One of my favorite facets of writing a cannabis column in the community I call home is shining a light on the entrepreneurs and activists who inspire me personally — all pioneers who’ve paved the way for the legal industry as we know it today.
Although Aspen isn’t known as an epicenter of the cannabis economy compared to cities like Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle, the Roaring Fork Valley has seen an increase in new, locally based businesses over the past two years expanding upon what was once just an abundance of dispensaries operating in the downtown core. And refreshingly, a lot of them are founded by women.
It’s perfectly fitting for a plant referred to as Mary Jane and biologically female (only female plants are able to produce the cannabinoid THC and clones come from the “mother” plant) that women are continuing to break the “Grass Ceiling” of a male-dominated, billion-dollar industry.
According to a 2017 survey conducted by cannabis news outlet Marijuana Business Daily, women held only 27% of leadership roles in the industry. In 2019, the cannabis recruiting platform Vangst confirmed the invisibility of women in executive-level roles with a state-by-state breakdown reporting 37% of cannabis workers in Colorado identifying as women.
While there is still a long road ahead in closing the gender gap and as Women’s History Month comes to a close, High Country honors six local leaders, who are shaping the cannabis scene in Aspen and beyond.
THE BOUTIQUE BOSS
A cancer diagnosis and love and respect for cannabis prompted a move to a legal cannabis state for Alexandra DeSousa, a Penn State alumnae with two decades of experience in hospitality and healthcare management. After a visit to see her sister in 2013, DeSousa immediately fell in love with Aspen and, in 2017, relocated here permanently. Working for various dispensaries around town, DeSousa deliberately wanted to learn all aspects of the industry — from bud-tending to plant-trimming to joint-rolling. Now she’s at the helm of Dalwhinnie Farms, downtown’s newest and poshest pot store.
“Almost four years of being here, I’ve now come full circle in getting to work in what has become my community. There are more options and information out there now that have a direct impact on wellness and quality of life such as products formulated for sleep, pain and specific nuanced effects. There are more methods of consumption, too, including time-release or microdose options as well as fast-acting edibles. We are seeing less stigma around cannabis as more people are introduced to its benefits. One of the reasons I chose to work at Dalwhinnie Farms is because we are upgrading what a dispensary looks like and feels like.”
“I love providing education about the benefits of cannabis. We (dispensary staff) are not certified medical professionals, and yet provide so much information in terms of wellness. Sharing facts and our own expertise for those that are new to cannabis and guiding them through the various options is of the utmost importance. It is very fulfilling to have someone return to the shop with effective results, a changed mind and an open heart.”
THE PR PRO
A Colorado native, Dianne Gleason has worked in public relations throughout her entire career. Her first foray into the cannabis industry was at a global firm that took on O.penVAPE as a client in 2015 and later landed in-house at PAX Labs, where she led communications — all while being based in Basalt — for the best-known brand of cannabis vaporizers. She parted ways with the San Francisco company last spring to launch her own consultancy for cannabis clients like Coda Signature and for founders and c-suite executives in the technology, health and wellness and lifestyle sectors.
“I feel the biggest shift is around consumer acceptance and interest in cannabis, which correlates to increased curiosity and coverage by the media. Case in point is this very column in a local daily newspaper — when I first started doing PR for cannabis, there were very few outlets that covered it, especially from a consumer interest standpoint, and certainly not from a premium luxury product perspective. Also, when we held a PAX event in Aspen a few years ago, it was a delightful surprise to have Sheriff Joe DiSalvo attend as an invited guest — I am a big fan and admirer of his position as a pro-legalization cannabis supporter.”
“I grew up in Boulder, which has always been a very cannabis-friendly community, well before the state’s official end to prohibition in 2012. Moving to the [Roaring Fork] Valley felt like an extension of this openness and acceptance. One thing I really love about living and working here is the supportive network of like-minded people working to make cannabis more accessible and appealing to consumers. From a local market perspective, the industry views Aspen as a top-tier market. We have such an array of dispensaries and products available, and both the local population as well as the tourists, hit the demographic target brands aim to engage with.”
As the self-described “flower child daughter of liberal, hippie parents from Portland [Oregon],” Harmony Bowman learned the art of herbalism from her mom, who’s widely known for handcrafted salves and lotions. In 2019, she set out to create a legacy of her own through Blue Willow — a Basalt-based product line that includes a Bath Soak, Body Balm and Body Oil — blending CBD with non-toxic, purely botanical ingredients and infused with a heavenly floral signature scent.
“The local and national cannabis landscape has evolved dramatically since I launched Blue Willow. Cannabis is now ubiquitous in Aspen, and consumers are much more knowledgeable and discerning. Previously, it felt new and exciting and people were willing to use whatever they could get their hands on. Now, customers often know what to ask for and how to determine if a product is legitimate and high quality. In general, the industry is incredibly supportive. Since every brand is essentially still a start-up there is a wonderful community feel, especially in a small town.”
THE CANNABIS CRUSADER
Longtime local and criminal defense attorney Lauren Maytin began her cannabis crusade in 1997 as a then-intern for Warren Edson (who is now her partner) as a student at the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver. He had just started working on the writing of Amendment 20 which, upon passage in 2000, effectively legalized limited amounts of medical marijuana. As a lifetime member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, and the longest-serving member on the board of directors for Colorado NORML, Maytin has been fighting the good fight for far longer than most.
“The cannabis industry (in Colorado) was slow to mature at first because the only guide was the constitutional language of Amendment 20. The evolution and maturation of the industry was galvanized by the creation of the Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED — originally ‘MMED’ the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division). By carefully crafting a series of robust rules and regulations the federal government was assured that there was stringent oversight of the industry and rational rules created for participants to follow.”
“Working in the cannabis industry is never boring. ‘Potrepeneurs’ are happy and excited to be in business, the customers are enthusiastic and the town coffers have exploded with the additional revenue! It’s a win for all! Above all else, ‘We … the People …’ have seen the evolution happen before our very eyes. Crafting legislation with local governments and sitting in on hundreds of state working groups to help mold and guide the industry has been amazing. Prohibition is over; regulation of medical and responsible adult use is here to stay.”
THE OG MD
Aspen-based cannabis physician Dr. Wendy Zaharko, who’s served patients across the Western Slope since 2009, was one of the first medical marijuana-prescribing doctors in the region and the only remaining resource to get an MMJ card today. The Princeton alumnae, lovingly known among locals as “Dr. Z,” treats qualifying conditions like severe pain with cannabis as a caregiver, which she then submits through a recommendation directly to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) Medical Marijuana Registry online patient portal.
“Having been a child of the ‘60’s and a college student in the ‘70’s, pot was just part of the smell track of our lives. Never in a million years would I have thought my life would go to pot! But it did and it has been the best and most important medical work I have ever done. When Aspen’s first dispensary, LEAF, opened in 2009, there was no recreational cannabis and the only way to get legal weed was by becoming a medical patient. I was asked by LEAF to become the prescribing doctor for them. The patient stories I heard that first day were astounding. People were telling me that weed cured their cancer, stopped their asthma attacks, helped them to sleep, took away their anxiety, stopped their pain, decreased their depression and so on. Most importantly, patients told me that cannabis gave them hope. I will never forget those early days in the ‘Wild West’ of medical cannabis as I navigated this new frontier. It was so exciting and I instantly became a passionate advocate for this medicine from mother nature.”
“My practice has changed because of the pandemic. Though I used to travel to towns all across the Western Slope, I’m now only available by telemedicine. This seems to still work very well and is much more convenient for most patients. I see a very bright future for both medical and adult-use cannabis. The federal government needs to deschedule cannabis now so this ancient and remarkable medicine can be studied in depth. Indeed, the times have changed, so in the words of Bob Dylan: Your old road is rapidly agin’ / Please get out of the new one / If you can’t lend your hand / For the times they are a-changin.’”
THE BEAUTY QUEEN
Karina Perez-Marconi, Antedotum, Co-Founder & CEO
Skincare industry veteran Karina Marconi co-founded the luxury beauty line Antedotum last spring. Since then it has gained cult status for its highly effective, CBD-based facial products (Elixir Firming Serum and Vital Face Oil). Based in Snowmass Village, Marconi has had a wildly successful first year in business amid the pandemic. Antedotum recently raised $1 million in seed funding, appointed board-certified dermatologist Dr. Shawn Demehri as its Chief Medical Advisor and was featured on the “Today Show” as one of Jenna Bush Hager’s picks for “2 more things Hoda and Jenna can’t live without.”
“We are fortunate to have Aspen as our proving ground. We have galvanized our products and brand with feedback from the world’s most sophisticated consumers, all of whom are subjected to extreme weather conditions living at 7,908 feet above sea level! Living in a community with many accomplished business leaders and one that’s known for its intellectual curiosity, it is very common for a simple lunch conversation to turn into a networking event — most people are keen to help out others, in particular small business owners. I’d be remiss not to call out our good friends at Local Coffee and Here House, where Antedotum has enjoyed some of its seminal moments as a start-up. Aspen punches way above its weight class in almost every category, in particular its cosmopolitan sensibilities. We co-exist among the world’s most coveted luxury retail brands, and have benefited from direct collaborations and partnerships.”
“We have drawn inspiration directly from Aspen’s unique natural elements like Aspen tree bark, which will be integrated into our upcoming formulations. We think Aspenites will appreciate this homage when we launch our latest product this summer — now in the final stages of testing for the CBD industry’s first FDA-approved SPF 30 daily moisturizer. This is a hypo-allergenic and clean formula designed to protect your skin from outdoor and indoor sun damage.”
Katie Shapiro can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @bykatieshapiro.