Who’s Profiting in the Female-Focused Cannabis Space?

Back in 2016, April Pride, an architecture school grad with an entrepreneurial itch, pitched an investor group on her idea of reaching a female audience with a line of design-minded stash canisters. They were less than intrigued. “One of the comments was, ‘A cannabis smoker is a cannabis smoker. I don’t understand why you need to differentiate,’” Pride recalls. “Today, I don’t think there’s anyone who would say that.”

Pride now runs editorial platform Van der Pop, which shares cannabis content specifically aimed at educating women and, yes, turns a tidy profit selling rose-gold joint rollers at a Tokyo Smoke “cannabis education centre” in Gastown that looks an awful lot like a Saje store. 

Times have certainly changed. According to the Cannabis Consumers Coalition, the number of women using cannabis is growing dramatically, with ladies now outpacing dudes as the primary users of the plant. Today, the typical pot enthusiast is less likely to be a 25-year-old in his mom’s basement and more likely to be Mom herself. And the industry is realizing that, in order to reach that lucrative demographic (women are responsible for 80 percent of all consumer spending, with a powerful influence over friends and family), it might be time to tap into pot’s feminine side. 

This new wave of cannabis users is not interested in dank bongs and eye-rollingly juvenile strain names (“Wet Dream,” anyone?)—they’re stocking up on weed-infused bath bombs, nibbling on artisanal edibles and mellowing out after work with CBD oil. Women are turning to cannabis to improve distinctly female experiences: PMS. Menopause. Sexual discomfort.

For the majority of these users, it’s not about partying, “it’s about having a life that’s more balanced,” Pride says. “People are curious about something that gives them 10 percent improvement in their life in some way, and cannabis can do that.” In a Van der Pop survey of 1,530 North American women, 90 percent of pot-curious women said medicinal reasons would be their number one motivation for trying it.

In some ways, it’s a return to a simpler time—up until the 1920s, cannabis was regularly used as a medical treatment for a variety of women’s health issues, including childbirth pain, anxiety and menstrual cramps. Advocates say that the plant has evolved uniquely to work synergistically and specifically with the female body, and there’s ample research to back that up: studies show significant interaction between the endocannabinoid system and estrogen. 

In these self-care-obsessed times, this almost-mystical plant is well positioned to pivot from recreation to wellness ritual—and with the global market for health and wellness set to reach $815 billion by 2021, why wouldn’t cannabis producers want a piece of that pie? When viewed as a form of all-natural treatment instead of a tool for intoxication, the plant suddenly takes on a sheen of cleanliness and purity: pot, it seems, has become Goop-ified.

In these self-care-obsessed times, this almost-mystical plant is well positioned to pivot from recreation to wellness ritual.

With that new characterization comes light, airy, aspirational branding, a far cry from the cringy markers of the stoner culture of yesteryear. The pot smoker of these modern times reaches for a pretty handcrafted pipe made by a local ceramicist and a blend of indica and sativa (specifically designed for treating anxiety) displayed proudly on her countertop in a Scandinavian-modern stash jar.

This introduction of thoughtfully designed accessories has certainly played a role in attracting female consumers. “Products can change people’s minds,” says Pride. “If it looks like something pretty you would have on your vanity, there’s an acceptance versus an immediate distaste.”

Cannabis brand Dosist isn’t aimed explicitly at women, but the modern millennial packaging—white, sans serif—is not dissimilar to Glossier. The company’s sleek multi-use “dose pen” delivers controlled, smoke-free hits of specially formulated strains labelled by intended purpose: choose from Sleep, Calm and Relief, among others. “We’ve made something civilized and beautiful,” says Anne-Marie Dacyshyn, chief marketing officer for the company. 

“I live in L.A., and I can’t tell you how many times I’m out and see amazing women who have their things out on the table—beautiful bag, an iPhone, beautiful Dosist pen,” Dacyshyn explains. “This is not illicit and underground: you’re proud to have it out.”

No wonder, then, that a range of chic pro-weed magazines (Oregon-based Broccoli could be confused for a design publication) now line the shelves at Indigo, trumpeting pot use as a marker of a self-love lifestyle: this plant isn’t for escapism—it’s to make you a better version of you. “Men smoke weed, this line of thinking goes, to get high, whereas women, apparently, are meant to smoke weed to get better,” wrote Lauren McKeon, digital editor of the Walrus, in a recent post for Ontario media outlet TVO. “It’s marketed to us the same way everything else is marketed to us: as a way of fixing our supposed inadequacies, of buying our way into more appealing versions of ourselves.” 

What makes this subtext slightly troubling is that despite the women educating on the front lines, boardrooms remain male-dominated. While mom-and-pop dispensaries are often run by women, in the C-suite it’s a classic business boys’ club. “It’s great there are so many female-run small businesses, but many just can’t survive because of capital needed to scale,” says Jessica Assaf, founder of online community Cannabis Feminist. For start-ups to succeed, investment is critical, and 98 percent of venture capital funding goes to men, according to research firm Pitchbook. “So many female brands need investors and leaders all the way through. We need everyone to accept and support and build,” she notes. 

So, yes, women are spending big in the never-ending pursuit of wellness, but they’re ultimately not the ones profiting. Call it a grass ceiling.  

Originally published in April 2019.