There’s a long, strong and colorful relationship between the LGBTQIA+ community and the legal cannabis movement. It goes back to the 1970s when Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California, proposed one of the first cannabis legalization bills weeks before he was assassinated. Fun fact: It was Milk who urged artist Gilbert Baker to design the rainbow flag, the official symbol of the gay community and a source
of global pride
Milk’s ally and friend, Dennis Peron, is regarded as the godfather of medical cannabis. The Vietnam vet turned political activist fought for the rights of both the gay community and cannabis legalization as the AIDS crisis ravaged San Francisco in the 1980s and ’90s. His legacy is Proposition 215, the Compassionate Care Act, which made California the first state to approve medical cannabis in 1996.
Fast forward to 2022 and the inextricably linked gay and cannabis communities are thriving, sharing a bond that comes from knowing the stigmas of marginalization handed down by an uninformed, prejudiced populace. But passionate activists in both communities have fought tirelessly for equal rights and an overhaul of society’s misperceptions. Today, compassion and acceptance run deep in LGBTQIA+ cannabis companies.
What follows are some of the best LGBTQIA+ founded, owned and/or operated brands that are changing hearts and minds, creating safe spaces and bringing some of the highest quality cannabis products to market.
Alexander Farnsworth: Co-Founder and CEO, Farnsworth Fine Cannabis
Alexander Farnsworth believes that cannabis should be available for everyone, and he’s making it happen in a luxurious, inviting and educational way that exudes East Coast style. His high-end dispensary, Farnsworth Fine Cannabis, located in Great Barrington, MA, nestled in the beautiful Berkshires, only stocks the finest cannabis products—including an eponymous line of pre-rolls and flower.
Farnsworth credits his Great Uncle Philo for his business acumen. Philo is best known for inventing the first fully functional and complete all-electronic television system. “We’re reviving the Farnsworth name, so we see ourselves as a legacy brand,” Farnsworth says. “We want to honor the legacy of Philo T. Farnsworth through cannabis.”
Farnsworth says he began smoking cannabis at a young age to help him manage the emotions he was dealing with as a closeted queer kid in a conservative state. “Like my love, and ability to marry (until 2015), I never believed in what society had to say, or believed the hype about cannabis being bad,” he says.
In an industry largely run and cultured by straight, cisgender men, Farnsworth believes there are plenty of challenges faced by LGBTQIA+ cannabis businesses. And while he has learned the entrepreneurial lingo, he doesn’t always speak their language. “LGBTQIA+ isn’t included as a minority in the New York cannabis regulations, which makes me feel like the system isn’t seeing me, that I have to speak louder to be heard,” he says.
With a belief that “we’re stronger together,” Farnsworth recently founded the Queer Cannabis Club, a network of artists, activists, advocates and brands, to create a community of other queer-owned-and-operated businesses in the cannabis industry.
Lex Corwin: Founder and CEO, Stone Road
Stone Road Farms is a brand that genuinely reflects the modern cannabis industry. With a focus on sustainability, beauty and inclusion, the family-run, biodynamic farm is 100 percent solar-powered, and the product packaging is 99 percent plastic-free and made of all recycled materials.
Stone Road’s Founder, Lex Corwin, has been drawn to cannabis from a young age when he started growing on his neighbors’ property—which was, yes, on Stone Road—and launched his company in 2016 at the age of 23. The company’s goal is simple: provide high-quality products at an accessible price point. Slow-cured and hand-trimmed, Stone Road cannabis exemplifies what it means to love cannabis.
Stone Road is helping change the stigma associated with cannabis “by creating beautiful campaign imagery and products so that more people see themselves as a part of the industry and the movement,” Corwin says.
The issues Corwin faced when opening Stone Road are similar to the struggles that many other California-based cannabis companies endure, including excessive taxation and banking challenges. However, he says there’s always a thought in the back of his head that perhaps another stigma is at play.
“You never really know if someone won’t buy your products because they know you’re gay and are harboring some sort of animosity toward you or if they just didn’t vibe with your products, packaging, etc. I always hope for the latter, but you really can never know,” Corwin says.
Cannabis is a highly regulated, competitive market. Corwin offers some sage advice for newcomers looking to start a cannabis business.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he says. “You must be able to wear many hats and be a talented fundraiser. If you aren’t already in the business, I strongly recommend against trying to start a new company, especially in California. If you’re really determined, I’d aim for a brand new market.”
Drew Martin: Founder, Drew Martin Gosselin
Combining his knowledge of herbalism with his love of cannabis, the blended botanical pre-rolls from Drew Martin are bursting with aromas and flavors—including Lemon, Passionflower and Ginger Root, Lemon Balm and Damiana—using sungrown cannabis from Mendocino County that’s grown on a small, queer, women-owned farm.
A “passion for crafting experiences and exploring social rituals” led Martin to co-create his eponymous line of curated cannabis products. The plant practitioner believes cannabis isn’t only a healing plant; it’s also a facilitator for connecting people, which led him to a new smoking experience that creates “ceremony around the ritual of smoking.”
Connecting people and building community is a cornerstone of the brand. “As a queer-owned company in the space, we feel we have a unique responsibility to fight for cannabis justice,” says Martin. “We get to enjoy working with and consuming this plant freely today because of the sacrifices of our queer forbearers.”
Providing education and demonstrating the incredible power that cannabis can have in people’s lives is the best method of deconstructing the cannabis stigma, Martin says. “For us, it means crafting low-dose products that feel safe and approachable—often for social and non-traditional cannabis users. We hear more success stories every single day.”
For those wanting to start a cannabusiness, Martin says he believes creativity and patience are undeniably two of the greatest virtues for working in a highly regulated industry: “High levels of both are needed to educate the community while maximizing brand visibility and awareness.”
Katie Stem: Co-Founder and CEO, Peak Extracts
Founded and operated by Katie Stem and Kate Black, Peak Extracts is a semi-vertically integrated processing and manufacturing company in Oregon. Stem’s personal struggle with Crohn’s disease inspired her to launch the brand and its range of award-winning products. She credits cannabis as being “absolutely revolutionary” for controlling the disease—along with her degree in Chinese medicine.
“When cannabis became legal in Oregon, I decided to transfer my skills with infused single strain chocolates and pain-relieving topicals into a small business,” she says. Peak’s products are geared toward specific ailments with a focus on minor cannabinoids including CBG, CBC and THC-a, the latter of which, she says, has been instrumental in treating her Crohn’s symptoms for the last several years.
Stem believes products like Peak’s topical cream are helping remove the stigma around cannabis. “Since there are no psychotropic effects from our topicals, it’s a good place to start for most people to take the mystique away.” Her ten-year goal is for a cannabis topical to be in every medicine cabinet across the country—“hopefully, it’s our Rescue Rub.”
According to Stem, the extraction scene remains a “boys’ club,” and as the only woman-operated extraction company in Oregon, Peak faces repeated inequalities. She recalls being resorted to hiring a “hugely tall, stern and bearded” friend to pretend to work for them because the inspector didn’t think they’d be able to operate the extractor.
“I think the most frustrating thing industry-wide is that funding opportunities are almost exclusively available to male-run companies, and when acquisitions happen, women-run companies are usually purchased and replaced by men in the executive suite,” Stern continues.
Olivia Alexander: Founder and CEO, Kush Queen
Supporting the communities that brought legalization to life will always be important at Kush Queen. The cannabis brand was founded from a passion for the plant and an aim to create a space of inclusion, representation and normalization. With more than 40 percent of the Kush Queen workforce identifying as queer, Olivia Alexander is leading by example and creating a culture of conscious capitalism that’s helping the industry become a sanctuary for LGBTQIA+ cannabis enthusiasts.
“I truly thought we’d have more progress than we do, but legalization has only made it worse for women and LGBTQIA+ people in this space,” Alexander says. “This industry is still white, cisgender ran, and it’s apparent more and more every day. I believe my success is in part to my identity as a woman, as an activist, and I’m driven so much by my heart.”
Alexander started working in cannabis at a local dispensary when she was 18, where she fell in love with the plant. After working in multiple facets of the industry, from extracting to marketing to being an “influencer” for cannabis companies, she launched Kush Queen in 2015.
Alexander believes adaptability and passion are the key traits needed for a successful cannabusiness. “You’re constantly having to pivot, decide what problems to prioritize, all the while facing obstacles unlike any industry,” she says. “That’s where passion comes into play. You’ll be needing your passion to hold you down through the long, hard days.”
Diagnosed as bipolar, Alexander uses cannabis as a medicine and wellness tool. Educating people about how cannabinoids interact and the effects they deliver is how she says she’s helping remove the stigma surrounding the plant. “Our products—and the people who use them—are the most important thing to us,” she says.
Jake Wall: Chief Innovation Officer, Maison Bloom
Through its line of perfectly dosed cannabis-infused seltzers, Maison Bloom aims to “elevate the everyday.” The idea for the company was initially hatched during a night out with friends who were looking for a suitable alternative to alcohol. Later, Jake Wall watched his two moms medicate with cannabis during their battles against cancer—and credits seeing them struggle to medicate in public—as also being instrumental to launching Maison Bloom.
The brand’s chief innovation officer says he’s always been “what some might refer to as ‘different.’” Maison Bloom’s goal is to create more circles and spaces where others who are “different” can feel the same and “to see a world where difference is celebrated.”
The company’s mission is “one where people of all walks of life find themselves in an inclusive environment where, with open hearts and level heads fueled by mutual respect, everyone has a seat at the table.” To that end, the company advocates for human rights across multiple platforms and is deeply committed to the communities in which they live and breathe.
“We know for real change to happen there’s always strength in numbers,” Wall says.
He believes that while starting any business is hard, the way to thrive in the cannabis space is to be authentic and lean into the community. He recommends attending cannabis events and forming authentic friendships with like-minded people.
Robert Holland: Co-Founder, Tempo Crackers
With memorable flavors including Chili Limon, Sour Cream & Chive, Rosemary Sea Salt and Black Pepper, deliciously savory Tempo Crackers are designed to let snack lovers find their own groove, to find their own tempo.
Robert Holland says cannabis was his retreat from the conservative area of Texas where he grew up. He credits the plant for allowing him to find like-minded friends who supported his coming out at a young age. Fast forward to 2019 and Holland says he dove headfirst into the corporate cannabis world when he moved to Los Angeles.
With its low-dose, wellness-focused range of edibles, Tempo is redefining what it means to be a cannabis consumer. Most of Tempo’s consumers are women over the age of 30, which Holland believes “flies against the industry benchmark where most products are purchased and marketed to men.”
“We’re incredibly proud of those statistics, but we were surprised to find that retailers and buyers are hesitant to support products outside of the male-dominated consumer culture we see today,” he says.
For Holland, the inclusivity vibe of the cannabis industry makes it easier to be open about being gay and be his authentic self—which he calls “a breath of fresh air” compared to his previous experience in corporate America—and he’s using his platform to help minorities who remain underrepresented in the industry.
“The work now,” Holland says, “is in ensuring that we’re using our voices to continue to make space for all the minority groups (BIPOC, women, queer, transgender) who continue to face systemic challenges in the cannabis industry.”
For aspiring cannabusiness owners, Stem recommends having a comprehensive understanding of the expensive and ever-changing regulatory landscape, as the cost of state and municipal cannabis licenses, liability insurance and worker’s compensation is substantially more than other industries.
But Stem says not to be put off by these obstacles. “If you’re passionate about cannabis and are willing to be constantly on your toes, it’s a great place to be.”
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.