Ever since an overwhelming majority of California voters approved Proposition 215, which legalized the collective use of medical marijuana by patients with a doctor's note, Orange County has been on the front lines of the war to protect that right in the face of ongoing harassment by government officials. OC Weekly has been reporting on this struggle since its inception two decades ago, and longtime readers don't need to be reminded that many of the most prominent activists in the movement have been women.
There's perhaps no better example than Marla James, the handicapped woman involved in the infamous May 2015 raid of Santa Ana's Sky High Collective, in which video cameras caught cops insulting James, throwing darts and apparently eating pot edibles. Kandice Hawes-Lopez, the founder and director of the Orange County chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), is a prominent advocate who is dedicated to educating the public about cannabis, patient rights and state regulations. Deborah Tharp is a smart and sassy activist who fought a determined, if unsuccessful, campaign against Proposition 64—the recently passed initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in California—and is currently in law school with intentions of practicing cannabis law.
While the Weekly has dedicated considerable coverage to the political and social activism of the medical-marijuana movement, we haven't spent nearly as much time examining the role of women on the business end of the trade. Now, in honor of Women's History Month, we spotlight six influential players at the center of Orange County's rapidly transforming cannabis industry.
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In the spring of 2013, a green cross hung on the side of a yellow brick building near the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Warner Avenue in Sunset Beach. It was the signal for Patient Med-Aid, a medical-marijuana dispensary that activists Marla and David James had just opened. At the time, however, it was illegal for dispensaries to operate in Sunset Beach. And it was Jennifer McGrath's job as Huntington Beach city attorney to shut down any storefronts that popped up.
Within weeks, the HB Police Department had parked a cop cruiser directly in front of the Patient Med-Aid during business hours. Albeit amusing, the passive-aggressive move impacted the willingness of patients to use the location, ultimately forcing the dispensary to shut down. "I had no idea the police department parked the car in front of the dispensary," says McGrath. "I don't know why they did it either, but that's really how cannabis was treated at the time."
But never in the former city attorney's wildest dreams did she think she'd work in private practice, using her legal skills to help to end the county's archaic ban on medical cannabis. "From 2002 to 2014, my job was to take care of the city," says McGrath, "and, honestly, my job now is still to take care of the city."
As the cannabis trade evolves into a legitimate industry, aspects of the unregulated industry will continue to come into the light. McGrath's strength is in regulation, taxation, corporate law—exactly where the industry is headed. "This is why I'm doing what I'm doing," she says. "Our clients are all interested in being legal, compliant corporations. That means when I say, 'payroll tax,' they don't roll their eyes anymore."
McGrath's experience as city attorney has given her an almost-intuitive understanding of how cannabis-regulatory frameworks work. Although she doesn't use marijuana, as a woman and a mother, she deeply understands the value of medical cannabis. "I think it's important for there to be a feminine perspective in the industry and a woman to voice that [cannabis] is a great thing," she says. "Women are always about how to make everyone feel better, and that's what I'm bringing to the table."
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Keiko Beatie's résumé lists 30 achievements—and that's just what she threw together in an email. She started her career in the music industry, boasting among her list of clients Eddie Van Halen, Cheap Trick and Eddie Money. "Everyone was experimenting with everything under the sun," Beatie says. "I didn't really drink, and I certainly didn't smoke cigarettes. . . . But I did smoke [cannabis]."
Beatie grew up using herbology and naturopathic practices, and her knowledge of Bach's flower remedies and homeopathic products started coming together the more she learned about cannabis. In 2013, with Beatie's son now out of the house, she jumped on an opportunity to collaborate with an old colleague. They developed the first cannabis television network, the U.S. Weed Channel. "We created everything from canna-education to 420 news to cooking shows," she says. "We also did a film-festival channel and music-festival channel. We wanted to create a well-rounded presentation because cannabis isn't only about smoking—it's a whole lifestyle; it's a culture."
Since then, Beatie has become OC's membership director for Women Grow, a nationwide organization dedicated to elevating women in the cannabis industry. She's a board member of the Orange County chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (OC NORML) and also had a talk show on Hemp Radio with Kandice Hawes-Lopez, the chapter's founder and director.
Beatie is also helping Edibles Magazine throw the Taste of 4/20 Casino Celebration on April 20 at Casa Vertigo in Downtown Los Angeles. The licensed event will permit medicating onsite; an adult bounce house and low-dose edibles created by renowned canna-chefs will also be available.
Her ethics and desire to see women succeed in the cannabis industry make Beatie a collaborative force to be reckoned with. "We are the nurturers and the caregivers," she says. "As women, our connection with this female plant is a continuation of that, and we finally have an industry where there is no glass ceiling."
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"It's crazy how life's just kind of steered me here," says Cindy Burge, the original general manager at Evergreen in Santa Ana. "Sometimes I look back, and I'm just like, 'Whoa, how did I get here?'"
Known among her friends as "Nancy"—an homage to the main character from the TV show Weeds—Burge's enthusiasm for cannabis and larger-than-life personality make her magnetic. These same traits, however, also give her the ability to endure the trials and tribulations of being a pioneer in the industry. Over the past eight years, Burge has owned a couple of cannabis-delivery services and three rogue dispensaries (in San Juan Capistrano, Placentia and Garden Grove).
"San Juan [Capistrano] was maybe my best experience," Burge recalls with a chuckle. "I went to the city and was like, 'Hi, I'm here to get a business license,' and when they realized what kind of business I was trying operate, they were like, 'What?! You're doing what?!' They left me in line forever, probably because they were in the back saying, 'I can't believe this little girl wants a business license for weed?!'"
Burge also has experience managing dispensaries and working in grow houses, giving her a more complete understanding of the industry. Last year, however, she was given the opportunity to design her first licensed shop: Evergreen. "I don't own the shop, but I built it from the ground up—the way I did with my shops," says Burge. "I did everything from the interior design to the decorating to the exterior landscaping. My brother helped me create the logo—everything."
Orange County dispensaries aren't known for their aesthetic appeal, but Evergreen is beautiful. Now that the clinic is up and running, Burge is getting her real-estate license so she can start a cannabis real-estate company with a friend, to be called the Location Group. "There is a huge demand for cannabis realtors who know what they're doing," Burge says enthusiastically, "because property owners still turn up their noses to potential renters or buyers who want to use the space for cannabis."
In the past decade, more women have asserted themselves within the notoriously male-dominated industry. "The first time I really felt the movement was at Evergreen," she says. "So many women approached me to collaborate—and it was never that way in the past. We got filmed at Evergreen for the TLC show 90 Day Fiancé. After that, I had four other shows come to me, and a lot of those people were women."
Despite the struggles, Burge believes it's an exciting time to be a woman in cannabis—an industry centered on a female plant. "There is a synergy between women and cannabis," she says. "It's like we're supposed to be on top in this industry. I mean, come on: we're talking about flowers here."
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Before Apple's "Think Different" campaign, John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed—a man who cultivated hundreds of apple orchards in the Midwest to create hard apple cider—wrote this in his letters: "Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the problem children and the round pegs in square holes: the ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can glorify, vilify, quote or disagree with them. The only thing you can't do is ignore them, and that's because they change things. . . . While some may see them as the crazy ones, they're the geniuses. The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."
Costa Mesa resident Sherri Bell, known as the "Cool Cannabis Chick," finds herself revisiting these words often. "I've always marched to the beat of my own drum," she says. "I've always been a misfit and a rebel, but I've always had passion, drive and a strong work ethic, which is what's earned me respect in this industry."
Last August, the Missouri native joined a group called the Jelly Shamans, a company that creates organic CBD- and THC-infused jam. With flavors ranging from Cabernet Grape to Mango Chili and Pumpkin Butter, the line endorses healthy living. The company also advocates for biodynamic- and sustainable-farming practices. "Our Super Berry Jam has marine phytoplankton in it, which is a brain food," says Bell, who has a degree in food and science nutrition from the University of Missouri. "Combining a low dose of cannabis with super-foods in the form of a jam is a great way to layer medicine into your diet."
Bell's family had always used alternative medicine and homeopathic practices, but she didn't realize the healing power of cannabis oil until she moved to California six years ago. Aside from her work with medicated jellies, she also hosts craft-farm-tours that supports cannabis education as well as organic farmers. Her intentions are to create an elevated collaborative community within the industry, as teamwork and collaborations are her bread and butter. She creates glamping environments at cannabis events where people can hang out and sample Jelly Shamans products; such an experience will be a part of this year's Green Oasis—the private Coachella-artist cannabis soiree held during weekend two of Coachella. "This whole Cool Cannabis Chick brand that I've built is tailored around the social awareness of cannabis," she says. "This is why I'm doing what I'm doing."
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"You can't write a story about Orange County's women of weed without including Brandine," says Rama Mayo, a co-founder of Green Street, a cannabis creative agency. "She's a boss. She's been in the industry for years, and she has the second-largest distribution company in the space."
Originally from Valencia, Brandine Strand moved to Orange County to attend Cal State Fullerton, from which she graduated with a business degree. Seven years ago, she opened an unlicensed shop in Westminster, but the police shut it down after a year. "I decided to move on to something a little more regulated and less 'gray area,'" says Strand. "So I started doing distribution for GPen, which led me to create a full-on distribution company."
The 5.5-year-old Masterminded Distribution has a reputation for having some of the trendiest and most innovative products in the industry. Among its more than 40 brands is the T Case. "It's a hard-shell, protective case for glass products such as pipes, bongs, bubblers, etc.," Strand says. "We were the first ones to make a case that's available in a variety of colors. There's an elite portion of our market who're producing very high-end art that costs $5,000 to six figures, so obviously they need to be protected."
Last January, Strand partnered with LA rapper the Game to create a lifestyle brand called Be Lit, which has seen pretty instant success selling stylized products such as rolling trays, apparel, candles and crystal pipes. Strand believes there is more than enough room for women to get ahead in the cannabis trade. "To succeed in this industry, like any other industry, you need strong leadership skills," she says. "The opportunity is out there for anyone who's willing to go and get it. But as a woman, you have to present yourself as a professional and work extremely hard—in a sense, you do have to prove yourself."
Fortunately, Strand says that lots of men—including Mayo and Josh Shelton, the founders of LA's Green Street—show her a tremendous amount of respect. "If you work hard and stand out, there's nothing but opportunity," she says, "and that goes for anyone."
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"Hustle and heart will set you apart," Nichole West wrote in a recent Facebook post announcing that the Colorado dispensary chain she works for is opening yet another location. Originally from Vista, West landed in Long Beach when she was 17 years old to attend Cal State Long Beach. After a couple of years, she dove into commercial real estate.
"It was right when the bubble burst in California, and Long Beach was starting their licensing process," explains West, who was 24 at the time. "I went to help my friend who owned a dispensary in Signal Hill called AAC because he was getting evicted. He told me he wanted to open a store in Long Beach because they were going to start licensing—and that's when the light bulb went off."
West attended City Council meetings to find out which zones of Long Beach would allow storefronts. She found a ton of properties that met the criteria, but convincing landlords and tenants was another matter. "The fear with tenants was if the licensing process didn't work out and medical marijuana remained illegal," says West, "so I made sure to include a clause in every one of my leases that said if the city made cannabis illegal, either party could terminate the lease."
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West also drafted many of the lottery winners' leases. A client of hers asked if she would help him run his business doing e-commerce for his dispensary, Canna Collective. "It had a prime location on Studebaker, right by the golf course and near the college," she says. "It was a dream come true."
But after holding a September 2011 lottery to determine who got a dispensary, the city overturned the new ordinance and began banning and raiding the very dispensaries it had encouraged to set up shop in Long Beach. After Canna Collective shut down, West went to work for Weed Maps, where she did sales for Northern California. She launched the marketing for GPen—a vape-pen line that partnered with Snoop Dogg. She also helped Weed Maps start the cannabis blog Marijuana.com.
In 2012, West decided to immerse herself in the nitty gritty of the industry. It wasn't easy, though: She went from owning a business in California to working at a clinic in Colorado and making $12 per hour. But she kept pushing. West had multiple side hustles, including selling every kind of cannabis-business related equipment under the sun, working at a grow and teaching compliancy classes at Clover Leaf University in Denver. By 2014 West got involved with medical and recreational dispensary Sweet Leaf, where her career was given the platform to take-off. Since then she's become the vice president of company, which is now the fifth largest cannabis retail business in the industry, with 12 locations in Colorado and one in Portland, Oregon.
Within the past few weeks, things have come full circle for West: Sweet Leaf just submitted an application in Long Beach. "The fact we might open a location in Long Beach is really fucking exciting," West says excitedly. "It's like a fairytale story. You get through all these crazy Cinderella times to be the princess—and back in Long Beach. It's the Universe giving me a little present. . . . I just hope to God Long Beach doesn't have another lottery, or I might have a meltdown."