For These Maryland Medical Marijuana Entrepreneurs, The Future Is Female Two women are challenging the "good ol' boys" system in the marijuana business.
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For These Maryland Medical Marijuana Entrepreneurs, The Future Is Female

For These Maryland Medical Marijuana Entrepreneurs, The Future Is Female

Deborah Hill (in purple) and her daughter (far left) visit Greenhouse Wellness in Ellicott City, Md. It's a dispensary designed to be more welcoming to women. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Greenhouse Wellness in Ellicott City, Md., has white walls, crystal chandeliers, abundant natural light and lots of marijuana for sale.

The medical marijuana dispensary in Ellicott City, Md., has a more stereotypically "female" vibe than many shops. That's by design. Greenhouse Wellness is part of a wave of dispensaries in Maryland and across the country catering to a previously underserved customer base: women, particularly those over the age of 50.

Smiling "wellness consultants" stand behind the quartz countertops and meet with customers one-on-one to assess their needs. They promote products like Mandarin Sunset or Sticky Lemons.

"I love working for a women-owned company," says wellness consultant Amber Singletary. "There's just certain things that you can't do when you're in a male-dominated environment. There are certain opinions you can't share."

Dr. Leslie Apgar consults with Wynona Chima about possible cannabis-based treatments for her mother's chronic pain. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

Co-founders Leslie Apgar, an obstetrician gynecologist, and Gina Dubbe, an engineer and venture capitalist, say they barely touched marijuana before starting the business. But they both had entrepreneurial experience and spotted an opening in the market.

"There was just nothing that was speaking to women," Apgar says. "Most of the [marijuana] product names were off-putting and tawdry," — like Green Crack, Durban Poison, or Dirty Girl — "and it was very clear very early on that women's needs were not being addressed."

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Still, Apgar and Dubbe say their shop welcomes everyone — they estimate that about 60% of their customers are male. The most common issues that customers of either sex come to them with are anxiety, sleep, chronic pain and libido.

"It's intimidating," Dubbe says of the existing industry. "A lot of the older patients, they don't want to be impaired in any way. They're not seeking the high. They're seeking the relief from symptoms."

Maryland's medical marijuana industry is still relatively new. The first round of licensed growers, processors and sellers in the state — including Greenhouse Wellness — opened a little more than two years ago. (The use, sale or possession of cannabis is illegal under federal law, though more than two-thirds of states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana in some form.)

But even within such a young industry, the gender disparity is glaring. Only 20 out of the 75 licensed dispensaries in Maryland have majority-women ownership (that's as of June 2019; 14 additional businesses have since opened, but they aren't included in the state's count as they haven't yet been required to submit official reports).

Sticky lemons, anyone? Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

"There is a good ol' boys network, and if you're not part of the network, you don't get product," Dubbe says. She recalls finding out that one Maryland grower was selling products to another dispensary at half the price he had quoted to her. He told her it was because she didn't make large enough purchases, so she offered to buy more. "And he said, 'Well, I don't have any more.' It was just the network."

Maryland's Medical Cannabis Commission drew criticism for this lack of gender diversity among its first round of dispensary licensees, as well as the lack of racial diversity among growers and processors.

State lawmakers and Gov. Larry Hogan (R-Md) passed legislation in 2018 to boost participation among minority- and women-owned companies by increasing the number of available licenses. The commission now also offers trainings on how to fill out the applications and awards extra points for applicants from underrepresented backgrounds, including women.

The gender disparity goes beyond both Maryland and the cannabis industry at large. According to Marijuana Business Daily, a leading cannabis trade publication, just 36.8% of senior-level jobs at cannabis companies are held by women. And only 21% of executive jobs across all industries have women executives.

Wellness consultants Amber Singletary (right) and McKenzie Gallagher (center) help Wynona Chima select products that could treat Chima's mother's chronic pain. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

But despite the hurdles, Apgar and Dubbe say business is going well. They're bidding for dispensary licenses in West Virginia and New Jersey. They're also expanding a product line they developed called Blissiva – a vape pen geared towards women.

The tagline: "Gyno-developed, goddess approved."

There are four versions of Blissiva, include Soothe, for alleviating chronic pain, and Smolder, for increasing sex drive. Greenhouse also plans to sell a vaginal insert that releases CBD into a woman's body.

Such bold promises might set off alarm bells for some — the uproar over the jade egg sold on Gwyneth Paltrow's upscale lifestyle website Goop comes to mind — but Apgar swears by the products. She says she relies on medical studies from Canada and Israel as well as anecdotal evidence collected from her patients.

"I wanted something that my patients could use on the sideline of the soccer field," she says. "Because you see them with their Starbucks cups, but there's not Starbucks in there. There's vodka, or wine. So we wanted something they could use that was safer."

Chronic pain brought Wynona Chima and her elderly mother, Deborah Hill, in for a visit recently. Hill has been taking fentanyl for pain, and her daughter worries about the side effects and possibility of addiction. "It's just the scariest thing," Chima says.

Wellness consultant McKenzie Gallagher, a trained nurse, talks with both women for about ten minutes before suggesting a type of chewable tablet that has low levels of THC, which means Hill likely won't feel any mental impairments.

"That's why we're here," Chima says. "To try to find something better."

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