By: Sierra Dooley
International Women’s Day (IWD) is a celebration of unity, reflection, advocacy, and action for the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. Not owned by any one government, charity, corporation, or academic institution, IWD is a collective day of global celebration that has been recognized for well over 100 years.
This year’s IWD theme is “Balance for Better." From the IWD website, this year is all about “grassroots activism to worldwide action, we are entering an exciting period of history where the world expects balance. We notice its absence and celebrate its presence."
The California cannabis industry is in a unique position to truly embrace the IWD theme of #BalanceForBetter. Never before has any industry been born in a world where climate change activism, sustainable agricultural practices, rigorous testing standards, and the protection of women and minorities have been so embraced and pursued passionately.
California's cannabis regulators implemented testing standards on flower products so strict that it is cleaner than the organic produce you can buy at supermarket. Forget pesticides and chemical fertilizers, most outdoor-grown cannabis is closely monitored and protected with natural insect repellants or vegetative repellants. Sungrown craft cannabis located in the Emerald Triangle, is situated in perfect growing conditions for particular strains and supported by sustainable water use practices, or when possible, dry farming techniques.
Cities and counties have launched cannabis equity programs that allow individuals affected by the War on Drugs a second chance in the profession. Female incubators and cannabis groups have formed throughout California and the nation to protect these female entrepreneurs from the threat of corporate America, a traditionally male-dominated group, from buying them out or pushing them aside.
The once “outlaw” cannabis industry is now lobbying for balance in state taxes, demanding things such as resources to ensure fair business practices, banking solutions, and to balance the structure of regulations to ensure small farmers can survive despite the influx of large, corporate grows. The cannabis industry is fighting for balance every single day.
Women in Weed
“Have you ever come to a point in your life and you do not know what to do next? You've arrived at a moment where all crossroads meet into one center. There’s a million directions to turn toward, to embark down pathways of no return, and you freeze. You freeze because you can’t see the end of these pathways.
Each one is so vastly different from the other, equipped with their own challenges and rewards, ones you have yet to experience so to appropriately evaluate what would best suit you is impossible. You’re frozen, and you don’t know where to turn. You have no idea which direction to step towards.
What do you do? Do you remain frozen until someone pushes you? Or do you take the first step, blindly?”
The locus of control is a concept in psychology that involves a person’s belief system regarding the experiences of their life that are either attributable to themselves or to external forces. In a moment where you are frozen and you let life dictate your path, you become a person with an external locus of control, that is, you allow your external forces in your life to determine your outcomes. Stepping blindly into the wilderness with courage and persistence to move forward no matter how far you have gone, you are a person with an internal locus of control. You control your fate.
In honor of this International Women’s Day, Mistress Matisse, Karyn Wagner, and Ashlee Aronson recount their experiences of being cannabis business owners in California. Each story is as unique as the woman, but all three share a similar message of resiliency and passion. These women decided that against all odds and roadblocks, they would not let life happen to them. These women decided they would happen to life.
Mistress Matisse, who lives in Seattle, WA is “perverse, prolific, profane, political, pansexual, polyamorous, dominatrix, writer, and proud founder of Velvet Swing, her own cannabis-infused sex lube."
The controversial movement to decriminalize sex work is polarizing, and Mistress Matisse is no stranger to being an outcast against our society’s views of right or wrong when it comes to their opinion of her line of work. She is a sex-worker rights activist and she considers herself a modern day “outlaw” for her voluntary line of work, a professional Dominatrix. One of my personal favorite images of her I found has her posed in a shirt that reads “I am a sex worker I need #RightsNotRescue." Her lifelong passion for this work is authentic. As she says, “I got to invent myself. I got to ask myself, what kind of Dominatrix do I want to be? Kink and BDSM can be completely safe to create an incredibly affirming and positive relationship. I get to make the magic happen for people."
When asked what this magic was, she responds “Life is full of stress and tension. I want to create a world that allows people to step away from that and make them feel happy, pleasure, joy, and intimacy. A good orgasm is therapeutic. That's all I want to do all the time most in this world is create sexy experiences for people to enjoy."
When Mistress Matisse discovered cannabis-infused lubricants in local dispensaries, she realized all of these products were oil based, something that her body does not appreciate. The oil-based lubricants can cause yeast infections in women, stain sheets, had a strong taste, and a stronger smell.
“Improving sex life is important, it’s my work." So when she could not find any cannabis-infused lubricant suitable for herself or her partners, “I decided I would do it myself." Her justification? “I’ve been doing outlaw work my whole life and cannabis has been an outlaw. There are still ideas in our society that are taboo, things that we are told we cannot do yet. Cannabis is safe, it has been safe, I want to show people that taboo things can be safe.”
Mistress Matisse paired up with Source, a Seattle that manufactures cannabis products using a patented water soluble process. Once they determined that a water-based cannabis-infused sex lubricant could be manufactured, Mistress Matisse approached her friend, Chelsea, a former budtender, to help create their amazing lubricant.
Now, they have released Velvet Swing, named for a cheeky phrase from the 1940s referring to woman’s sexual parts, which contains both CBD and THC. The formula has a sweetness to it with floral aromatics, it does not stain, and it does not get you high. The THC in Velvet Swing allows increased blood flow which is important for sexual activity, and the CBD can support and nourish the sensitive inside tissue which can be prone to friction, as well as relax and soothe any muscle tension.
Since launching this product in March of 2017, Mistress Matisse regularly receives emails from customers gushing over their experiences, describing they had the “most amazing orgasm."
“It’s incredible, with Velvet Swing I’m filling my life’s purpose without having to be in the room."
Her goal now is to share her product with women everywhere. “I want to make things that bring women pleasure, that brings everyone pleasure."
“Being a professional Dominatrix requires tremendous trust, and I want to create this trust and happiness through the use of Velvet Swing." It’s important to Mistress Matisse that an open sexual dialogue takes place between intimate partners, and it is essential to always have consent from your partner, especially when using Velvet Swing. It does not cause any psychoactive effects, but cannabis still holds a stigma, a tainted aura, a “taboo” to it. As with the introduction of a toy or a new move into the bedroom, Velvet Swing should be talked about before using it.
Mistress Matisse has lived in a world accepted by few and rejected by most. People are often surprised to learn that she owns her own home and has a retirement account. “People have all of these assumptions” about sex work and about the cannabis industry. Instead of listening to those who reject her lifestyle, the pushback strengthened her willingness to embrace her life’s calling.
After speaking with Mistress Matisse her value of the authentic self is evident. Mistress Matisse took the brave step forward knowing her path ahead would be tumultuous. She embodies a self-actualized woman who did everything in her power to be who she always was meant to be - a "perverse, prolific, profane, political, pansexual, polyamorous, dominatrix, writer," activist, educator, entrepreneur, woman.
And those titles, take balance.
Speaking with Karyn Wagner is a true pleasure. This woman is unstoppable in her mission to leave this world better than she found it. A true visionary, Karyn has been ahead of the curve when it comes to industry standards and branding ideas and can foresee change that will affect the industry, however, her foresight has sometimes been her Achilles heel. Despite her hiccups and forced dead-ends, Karyn’s forbearing tenacity keeps her and her mission moving forward, against all odds.
Karyn Wagner’s story began in New York as a 20-year-old woman. She became a successful restaurateur and owned two restaurants in New York City for 12 years, including Greenwich Village’s famous Dew Drop Inn. She reinvented it twice, once into a high-end Italian joint and then into a gay-friendly “supper club” during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.
One day her old high-school sweetheart gave her a call. Karyn was burnt out from the restaurant business and decided to make a change. She sold the restaurants and landed in Redway, CA, where her partner lived and owned multiple cannabis farms in Humboldt County.
She and her partner then decided to move to Berkeley and she quickly realized, “I need to reinvent myself." It was the late 90s, and the natural products industry which produced vitamins and supplements had gone through a major regulation change. “Previously you could make something in your bathtub or kitchen sink and have it on your shelf. Now, Good Manufacturing Practices, health standards, labeling requirements, this was all required.” She began helping smaller companies adjust to the transition and become relevant in the new marketplace. She then joined a larger company that was a registered drug manufacturer where she could represent the “most ethical and compliant products in the natural products industry."
10 years ago, her husband suddenly passed away and she inherited the Humboldt County farms. So Karyn took her life experience of branding and adaptation and brought that to her new work in cannabis.
“We thought legalization would happen in 2010, so I began the one of the first branded cannabis collectives-Tea House Collective. This was an opportunity for friends and colleagues from the hills of Humboldt County to have a product on the shelves that celebrated outdoor, sustainable, pesticide-free product. I am actually one of SteepHill Lab’s first customers and we were one of the first to have labels with testing results on our packages."
But 2010 was not 2018, and dispensaries rejected Tea House Collective’s branded product. “We didn’t fail, but we did not thrive. So, I changed course."
A friend approached Karyn to begin a cannabis extraction business. Karyn then became one of the only woman-owned cannabis extraction businesses in the state, and MC Processing, otherwise known as Paradigm Cannabis, went on to win awards.
“The extraction business is an ‘old boys’ club. Very rough and tumble and swagger beyond belief, but after winning multiple awards at the Terp Festival in 2016 they came running to me asking ‘how did you do that?’."
She bought state of the art equipment three years ago but despite her success in manufacturing cannabis oil, she encountered difficulties with getting licensed. “The County of Humboldt spent a year and a half and still had not given me my license." When the regulated cannabis market came online in 2018, “I was unable to process any cannabis because I had no license. I got incredibly behind. By the time I got my license in June of 2018, lots of changes had already occurred including the ‘Big Boys’ that came into the extraction business." She saw that these big corporate-funded companies received their license for butane extraction and were able to build out enormous facilities. These entities had such a high burn rate that they could afford to lose millions in order to undercut all other cannabis oil companies in the market.
“Humboldt growers needed to make money and sold these corporate entities all of their trim. I get it, we need to make money. But this severely impacted Humboldt County." From Karyn’s perspective, the prized possessions of Humboldt County, the sun-grown craft cannabis that took generations to perfect, were being bought by corporate greed and produced under big brand names that gave no recognition to the source of the oil. Humboldt County was quickly exploited for its pristine cannabis resources.
“These big boys had big machines and big appetites for trim they could buy with big money. By the time harvest came in 2018, I just could not compete. I was unable to compete in the wholesale bulk oil market."
So how did Karyn react? “I decided ‘All right. Let me put my big girl pants on and figure out what I can do. Let me reinvent myself." During her bulk cannabis oil venture, Karyn still dabbled in branding and created a couple of lines that were more of a pet project than an actual viable entity…at the time.
She asked herself, “So what now? Go back to branded products."
Sexxpot is a packaged flower brand Karyn created that dispensaries hated prior to 2018 because of the low THC and prepackaged flower, but since new regulations mandated all retailers sell final packaged goods, she could finally compete. “I am so ahead of the curve yet I can’t get up and over the curve. Sexxpot started four years ago and is a specialty line of products addressing the medical needs of women, but Sexxpot is not receiving the traction the brand deserves because of its low THC content." Karyn produced this lower THC flower on purpose.
“Most women cannot handle high THC products." Karyn, owning multiple farms, grew her own THC and cannabis CBD strains until she formed a “truly craft Humboldt County product” that is a 1:1 THC CBD ratio that also includes C02 extracted terpenes, produced by a mostly female team. How are sales today?
“Still pushback because of the low THC, but again I am mostly dealing with the ‘Old Boys Club’ in the cannabis distribution network, and just because they have a high tolerance they are unconvinced they can sell my product to female consumers."
“I was hanging on until January, at least in January I believed Track and Trace would come online and all of the bad actors would be gone from the extraction world." But Track and Trace has not come online, and many still wonder if it ever will. “So now you have many extractors purchasing black market cannabis and do not have to pay taxes. So once again, I put on my big girl pants and decided to get my distribution license. At least this way I could help with the movement of Humboldt County’s product." When it came time to pay her taxes, she was shocked to realize the state of California told her the cultivation taxes “are all on an honor system. There is no way for them to track it."
Of course, there is a major trail of paperwork and the entities regulating the cannabis industry can go through a major audit in the years ahead, but their failure to devise a system of transparent accountability are leaving industry innovators and pioneers like Karyn, behind.
“I welcome regulation. I hoped regulation would help protect us as small businesses. My mission in Humboldt County is to protect the small family farmer and get their products into the marketplace. Their sun-grown sustainable products are a safe and sound decision for consumers compared to massive indoor cannabis grows with incredible energy and resource consumption. Why buy a product that is bad for the environment, when you can literally use the environment to naturally grow your medicine?”
What are her long term personal and professional goals? “We need to educate these consumers. Why would a consumer buy Budweiser when you can go to a local craft brewery? It requires education.” So Karyn is going to do what she has always done, spread education and uplift those around her. “I’m going to spread the gospel of small producers. Make the market know what it means to consume an outdoor and sun-grown sustainable product, and to produce the finest quality and most rigorously tested product on the market.
“There is a difference between the family farmer and big corporate. And there is a difference between women-owned and the boys club."
So how do we do this? “We give women a voice in the marketplace and anywhere in the world. We challenge consumers to support these efforts. If you ignore women businesses, you ignore women’s efforts. I want women businesses to succeed and yet so many people do not seek out women-owned businesses. It is a challenge."
Luckily, Karyn is no stranger to a challenge. “The beauty of Sexxpot is allowing women to have a choice in the cannabis industry to suit their needs to better balance their own life." Once women begin to understand microdosing and uncover a THC:CBD ratio that is suitable for them, the demand will come from the consumers.
Dispensaries will see the need to provide these products. “If we do not support women-owned cannabis businesses, they will not survive. The way to support them is to have focused on them, a spotlight on them, so our consumers can make better-informed choices when spending their money."
We should listen to the little voice in our head more often Those gut feelings you get when you’re about to make a bad choice? You should react to it. Ashlee Aronson, born and raised Southern California, had a life destined for business school and corporate America. She threw it all away at twenty years old and instead “I moved to Humboldt where I heard the pace of life was slower."
Ashlee Aronson did what most young adults are afraid to do. She left her hometown in Southern California, dropped out of college, and traveled to a remote mountainous location in northern California: Humboldt County.
She soon got a job as a retailer in a local store and quickly learned that Humboldt County’s lifestyle was not only slower…but a bit different. For supplemental income, she began cultivating cannabis while she attended culinary classes at the local junior college.
Ashlee then joined a catering company where she learned all about Humboldt’s sustainable and regenerative farming culture. She was introduced to the local food industry, which uses more local and organic seasonal foods. She drove her cost down by staying away from expensive produce that was sourced from other countries. After four years at the catering company, Ashlee opened her own catering business in Humboldt.
Her experience in the catering industry coupled with her newfound hobby of cultivating cannabis naturally led her to incorporate home-grown cannabis into culinary creations for weddings and events. Many of her customers were also growers and their weddings included “cannabis leaves in the bouquets and floral displays, joints as party favors, and my cooking were usually done off the grid in giant bbq pits that allowed for interactive cooking with the guests. Guests and I would share cooking and cultivation techniques. Since the catering business requires extensive planning, I could prepare ahead of time for bubble-hash infused dressings or desserts and through trial and error, I learned how to mix cannabis and food."
Cannabis and cooking is now a mainstream and trendy event, advertised through various high-end event planning companies to educate the crowd on the delicacies cannabis can offer. What seems new and exciting to the general public, has actually been around for decades; “cannabis and food, this concept is not new."
“This is what you did, this is what everyone did. We all have that curiosity [with cannabis], and after doing it for so many years you understand the ‘do’s’ and ‘don'ts’."
Ashlee and her partner bought a farm in the 3 Creeks Appellation in Eastern Humboldt to cultivate their medicine outside. Being a 3rd generation Californian farmer, Ashlee's proclivity to cultivating and growing gardens was a natural process that quickly expanded from a few plants to what is now a 10,000 square foot outdoor area.
“I realized cannabis farmers would use salt nutrients, or chemicals to make their buds larger or denser to get more money for the increased weight, but the quality was not there. This supposed innocent and sun-grown medicine was actually harmful and super toxic."
It wasn’t that Ashlee didn’t care about the yield of her own crop, but she cared more about her inputs than output. It took her a moment to figure it out, but once Ashlee grew actual clean cannabis “people wanted that."
Not only does she grow cannabis for personal medicinal purposes, but 3 Creeks Farms was one of the first to become a nonprofit and grow medical grade cannabis for the state of California. “I grew a CBD plant one year and it did amazing. I realized that this is the strain and I kept growing it despite its unpopularity in the traditional market.” Since they were a preexisting entity in Humboldt, she was able to become one of the first farms in Humboldt County to be licensed for cultivation in the newly regulated 2018 California cannabis market.
Currently, Ashlee notices the recreational market does not cultivate strains that are sustainable. “You have to give the customers what they want. If strains are too old school, you have to shift gears. This can be difficult for outdoor growers when certain growing conditions cannot accommodate certain strains.”
“You would once cultivate for what was good for the soil, what was good for the patient, what was good for relieving pain. Now recreational cannabis users want a strain name and potency, and this has changed the perspective of growing. It’s not worse, it’s just different."
Ashlee continues to grow her CBD-heavy strains and presses them into a CBD-rich rosin concentrate. Ashlee realized that this was an incredibly powerful product to combat anxiety and PTSD. Her personal story with CBD and its powerful healing capabilities is a story I will leave Ashlee to tell, as some words can only be written by one person.
“It won’t change your brain chemistry. Cannabis will not impair you the way antidepressants and opioids will. It saved my life." 3 Creeks Farm has always donated to Weed for Warriors, a nonprofit organization giving treatment access to men and women who have issues with PTSD.
Ashlee’s success and passion for cultivating cannabis did come with its costs. While she is a third generation farmer, her family are multi-generational agricultural farmers. “The regulated market has allowed me to look at my family in the eyes and say, I am a cannabis cultivator." Her family’s strict Japanese culture outcasted Ashlee. Before it was legal in California, “I would use any other excuse. Will this person judge me? Most of the time, yes, so I would say I was a caterer…which was not a total lie but wasn’t exactly what I was doing yesterday. The transition has actually helped with my self-esteem. I don’t have this cloud of shame over me anymore."
The emerging cannabis industry in California has given Ashlee validity and has allowed her to be more authentic and proud of what she does. The best part about a regulated industry for Ashlee is, “I can do sales and be a part of negotiations."
Traditionally, her male partner would negotiate and handle the finance operations for their business. Because the risk of bad business was so high, women in cannabis pre-regulation were shut out from the traditional market business dealings. “I can’t speak for all women but having a male partner in the traditional market was necessary. It is not encouraged for women to do business. The potential for guns to be involved, robbery, or worse..it was just too high. So I was involved only in the innocence of cultivating the plant and processing.”
The biggest change Ashlee is witnessing in the California cannabis industry is that for the first time in the past 10 years she is allowed to do business. Now that the cannabis industry is legal, she is not so much the farm manager, but Ashlee is the face of 3 Creeks Farm.
Ashlee described that most farms are run by a male and female partnered team “but the actual business portion is run by women." “Women are the ones that fine tune everything whether its managing the inventory, the branding, or the farm design, women are the ones finessing these projects. Few farms are all female but there are lots of female-run farms that have a male partner in the background, and these operations are incredibly balanced."
“Women want to have the balance of working and family, and I believe cannabis can help them get there." At her farm, the balance lays with between her and her male partner. “I am in a male-dominated industry but I have never felt like I am treated differently. I shine better in my partnership and see that in other farms that have this partnership, they also do very well. We are a working team. You contribute what you are best at. I don’t know how to do things my partner does, it's the natural flow of a true partnership."
Balance For Better
Mistress Matisse, Karyn, and Ashlee all come from very different worlds and encountered various challenges in their life. From entering the taboo industry of sex work, encountering regulatory setbacks that prohibit venture success, and ostrification in some form, each one of these women stayed true to their calling.
Having an internal locus of control will help in moments of adversity. For Mistress Matisse, she could have given up on her lifelong dream to bring people moments of pure blissful pleasure in a world that can be unforgiving. She laughingly told me “Every day should be International women’s day…but maybe that's because I am a Dominatrix."
Karyn Wagner has never given up on her life path. She persistently puts one foot in front of the other and has no time to wallow in misfortune, but is inspired to do greater, be better, and encourages those around her so that they, too, can be successful. With a positive and almost daring tone, she tells me “There will always be another struggle, there will always be another hurdle.”
Moving back home to reunite with family could have been Ashlee Aronson’s story of her rebellious young adulthood. Instead, she listened to her core and to her spirit. Farming is in her blood, and despite backlash from her family, she grows incredible medicinal cannabis and has created a sustainable and regenerative farm in Humboldt County, completely off the grid. “Looking back I realized this was in me the whole time. I never got the opportunity to be in the environment and moving to Humboldt gave me the opportunity to work with the land and find the innate skills and talents I always had."
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." There is still much to accomplish to even the scales of justice for men and women around the world, and it will never be an easy feat. For the cannabis industry, Karyn Wagner told me, “You can’t help but feel tired when you have a lot going on and you can't help but have a lot going on when you want to make a difference. Is it different for men? Yes. It is, there will always be another struggle. There will always be another hurdle."
The road to success is never a straight path. When you are standing in the center of a million choices, revel in the options. Mistress Matisse, Karyn, and Ashlee could have frozen but they decided to act. These are their stories, a humble summary of what each one of these women truly experienced to live their most authentic lives and to help elevate women everywhere. Each one of these women “is entering an exciting period of history where the world expects balance” and each one of them have added their weight to better balance the scales for other women in their own way.
To find out how you can become more involved in #BalanceForBetter in the cannabis industry or for #CannaWoman companies, below are links to various associations, incubators, and forums that I have seen provide a great platform for women’s voices. To find out how you can #BalanceforBetter, look up the IWD website at: internationalwomensday.com.