When California voters legalized recreational marijuana with the passage of Proposition 64 in 2016, the move caught the attention of big investors around the world. Eager to reap the rewards of what would become the world’s largest market for regulated cannabis at the time, speculators poured untold amounts of money into the state to claim their rights. But while Prop. 64 created new opportunities for adult cannabis, it also turned an existing medical marijuana industry upside down that had served California patients for two decades.
California’s murky regulatory environment under Proposition 215, the 1996 ballot initiative that legalized medical marijuana, favored small independent operators over large corporations fearful of risking large investments. Many of these former entrepreneurs saw full legalization as a way out of the shadows and were eager to participate in the new regulated economy. But it wasn’t long before they realized that deep-pocketed companies with the resources to secure the limited number of licenses and properly zoned commercial properties were threatening their way of life.
Women take their place in a nascent industry
As legalization loomed on the horizon, filmmaker Chris J. Russo, the director of the new documentary Lady Buds, knew that California was on the verge of a major economic and societal transformation. And she was struck by “the number of female entrepreneurs speaking out in the cannabis industry seemed more than any other market I’ve ever seen,” Russo wrote in her director’s statement for the film. “I felt like cannabis was still a ‘sibling’ culture, so when I noticed women owning this space, I was intrigued and frankly surprised.
Russo was introduced to cannabis as a medicine at an early age when a family member used the herb during breast cancer treatment in the 1990s. As she grew older, she identified cannabis with creativity and the counterculture of hippies and rock’n’roll. So when she realized that traditional California cannabis operators were on the verge of being sidelined by very wealthy interests, she discovered the subject of her next film as well.
Lady Buds follows the journey to legalization experienced by second-generation cannabis grower Chiah Rodriques; Sue Taylor, a retired African-American Catholic school principal who owns a septuagenarian dispensary; Felicia Carbajal, queer activist for Latinx; serial entrepreneur Karyn Wagner; and alumni of the Humboldt cannabis community, Pearl Moon and Dr. Joyce Centofanti, known collectively and affectionately as the Bud Sisters.
“What I found was a community of courageous women, many of whom had risked their freedom to cultivate the plant, and realized that women had been at the center of this movement for decades,” said Russo. “I won the trust of an ‘outlaw’ community to tell their stories that I knew would soon be gone.”
A stacked deck against independent operators
The film documents Rodriques’ struggle to obtain a license for his small Mendocino County cannabis farm and Taylor’s rise after working in Oakland, California’s groundbreaking medical cannabis retailer Harborside, under the tutelage of the co- founder Steve DeAngelo to start his own dispensary. Carbajal, whose mandate in the cannabis world includes the illegal delivery of drugs to alleviate the suffering of patients dying of AIDS, is working to ensure that the new industry includes space for entrepreneurs from marginalized communities and victims of AIDS. failure of the war on drugs. And Wagner and the Bud Sisters explore every bit of a path to get their products into the hands of consumers.
As Russo researched and produced Lady Buds, the award-winning independent filmmaker saw elements of herself in the women featured in the project. And for her, it’s a familiar place.
“The films I make have always been informed by my experience of life as a foreigner, as a woman, as a lesbian who has had to fight for her own rights and her visibility in our society. I felt a personal and imperative connection to tell the story of Lady Buds, and it made sense to frame it from a woman’s perspective to provide a contrast to the male-dominated and smoker stereotypes perpetuated by the media, ”Russo explained. “I wanted to paint a picture of powerful, courageous and passionate women like we’ve never seen before, as the superheroes they appeared to be, to inspire others to take risks and achieve their dreams.”
Lady Buds premieres Thursday, April 29 as a selection for the 2021 Hot Docs International Canadian Documentary Festival. Tickets to listen to the feature are available online.