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A Woman’s Place: Cannabis Industry Promotes Female OwnershipLock Icon

7 min read

Arkansas’ newest multimillion-dollar industry has a woman’s touch, and that’s by design.

Feminine hands are everywhere in the medical marijuana and hemp industries, up and running in the state for less than a year. Their roles range from co-owning $10 million cultivation centers to staffing dispensary counters as budtenders.

“At Harvest House of Cannabis, all the budtenders are women,” one Arkansas cannabis patient said last week. (Actually, 11 of the outlet’s 13 positions are filled by women, a company spokesman said.)

The state Medical Marijuana Commission — itself led by a woman, Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman — awarded bonus points for minority ownership of cultivation and dispensary companies in granting licenses last year. Taking a lead from the public, it extended the minority bonuses to women.

“Public feedback played a key role,” state spokesman Scott Hardin told Arkansas Business. “When the commission determined bonus points would be awarded for minority ownership, public comments were received requesting women be included in that definition.”

The commissioners agreed, establishing three options for bonus points in medical marijuana business applications: 51% or greater ownership by minorities under Arkansas law; 51% ownership by veterans; and “at least 51% ownership in the dispensary by women,” Hardin said.

When the state granted 32 medicinal cannabis dispensary licenses a year ago, 17 went to businesses mostly owned by women. At the time, women fully owned two dispensaries, Noah’s Ark in El Dorado and PainFree RX in Pine Bluff; men fully owned eight dispensaries.

‘No Tears in Business’

“I think women naturally provide balance and often another perspective, a different eye, and a nurturing component that is imperative in a business being successful,” said Misty Drennan, a former real estate agent and homebuilder who has a 25.5% stake in the state’s first cultivator, Bold Team LLC of Cotton Plant. This year she bought a dispensary in Hot Springs, Suite 443, formerly Doctors Orders. Her husband of 26 years, Mark, is a partner in both ventures. “Both our grow operation in Cotton Plant and our dispensary are majority women to men, which is an anomaly in the marijuana industry,” Misty Drennan told Arkansas Business. “We take pride in that statistic.”

Nationwide, the cannabis industry holds more opportunity for women than other industries, but men still dominate. Female company leadership stands at 36%, compared with 21% for all U.S. businesses, according to a 2019 survey by Marijuana Business Daily.

“Many of our most senior corporate positions are female, including our VP and general counsel, head of human resources and senior director of national retail,” said Alex Howe, head of corporate communications for Harvest Inc., the national company that manages the Little Rock Harvest outlet.

Trained as a dietician at the University of Central Arkansas, Drennan said she always aspired “to study ways to treat the human body through homeopathic methods and nutrition rather than through traditional medicine,” even as she spent two decades in real estate and human resources. Arkansas’ medical marijuana program, which now has 40,000 cardholders suffering from one or more of 19 qualifying conditions, gave her that chance to care for patients.

“Offering women and minority-owned businesses ‘extra points’ indicated that the state of Arkansas was mindful of all of its citizens during the application process and desired to differentiate its competitors,” Drennan said.

“I was once told by a superior (a woman) that there are no tears in business,” she continued. “It makes you appear weak. That has resonated with me since, and yet over the years I tend to disagree with her. We exude femininity by our very nature; emotions do not make us weak. Expressing ourselves doesn’t make us weak.”

Another woman with both dispensary and cultivation interests is Donna Mooney, a Ph.D. software and hardware developer who has a 10% stake in an Alexander medical cannabis dispensary looking to open this week. She’s also an owner and chairman of the board of Natural State Medicinal Cultivation in White Hall, one of five licensed cultivators.

‘You’ve Got to Meet My Mom’

“I saw cannabis more as a business opportunity,” Mooney said. “I got into the industry through friendship with Dr. Jim and Zada Adametz.” James Adametz, a North Little Rock neurosurgeon, owns 15% of the Natural State Medical Group dispensary in Alexander.

Zada Adametz has the biggest stake at 36%; her share, along with Mooney’s 10% and smaller stakes by several other women, put the business over the 51% threshold. “Our owners in the dispensary and the cultivator are heavily invested in health care,” Mooney said. “We have doctors, dentists and all kinds of health professionals.”

Mooney’s other venture, a computerized system to match patients with the best available products for their conditions, is a pending partnership with Dr. Brian Nichol, who has a North Little Rock pain management practice, and Cathie Hiegel, who wrote the medical protocols for the project and owns their copyright.

The Alexander dispensary is integrating the system, and several others are moving to adopt it, Mooney said.

“Dr. Nichol is a good friend of my son, Madison, and he kept telling the doctor ‘you’ve got to meet my mom,’” suggesting her expertise at the nexus of computing and health care might help Nichols’ patients. (Mooney was an executive at Bespoke Health Media of Little Rock and a postdoctoral faculty researcher at Arkansas Children’s Hospital.)

“Instead of walking up to the budtender and asking, patients will be able to consult a database of all the knowledge we’ve accumulated,” Nichol told Arkansas Business earlier this year. “Patients will enter their demographic data, diagnoses, other medications that they take, and that gets run through an algorithm matching it with strains available at the dispensary that are most appropriate.”

Mooney said her team developed a menu system driven by current inventory at dispensaries, cutting the chances of wasting time looking for unavailable products.

Healing Hemp

One branch of the new movement is hemp, the specialty of Erin Gray, owner of Healing Hemp of Arkansas on Cantrell Road in Little Rock, a tidy and inviting shop filled with pain and anxiety products like CBD oils, salves and tinctures, and even the dried flower of hemp.

The store has thrived since opening in August 2018 in anticipation of hemp being legalized by that December’s federal farm bill, which legalized hemp production in the United States. Gray has been stressing education and sampling to help patients find precisely the best products and treatments, she said.

“People know that we’re not just trying to push a product; they can see that we want to create a relationship of trust,” said Gray, whose husband, farmer Lance Gray, owns a 10.2% interest in Greenlight Dispensary in Helena. “We’ll tell patients to try this first, because we all metabolize things differently, whether it be a topical, a tincture, or CBD capsules and gummies. So we’ll give out samples and tell people to go home and try them. When they come back, they say how they reacted. If a product doesn’t work, we try to figure out the next product.”

One challenge has been convincing people that modern CBD outlets are nothing like the “head shops” of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, which offered pipes and cannabis paraphernalia in counterculture settings. Instead, Healing Hemp relies on science and extensive testing of CBD products, said Gray, a former visual merchandiser for Dillard’s.

“It was important for us to create an environment where patients didn’t feel the stigma of a seedy head shop, a space where customers could see that it’s really about caring for people, offering the benefits of legal hemp products containing less than .3% THC,” she said.

“In the beginning, we had a lot of older customers, so we marketed to people who haven’t been educated on the benefits. “Advertising has been a bit of an issue. With CBD we can’t make medical claims under FDA rules. So it’s a little bit of an obstacle.”

Some critics suggested that women listed as owners of some cannabis dispensaries and cultivators could be “frontwomen,” giving companies licensing advantages with only the appearance of female leadership.

But two industry insiders, speaking on the condition of anonymity, called the rules comparable to state procurement rules offering incentives to women- and minority-owned businesses. “Those companies have been accused of simply putting frontmen into their leadership rosters to get veteran and minority-based advantages,” one said. “A lot of people with small stakes in businesses aren’t day-to-day managers, so how do you judge who’s ‘legitimate’? I think the women are just as legitimate in cannabis, if not more so.”

Misty Drennan, who was human resources chief at Bold Team LLC before buying her dispensary, said her role has been hands-on since the industry’s birth in Arkansas. “It changes daily, but you can usually find me on the sales floor working with patients. I’ve been solely responsible for remodeling the building, which my background in construction helped.”

She works with all three operational cultivators, not just Bold, to offer customers fresh and up-to-date products.

“But my favorite part is the interaction with the patients and hearing how this herb has changed their lives, for the better. It’s heartwarming.”

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