It seems fitting that a plant called Mary Jane could smash the patriarchy. After all, only female marijuana flowers produce cannabinoids like the potent THC chemical that gets users buzzed. Pot farmers strive to keep all their crops female through flowering female clones of one plant, called the Mother. And women are moving into the pot business so quickly that they could make it the first billion-dollar industry that isn’t dominated by men.
In Washington, Greta Carter says she’s the mom with the most mother plants and the most lucrative female flowering crops of any legal pot farm in her state. A former Citibank vice president and mother of five, Carter is just a little bit country: She has a gap-toothed smile and a shaggy platinum bob the same hue as Dolly Parton’s. Of the 2,400 people who applied for the first recreational marijuana growing facility licenses in the Evergreen State in 2012, Carter was the 71st approved. Her first weed ranch, the 45,321-square-foot farm Life Gardens near Ellensburg, is now one of the biggest and oldest legal recreational marijuana farms in the world.
Three years ago, Carter had a vital and potentially dangerous mission: find as many still-outlawed marijuana strains as possible in just 15 days. The 2012 ballot initiative that authorized the recreational sale of marijuana didn’t specify where the newly certified growers could obtain them, and there was just a 15-day window during which Carter says the government agreed to “close its eyes.” To start their weed farm, Carter and her partners had to acquire plants from illegal dealers—and did they ever. They amassed about 1,600 plants of 70 or so different strains.
The hardest part was smuggling the contraband to her farm. “It was scary,” says Carter. “We had so many plants that, technically, we weren’t covered under Washington law.” She loaded her 1,600 plants into the back of a semi and didn’t look back until she reached Life Gardens. “It was such a relief when I arrived home,” she says. “Everything within those fences is protected by the state. Otherwise, the feds could have arrested me.”
Carter would know: She helped write Washington’s Initiative 502, the measure that legalized pot for anyone 21 and older, and hatched the state’s first marijuana trade organization, the Coalition for Cannabis Standards & Ethics. She says that when sales of recreational pot were proposed in 2012, the state Liquor Control Board approached the CCSE for information. “The board didn’t know the difference between butane extract and cannabinoids,” she says. “We all kind of grew together. I was able to influence some of the rules and regulations, and I’m still influencing those rules and regulations.”
Carter didn’t birth I-502 alone: The author of the measure was Alison Holcomb, a director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and self-described “soccer mom.” You might not expect a Venn diagram containing “soccer moms” and “weed” to have much overlap, but a decade ago, Jenji Kohan created a TV dramedy exploring that odd intersection. Weeds, which ran on Showtime for eight seasons, starred Mary-Louise Parker as a “hemptress” who dealt dope in an upper-middle-class, white suburban neighborhood. “We scream inappropriate,” Kohan told EW.com about the show. “And there are consequences for the impropriety.”
Not so much anymore. During the past few years, hundreds of women have been screaming along with Weeds—but as models of propriety in the newly regulated marijuana industry. Indeed, many female entrepreneurs are striking Acapulco Gold. Though the industry is still predominantly male and employment statistics are somewhat vaporous, the power and influence of women are, by all signs, on the upswing. In the summer of 2014, Women Grow—a professional marijuana women’s networking group—launched with just 70 people; today, the monthly chapter meetings in 30 cities attract more than 1,000 women nationwide. The two-year-old Marijuana Business Association, a Seattle-based B2B trade group, started a Women’s Alliance in 2014 that now boasts 500 members. In just two years, Women of Weed, a private social club in Washington, has seen its membership swell from eight to 300.
Drug reform activist attorney Shaleen Title runs a marijuana recruitment agency, THC Staffing, entirely owned and run by women. She says half of the employment placements her company makes are women. “I am especially seeing more women with corporate ‘mainstream’ experience looking to join the marijuana industry,” she says. “With time, there will be more women with marijuana experience.”
Just like in Washington, women in Colorado were important players in the crafting and implementation of the legalization measure amendment. Title joined the Amendment 64 campaign in the summer of 2012. “As a senior staffer, I worked with several other women on the campaign,” she says. Most notably, attorney Tamar Todd, now the director of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance; Betty Aldworth, the primary spokeswoman and now executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which supports other young women activists; and Rachelle Yeung, now an attorney with Vicente Sederberg, a marijuana-focused law firm. Title says women were chosen deliberately in order to reach women. “Betty had a particular ability to relate to the mainstream. I had previously helped with California’s Prop 19 campaign in 2010, where we had trouble securing women’s votes before the initiative ultimately failed. We knew that women’s votes were crucial.”
In Colorado and Washington, the key demographic in the legalization movements were 30- to 50-year-old women, according to a study by the Wales-based Global Drug Policy Observatory. “I think women can help demonstrate that it’s a reasonable choice for a lot of people,” Title adds. “And it’s not going to turn you into Cheech or Chong.”