Women marijuana growers seek to move beyond ‘breasts and buds’ stereotype

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With widespread anticipation that California voters could legalize recreational marijuana use for adults next year, a generation of women growers are poised to shed the term “activist” for “CEO.”

About two dozen women working in the North Coast’s flourishing medical cannabis industry will be rubbing elbows after business hours Thursday in downtown Santa Rosa during a launch party for a local chapter of Women Grow, a for-profit networking company.

The women say they aim to break through what some call the “green ceiling” of an industry traditionally run by men, with marketing heavily skewed toward able-bodied heterosexual males.

“It’s been a male-dominant industry for 30 years, and in this last five years I don’t feel alone as a woman in this industry,” said Tawnie Logan, co-founder and executive director of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance.

Women Grow was launched last year by two women in Colorado, where voters legalized recreational marijuana use in 2012. Logan, who travels extensively as a garden consultant, has attended Women Grow meetings in Denver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Oakland “to keep an ear to the ground about how the culture is working with this budding industry.”

“If it’s a men’s networking party, it’s ‘What can I get from you?’ ” Logan said. “At a women’s networking party, it’s ‘Here’s what I have to give.’ ”

Young, successful men in their 20s to 40s are a massive target market across most industries because of the group’s expendable cash, Logan said.

Marijuana is no different.

At some popular marijuana conferences, organizers hold wet T-shirt contests and hire women to wear bikinis and hand out joints. A video made by High Times magazine gives a behind-the-scenes look at a bathing suit photo shoot featuring the 2015 Miss High Times contestants at a Jamaican beach.

In May, Sonoma County’s largest dispensary, Organicann on Todd Road, hosted an event with edgy, tattooed porn star Skin Diamond, who has her own designer marijuana strain.

“There has been a lot of whistle-blowing over two years (related to) how we portray the industry,” Logan said. “ ‘Breasts and buds’ is fading.”

The U.S. cannabis market was worth an estimated $2.7 billion in 2014, according to a “State of the Legal Marijuana Markets” report released earlier this year by the Oakland-based investment network and industry analyst ArcView Market Research.

California has the largest legal cannabis market in the United States, worth an estimated $1.3 billion, according to the group.

“This is an opportunity right now; it is the fastest-growing industry. It’s moving so fast,” said local yoga instructor Ilana Sochaczewski, who is starting the local Women Grow chapter. “So many people are coming (into the field), and patients are coming out publicly.”

A relative newcomer to both Sonoma County and medical marijuana, Sochaczewski has been using cannabis-infused foods, aka edibles, to treat her chronic insomnia for about a year. Sochaczewski, who doesn’t like to smoke, said she started making her own edibles when buying them became too expensive.

Sochaczewski now hopes to launch her own line of infused condiments in August.

Sochaczewski said she wanted to create a network of people she could call upon for business advice and opportunities as she tries to break into the field. She didn’t find an existing group and decided to start the local Women Grow chapter.

“The natural products industry — you have such big players here in wine and beer,” she said. “There is a lot of care and love in what we do, and that reflects our female constituency.”

Women have been among the most outspoken advocates for medical cannabis in Sonoma County, starting with those who pushed boundaries and risked arrest for people’s right to use marijuana for health ailments.

The history goes back decades and includes people like “Brownie Mary,” born Mary Jane Rathbun, who in the 1980s baked hundreds of batches of marijuana-infused brownies at her Cazadero kitchen to deliver to AIDS patients.

Rathbun’s highly publicized arrests for distributing the pot brownies is credited with building momentum for the 1996 state initiative that made growing and using marijuana with a doctor’s permission legal under California law.

“Teachers and women have been very, very influential,” said Kumari Sivadas, a founder of the Sonoma Alliance for Medical Marijuana, often called SAMM.

Sivadas and Mary Pat Jacobs were among a group of people who in 1997 began meeting with top law enforcement officials in Sonoma County to demand medical marijuana regulations that they say make sense for patients. Many activists, including Sivadas, were caretakers for ailing partners.

“Women are leaders in the industry,” said Sarah Schrader, who leads the Sonoma chapter of Americans For Safe Access, first formed about a dozen years ago.

Schrader said the start of a local Women Grow chapter is part of an overall infusion of energy into the medical marijuana movement, including a flurry of marijuana-related legislation under consideration in Sacramento.

Last month, the Sonoma County Growers Alliance held its first major event at the Sebastopol Grange for a discussion with growers, politicians and others in the field that hit on how the region can leverage its reputation for high-quality agriculture and develop political muscle in Sacramento.

On a list of 15 speakers, four were women.

“Thankfully we have strong voices coming forward,” said Logan, the alliance director.

Women Grow groups typically meet on the first Thursday of each month. Since last year, the organization has expanded to about 30 cities, according to the company’s website.

Thursday’s networking event with speakers costs $30 at the door and will be held at ZDCA Design & Development, 751 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. Event sponsors can give a five-minute business pitch and hand out marketing materials.

At an information meeting held last month to gauge interest in starting a local chapter, Sochaczewski said she knew only two of about 20 people who showed up. They were small-time farmers, makers of edibles, a nurse, an avid gardener, an accountant, marketing professionals.

“I could not have even imagined the gamut of people,” she said. “It’s an unspoken family when women come together for a specific purpose.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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