At the dawn of legal marijuana, Lisa Campbell is determined to make women a key part of the business.
“The cannabis industry is predominately run by white men,” says Ms. Campbell, who is so passionate about her mission, she rhymes off related statistics without missing a beat. Women, she says, occupy just 5 per cent of publicly traded licensed cannabis producers’ boards, compared with 12 per cent of other companies on the TSX.
As chief executive of Lifford Cannabis Solutions, a nine-month old subsidiary of her family’s wine and spirits agency of the same name, which essentially functions as a distributor, she is one of few female leaders in the emerging space. In her role, Ms. Campbell helps companies navigate the cannabis industry and guides their products to shelves across the country within the legal market.
But before becoming a boss in the business, the 35-year-old was already a leading proponent for cannabis legalization. She’s the co-founder of the Green Market, a series of underground pop-ups – which would reveal their locations the day of – where people could buy infused edible products. “When I first crossed over, a huge concern to me was, everyone’s gonna call me a sellout. Now that I’m in a legal business, I’m focused on getting everyone around me legalized. Before, I was just breaking the law.”
Her phone buzzes. It’s a text from a B.C. cannabis grower who has a large profile in what is known as “the grey market” – illegal but operating almost out in the open – and is ready to go legit. This is what Ms. Campbell does, leveraging her network to bring existing brands to market, working with entrepreneurs who want to transition from the underground economy but may lack the skills or the capital to navigate legalization.
But Ms. Campbell never set out to helm a company. After joining the family business, spending time everywhere from the warehouse to accounting, she began part-time work at Toronto’s Queen West Community Health Centre. Her experience there brought her to a realization. “I have this memory of being at the needle exchange and seeing people passed out from alcohol … and then walking down King Street to go to the Lifford Grand Tasting, this immaculate affair with all these businessmen with their suits and Rolexes, superdrunk, and being like, ‘I don’t want to sell alcohol. I don’t want to market alcohol.’”
Deciding to focus on harm reduction, in 2009 she quit the family business, finished her master’s degree and went to work full time at the health centre. This led to drug-policy activism and, eventually, the Green Market. Believing that legalization was inevitable, Ms. Campbell was drawn to what she saw as acts of civil disobedience, helping connect small-batch craft producers (predominately women) with clientele.
The family had been considering entering the cannabis market even while Ms. Campbell conducted the pop-ups, but the fact remained that they were illegal, which did not thrill her mom and dad. “There was a lot of tension,” Ms. Campbell recalls.
Then, in 2017, Constellation Brands, the U.S.-owned producer of Corona beer, started buying up what is likely to become a controlling share of Canopy Growth Corp., Canada’s largest licensed cannabis producer. “It kind of gave permission for the alcohol industry to say, ‘Okay, this is happening. This isn’t a trend we can ignore,’" Ms. Campbell says. At that point, Lifford created the subsidiary with her as CEO.
She started work in earnest at the subsidiary in January, 2018, but as with any reformed radical, Ms. Campbell is slightly nostalgic for her former freedom and street cred, although she sees the upside of having bought into the system.
“You shift your perspective as an activist from, ‘Everything is wrong, nothing’s good enough,’ to ‘Okay, legalization and government [aren’t] perfect. But there is an abundance of opportunity where everyone can be included.’”
Now, she is using her legitimized platform to help organizations such as Women Grow and Global Women’s Cannabis Summit, both of which she helped found, give visibility and access to marginalized people in the industry. “Initially, we focused on gender as our main issue for equity in cannabis. But as the cannabis industry continues to evolve, it’s pretty transparent that it’s very white-dominated,” she says.
“Lisa has always pushed for the diversity of minority groups, people of colour, in the cannabis sector,” says Tyler James, a friend of Ms. Campbell’s and director of the Ontario Cannabis Consumer & Retail Alliance. As a person of colour, he appreciated how Ms. Campbell “put me on her shoulders to assist the campaigns I’m working for, in terms of getting media attention, getting in front of the right policy-makers on the political side as well as the industry side.”
At the moment, Ms. Campbell is most excited about the partnerships she’s developing with women in Jamaica and Colombia.
“I’ve been really focusing on women, internationally, because I think this is an enormous opportunity, where borders are about to open. Now is the time for women all over the world who are in the cannabis industry to get serious, raise capital, so they can be at the same table as all these white dudes that are dominating the industry.”