Women in Weed
Women in Weed
Art & Words: Zach Moldof
This article grew out of a negative experience that I sought to turn positive. If you didn’t know, I’m the author of the world’s first medical cannabis column on a national (plus internationally syndicated) news outlet. From 2010 - 2011 I wrote the “Weed Dealings” column for Vice. But the important takeaway wasn’t Vice, it was all the connections I made over the course of my time writing for Vice. I lived in the Bay and I became friendly with a lot of the people who are responsible for changing cannabis in the United States. I got to know them in professional and personal capacities, and I was continuously impressed by the individuals who made up this small community of incredibly impactful revolutionaries.
Of course, I was also working in the cannabis industry–which is how I wound up writing as a freelancer for Vice in the first place. So, it’s not like I was some outsider journalist seeking out stories on pot. As is the case with all of my writing: I’m a deep-thinking and observant participant with a thoroughly-refined capacity for crafting essays. I bought my first pound of weed–it was definitely that reggie–when I was 18, weighed it out into 64 quarter ounces and never looked back. I’m gonna die with weed in my blood, and I am proud to say I have played a part in changing this nation’s egregious drug policy. My time writing for Vice was used as a platform to push important issues in cannabis, and before Vice I was participating in one of the greatest civil disobedience movements in this nation’s history: selling weed illegally. I wasn’t late to the game, and I wasn’t scared of the possible repercussions because I was focused on what I knew was right. So, I was personally offended when I finally got my hands on a copy of Broccoli mag after anticipating the premier issue for quite some time.
My disappointment had nothing to do with the design. I have to give credit where credit is due, because the cannabis industry resisted my pleas for better design with the kind of brazenness that you can expect in cash-rich American social circles run by new money millionaires. Broccoli is a well-designed magazine. But it doesn’t matter how nice the magazine looks if it isn’t filled with useful and insightful information. To the contrary, Broccoli is filled with stories of women who had nothing to do with cannabis until it was made legal. Hence, my emailing Broccoli about their incredibly conspicuous lack of women who work in weed to which they responded, “We don’t know any of these women. Who should we write about?” In their inaugural issue they claimed to represent the culture of cannabis for women, but they didn’t bother to talk to a single woman who grows cannabis, a single woman who works in a dispensary, or a single woman who risked her freedom to help people when weed was illegal. What Broccoli did present is a run-of-the-mill survey of the ways that privilege skews white women’s values to mirror those of imperial colonialist empires. When Anja Charbonneau started Broccoli Mag she wasn’t looking to make an accurate magazine about cannabis. She was looking for a way to sell more magazines to women who read Kinfolk–the cannabis part is really neither here nor there. And it’s outrageous to think that she would portent to represent cannabis without championing any of the hard-working women whose shoulders she stands on.
And so, I present to you, an alternative take on women and weed today. This take isn’t about selling a magazine to women, but it’s written by someone who has always treated women as equals, and championed women where they aren’t treated fairly. This take is about recognizing the ways that the following three women have worked to realize a vision that people said was impossible. This take is about three brave women who risked a lot in a time when nothing was guaranteed, especially not profits and viral instagram accounts. This take is about three women in America who have different backgrounds, and similar values. This take is about the ways that these women are all doing things that every skateboarder knows all too well. They’re not relying on society’s approval. They’re not waiting for someone else to do it. They have a different vision for how things should be, and nobody is gonna stop them.
Every person who sold weed when it was illegal was a patriot. But Debby Goldsberry–a longtime Bay Area resident, and owner of several cannabis businesses– was something else. The first time she tried weed Debby was surprised to find how beneficial it was, and soon after she was even more surprised when the cops showed up, beat her friends bloody, and hauled them off to jail. That was all it took for Debby to realize that something had to be done. In 1988 she started The Cannabis Action Network, and launched The Hemp Tour with stops in 5 cities. Within 4 years it grew to a national event through a partnership with Jack Herrer and High Times. The tour promoted medical marijuana–which was unknown at the time, and introduced people to Elvy Musikka, one of the patients in the federal government’s Compassionate Investigational New Drug program. Patients in the program were–and still are–receiving 300 joints a month. Meanwhile the DEA, law enforcement, and the Justice Department were–and still are–sending thousands of young disenfranchised men to prison over cannabis. If Debby and her friends hadn’t organized these events, there would be no medical cannabis, and we would all still be stuck with the federal government’s oppressive agenda disguised as public policy. It’s the same thing we’ve seen in skateboarding.
For ages skateboarding was demonized, and many municipalities passed laws explicitly prohibiting skateboarding. But that didn’t stop skateboarders, they did 2 things: broke the law, and built their own spaces. Today government agencies, and the private sector are finally beginning to recognize the benefits of skateboarding. But we never would have arrived at skateboarding in the 2020 Olympics if skaters hadn’t taken over EMB, Love Park, MACBA, and various spaces in cities around the world. Debby put herself out there at a time when the risk was real, and she had to fight against a corrupt and puritanical institution so that we could all have access to cannabis. Debby did not let up when the going got tough. She went on to create lasting organizations and businesses that have employed, and empowered hundreds of people, and given dozens of people their first real shot at a career they want. Debby Goldsberry has had a profound effect on every American’s relationship with cannabis. All this would have been enough, but Debby’s work took so much more.
Debby entered cannabis at the tail end of our nation’s Drugs,Sex,& Rock’n Roll phase. She wasn’t greeted with open arms unless they intended to grope or otherwise demean her. Cannabis was a toxic boys club that treated Debby and other women as sexual objects with no capacity for worthwhile thought or action. And if there was any doubt as to how these men truly felt, and what they truly believed, comments such as, “Oh look the prostitutes arrived,” rendered the truth crystal clear to Debby and her female friends. That meant Debby wasn’t only fighting against the government to reverse a biased system, she also had to fight against her peers in the fight against government. And so the result of all her hard work is not only shaped by her fight against the government, but also by her tedious navigation of the path to equality in an industry that was no more enlightened than a stone.
Today Debby works in an industry where more women own companies than men, and standards are set through inclusiveness. “Every day we fight to level the field not just for women, but for everybody. In cannabis, equity makes it work. . . there is a lot of mentoring coming from the people with more experience–it’s a community and ethos of coaching and mentoring.” And today Debby has lots of things to be proud of. But again, much like skateboarding which has become an increasingly relevant sector for big business, the culture of cannabis is currently at risk of falling under the influence of consumer-focused businesses run by carpetbaggers such as Anja Charbonneau. “Now there are lots of people coming from other industries, bringing different values. We need to make sure that the voices of the people who built the cannabis industry are pushed to the front. We are constantly educating people about how they spend their money. People shouldn’t be investing their money in places that don’t benefit the community.”
Few people in cannabis have a tie to community in the way that Los Angeles-based artist Monica Ramirez does. Her illustrations–credited to the moniker Moneekah–depict a black and white world of characters that pleasure and betray one another. In her drawings the most elemental human exchange–sex–binds strands of people into webs of strands, creating spaces with no sense of direction. These drawings are not unlike the strange web that cannabis has woven throughout Los Angeles: strands of people who are pleasuring and betraying one another. Growers raise plants with dangerous chemicals and practice nefarious weight-increasing poison rituals before going to market. Dispensaries have been paying growers less, charging customers more for at least 8 years, and they aren’t even testing the cannabis for contaminants. And customers can’t or don’t educate themselves on what exactly it is that they’re buying. As Monica told me, “In my experience there is more of a lack of access to good education than a lack of desire to learn. The reality is that your average ‘budtender’ is less knowledgeable than you'd expect, want and need. This is why Cornerstone is setting the industry standard for what a dispensary experience can & should be for everyone, from the novice to the connoisseur.”
Mix it all together and you have a sick web of pleasure and betrayal that will likely lead to cancer, organ failure, and a host of genetic complications. But in the meantime, Monica is working at a dispensary that is an exception to the norm. Cornerstone is an actual care facility. They don’t sell weed. They assist people who seek to utilize cannabis for healing. This may seem painfully ordinary, but I assure you it’s not. Many dispensaries have more in common with a trap house, then a house of healing, and most dispensaries have no shortage of tainted products. A random test–by Steep Hill labs–of 44 samples from 15 dispensaries in Southern California revealed that 93% of the products had unsafe levels of pesticides. In other states with appropriate regulations this “medicine” never would have made it into a dispensary. But here in South California it’s up to us to look out for each other, and access to safe cannabis is still a rarified commodity. That’s why community is an essential element of what Cornerstone does. This dispensary makes use of a few people’s rarified connections to provide hundreds of people with access to safe medicine, and the information to utilize that medicine for their benefit, and Monica plays an integral role in the success of the business.
And Cornerstone relies on people like Jessi, who works in the Seattle area with her partner Matt raising CBD-rich plants that they turn into edible capsules. These capsules are providing life-changing relief to hundreds of people with debilitating conditions from cancer, to seizures, to anxiety and a host of other maladies that conventional medicine cannot treat effectively. But these plants won’t be grown, and the capsules won’t get made unless Jessi is out in the gardens every day performing the hard labor, and intuitive magic of growing incredibly healthy plants. And Jessi didn’t learn the rigor of the labor, or the essence of the magic in a school. Today you can use google to find a class in your area that will teach you how to grow cannabis–if you’re in a legal state. However, when Jessi started, this was incredibly rarified information that most Americans could not get ahold of if their life depended on it. But when Jessi found some seeds in a bag of weed in 2008 she decided to try her hand at growing in spite of her lack of knowledge. And low and behold, the early attempts weren’t great. But, just like in skating, each “failure” was simply the starting point for the next attempt. In 2010 she started growing indoors. That meant lots of visits to the hydro store, hoping that there weren’t law enforcement authorities monitoring the parking lot. “I would go to the grow shop and say I was growing tomatoes,” she told me, “At that point I just wanted to grow for myself so I didn’t have to buy it from someone else.” And in 2012 when Washington passed new legislation providing access to cannabis for all citizens she started thinking about it as a career.
Jessi continued to hone her skills in Washington until 2015 when she relocated to California and started growing outdoor cannabis. For those who don’t know, indoor/outdoor is the primary distinction in cannabis cultivation. It’s a lot like the distinction of skating parks versus skating streets. In an indoor grow all the conditions are regulated by the grower, and mother nature has very few ways of influencing the plants. But an outdoor grow is a diplomatic negotiation with mother nature, wherein the grower must constantly adapt to conditions that cannot be controlled. And when it comes to outdoor grows, Jessi is a beast. Of course the goal of any grower is to get the biggest yields possible, but the volume of of the yield varies greatly across strains. Growing high yield strains indoors, versus growing low yield strains outdoors is a juxtaposition of easy and difficult that skaters are also familiar with. It’s the difference between landing a trick on perfectly smooth skatepark surfaces in beautiful Southern California, versus landing the same trick on a crusty street spot in a third world country with pavement older than skateboarding itself. The strain that Jessi grows–ACDC–is not being grown by people looking for big yields, and maximum profit.
Jessi’s work cycles through a yearly routine that starts with prepping soil and laying out pots in April. Soon after seeds are germinated, and by the Summer the plants are in the ground. They need to be watered and tended to every day, and in the late Fall the harvest begins. Once the plants are harvested they will be cured and processed into concentrate without the use of solvents, poured into vegetarian capsules, packaged, and then delivered to a select group of dispensaries. For Jessi though, it’s a team endeavor in the end. She grows the plants and Matt helps out a bit, and Matt does the processing and she helps out a bit. As Jessi puts it: “It’s all about going back to nurturing and patience. Women tend to have a lot more of that nature. It’s inspiring also, seeing women doing the hard work, being able to hold their own weight and accomplish things that men can accomplish as well. But being able to function as a team, and make up for where your partner is lacking is what really makes it work. Where I lack Matt can fill in, and where he lacks I can fill in. It goes beyond gender. More than anything it’s finding people who are willing to work together and have a partnership where you’re not trying to be better than one or the other, you’re just trying to be the best team and accomplish your goals in the best and most efficient way possible.”
And that’s the most important message. If we are truly about equality, then we have to be about equality. You can’t have equality where you have segregation, and that includes self-segregation. It comes as no surprise that these three women working in cannabis have such a clear and relevant notion of the female identity in America today. They are all pragmatists whose views and philosophies have been shaped by their work building productive resources outside of the institutions of society. These three women have all had to work against the current, strike out on their own, and develop skills that enable them to achieve things that society does not facilitate. And we should all know by now, that the only solutions that will save us are the solutions that social institutions do not facilitate. I’m not worried about trump, or the illuminati, or any of the other negative specters of media that I can’t influence through direct and immediate action. I am focused on the people that I surround myself with. Women, men, and anyone in between who conducts their life in a productive manner, empowering others, and building the real solutions that will provide us all with a truly glorious future. To the women of weed, we salute you, you are truly blazin a trail.