The LGBTQ+ and cannabis communities are inextricably linked thanks to the HIV/Aids activists who worked to pass Proposition 215, the 1996 law that legalized medical cannabis in California. As we enter Pride season, you'll probably see some brands “rainbow-washing," or putting on a colorful but performative show of solidarity that oftentimes does not directly benefit the LGBTQ+ community at all.
Once considered an exclusive boys' club, the cannabis industry continues to evolve into a more diverse and inclusive space, but there is still work to be done. In celebration of Pride, Weedmaps sat down with LGBTQ+ cannabis professionals to have the difficult yet necessary conversations about their experiences working in the industry.
This discussion on cannabis, equality, and how we can all contribute to a more inclusive industry, features three professionals who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community:
- Melissa Vitale, cannabis publicist and founder of MAVPR
- Zeke Thomas, Chief Marketing Officer of ISIAH International
- Emily Eizen, a multimedia artist with a focus on cannabis culture
WM: Do you feel that your identity as an LGBTQ+ person and as a cannabis professional are intertwined?
Eizen: Absolutely. I think it's so important to be outspokenly queer in all of my art and work. By doing this, it honors the history the LGBTQIA+ community has had on cannabis. It's the lens through which I experience my life and plays a role in the art and message I am bringing to this space.
Thomas: Absolutely. Being that we are living in a pandemic, it's hard not to think of the AIDS pandemic. During the 1980s crisis, cannabis was, although still heavily criminalized, one of the only reliefs for HIV patients as palliative care.
Being a gay Black male, and knowing how my community is affected by HIV and has been by COVID, I know that this plant is truly a healing plant. It helps people with their mental health, as well as their internal health through our endocannabinoid system. So being a member of the LGBT community and being classified as Black and African-American, I feel as if I've been connected to the plant for centuries.
Vitale: I've been a longtime consumer and cannabis patient — and I'm also queer. These attributes lend me a deeper perspective of the potential for cannabis legalization and pleasure positivity that helps me better educate these subjects to the media and their readers. There are practical, real, and personal reasons for taking these concepts outside of fringe culture and into the mainstream.
What challenges have you faced as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in your professional life?
Thomas: I remember when I first started DJing and I was really making my rounds in the club circuit and starting to make a name for myself in New York. My manager at the time told me to tone down the “gay stuff." It was at that moment that I knew I wasn't truly accepted or welcome.
Now, I had my identity to worry about in certain spaces that were not as inclusive as they are today. Progress has definitely been made in that sense. But growing up in the nightlife scene and in entertainment has been an internal and external journey, and cannabis has been a big healing thing for me.
Vitale: My position in leading public relations campaigns puts me in a proud position to advocate on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community with CEOs and industry leaders, but it can be exhausting being the lone queer in the room.
How do you feel the cannabis industry has changed over the years?
Eizen: I've been working in cannabis in California since the medical days, starting as a budtender and quickly finding any excuse to take pictures in the grow room. When cannabis became adult-use, I noticed how the bigger brands' marketing was not speaking to the incredibly diverse collective culture of cannabis consumers. I was tired of seeing images that were only catered to the straight, male consumer, so I decided to create the content I wanted to see.
I want to bring the arts back into cannabis, as so many greats have done in the past. By doing this, I am fighting for the creative soul of this industry. And I will use any platform I have to lift up others and make this space more inclusive and accessible to all.
Vitale: While we still have a ways to go, I'm seeing marginalized folks taken more seriously now. I would often feel uncomfortable as a queer woman at industry conferences; but now, I've found my community of LGBTQIA+ and boss babe thought leaders. I don't feel there's a boys' club vibe at these events anymore. Instead, I can always find a [smoke] circle of empowered and empowering powerhouses.
What are the most effective ways for cannabis consumers to support the LGBTQ+ community?
Eizen: Obviously buying from queer-owned brands is important. Also, supporting important social causes such as criminal justice and drug policy reform is too, but I think the only way we'll see tangible support is from the top down — way before it even reaches the consumer. The real work is through brands putting their money where their rainbow flag is and supporting queer, trans, BIPOC folks monetarily all year round.
Thomas: I think, honestly, the best way to support the LGBT community is to seek out queer and Black-owned cannabis brands. We're all in this together, so to speak, so we have to support each other in the diaspora. There's a generational income gap for trans people, especially, that we can truly change as we're seeing with the billions of dollars being made off this industry. Being conscious about the products that you buy is big. I encourage more of the cannabis culture to invade the LGBT culture that has been demonized.
Vitale: If you're in a state where trans or reproductive rights are currently on the chopping block, write to your legislators and elect leaders who believe access to abortion and gender-affirming care is a human right.
How can we collectively work toward a more inclusive space for all in the industry?
Thomas: I think the best way to work towards a more inclusive space is to give voice to the people in those spaces. If you want to know information about the trans community, seek out a trans person, and don't be upset about reactions to questions you may have. But also, know that those people should be compensated. I am definitely ringing the bell that compensation is the best way to support.
Vitale: We need to continue listening when someone who doesn't look like us — or comes from a different background or lives a different lifestyle — speaks up to share their perspective. Instead of putting our hands up defensively, recognize the emotional labor it took for them to voice their perspective, thank them for their insight and take a serious, private reflection on what they say.