphill climb in a mostly white, mostly male industry.
What I found was … not so much. Possibly because the industry is growing so fast, barriers which may have existed even a year or two ago aren’t so strong today.
The entrepreneurs I met — two women and one man, all three Asian-Americans from California — say their success came pretty fast. They didn’t face difficulties in entering the industry due to their race. They also didn’t notice a strong solidarity among the small, but growing, number of Asian-Americans in the industry.
However, they did agree on the need to change hearts and minds regarding cannabis among demographics that ordinarily wouldn’t use marijuana — mothers, the elderly and fellow Asian-Americans — and rebrand cannabis as a mainstream product.
With Proposition 64, California’s ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana, slated for the November election, these entrepreneurs say it’s important to normalize cannabis and eliminate the stigma following marijuana users.
Ophelia Chong: Changing stereotypes
Ophelia Chong is a music and fashion photographer and an art director. She’s worked for the art magazine Raygun and has been the creative director of Slamdance Film Festival and four other film festivals.
Chong introduced her sister to cannabis to ease the pain of her autoimmune disease, but didn’t directly become involved in the cannabis industry until she began thinking about how marijuana users are represented in media.
“I looked at her and thought, ‘Wow, she is a cannabis user,” Chong says. “But when I went online to Shutterstock (a stock photography service), I couldn’t find any images that represented my sister. Every image of pot users was a stereotype.”
The stereotype is well-known: young, lazy, white stoners, often with unruly hair and beards.
Image is important, Chong says, because when people don’t see someone like themselves using a product, they’re more likely to perceive it as taboo.
So the idea for StockPot Images was born. Chong launched the stock photography website in April 2015. She started with 2,300 images created by 40 photographers. As of this summer, StockPot featured more than 12,000 photos and 160 photographers from around the world.
StockPot provides a visual rebranding for cannabis users. There are images of every demographic. Grandparents? Yes. Doctors? Sure. Moms who bake with cannabis? Yep. A hippie chick smoking a joint on a Volkswagen bus? Sure, but sometimes you need to run headlong into the stereotype.
Chong says authenticity in every image is key; another mission of hers is to reverse attitudes within the Asian-American community.
She points to a 2015 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, showing that of all ethnic groups in the state, Asian-Americans were least likely to favor marijuana legalization. That’s an important observation in a state with the largest Asian population in the U.S.
Earlier this year, Chong, along with two friends, San Francisco attorney Tiffany Wu and startup creative director Monica Lo, formed Asian Americans for Cannabis Education (AACE), which aims to reverse the marijuana stigma among Asian-Americans through outreach and visibility campaigns.
In 2015, AACE scored a win by interviewing Korean-American comedian and actress Margaret Cho, who spoke about the bias against cannabis in the Asian-American community.
“My view on the matter is that marijuana is such a benign high — it’s much easier on the body than socially acceptable drugs like alcohol and nicotine, which are especially deadly in our community,” Cho said in an interview that’s on the AACE website.
Krystal Kitahara: Creating buzz with women
Two years ago Krystal Kitahara was working at a TV station in Fresno, California, when she met a woman who made edibles. This chance encounter would drastically alter Kitahara’s career path. Seeing a great untapped potential, she developed a marketing plan for cannabis-infused products and left her job in corporate media.
Her father, who’s Japanese, lobbied for Kitahara to keep her day job for six more months, not just because of the uncertainty of starting a business. Her father worried about the stigma of marijuana.
“He runs a car dealership in Fresno, and this area is pretty conservative,” Kitahara says. “At first, when people asked what I did, we both had a cover story. Now, Dad is the first to tell them I have an edible company. He has been able to help start conversations in this town.”
Kitahara’s creation, Yummi Karma, began with a line of sweet snacks, then added savory items like chips and salad dressings, before recently expanding into personal care products. The company is now relocating to a new facility with five times more space.
What sets Yummi Karma apart is that its products appeal directly to women who might never consider smoking, but would be interested in the company’s line of infused lotions and bubble baths.
Kitahara admits that one challenge was walking a fine line of marketing products to mothers without targeting children in any way.
“We wanted to normalize our products (for mothers), but didn’t want to have anything on the packaging that could appeal to children,” she says, pointing out that Yummi Karma’s packaging has been designed to be compliant with a heavier level of regulations than California’s existing medical laws.
Kitahara says her company is ready and hopeful for the passage of Prop 64. She believes the female vote will be crucial, and there’s some evidence of that.
A study by the Wales-based Global Drug Policy Observatory recently found that women between the ages of 30 and 50 were the key demographic in legalizing marijuana in Washington and Colorado.
“When women get involved, it changes the view of a cannabis user,” Kitahara says.
Seibo Shen: Bridging Communities
It’s not just women who are impacted by cultural stigmas surrounding cannabis, and fighting to change the perception of the often-reviled, sometimes worshipped, plant.
Seibo Shen, a San Francisco entrepreneur who experienced a meteoric level of success in the tech industry, has spoken on behalf of the Drug Policy Alliance in front of community groups with a large number of Asian-Americans.
“Asian populations in California are often likely to try to block dispensaries before they come into their neighborhoods,” Shen says. “I come to them with facts, like when dispensaries open it actually decreases crime in the area. Conversations, one-on-one or in small groups, can change minds.”
Shen had been collecting vaporizers since the late 1990s, but it took a high-flying career in technology and an “early mid-life crisis” to make him consider building a better one. Shen was an early employee of multiple startups that were eventually bought out or went public, including Jigsaw, SuccessFactors, E2open, Yammer and Fliptop.
In 2010, he raised $500,000 to start VapeXhale. Its first product, the Cloud EVO desktop vaporizer, hit the market with critical acclaim in 2013.
Shen says he wants to use his influence to “bridge communities” between older Asian-Americans, like his parents, and people who are already pro-cannabis.
“(My family is) from Taiwan,” the VapeXhale CEO says, “and when you go to the airport there you’ll see signs saying possession of marijuana or any narcotics is punishable by death.”
Both Shen’s parents work in the health care field. His father is a pharmacist who’s studied both Western medicine and traditional Chinese medicine; his mother is a nurse. It was the illegality of using marijuana for recreational use that made his parents skeptical and concerned about his new venture.
But one unexpected spokesman helped change their minds.
“One hour of Sanjay Gupta’s special on CNN did more good than 15 years of me convincing them of the benefits of cannabis,” Shen says.
Now, he wants to replicate his parents’ journey from being anti-marijuana to at least being open about its potential, with or without the help of a cable TV doctor.
Although they still don’t use cannabis, Shen says his parents are now his company’s biggest boosters.
“I want to normalize this experience so other communities of color can talk to their parents,” Shen says.