Amanda Jones knew her prototype for cannabis-infused tea worked when her business partner fell down the stairs. “It was a pretty wild ride in the beginning,” says Jones, who co-founded Kikoko in 2015 with Jennifer Chapin.
The friends seem an unlikely duo to head up California’s leading cannabis beverage company. Prior to Kikoko’s launch, neither were habitual users. Nor did they possess industry expertise: Jones was a travel writer, Chapin an executive in the technology, games and food sectors.
But as affluent working women in their fifties, over-extended personally and professionally, they did understand the pressures endured by their contemporaries. Prompted by a close friend with terminal cancer who was using cannabis medicinally, the pair promised to come up with an alternative that wouldn’t “make her ride the crazy train”, as Jones puts it. They soon realised their circle of friends – the designated sounding boards and guinea pigs for their products – were all struggling to find solutions to a slew of mid-life aches and pains.
“We set out to assist with issues that we and our friends were experiencing,” says Jones, listing anxiety, menopause-related irritability, chronic pain and insomnia as recurring complaints. The THC molecule in cannabis, better known for its psychoactive properties that gets users high, works as an effective painkiller in micro doses and topical applications; the cannabidiol (CBD) molecule is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent without the psychoactive effect.
For each ailment they hoped to treat, Jones and Chapin (above) needed to unlock an ideal balance between the two. And so it was, several years and three science teams later, that the pair found themselves gulping down a double dose of their latest batch, which had finally successfully enabled the THC to disperse into the water. “I was so high,” remembers Jones. “We were on the phone laughing, laughing, laughing. We were celebrating because it worked! I mean, it worked a little too much, but we knew the formulation worked and we just had to cut back the dosage.”
Although people have used cannabis to treat health conditions for millennia, it was vilified by lawmakers during US President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, which started in 1971. But as mounting evidence has revealed the therapeutic benefits of the plant, attitudes have changed. At the turn of the 21st century, a flurry of countries started to decriminalise cannabis for medical use. And today the sale and use of cannabis for recreational purposes is legal in Uruguay, Canada and 11 US states.
As this seismic shift has occurred, women have emerged as overlooked consumers. By 2022, the number of female users is predicted to be half of the US cannabis market. In an industry estimated to be worth US$146.4 billion globally by 2025, that’s a lot of women who are willing to open their purses.
Industry veteran Jeanette VanderMarel has a deeply personal connection to the plant. Her daughter died from a rare form of epilepsy so when she and her husband learned that cannabis was being used to treat seizures, they looked into it. Three years later, they’d established their own 25-acre cannabis farm (above), The Green Organic Dutchman, which blazed a trail for pesticide-free, ecologically friendly cannabis production.
In 2018, VanderMarel merged with a new licensed producer led by former marketer Alison Gordon. The result was 48North, a female-run Canadian company that caters to a discerning clientele with premium, organically grown cannabis, cannabis-infused products and stylish cannabis-related paraphernalia.
When Gordon, a cannabis devotee since high school, transitioned into Canada’s burgeoning medical industry in 2013, she focused on deal work, but recalls, “It wasn’t fulfilling to me because at the end of the day I’m a cannabis user, and I had this vision of the types of products and brands that could be created for women.” Since joining 48North as co-CEO, she has raised around 70 million Canadian dollars; worked with VanderMarel to secure a 100-acre outdoor farm; and generated a community of fellow enthusiasts through Latitude, a website that shares stories of women using cannabis as a wellness tool.
Gordon and VanderMarel hope to normalise cannabis use as part of a healthy, responsible lifestyle. “For us to elevate it from the street, we really have to break down these stigmas and show women, ‘Hey, you know this influencer, that celebrity, this neighbour – they all use cannabis, and they’re all successful and productive, and they’re actually using it to help be those things,’” says Gordon.
At Kikoko, they’ve turned to holding high teas. The brand’s first was at Chapin’s home to thank the tea-swilling friends who’d supported them through the business’s infancy. The dress code was tea dresses and vintage costume hats. After a short presentation on the plant’s medicinal qualities, Kikoko’s product was served. “The decibel went way up,” Jones remembers. The event’s resounding success led the pair to publish guidelines for throwing a high tea; and they are exploring the idea of parties that could be hosted around the world by brand ambassadors.
But even as some succeed, many female entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry are struggling to overcome systemic sexism. Women occupy only 27 per cent of C-suite level positions in the US, while in neighbouring Canada, VanderMarel and Gordon are even more of a rarity. As the industry picks up speed, traditional capital from male-led private equity firms has flooded the market to the further detriment of women.
“It is simply much harder for women to find and get funding,” says Amy Margolis, an attorney-turned-cannabis advocate who launched business accelerator The Initiative to address the industry’s gender discrepancy. “Right now this space is a land grab. And the better funded a business is, in theory, the faster and more strategically it can grow.”
Jones notes that the first rule in the Kikoko guidelines is “No Assholes” – but many of their business contacts can’t help but break it . “We’ve actually backed out of deals with people because they didn’t treat us as we expect to be treated at this stage in our lives.”
Yet the industry’s fledgling status offers hope, a clean slate from which a new set of equitable and inclusive rules can be made. “This is such a zeitgeist moment,” says Gordon. “It’s this female plant, this female conversation.”
Long-term feminists Jones and Chapin couldn’t be more satisfied to find themselves in charge. “It’s our turn now and we’re going to do things the women’s way,” says Jones.