By Erin Cox The Baltimore Sun
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Maryland considers hundreds of pending medical marijuana licenses, WOMEN are gathering to network, celebrating the opportunity to create an industry from scratch. Baltimore
The burgeoning sisterhood of Maryland's marijuana entrepreneurs gathered in the back room of a Columbia chain restaurant recently, swapping business ideas over chicken wings and cheese cubes.
Maryland's long-promised medical marijuana industry doesn't exist yet, and that's precisely why more than 60 women, mostly dressed like a PTA crowd, banded together there -- to rise to the top before anyone gets in their way.
"How vital are women to the success of the cannabis business in Maryland? If you're asking, I probably don't want to talk to you," said Megan Rogers, a co-founder of the Baltimore chapter of Women Grow and an applicant to open a dispensary. "We're here to ensure that the cannabis industry has no glass ceiling."
As the state considers hundreds of pending medical marijuana licenses, the women gathered to network, celebrating the opportunity to create an industry from scratch.
Dozens of the organization's members have applied to grow marijuana or open dispensaries or processing businesses. Others plan to sell specialized marijuana containers, offer legal services, do product testing or provide event planning for women who secure a coveted license.
There is more collaboration than competition, the women say. There's no snatching of ideas or secretive cloaking of business plans, no assumptions that they need to get in line behind men to get ahead.
"We have an opportunity to take an industry, from the ground up, and insert women in the upper echelons," said Carissa Cartalemi, a co-founder of the group and a holistic therapist who applied for a dispensary license with Rogers. "I do think there's something very feminine to that spirit of collaboration."
Women's marijuana business groups have grown by leaps and bounds as 25 states across the country have legalized some form of medical marijuana, and four states and the District of Columbia have approved recreational cannabis.
Women Grow began in Denver two years ago and now includes more than 45 chapters in the United States and Canada. Its conference in February attracted 1,300 people and was headlined by singer and marijuana activist Melissa Etheridge.
Women are much less likely to become entrepreneurs than men. In Maryland, women are half as likely as men to own their own businesses, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurship, which tracks business activity across the country.
A survey released this month showed women hold 91 of the 630 board seats of Maryland companies that trade on one of the three stock exchanges -- less than 14 percent of board seats and well under the national average.
Other new industries -- including the booming tech field -- have largely been dominated by men, who worked disproportionately in the academic fields that fed those industries.
But women in Maryland and across the country see a different landscape in the emerging cannabis industry, which was born out of the advocacy community that persuaded legislatures to legalize it.
"This is an industry that was led by a movement, by both women and men," said Giadha Aguirre DeCarcer, a former venture capitalist who launched a Washington-based cannabis market research company. DeCarcer is familiar with Women Grow but not active in the Baltimore chapter.
"There are no barriers to entry, but also no glass ceiling," said DeCarcer, CEO and founder of New Frontier Financials. "There hasn't been time for a good-ol'-boys club to develop. ... The culture is very different because it stems from a movement."
Jessica White, 48, runs a holistic health center in White Marsh and applied for four dispensary licenses and a kosher processing license -- she can hold only one, but was trying to increase her chances of being selected from among the 811 applications for just 94 licenses.
"My market is 65-plus, chronic pain, not candidates for surgeries," White said. "We're talking little old church ladies."
White attends meetings of several other medical cannabis organizations, too, but said the vibe is different with the Women Grow crowd.
"In a lot of the other groups I'm friendly with, it's a bunch of old white guys," White said. "A lot of the men in the industry keep things to themselves. Here, it's 'I'm Jessica. I want to open a dispensary. What about you?'"
Maryland was swamped with applications -- 146 for just 15 growing licenses available, and 124 applications to process the drug. Officials said last month they plan to issue just 15 processing licenses to start.
The club invites men to its events. Last year, Josh Crossney started a nonprofit that organizes conferences focusing on the scientific analysis of marijuana plants. He said women do not have access to capital or opportunity in many established industries, and participating in a new one that does not have a road map for success is the perfect chance to shatter the way companies get built.
"Sure, there are women in high places in other industries," he said, "but they have scratched and clawed their way to the top."
In Maryland and elsewhere, the medical marijuana business is seen as a precursor to the lucrative recreational market, which recent estimates suggest will grow by 25 percent this year.
ArcView Market Research, which partners with DeCarcer's company, released a report in February estimating legal marijuana sales in the U.S. will hit $6.7 billion in 2016 and could reach $21.8 billion by 2020. As Forbes magazine pointed out at the time, that's roughly as much annual revenue as the NFL hopes to generate by then.
Elkridge-based Cannaline sponsored a season's worth of Women Grow events, which allows its saleswoman, Carrie Kirk, to hand out free samples of the company's marijuana packaging options as attendees clink glasses of house wine.
Kirk worked for 17 years in pharmaceutical sales and management but now works up and down the East Coast selling Cannaline's marketing products,custom odor-proof bags and child-resistant packaging.
Even though more states east of the Mississippi are launching medical marijuana markets, she said, it's very tightly regulated and the industry here feels very different than that on the West Coast.
"We have to do things more conservatively here," she said. A Women Grow event allows her to reach a lot of potential customers in an industry that lacks access to traditional advertising.
In a back corner of the Women Grow event, former regulatory lawyer Leah Heise was holding court at the center of a ring two people deep, enthusiastically connecting people.
An illness that would have been more easily treated with medical marijuana than opioids took her out of the workforce for more than a decade, she said. Now that a surgery alleviated the underlying cause of her debilitating pain from chronic pancreatitis, she's rejoined the working world and fashioned a new career as a mentor and attorney for companies trying to navigate Maryland's newest industry.
She's president of Chesapeake Integrated Health Institute, and says Women Grow offers not only camaraderie but also a resource she can't find elsewhere. "This is the only place where someone can come to learn anything. Anything!" she said.
She turned her attention to a woman who spent her career working at spas but was looking for a way into the medical marijuana industry. Heise enthusiastically took her card.
"Someone like her would be incredible as a dispensary manager," she said. "It's a whole new era, and the industry will be huge."