Outlaw activist women are scarce in the highest ranks of corporate cannabis. Directors are mostly men, mostly white, and mostly university-educated with backgrounds in the pharma business, commodities, or finance.
Few, if any aside from Hilary Black, have crafted a “bug-out” plan to evade police. Or know that a kayak bag will seal in the aroma of several pounds of bud when you’re on the run.
The 43-year-old newly appointed chief advocacy officer at Canopy Growth Corp. (WEED.TO) has taken a decidedly unconventional path to the c-suite of a company with a market capitalization north of $20 billion.
You won’t find university degrees on Black’s LinkedIn page. What she has earned over her more than 20-year career is a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, the ears of Canadian senators, and respect from scores of grateful medical cannabis users.
Canopy created the chief advocacy officer role specifically for Black, announcing her promotion from director of patient education and advocacy in late February. The appointment went largely unnoticed. However, the new title made Black the first female c-suite executive at the cannabis giant, and one of only a handful to reach that level at a major producer.
A recent analysis by HuffPost Canada found women represented 121, or 21 per cent, of 573 cannabis executives. That ratio narrows in the boardrooms of Canada’s largest licensed producers.
According to Black, it wasn’t that way when she got her start in cannabis.
“When we were a movement, and when you had people breaking the law to help chronically ill patients, it was much more of a female face,” Black told Yahoo Finance Canada in an interview last month. “It was all young women that were working with me. It was pretty much women in their early 20s that were willing to work for a very small amount of money.”
She had an activist bent while attending a Vancouver high school in the early 1990s. For the record, the self-described “super nerd” with a 4.0 grade-point average waited until the end of her Grade 12 year to try cannabis.
Unable to pick between law or medicine after graduation, she thought it best to take a year off. Her next move was on-brand, if you buy into tie-dyed stereotypes about cannabis enthusiasts.
“I went on a Grateful Dead tour as soon as I graduated high school. I got the last year before Jerry Garcia died, which is kind of an epic end of a whole era. When I ran away on the Grateful Dead tour I learned about hemp. Hemp for fuel. Hemp for fibre. Hemp for fun. Hemp for medicine. Hemp for food,” Black said.
Upon her return to Vancouver in 1995, she gravitated to Marc Emery’s pioneering Hemp BC store. It was one of the few places where bongs, pipes and other cannabis paraphernalia was sold in an open retail environment at the time.
“I started showing up there because I loved the store. I was tidying and cleaning and volunteering until eventually they hired me,” Black said. “I started reading all the books. Some of them were about medical cannabis.”
Emery would emerge as Canada’s best-known cannabis advocate. Today, he is denying multiple allegations of sexual harassment from former store employees.
“Marc has always been verbally, sexually inappropriate. When I worked with him as a young woman in some ways he was my mentor, and he is a part of that path that got me to where I am now,” Black said.
“Marc never sexually assaulted me. If he had, I would be screaming about it from the rooftops. Until he turned on me on social media, calling me a traitor, Marc and I have always had a friendship. A distant friendship I would say.”
The Hemp BC store is a short walk from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, arguably ground zero for Canada’s opioid crisis. In 1995, it was in the throws of another epidemic. Transmission rates for HIV and AIDS were alarmingly high in the community, Black recalls.
Armed with a backpack full of cannabis, a pager, and an informative pamphlet, she and a friend started delivering on bicycles. Demand was high.
A phone call to the Hemp BC store put her in touch with an elderly bedridden woman desperate to give cannabis a try for pain relief. Black obliged, and watched the woman’s pain melt away.
“She was so angry that this plant had been kept away from her, and she had been lied to about it,” Black said. “It was at that moment I decided I was going to break the unjust law until it was changed.”
Anxious to see a medical cannabis system unburdened by restrictive laws, she moved to Amsterdam in 1996 before ending up in California after the passage of Proposition 215, a major victory for medical marijuana passed on Nov. 5, 1996.
At 21 years old, she opened the BC Compassion Club Society (BCCCS) on May 1, 1997. In the early days, Black remembers getting growers to front her cannabis a quarter-pound at a time.
“I knew growers through my work at Hemp BC,” she said. “I was being financed by cannabis growers.”
A July 24, 1997 televised interview with CBC News captured Black in the original BCCCS rented office space. Speaking via satellite, she defended the merits of medical cannabis, countering arguments from Bruce Rowsell, then-director of Health Canada’s Bureau of Drug Surveillance.
The comings and goings of downtrodden clientele, and the occasional smoke from Black’s office, prompted the landlord to rip up their lease after about six months. The BCCCS found a new home between a brewery and a chicken slaughterhouse, and then in the back of a hemp store, before landing at its current location on Commercial Drive.
Going to jail for publicly thumbing her nose at the law was a real possibility. Passing cop cars were a reminder that a raid could come at any moment.
“When they would go by we would often be terrified. We were always ready to save that stash if the cops showed up. We had plans for bugging out the back of the building with vehicles waiting. We used to carry around pounds of cannabis in these big kayak bags because you can roll them up and they are smell-proof,” Black said. “I was terrified, but I was willing to do it. I was planning on hunger-striking if they put me in jail.”
Lawyers advising on things like how to do patient intake in such a way that you can make a medical argument in court had her back. And a group of politically-connected gay men living with HIV and AIDS helped up her profile at fundraisers
“Those men really wrapped themselves around me and said, ‘You go girl. You come out of that cannabis closet. If they try to f*** with you. If they try and jail or arrest you. We will chain ourselves to you. We will chain ourselves to this facility,’” Black said. “I wasn’t alone. I had a lot of power.”
People in powerful places were taking notice. The Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs invited her to speak in 2002. Black accepted, and extended an invitation for Senators to tour her compassion club, which they did.
“I totally gave them shit. I was not polite and respectful the whole way through,” Black said of her remarks to the committee in the ballroom of a Vancouver hotel. “I said they had an opportunity to stand on the right side of history.”
The resulting Senate report would note, considerable expertise currently residing in the compassion clubs" and recommended that Health Canada launch clinical studies in cooperation with the clubs.
Senator Pierre Claude Nolin, who chaired the committee, would later nominate Black for a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her work.
Nolin died in 2015. Black fondly remembers him as “a man ahead of his time.”
Black first stepped towards the burgeoning corporate cannabis sector 10 years ago, accepting a role at a company called Cannasat, working on patient education for medical cannabis.
That company forged an agreement with Prairie Plant Systems Inc., which grew the first Health Canada-contracted crop of medical cannabis in an underground chamber inside the Trout Lake mine in Flin Flon, Man.
She bounced between the BCCCS and various corporate roles at companies including Bedrocan Canada Inc., before it was acquired by Tweed, now a division of Canopy Growth.
It’s been an uneasy transition at times, with some in the activist sphere expressing resentment on social media about Black’s decision to work for large licensed producers.
“The worst one was somebody who had been a friend and colleague. We were sort of old school cannabis outlaw colleagues.” she said. “He used to call me Shillary, which I actually think is very clever. But the other thing that he used to say all the time was that I was Tweed's ‘fluffer.’ I had to go research what ‘fluffer’ meant. I was pretty devastated and kind of gutted by that particular form of criticism because it is like public sexual humiliation. None of my male counterparts who went through the same transition as me experienced anything like that.”
Black’s new role is to drive Canopy’s patient advocacy efforts globally and forge best practices for diversity and inclusion as the world’s largest cannabis company enters new markets and grows in existing ones.
It’s about breaking down barriers for underrepresented groups inside Canopy, and doing the same for medical patients outside of the company.
Black is reluctant to get into what that will look like early on. She said she prefers to talk about her accomplishments down the road rather than her good intentions today.
What she will say is that she sees Canopy and its rivals maturing to the point where they can be more thoughtful about growth, and include a greater diversity of people in those plans.
“I have high hopes for this industry in terms of a social purpose mandate, and being the most conscious, generous and compassionate industry that exists in the world,” Black said. “It’s time to scale what I’ve done in Canada globally.”