“I’m completely atypical I think, in terms of how I came to the cannabis industry,” Leah Heise explained over the phone from her home in Maryland, which was at that particular moment, largely under a sheet of ice and snow. She continued to chronicle her relationship with the once maligned plant, now rapidly being re-branded not just in the medical and business worlds, but far and wide, in every avenue of American culture.
Heise only tried it recreationally once in her adolescence. And she threw up. “It was the Reagan years, you know? And Nancy Reagan was doing a great job of frying everyone’s brains as eggs on a pan. I really bought into that entire smear campaign that it was bad and that you were going to end up like Jeff Spicoli from Ridgemont High,” she explained.
It is safe to say that a younger Heise would never have guessed that one day she would be the CEO of Women Grow, a nationwide initiative that aims to empower, connect and encourage women working (or aspiring to work) in the ever-growing cannabis industry.
Heise’s path to the industry was one punctuated by anguish. In 2001, she was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis—a nagging disease that causes the pancreas to become increasingly inflamed. The condition never heals or improves, only steadily deteriorates.
“One of the only things you can do is live day-to-day on a high level of opiate pain medication,” Heise explained—dooming those diagnosed with it to a lifetime of low-level dependency. A full 12 years later, Heise’s doctor discovered that her particular variety of the disease could be mitigated to a degree by surgery, and in its aftermath, he suggested that she try marijuana as a means to cease her use of opiate pain medication after more than a decade.
“I spent so many years in and out of the hospital…being starved and being treated with methadone [and] morphine” Heise described. She was ready for a cure, and this one worked.
The more she learned, the more she was surprised by the potential held in each stalk and stem of the plant so long reviled or relegated to the fringe of society. With a background in law that emphasized regulatory compliance, Heise decided she was going to do two things: She was going to start growing cannabis, and she was going to create a legal practice in the industry.
“Just as I started diving into this, Maryland passed its medical cannabis law. Everything happened right at the perfect time. Everything seemed to be steering me toward this path,” she reflected with assuredness. When I asked her if the discovery of cannabis has changed the course of her life, she took a big breath before exhaling, “So dramatically.”
And that’s how she came to Women Grow.
Initially, what Heise wanted out of the organization’s monthly meetings was to network with potential clients for her legal practice and connect with those who might provide guidance when it came to growing and dispensing. But, as it often happens, she quite unexpectedly fell in love.
“I fell in love with my friends that I met there, the support, everything I learned…I felt that I was with my peers. I felt respected; I felt valued, I felt understood. I felt safe to talk about whatever my issues were without judgment.”
That is the experience she wants for everyone who has any point of contact with the organization.
“My objective now is…for anybody who has any touch point with Women Grow to walk away feeling that they were connected to our mission…and that you also walk away feeling valued, that your experience was warm. That our conversation is authentic, transparent, that you got the information that you need and that it was delivered in a way that helps lift you up.”
It’s an organization built upon very human values of authenticity and kindness—traits that are stereotypically female but have resonated with all sorts of people, making the mission of Women Grow all the more far-reaching.
Women Grow was established in 2014 after founders Jane West and Jazmin Hupp heard the repeated and pervasive gripe from women that whether they were established or new to the industry, they often found themselves as the only woman growing locally, or even the only woman represented at National Cannabis Association meetings at every level. A byproduct of working in a male-dominated industry was that “they weren’t [being] heard, they didn’t feel like their particular viewpoints, and the way that they wanted to run their companies was being valued,” Heise elaborated.
So, Women Grow was founded on the principle of empowerment, recognizing the insights of women in business—particularly because women comprise a demographic that represents 85 percent of all consumer dollars spent. Since those first months and years, people in the cannabis industry from various marginalized groups have been attracted and welcomed by the organization.
Heise sees the conviction of Women Grow as being reflective of the best kind of business—those that are inclusive. “Every piece of every business should reflect the community it serves. If we’re not reflecting the community that we are out to serve, then we’re failing on some level.”
And so, on the first Thursday of every month, women-identifying growers and others attached to the industry, and invested in the organization’s mission of education and empowerment come together. During these meetings, they talk, listen to speakers on nearly every topic and work on moving the role of women not just in the cannabis industry, but in business, forward.
Heise came to cannabis when she was suffering, and in it, she found a potent cure and holds the conviction that it can help many others, too. In the course of her work in the industry, she’s met a number of others who have been forced to become “medical refugees” to states that have legalized the use of marijuana—like some individuals with epilepsy—and listened intently to their stories. What she has grown to realize is how essential this plant is to many in their efforts to live healthy, happy lives.
As such, Women Grow is increasingly focused on policy-level changes.
“It is the responsibility of anyone working in this industry to make sure that it continues to be a viable, legal industry in the United States,” Heise explained about the organization’s expanded efforts. “All of us need to step forward, and you will see Women Grow stepping forward to shape the political conversation in the United States,” she declared shortly before our conversation closed.
Just as Heise’s path to the industry was a bit unexpected, cannabis too has tracked an interesting path in the United States. Those who have tirelessly advocated for its legalization on a policy level have impacted the lives of many in re-framing the plant from Jeff Spicoli cluelessness, to viable cure and harmless antidote to stress and more.
Women Grows is amplifying that impact with great conviction and sincerity.
As we said our goodbyes, I realized that my interaction with Heise was just as she said she hoped everyone’s with the organization would be: warm, and perhaps most of all, a revelatory learning experience.