On Sunday afternoons at Queens of Cannabis, a pretty, new fuchsia and white dispensary in Toronto, a dozen or so women in their mid-30s to 60s gather for High Tea. They choose from locally farmed, organic fair trade tinctures — green tea, ginger, ginseng — and snack on homemade lemon drop and peanut butter cookies, all vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO and infused with weed. The ladies, who are medical users, commiserate about the ailments that brought them in, whether they be anxiety, insomnia or fibromyalgia. After, they might stay for a joint-rolling workshop or for a hot-stone massage enhanced with cannabis massage oil, or they might sign up for ganja yoga (toking and posing classes held at a nearby park).
The proprietors, Tania Cyalume, 37, and Brandy Zurborg, 34, both became medical smokers after accidents left them injured and suffering from chronic pain. Their hope in opening the shop was not only to help their clients feel better but to overhaul the public perception of weed in Canada. Cannabis culture has long been created by and for the Seth Rogens of the world. It’s a not-quite-legal niche of seedy head shops manned by bleary-eyed dudes, stocked with psychedelic bongs and branded with pot leaves wearing Rasta hats. Stoner movies star bro-friends, like the Trailer Park Boys, Cheech and Chong, and Harold and Kumar jonesing for White Castle. One female smoker I spoke to affectionately calls this the “dirty pothead” scene, and it is about as appealing to adult women as a frat house at 4:20 p.m.
Pop culture has gone some way to balancing the stoner stereotype. Rihanna and Miley Cyrus raise their spliffs like defiant middle fingers, but they’re twentysomethings without traditional day jobs or kids. Women like the ones at High Tea have had few cultural touch points; plus, Cyalume tells me, “they’re afraid they’ll be seen as bad moms or that child services will get involved, and we want them to know this is a welcoming place for them.” Zurborg chimes in, “There’s still a lot of stigma for women.”
This stigma is fading fast. A 2014 poll conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal asked 1,000 people in the U.S. which substance they think is worse for a person’s overall health — tobacco, alcohol, sugar or pot — and most respondents chose alcohol, tobacco and even sugar ahead of marijuana. And a 2015 Forum Research survey found that 59 percent of Canadians support legalization. Sensing this shift in attitude, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party ran last fall, in part, on a platform to legalize marijuana’s recreational use by spring 2017, with Trudeau arguing it’s no worse than tobacco or alcohol. Experts have long debated that claim, and researchers are quickly settling the argument: A 2015 study published in Scientific Reports confirmed pot is far less likely to kill you than the other two substances; alcohol is 114 times riskier than weed. Which isn’t to say that cannabis is the new kale. If there were TV commercials for pot (and there may be soon), the voice-over would rattle off possible side effects—cognitive impairment, mood disorders, psychological dependence—as with any other drug. But the authors of the study concluded that regulation makes more sense than prohibition.
The only legal way to buy weed in this country is to mail-order it from one of 31 licensed producers, provided you have a prescription from your doctor and a licence from Health Canada. But Trudeau’s promise sparked an explosion of illegal storefront dispensaries across the country. There are an estimated 350 in Canada, and Toronto alone has over 100, scores more than it did a year ago. Some strictly require patrons to show their licence; others only need you to bring in a prescription for painkillers, antidepressants or a similar medication; and others arrange for you to Skype with a doctor who can write a prescription on the spot. Many of these dispensaries are as dodgy as you’d expect (you’d be forgiven for griping about them lowering your house’s value if you lived nearby) and are likely to fold before legalization. But the savvy ones, like Queens, understand that appealing to 30-plus women is the surest path to legitimizing the business and normalizing cannabis within the broader culture.
Health Canada’s most recent numbers on women and weed date back to 2013, when 7 percent (around one million females) admitted to smoking in the past year—though that number is likely low, given many women don’t confess. The U.S., where cannabis use has doubled among adults in the last decade — and even quadrupled in segments of the boomer population — offers more detailed data: A 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 40 percent of cannabis users are women. That’s around 13 million females, the vast majority of whom are over the age of 26 and have some college education or a degree.
These new buyers are more health- and image-conscious than men. They don’t want to damage their lungs, reek like a high school hotbox or face their kids’ teachers, let alone their bosses, with red eyes. “Women tend to look for the cleanest mode of extraction,” says Zurborg, “so they prefer vape pens, edibles [cookies, lollipops, etc.] and topical creams [infused lotions that can help soothe joint pain]. They’re the ones who care if their cannabis is fair trade and organic.” “Guys just want to know what will get them messed up,” adds Cyalume.
They’re also more aesthetically appreciative, according to Alan Gertner, a former Google strategist who launched what he hopes will become an international cannabis-based lifestyle brand called Tokyo Smoke. His shop, a vintage-y, hip nook amid Toronto’s downtown condos, is aimed squarely at the area’s moneyed denizens. Gertner doesn’t sell pot, though he plans to partner with a licensed producer to grow organic, house-branded stuff once it’s legal. He’ll add it to his fastidiously curated collection of espresso, cold-pressed juices, dress shirts, $60 candles and artisan-crafted bud grinders, vaporizers and other paraphernalia for those who like to smoke out of objets d’art. He tells me that he’d heard stories of couples going to traditional head shops and the women waiting in the car because they were embarrassed to go in. “Men are less used to great retail,” he says, “and as this market evolves, there need to be beautiful places to engage [women] in cannabis culture.” The Saturday afternoon crowd in his boutique—hand-holding couples, curious post-brunchers, tethered French bulldogs—suggests he’s right.
Vancouver, already a couple of years into its own pot revolution, has recognized this need, too. Kitsilano, the birthplace of Lululemon and home to some of the priciest real estate in the country, now has at least 11 dispensaries. The toniest of the bunch, Buddha Barn, is owned and run by women who just launched a line of anti-aging skincare (cannabis is rich in antioxidants and fights inflammation). They also run a Pinterest-worthy recipe blog, showing readers how to infuse everything from peach cobbler to tacos with marijuana.
These small businesses are just the first step toward the gentrification of weed. Gertner believes cannabis will be to Canada what champagne is to France, given our position as a world leader in legalization and potential for growing. That claim sounds grandiose, but consider that Galen Weston Jr., president of Loblaw grocery stores and Shoppers Drug Mart, recently announced he plans to sell pot at both his mega-chains. What was once a grimy subculture and underground economy is now poised to become a massive mainstream industry that Canadian market analysts estimate will see annual revenues of $5 billion come legalization.
Such vast economic potential is the basis of Women Grow, an organization dedicated to re-branding the weed industry as female-friendly, so women see it as both a legitimate and lucrative career option and a culture to which they can belong. The group’s co-founder, Jazmin Hupp, was born in Victoria and raised by hippie-era pot activists. Since she started Women Grow in 2014, both Forbes and Fortune have deemed her a cannabis visionary, and membership has expanded to 45 North American chapters, including ones on Vancouver Island, in Edmonton and in Toronto. Members can meditate and paddleboard with other cannabis-loving ladies on wellness weekends and attend monthly networking events.
I went to a recent mingler in Toronto. The conference room, which was notably free of garish green pot-leaf logos, was filled with women ranging in age from 25 to 60, most of them dressed in business-casual attire , which is encouraged by the organization to professionalize meetings. Some were just cannabis curious, while others work in the industry, baking edibles, making topical rubs or running their own dispensaries. They gathered to see Hupp deliver a TED Talk–style presentation about the female-driven future of the plant. Pacing the room in floral silk pants and a leather blazer, she explained that women will soon be the primary consumers across all three of pot’s major marketable categories: medicine, wellness and recreation.
Women make 80 percent of the health care decisions in Canadian families and account for the majority of spending on over-the-counter drugs, so, she reasons, “you’re going to be going through the mothers of this country to have cannabis in your households.” We also dominate spending on wellness — yoga, essential oils, herbal supplements that enhance our moods or help us lose weight. “Ladies, look for strains high in CBN” — a compound in cannabis that supposedly counteracts munchies-making THC — “and see if they also help you suppress your appetite,” she says as audience members immediately scratch “CBN” in their notebooks. Hupp rounded out her argument with the ineluctable fact that we’re all just desperate to relax without damaging our livers or downing a bottle’s worth of pinot grigio calories. And, if we become the primary consumers, she asks, why can’t we also be the primary growers, marketers, start-up founders and, eventually, the CEOs who cash in?
You can already glimpse this emerging market in California, a bastion of legal pot production, where Whoopi Goldberg just released a line of body balms, bath salts and even a chocolate spread for toast (it soothes PMS and chocolate cravings at the same time, boasts Goldberg’s website) and Melissa Etheridge sells ganja-infused private-reserve wines, each bottle autographed by the singer. Soon our kitchen cupboards and medicine cabinets may carry the skunky whiff of weed.
Many members of Women Grow made the leap from toker to entrepreneur. Some had suffered injuries or chronic ailments, like scoliosis and endometriosis, and reported opioid side effects that drove them to seek alternative pain management. They’ve become evangelists for the normalization movement and view their role as educators and caregivers of other women, rather than dealers. Christa Schadt, an artist from Salt Spring Island, for example, found post-menopausal sex painful due to a drop in estrogen that left her with vaginal dryness. She started making her own cannabis lubricant that relieves the pain and enhances sensation. She just won a marijuana trade show award for best sex topical, and she is planning to up production, offering the Frankies and Graces of Canada new leases on their sex lives.
More commonly, though, women talked about anxiety and neuroses, whether professionally identified or self-diagnosed, and the need to slow down at the end of a stressful day. An elementary school French teacher learning how to bake edibles told me she’d brought her anti-anxiety and sleeping pills to a Kensington Market dispensary in Toronto, where they gave her a couple of sativa-indica blends to try for a clear-headed daytime calm and straight-up indica for nighttime, when she needs sleep. (The kids in her Catholic school are learning to say no to drugs right now, and she had to bite her tongue when one told her that people who smoke pot go crazy.)
Few women admitted to pure recreational use. Lisa Campbell, who works in marketing by day and runs the Toronto chapter of Women Grow in her spare time, tells me this is because, historically, medical use was the only context in which women could talk about pot without drawing judgment — or child care authorities to their homes. She’s an unabashed good-time toker and is excited about the prospect of broadening the conversation. “It’s just as relaxing as having a glass of wine at the end of a workday, and no Canadian should feel ashamed about enjoying that,” she says.
This is the ethos behind Vapor Central, a Toronto lounge where the public is free to smoke or use the provided $600 Volcano vaporizers (the “Cadillac” of vapes, according to review websites), so long as they’re over 18 and bring their own supply. On a Tuesday after work, the hazy room is filled with slow-blinking dudes reclined in faux-leather sofas or playing board games, while a table of thirtysomething women in sundresses roll their own pin-perfect joints. The manager, Kayla Baptiste, and the place’s long-time “ hemployee, ” Sarah Hanlon, both old school stoners, tell me they see plenty of females who drop in to smoke. “Even a year ago, before Trudeau, the split in here was 80 percent men, 20 percent women,” says Hanlon. “Now it’s more like 60:40. The other day, there were two guys and 20 women, which would never have happened before. Now we can play ‘Lemonade’ [by Beyoncé] on the stereo and, I mean, look at the TVs right now,” she says, gesturing to the big screens around the room. “We’re watching The Breakfast Club! Things are definitely changing.”
In a couple of years, Hanlon hopes, Canada’s pot culture will parallel the one we have for drinking: slick vape lounges for Bay Street suits and neighbourhood watering holes for couples with sitters. She even hopes that there will be dive bars for the dirty potheads to fly their freak flags. On the medical side, rheumatologist Dr. Carolina Landolt, who recently opened a clinic to help patients manage chronic pain with cannabis, is optimistic about pharmacists doling out the drug. Right now, she says, many doctors support their patients using cannabis but may not have enough expertise to prescribe it. Both patients and dispensary owners are working on a trial and error basis that, while more sophisticated than dime bag deals, needs to be grounded in formal training.
Until then, the country’s illegal pot trade is stuck in limbo. In late May, Toronto mayor John Tory called for city-wide raids on dispensaries as a temporary measure to curb their proliferation and prevent them from setting up near schools. He thinks the city can look to Vancouver and Victoria, where more rules are in place, as models. In the meantime, 257 charges were laid against 90 people.
This kind of upheaval is old hat to Hupp, who lives in northern California and works with start-ups in Colorado, where recreational use is legal. During her talk, she reassured the crowd that they can weather the current chaos: “How you operate today may not exist in six months. In Colorado, for example, the regulations changed every six months, so nobody could do their packaging, nobody could decide what their product would be, but the women who came together in great diverse teams kicked ass [during that time] because who else is used to taking a lot of crap and rules from society — rules that we have to follow arbitrarily and aren’t exactly fair and that we didn’t make up—but women?” Three weeks after the raids, Queens of Cannabis is open, and High Tea is still on.