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'Jeopardizing my children's lifestyle': Marijuana industry moms face a unique stigma

Mothers working in the marijuana industry face a unique stigma. Photo source: Getty Images.

When Chanda Macias’s 9-year-old son talks about his mother’s work, he speaks in code. She deals in medicine, she’s a doctor, and her place of work is a pharmacy. No further specifics allowed.

Macias is a doctor — she has a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular biology. But specifically, the medicine she works with is cannabis and her pharmacy is technically a dispensary in Washington, D.C.

“There’s certain words that he’s not allowed to say, period,” Macias told Yahoo Finance. “He’s not allowed to say pre-roll. He’s not allowed to really say any quote-unquote trigger word … I did this for his own protection.”

Macias’s house rules underscore the quandary that exist for many — and especially women and minorities — working in the cannabis space: The same individuals championing the nascent industry are, at times, throwing a veil over their work to mollify those whose views are still lodged in a pre-legalization mindset.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 4: Dr. Chanda Macias, MBA, shows off products at National Holistic Healing Center in Washington, DC on Tuesday October 04, 2016. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Macias, CEO of National Holistic Healing Center and a mother of four, runs a practice providing medicinal cannabis to patients in D.C., where both recreational and medical cannabis is legal. But she lives across the river in Prince George’s County, Maryland — a state with more restrictive, medical-only permissibility. She also doubles as chair of the board of Women Grow, a national organization connecting women working in the cannabis industry.

Macias said her biggest fear is that social services would appear at her door one day if the wrong person heard her son say, out of context, that she works with marijuana. It hasn’t happened to her yet, but the fear persists. (A spokesperson for the Maryland Department of Human Services told Yahoo Finance that employment in the cannabis industry alone would not be enough to trigger CPS involvement — there would have to be allegations of child maltreatment or substantial risk of harm.)

“What’s so insane about it is that I might not even be a patient, but I work in the industry, and if my child says, ‘Oh, you know my mom works in the cannabis industry or at a dispensary,’ then it’s a problem,” Macias said.

‘I don’t want to risk it’

Macias isn’t alone in her concerns.

Marlo Ramirez, director of talent at California-based cannabis brand Canndescent, said she’s stopped wearing clothes bearing her company’s name to her daughter’s doctor’s appointments. Once, when she showed up in the waiting room outfitted in a Canndescent shirt and sweater, a nurse practitioner warned her not to tell the doctor she worked in the cannabis industry.

“She told me that if you test positive for cannabis, that doctors will not give you any kind of opioid-related pain medicine,” Ramirez told Yahoo Finance. The veracity of that claim is shaky: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that when prescribing for chronic pain, “Clinicians should not test for substances for which results would not affect patient management or for which implications for patient management are unclear” — including THC, the psychoactive substance in cannabis.

The experience nevertheless rattled Ramirez.

“I choose not to [wear those clothes], because I don’t want to risk it,” she said. “I don’t want to be in a place where I have to be in a compromised position when I have to care for my daughter.”

To date, 10 states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use of cannabis, while 33 states and D.C. have approved medical marijuana. But with cannabis still federally illegal and designated as a Schedule I drug — or considered to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse,” alongside substances including heroin — there’s still a ways to go before the cultural shift around cannabis is complete.

The House Financial Services Committee voted 45-15 Thursday, March 28, 2019, to advance a bill after amending it to include provisions to provide a safe harbor for insurance companies and improve access of financial services to minority and women-owned cannabis businesses. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

“It’s very hard, for sure, for people in the industry to be taken seriously, and to not be seen in some ways as outlaws — and that status as outlaw has always been more problematic for women than it has for men,” Wendy Chapkis, professor of sociology and a researcher on drug policy reform at the University of Southern Maine, told Yahoo Finance. “I have heard a lot of women in the industry, particularly in the medical marijuana industry over the years, say, I’ve been much more low-key than I would have otherwise in terms of my activism.”

Chapkis said child custody concerns were cited by many women she’s spoken with in the industry, although she hasn’t personally known anyone who outright lost custody due exclusively to cannabis-related employment.

Jennifer Ani, child welfare law specialist, told Yahoo Finance she’s argued about 25 cases over the last five years across multiple states, in which parents had custody claims brought against them at least partially concerning their employment in the cannabis industry and associated exposure to the substance.

Caroline Levy, a Massachusetts-based family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, hasn’t personally encountered that scenario yet.

“But I anticipated it coming up,” she added. “There’s already been … some conversations about how to handle even just a parent who is recreationally using marijuana. I think when you then have the added fact of somebody who’s working in the industry, you have to balance out the law, versus the stigma that’s going to be attached to it.”

‘Still on the down-low’

To be sure, perceptions around cannabis consumption and policies have been shifting over the past couple decades, with more than 60% of Americans supporting legalization as of October 2018, according to a Pew Research Study. That’s about double the support pro-cannabis policy received back in 2000.

But acceptance in theory often looks different than it does in practice. And oftentimes, misconceptions about those working in the industry have come from those closest to the workers themselves.

“The group I felt most judged by throughout my time building my business has definitely been other mothers,” Jane West, CEO of an eponymously titled cannabis lifestyle brand based in Colorado, told Yahoo Finance. “There are other mothers within our network who don’t see cannabis the way we do, as a wellness product … they believe that my efforts are leading towards having their children have access to harmful drugs, which simply isn’t the case.”

Even proximity to CBD-based goods — or very low-level THC end products that have been primarily marketed as health and wellness rather than recreational products — can evoke marijuana’s illicit past, West added.

“When I am now asked about [cannabis products], it’s still on the down-low,” West said. “It’s still kind of that mom waiting until everyone else has gone to be like, ‘You know, I wanted to buy this cream for my tennis elbow. And I wasn’t really sure what I should do.”

‘Here’s mom going into the industry’

For Gia Morón, New York-based executive vice president for Women Grow, trying to explain to her own daughter she was entering the industry was the hardest part. She began working in cannabis communications after a more than 15-year run working in media relations at Goldman Sachs.

Originally, Morón had been of the mindset that cannabis consumption was something to be avoided. However, her perceptions changed in lockstep with news media coverage that increasingly unfurled misconceptions about the substance and the industry, she said.

So after years of telling her daughter not to smoke or consume cannabis, she joined the industry herself.

“Even in her first year of college, she wasn’t very open to me doing it, and was a bit confused,” Morón told Yahoo Finance about her daughter, now 24-years-old. “For the very thing I told her not to do, here’s mom going into the industry.”

While Morón has now reconciled her work with her daughter, she acknowledges the preconceived notions that are still assigned to both the industry and those working in it. But that shouldn’t be a barrier for mothers, women, or anyone else to enter, she said.

“One of the reasons I pushed myself to work hard in this space was because I wanted to be an example for my daughter, and for my nieces and nephews,” Morón said. “They’ve seen my career, and they know that I wouldn’t go into something if I didn’t fully believe in it, and I do.”

For her part, Macias agrees.

“I got a lot of pushback from my community for jeopardizing my children's lifestyle and what people thought was, you know, pretty selfish of me. And what I thought was that I was the one who could deliver healthcare the way it needed to be delivered,” Macias said. “This is what I was in school for. This is my calling, this is my passion.”

Emily McCormick is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @emily_mcck

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