When HollyWeed Manufacturing & Extracts Inc. announced a deal to provide extraction services to international cannabis powerhouse Canopy Growth last month, it wasn’t just a victory for British Columbia parent company Hollyweed North Cannabis—it was also an indication of the impact that LGBTQ entrepreneurs are having on the industry. HollyWeed is run by founder and CEO Renee Gagnon, a transgender woman who is a pioneer in the Canadian cannabis industry.
Gagnon was working in IT when the Canadian government announced in a 2012 press release that it was exploring the commercialization of medical marijuana.
“I felt my entire life click into place and said ‘yes, I must do this!’ And I had a business plan on their desk four hours later,” she remembers.
With no program yet in place, Gagnon had perhaps jumped the gun a bit. But she had positioned herself well and the company she founded, Thunderbird Biomedical (later Emerald Health Therapeutics) was one of four firms in the initial research and development program for Canadian medical cannabis.
“It was during my time with Emerald, just after we went public, that I came out,” Gagnon said in a phone interview with High Times. “And I came out about six months ahead of Caitlin [Jenner], and that was complicated. Caitlin explained it to everyone and then everyone was like, ‘Oh, yeah, now I get it.’ But six months earlier it was ‘What?! Are you kidding?’”
Although she says that the cannabis industry is now much more inclusive and accepting of LGBTQ people, after coming out, concern at Emerald about the impact her transition might have on courting investors led Gagnon to step aside after hiring another woman as the new CEO.
“It was a very hard thing. For me, it was a personal decision; it shouldn’t dramatically affect the company, it shouldn’t impact its potential for financing, it shouldn’t be any of those things.”
After leaving the company, Gagnon directed her passion to mentoring female entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry.
“Exiting that cannabis world, I was bored. I had nothing to do,” she says. “I had a non-compete, there was nothing I could do. And then Women Grow discovered me and invited me to come speak. And that’s when I discovered the American female cannabis community.”
Gagnon spoke to a crowd of 1,300 at a Women Grow event at the Denver Opera House in 2016 to share her experience creating a company and taking it public. She says that at that time, LGBTQ people in the cannabis community generally weren’t open with their personal lives. This was evident at the Denver event, where at the opening “everyone was on the down-low, you wouldn’t make eye contact. Everyone was pretty stiff and awkward, which was the very opposite of how I know this community to be when it’s by itself.” But things changed after she was open about being a trans woman on the opera house stage.
“By the end of the day, two or three of the speakers had come out on stage or identified themselves as members of the community, and it was just no big thing after that.”
Gagnon says that LGBTQ people who had been hesitant to share their sexual orientation then realized that the cannabis industry was more progressive and accepting than even they might have anticipated.
“It was weird. Everybody just agreed at the same time that it wasn’t a big deal and it was over. It was beautiful” she reminisces. “It was really nice to see that all of a sudden people saw that, ‘Well, hey, cool, I can be me. And it wasn’t even a thing. It wasn’t a thing before, but everyone was worried that it would be a thing so everybody just didn’t want to bring it up.”
Gagnon says she realized the impact that sharing her story can have when a man waited patiently to speak to her after her presentation in Denver. Surrounded by friends and well-wishers, it took Gagnon quite a while to make it over to the man who clearly wanted to talk with her.
“I just wanted to say thank you,” the man said to her. “My son has just become my son, he wasn’t my son before. And we’re just struggling with how to cope with this, and seeing you on stage showed me that there is an after. There’s an adult life.”
Gagnon then founded HollyWeed North as a way to provide manufacturing infrastructure to cannabis cultivators and product developers that may have trouble finding support in an industry increasingly dominated by large corporate operators.
“This is our way of helping the community in general,” Gagnon says. “So women and minority entrepreneurs, anybody can knock on our door. We’re a businesses’ business. And the reason I wanted to do it was to provide that scale middleware, for the small person. So they could take their idea to market and see if it works. And it just keeps the playing field a little more level.”
Gagnon continues to mentor entrepreneurs and still takes the stage from time to time, speaking on diversity and inclusion in the cannabis industry. She also enjoys sharing the experiences of other women and LGBTQ business leaders, including Josh Crossley, CEO and founder of the Cannabis Science Conference.
The Science of Cannabis
Crossley is also running a growing business and although he says there is always room for improvement, he believes that “the cannabis industry is definitely the most inclusive community and industry that I’ve ever been a part of professionally.”
He held his first conference in Portland, Oregon in 2016, and it has grown each year since then, hosting 150 vendors and 3,000 attendees including Olivia Newton-John at the last event in August 2018. This year, Crossley is adding an East Coast edition, with the first Baltimore conference, featuring keynote speakers Ricki Lake, Abby Epstein (creators of the film Weed the People) and Montel Williams, taking place April 9 and 10.
“We work with the cannabis industry, but also the hardcore analytical science and traditional medicine, and traditional science industries,” explains Crossley. “So it’s kind of like a bridging of the gaps, is what we do, to bring the two together.”
He says that when he began his venture, he wasn’t sure how open he should be about himself with others.
“I think a lot of times people don’t feel comfortable embracing who they really are and leading with that. In many other fields, it probably wouldn’t matter as much, professionally, what community you’re part of,” he says. “But cannabis is different than any other industry or community I’ve been part of so, even for myself getting into it I wondered ‘do I try to turn myself down and be quote-unquote passable or do I just embrace who I am?”
“Although we talk about the inclusion in the industry, and it is very diverse, at the end of the day it is a predominantly white male-dominated industry,” Crossley continues. “That is evolving and changing and we’re seeing a lot more involvement from different groups, but I think really embracing your true self and being who you are is really the best avenue to take with this.”
In business and many areas of life, being out of the closet can be comparable to the experiences of other marginalized groups, says Crossley.
“It’s a similar struggle we see for women, for instance, or people of color, because for the people of the LGBT community who aren’t passable, it’s kind of like being another minority in that you’re kind of judged before your work is presented. Like these other groups, sometimes LGBT people have to fight for their voice to be heard more than others.”
But Crossley is happy with the decision he made, saying that “embracing who I was and being my true self has helped me more than anything because you’re obviously leading with your genuine self. And whenever you’re doing that, everything sort of falls together a little bit nicer.”
Jamie McCormick AKA the Flower Daddy is another queer entrepreneur who is finding a niche in the cannabis industry, parlaying his experience in the dispensary, florist, and event planning trades with contacts in the Los Angeles television and film industry to create unique parties with a cannabis theme. He’s thrown weddings with a weed bar instead of alcohol, dab, vape, and rolling stations, edibles, an infused chocolate fountain, and a CBD lounge for those abstaining from THC.
“I bring the cannabis into the weddings in a classy way and showcase it in a way that you would never look at cannabis,” says McCormick, who is currently finalizing plans for a retail florist shop in Los Angeles.
From cannabis in the flower arrangements (“it’s just a plant”) to a first toke replacing the first toast, he says that a cannabis wedding can be elegant and unexpected while breaking down tired stereotypes about cannabis at the same time.
“When you see a bride smoking a joint, it’s so much different than what you’d think, a stoner on the couch or something.”
McCormick says that his years in the cannabis industry have taught him that it “is very accepting. It used to be such a male-driven industry but we’ve opened the doors … I think we’re breaking down those barriers. I’ve never personally had any [bad] situations in the cannabis space. Everybody I’ve been around has always been accepting and open.”
Baked and Infused
Getting into the industry wasn’t quite as rosy for celebrity cannabis chef Zairilla Bacon, however. As a gay woman of color, she says that she initially faced bias from others in the business.
“In the beginning, it was very hard, but now I’m way more accepted and they see I ain’t going nowhere.”
After making a name for herself cooking for Tommy Chong, 2 Chainz, Method Man, Redman, Mike Tyson, and other celebrities, and after a feature on Viceland, the Las Vegas entrepreneur says she has gained the respect of the industry. But she says she is still subjected to homophobia from the public, particularly on social media.
“Here and there I’ll get little comments because of appearance. They’ll say ‘Is that a guy?’ or ‘I thought that was a man.’ That’s the only negative things that I’ll get. But other than that, I get pretty much accepted,” says Bacon.
Facing discrimination from potential clients can be particularly frustrating. She says one prospective customer, impressed by her reputation and their correspondence via email, expressed interest in hiring her for an event. But things changed when they met in person.
“They were really eager to have me, but when they saw who I was, because of my skin color, and yes, the fact that I am gay, they turned me down,” she remembers.
“It’s heartbreaking, but it makes you stronger” she added.
She says that while the cannabis industry is becoming more inclusive, there are still some challenges for minorities, although she doesn’t see any barriers particular to LGBTQ people.
“I find it easier now. Not even just LGBT, but also the Black community, Hispanics, there’s no difference. You’ll get some type of challenge.”
Bacon says she is willing to share her experience with other up and coming queer professionals and encourages members of the community to hit her up on Instagram for advice.
“I’m always about helping out my people, especially if they don’t know how to get in. If they have the talent, they have the knowledge, but they just don’t know how to get in.”
Determination is the key to success, Bacon says, encouraging new business owners to “just get out there. Try to be seen. Don’t let anybody silence you. Just know that you’re the same people as everyone else. Do not let them silence you. Be heard, be spoken.”
The Buzz on Getting into the Biz
Gagnon of Hollyweed North is also happy to mentor queer and straight female entrepreneurs interested in making a career in the cannabis industry.
“My responsibility is to show people in the LGBTQ community that you can be out and be a company CEO,” she says. “You can be out in cannabis. You can raise capital. You can pitch in front of Wall Street and they have to take you on your merits now. It’s a new world.”
But she cautions, a passion for cannabis is not enough—you have to know the fundamentals of operating a business.
“If you can’t run a hot dog stand, stay the hell away from regulated cannabis. Have some experience. And if you don’t have it, hire it,” Gagnon advises.
She also notes that the industry also has a great need for creative and competent employees in a vast variety of fields that gay people already work in.
“For the LGBTQ community, there’s huge opportunities. If you have anything to do with compliance, if you know anything about the FDA, you have superpowers in this industry. If you know about regulation, if you know about taxation and excise, you have superpowers. Put them to use!”
Crossley of the Cannabis Science conference agrees, encouraging queer and trans people with an interest in cannabis to explore how their knowledge and skills can be applied to an industry increasingly welcoming to LGBTQ workers and entrepreneurs.
“Look inside yourself, utilize the skills that you’re already good at and what you’re doing now as a career and see how you can translate that into cannabis. I think a lot of times when people get into cannabis they think about growing or dispensing cannabis, which are two really important parts of the industry, but there’s so many other parts—from education, to media, to security, designing facilities—so [many opportunities] for being your authentic self.”