A woman smiles with a marijuana leaf painted on her face during a march calling to legalize the medicinal use of cannabis in Santiago, Chile on Nov. 16, 2014. (Luis Hidalgo, AP)

Op-ed on sexism in pot industry: We are your peers, not merely ‘hot chicks’

On Thursday morning at the recent Marijuana Business Conference in Las Vegas, I was chatting with some of the smart, tough, innovative and compassionate women I had the pleasure to work with in my four years in Colorado’s cannabis community. As per usual, the conversation came around to the various negative, inappropriate experiences we’d had with men at the opening reception the evening before.

The lingering touches or too-tight hugs, the comments about our appearance and the leering were all so familiar that comparing the quantity and quality of lechery had become a game.

“Great, they brought the hot chicks!”

“Are you working at this booth because you’re pretty or because you know what you’re talking about?”

“We’re going to some chick thing. The ratio should be awesome!”

The stories were all the same, but the coping mechanisms had gotten exhausting. Correcting behavior wasn’t changing things quickly enough, and stunned silence was disempowering us all.

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So we decided to try public shaming. And I tweeted this:

“We’re over sexism & other isms at #mjbizcon, so we’re posting things people should be embarrassed to have said. Fuck your #cannabias.”

And then I tweeted a few of the comments people had heard or overheard both at the conference and otherwise. In the weeks since, I’ve heard many more stories of sexism, racism and ableism. I’ve reflected deeply on my own responses to it and found them lacking on more occasions than I’d like to admit.

Then a reporter called and asked: Is this comparable to #gamergate? No, absolutely not. It is simply the experience of being a woman in the world. This is not unique to the brand-new cannabis industry, largely made up of recent transplants from other businesses. The undercurrent of bias that makes it more difficult for anyone other than the culturally privileged to be objectively assessed for their performance or potential exists everywhere.

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Many members of the organization I work for, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, are young women who want to bring their skills and values to the burgeoning cannabis industry. How can I encourage them to do so if I’m not confident it will be equitable, much less if I evaluate companies based on how many of my peers have been harassed by their leadership?

The conference organizers are doing their part to ensure women aren’t marginalized in this new industry: After my tweet, two staffers reached out to the prominent women attendees and posted on social media inviting anyone feeling threatened or harassed to report the behavior. They told us about the “booth babes” and obnoxious men they had thrown out well before the first tweet, and they noted the work they have done to empower women through their media outlet.

We didn’t start calling this behavior out because we believe the cannabis industry is particularly biased, but rather because we want to make something better.

You refer to yourselves as “The Next Great American Industry.” Make that greatness equitably available to everyone who is helping build it.

Betty Aldworth is the executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. She was previously the deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association and the spokesperson and advocacy director for Colorado’s Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.