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Recognizing Women of Color Shaping the Cannabis Space

May 20, 2021 03:30 pm ET

The goal of this post is to increase visibility and promote solidarity where possible for Women of Color in the cannabis space, a traditionally white male dominated industry. We asked these Women of Color how they got involved in the cannabis space, where their passion for it comes from, and about the barriers they overcame to get to where they are today.

Swipe on the arrows above to read their inspirational stories. 

 

Dr. Jessica Knox 

Dr. Jessica Knox, of the Doctors Knox family of physicians, completed her psychology degree at Harvard. She went on to complete dual degrees (medical and business) at Tufts University and a public health degree at San Diego State University. After her Preventive Medicine residency at UC San Diego, she spent 3.5 years as the medical director for a Silicon Valley telehealth startup before transitioning in 2019 to full-time work in the endocannabinology and cannabinoid medicine space with her family. 

Veriheal: How did you first get involved with medical cannabis? 

Dr. Jessica Knox: My first experience with medical cannabis was as a newly-minted physician fresh out of residency. While working part-time at a telehealth startup, I was also working part-time in a small medical marijuana card clinic in Oakland, CA. I knew very little about cannabis, and even less about taking care of patients using cannabis. But I was inspired to do this work by my parents, who had started working in MMJ card clinics in the Portland, OR area several years earlier. 

I was incredibly moved by the patient stories they shared from those clinics and felt the clinical work they were doing was better aligned with my values and interests than the conventional clinical model in which I had been trained. When I started working in MMJ clinics myself, I had to learn very quickly—from my patients, through extensive reading and discussion with my parents and sister on the scientific literature regarding the physiology of the endocannabinoid system and the pharmacology of cannabis, and by attending conferences and absorbing everything I could from the prevailing experts. The rest, as they say, is history.” 

Veriheal: What has surprised you as you continue to research and recommend medical cannabis? 

Dr. Knox: “I don’t know if anything has surprised me since going through the process of dismantling everything I’d learned about cannabis in elementary through medical school. That was a shock to the system—unlearning all the mis- and dis-information perpetuated during the era of cannabis prohibition. Learning we all have an endocannabinoid system that validates cannabis as medicine was a game changer, and with the ECS as your lens, every new development regarding the potential medical applicability of cannabis, though always impressive, is never surprising. 

I think it’s the gateway nature of cannabis and the vast wisdom and potential of the ECS that keeps me passionate about my work. People often come to my family and me seeking just cannabis, but through cannabis, their eyes are opened to a whole new way of living and thinking about their health and well-being. For many people, cannabis is their entrée into a much healthier and more enlightened lifestyle.”

Veriheal: What barriers have you overcome to get to where you are today?

Dr. Knox: “Stigma and misinformation have been the biggest barriers—“cannaphobia” is what my mom (Dr. Janice) would call it. First, I had to reckon with my own misconceptions and biases about cannabis, ideas and opinions I had absorbed from authority figures throughout my education. Now the urgent work is to erode the entrenched fear and stigma that pervade so many of our institutions and that perpetuate the harms of cannabis prohibition even as cannabis becomes increasingly legalized across the country and around the world. To paraphrase my sister (Dr. Rachel), I truly believe cannabis can help save the world. But we have to let it.”

Dr. Knox works with the Association for Cannabis Health Equity and Medicine (ACHEM), an organization that works to activate BIPOC healers to care for themselves and their communities through cannabis education, care and advocacy, and with the Cannabis Health Equity Movement (CHEM), which leverages cannabis in all of its applications, innovations and economy to heal communities devastated by the war on drugs. 

Dr. Patricia C. Frye, MD 

Dr. Patricia C. Frye is an Affiliate Associate Professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Medical Cannabis Science & Therapeutics and the founder of Takoma Park Integrative Care. Dr. Frye authored the award-winning book The Medical Marijuana Guide: Cannabis and Your Health

Veriheal: How did you first get involved with medical cannabis? 

Dr. Patricia C. Frye:I was living in Virginia and still licensed in California, so I was looking for a California urgent care telemedicine job and the recruiter contacted me about a job evaluating patients for medical cannabis recommendations. At the time, I knew nothing about the plant or its medical benefits and almost turned the offer down…I liked the CEO and decided to give it a try, with the idea that I could quit if it didn’t feel right. I actually almost got fired because I was so conservative and going by the letter of the regulations put out by the Board of Medicine, I was turning people away left and right. It took a little while for me to become comfortable with the plant and what I was doing, soon realizing that someone need not be at death’s door to benefit from cannabis and qualify for a recommendation. And I later became Chief Medical Officer for the company.

Over the years, I have evaluated literally thousands of patients of all ages, from all walks of life. They present with a variety of chronic conditions like autoimmune disease, neurodegenerative disease, neuropsychiatric conditions, and more. They generally feel better and are able to discontinue pharmaceuticals that were ineffective or posed significant health risks. I am convinced that the plant has great value in relieving symptoms and improving health…So I embrace the opportunity to educate as well as share the knowledge I have gained observationally by caring for patients.  

The biggest frustrations are related to the scarcity of appropriate products. There is so much more to cannabis than THC and CBD,  but especially THC, which seems to be the industry focus. We are dealing with the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the true healing potential of this botanical medicine.”

Veriheal: What has surprised you as you continue to recommend medical cannabis?  

Dr. Frye: Initially it surprised me that cannabis could be used without being high or ‘stoned.’ My California patients taught me that early on. And I am always amazed as to just how effective cannabis can be in alleviating so many chronic symptoms and conditions and how much it can improve the quality of life for so many patients. Since I am aware that cannabis doesn’t help everyone and everything, it’s always pleasantly surprising when a patient or parent of a patient reports how much they have improved once we figure out the right treatment for their endocannabinoid, immune, hormonal, and neuromodulating systems—because cannabis affects all of the above!” 

Veriheal: What barriers have you overcome to get to where you are today?

Dr. Frye: “My presence in the medical cannabis space continues to evolve. I entered the space at an age when many physicians are retiring, so I had no plan or agenda. I just wanted to be able to evaluate and guide treatment for patients with serious illnesses. I will say that the paucity of Blacks and women in the cannabis industry is more than disheartening. There are so few seats at the tables of large cannabis businesses, so in a sense, it’s the same old story. Since I am in charge of what I do, I would say the largest barrier to quality medical cannabis practice is not having the chemovars, ratios, and types of products I recommend available to the patient. While I have no problem with adult use, I dream of the day when I can write a prescription for what I think is best for my patient.”

Dr. Frye is on the board of the Society of Cannabis Clinicians and is the Co-director of the 2021 SCC Medical Cannabis Training Curriculum. She is also a member of the American Medical Association, the Association of Cannabis Specialists, Americans for Safe Access, and the Med Chi Medical Society in Maryland. Dr. Frye is heavily involved in cannabis policy/social justice (she testified at Capitol Hill in May, 2019) as well as with community volunteer work with groups like AIDS Care Team (care for end stage AIDS patients) and Phoenix House (adolescent drug rehabilitation). 

WOCC – Women of Color in Cannabis 

Women of Color in Cannabis (WOCC, pronounced “woke”) is a nonprofit working to provide Women of Color and other socially and economically marginalized groups with a foundational understanding of the current cannabis industry and pathways to participate. 

WOCC hosts CannaCareers, a program for professional development resources that have been vetted as safe environments for BIPOC folx interested in the cannabis industry; CannaSessions, monthly information sessions with lesson plans and panels with industry leaders on different cannabis topics; and MeToo & Marijuana, a safe space (and resources) for WOC who have experienced harassment and abuse in the cannabis industry. 

The Women behind WOCC include Founder Shaloma “LoW” Wagstaffe, Co-Founder Patricia “Pat” Wright, and Operations Lead Samantha “Sammie” Nitiutomo. They were all cannabis entrepreneurs and business owners at some point. Read on to hear from these innovative leaders and how WOCC came to be. 

Shaloma "LoW" Wagstaffe
WOCC Founder Shaloma “LoW” Wagstaffe

Veriheal: How did you first get involved with medical cannabis? 

WOCC: “We entered the Cannabis industry first as entrepreneurs desperately seeking community, trusted resources and safe spaces. We were tired of not seeing ourselves and people who looked like us represented in the Cannabis space and wanted to create the environments and programs we were seeking. We noticed that there weren’t organizations catering to BIPOC in neighborhoods most ravaged by the war on drugs. It was appalling to see industry events charge exorbitant premiums just for access to information, creating additional barriers to entry for BIPOC all the while not providing any tangible skills or resources to assist BIPOC in entering the industry. Simply put: we were driven to be the change we wanted to see in the world.”

Patricia "Pat" Wright
WOCC Co-Founder Patricia “Pat” Wright

Veriheal: Why do you continue to be passionate about cannabis? 

WOCC: “WOCC continues to stay passionate about Cannabis because there is still a need for the work we do. There are still neighborhoods that are denying themselves the healing that is Cannabis due to the stigma surrounding the plant and the policing that ripped families apart. There is so much financial devastation that has been done to BIPOC communities, and the unregulated market has always been a means of provision for some families and they deserve a stake in the legal industry and access to financially provide for their families.”

Samantha "Sammie" Nitiutomo
WOCC Operations Lead Samantha “Sammie” Nitiutomo

Veriheal: What barriers have you overcome to get to where you are today? 

WOCC: “There are all the usual barriers in Cannabis as there are in the world when you’re a WOC, and then some. The lack of financial support or opportunities to start/scale your business. Constantly defending your presence and expertise in a highly cis-het white male dominated field. Companies claiming to support social equity, then only hiring one BIPOC woman to a team for diversity points, but not actually doing the work to make the space safe and inclusive. Or cultural barriers like the ‘crabs in a barrel mentality’ that tries to pit minorities against one another for the very limited resources not hoarded by those with more privilege. The list goes on, but so does WOCC!” 

WOCC regularly works with both Clean Slate NY and National Expungement Week. Check out their past CannaSessions and upcoming events on their website

Maha Haq 

Maha is the Founder and President of Cannaclub, a collegiate organization focusing on cannabis education, advocacy, and opportunities for the next generation. Cannaclub expanded to 20+ universities across the nation with over 5,500 members since starting at Maha’s alma mater UCLA, where she also served as a researcher at the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative. In 2020, Maha was a winner of Veirheal’s Innovation in Cannabis Scholarship

Maha is President of The Highspitality Group (THG), an LA-based cannabis consumption lounge operations and biz dev firm, bringing together the two worlds of hospitality and cannabis. Her biz dev and research firm CREA (Cultivating Research, Education, & Advocacy) is currently engaged in research projects related to consumer/patient data and product focus groups. 

Veriheal: How did you first get involved with medical cannabis? 

Maha Haq: “My start in cannabis was quite serendipitous. My mom, who is a cancer researcher, caught me smoking cannabis when I was a teenager, and that moment is also what set forth my career in cannabis unintentionally. She demanded a lengthy report on why cannabis is acceptable instead of punishing me. I came back with a full presentation with scientific evidence available at that time. She invited me to share my report to her colleagues and cancer patients at the hospital she worked at. That experience prompted me to work at a medical dispensary to further educate more patients. My mom identified my passion before I did and nurtured my interest in the plant. I am forever grateful for that.”

Veriheal: What barriers have you overcome to get to where you are today?

Maha: When I started as a budtender, I wasn’t happy with how female staff members were often treated by employers. Most dispensaries only hired female budtenders and expected us to wear revealing clothing and behave certain ways. This culture was everywhere, and some locations were even more ridiculous than others. I was adamant on changing the sexist atmosphere in dispensaries. And this obstacle is an ongoing battle for myself and many women: addressing sexism in the cannabis industry and beyond. Although I am no longer experiencing the pressures of a budtender who’s expected to wear revealing clothing, there still remains unfavorable behaviors and perspectives towards women in the space.

At one cannabis company I worked at, women were outnumbered by male coworkers over ten times! These disproportionate dynamics give men the idea that they can act differently and inappropriately without repercussions. I have been exploited by a cannabis business, and some women are still being exploited despite the changes over the years. It’s important to recognize the progress but also realize that there is a lot of change pending.

Another challenging element I dealt with is how cannabis remains a taboo in my family’s cultures. The stigma associated with cannabis within the South Asian community is quite convoluted. My father is Indian and my mother is from Pakistan. Cannabis is indigenous to India and Pakistan and is embedded in the region’s cultural roots, yet it remains a taboo due to religious and political concerns. As a first-generation American, discussing cannabis is difficult to navigate among the two communities I am part of—both views are so contrasting yet similar. But with new research and education, acceptance will inevitably follow.”

Maha has her M.S. in pharmacological sciences concentrating on Medical Cannabis Sciences & Therapeutics at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, the nation’s first graduate program dedicated to studying cannabis. Maha is the Director of Education for the Los Angeles chapter of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). She is helping organize SB-34 programs, a compassionate care initiative that distributes free medical cannabis products to patients in need. She is also a Program Director at the American Botanical Drug Association and an instructor for science classes at the cannabis vocational school Oaksterdam University in Oakland.

Dr. Leslie Mendoza Temple 

Dr. Leslie Mendoza Temple is a Clinical Associate Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine; the Medical Director of the Integrative Medicine Program at NorthShore University HealthSystem; and the Co-owner and founder of Mingle Juice Bar in Glenview, Illinois. 

Veriheal: How did you first get involved with medical cannabis? 

Dr. Leslie Mendoza Temple: My practice in Integrative Medicine has led patients to me with chronic conditions that were frequently covered by the Illinois Medical Cannabis Compassionate Pilot Program, which started in 2014…When I saw the conditions that the law covered for medical cannabis eligibility like fibromyalgia, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and seizures, I realized quickly that I better become acquainted with this deeply. 

My patient population was sure to ask about this, and I predicted this correctly. I saw a call for members for the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board (MCAB) with the Illinois

Department of Public Health on the State of Illinois’ website and applied. After an interview with then Governor Quinn’s staff, I was offered a spot on the Board as a Family Physician representative. Following the first meeting, a Chairperson selection process occurred, and after volunteering for the post, I was selected. It was quite scary, because I’ve never chaired a committee like this before in government. 

The whole experience was a crash course in civic duty and policy, which was a far cry from my work as a medical doctor…This work put my career on a trajectory I never expected to take, and I think I have grown from this as a physician, academic and leader.”

Veriheal: What has surprised you as you continue to recommend medical cannabis?  

Dr. Temple: Everything about cannabis and its medical, social, political, and even religious impact on mainstream society CHANGES, almost month to month it seems. I often find myself promoting the balanced view on cannabis whenever I hear extreme viewpoints like, ‘Cannabis is a miracle cure and is totally safe’ to ‘Marijuana has no evidence that it works as a medicine and should remain illegal.’ There is truth in the middle, as most extreme viewpoints accentuate the need for truth and balance. I guess that nothing surprises me anymore with cannabis, because there is a constant swirl of change occurring around it, depending on the day.”

Veriheal: What barriers have you overcome to get to where you are today?

Dr. Temple: Big barriers with respect to cannabis come from the low level of respect (due to lack of rigorous scientific evidence and stigma); it started out within the conservative academic circles I work in. I already experienced this bias early in my career 21 years ago when I recommended Integrative Medicine therapies to patients to reduce side effects from Western medical treatments or to promote health beyond what the conventional medicine team might recommend. These therapies include acupuncture, massage therapy, stress management techniques, exercise, nutrition strategies, and thoughtfully chosen herbs and dietary supplements. 

As a Filipina-American woman who went to medical school outside the U.S., I experienced a whole world of barriers in getting where I am today. But that is a topic for another time. Suffice to say that I have been accustomed to struggle and hardship in my career ever since I became serious about becoming a physician when I was a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley.” 

Dr. Temple’s research has been published in peer-reviewed publications including her 2019 article in the Journal of Clinical Toxicology on “Tetrahydrocannabinol – friend or foe? – Debate” and a qualitative focus group study published in 2019 on cancer survivors’ attitudes and perceptions regarding medical cannabis for symptom and side effect management.

Mary Pryor 

Mary Pryor is the Co-founder of Cannaclusive and Chief Marketing Officer at Tonic CBD/Tricolla Farms. Cannaclusive is dedicated to addressing inclusivity issues in cannabis and facilitating fair representation of minority cannabis consumers. Mary’s background is in digital marketing for major brands like Black Enterprise and Ebony Magazine. She is also a member of the National Cannabis Industry Association. 

Veriheal: How did you first get involved with medical cannabis? 

Mary Pryor: Crohn’s. If it wasn’t for my two friends Denitra Lewis and Ben Goldfarb alerting me to studies based in 2014—I would not have dived into the use of the plant and its benefits due to how it matches with the human body via the ECS and our receptors.” 

Veriheal: What has surprised you as you continue to recommend medical cannabis?  

Mary: “The lack of BIPOC owners, representation and constant issues with equity advocacy and support in the space. I’m passionate because cannabis is medicine and has greatly improved my quality of life. People need access and ways to participate in this space. Legalization is crucial for all of us especially Black and Latin peoples who are still facing discrimination due the propaganda behind prohibition.” 

Veriheal: What barriers have you overcome to get to where you are today?

Mary:Determination. The barriers are still there. And won’t disappear anytime soon. Community and drive are important to note in this business.” 

Cannaclusive is collaborating with ALMOSTCONSULTING on InclusiveBase, a database of People of Color who are leading the way in the cannabis renaissance and a resource for conscious cannabis consumers. Learn more about the database here.

Thank you to all of the WOC who participated in this post and shared their stories with our readership. If you’d like to nominate someone for inclusion in a future post, let us know in the comments below! 

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