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Maryland’s medical marijuana rollout was blasted for its lack of diversity. Meet a woman helping to change that.

Venushki “Venus” Hemachandra has made it her mission to diversify the often white and male dominated medical marijuana industry.

The founder and owner of Herbiculture, a 4,000-square-foot dispensary housed in a business park in Burtonsville, Montgomery County, says she’s used to surprising people by going against age, gender and ethnicity expectations. Already licensed as a dispenser, the Randallstown resident, 31, last year became one of the few women in Maryland also licensed as a grower and processor. She’s now poised to open just such a facility in Baltimore.

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“When it comes down to being a young woman, no one expects us to know what we’re doing,” she said.

Venushki Hemachandra, owner of Herbiculture, speaks with general manager Dominic Cucina, right, as Ryan Briese packages the product inside her dispensary in Burtonsville.
Venushki Hemachandra, owner of Herbiculture, speaks with general manager Dominic Cucina, right, as Ryan Briese packages the product inside her dispensary in Burtonsville. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Hemachandra’s experiences offer one view into the often difficult trajectories of female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color as they enter Maryland’s young medical cannabis industry, which was established with a largely white, male ownership cadre — particularly among growers — but has been pushed to diversify.

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The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission has faced scrutiny and lawsuits after the first 15 companies chosen in 2016 to grow cannabis were all white-owned. Shortly after, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered a study that determined Black, Indigenous, and people of color, what’s known as [BIPOC], and women were disadvantaged in the industry. In 2018, state lawmakers ordered a second round of licenses and directed the medical cannabis commission to award bonus points in consideration of businesses owned by the BIPOC community or those from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.

The commission amended its regulations and the application process to include more diversity-related questions, according to David Torres, a spokesman for the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.

For the second round, the commission “broadly publicized” the new application period, he said. Officials hosted more than two dozen education and outreach events that were free to the public. Grants were also awarded to small businesses to educate and train potential applicants. Subsequently, more than 90% of the 200 second-round applicants were people of color or women owned-business candidates, according to Torres.

“The [commission] will continue to evaluate further opportunities to increase diversity, including holding public workshops and soliciting input from the public,” Torres said.

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In October 2020, Hemachandra received her grow and process licenses. She was initially denied these two licenses but was granted a dispensary license when she applied during the first round in 2016. A total of eight processor and three grower licenses were awarded during the second round — all to women and people of color, according to the commission.

Medical marijuana is big business in Maryland with 123,376 certified patients and $48.1 million in dispensary sales last year, according to the commission.

Hemachandra has her eyes on a 96,000-square-foot building that would employ 100 people when the processing space is fully up and running.

“I have always wanted to have a business in Baltimore,” said Hemachandra, who declined to disclose the location of the potential facility as the deal for the location had not been finalized. She plans to open it in its first phase early next year.

Hemachandra knows the work required to open a business in an industry that can be particularly tough on cash- and connection-strapped people from marginalized groups.

She chose Montgomery County to open her dispensary because the county did not require her to purchase the property that would house the dispensary — a stipulation that a number of counties have. Leasing the property allowed Hemachandra to open for $650,000, she said.

“Leasing reduced a lot of upfront money,” she said, adding that she has never gotten a bank loan for her business. Instead, all the funding has come from private investors: “That’s all we had.”

The cannabis industry offers opportunity but still has a way to go, according to Chris Walsh, CEO of Marijuana Business Daily, a Denver-based business news publication covering the recreational and medical cannabis industry.

“There are some tremendous, encouraging success stories of minority women who have started and grown successful cannabis businesses, but they are unfortunately too far and few between given various barriers including a lack of access to capital,” said Walsh.

“The good news is that the industry and lawmakers across the country are embracing ways to bolster diversity and create a more equitable playing field,” Walsh said. “There’s a long way to go, and it remains to be seen how far we can move the needle. But I’m heartened that it’s being taken seriously.”

Hemachandra’s fast trajectory into the industry started with her father, Kuda. He and her sister, Pam, run the company’s Canadian arm, where the business started, while she runs the operation in the U.S.

She remembers when she first started out — almost 10 years ago in Canada — trying to secure investments from “old white men” in cigar lounges.

“They would look at us like ‘You got lucky’,” she recalled. “It’s scary to ask strangers to believe in us.”

Love brought Hemachandra to Maryland and eventually to the burgeoning medical marijuana landscape here. Her husband, Shreemal, who is now the company’s chief operating officer, lived in Maryland when she met him at a dinner party in Maryland in 2008. The two married in 2015 in Sri Lanka and settled in Randallstown.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are part of her company’s mission, said Hemachandra, who is of Sri Lankan descent.

Of her 18 employees, 11 are either women or BIPOC. Three of four senior managers are either women or BIPOC. She currently co-chairs DREAM, the diversity and inclusion initiative of the Maryland Medical Dispensary Association, where she has helped establish mentoring programs and educational opportunities for aspiring industry workers. She is on the board of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association.

“Gender plays a big role in bias,” she said, recalling “countless” examples of being dismissed and overlooked in the industry because of her gender. “It happens to this day.”

Hemachandra attributes her desire to open the doors for more women to her 2-year-old daughter, Amaya.

“I think a lot of what I do — making sure there is equity — it’s for her,” she said. “It’s super important for me. I want to work toward a more equitable space for women.”

Julea Belt started two years ago as a receptionist. Now she’s on the management track.

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“She’s a strong woman who is always willing to teach you how to get your point across,” Belt, 23, said. “She is very organized and driven, and she is one of the kindest women I have ever met. She makes it easy to follow her.”

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Belt got into the industry in part because a family member recovering from cancer was a customer at the dispensary. One day while dropping him off there, she struck up a conversation with Hemachandra.

“It was very fresh to see that she would speak to me as an owner,” she recalled.

Belt also appreciates Hemachandra’s commitment to diversity and mentoring.

“When you apply here, it’s like somebody is giving you an unbiased chance,” Belt said. “She believes there is always room to grow.”

Hemachandra’s business has also been a refuge for employees like Michael Chippi, 61, who has two felony drug possession convictions in Pennsylvania from four decades ago.

Before joining Herbiculture as a patient care specialist, he said, he thought all he was able to do was work in construction because of his background.

“These people gave me a chance,” he said. “They have helped out people like me who have done their time and paid the price.”

Hemachandra said she has hired three employees with criminal records since opening the dispensary.

Chippi said he hopes to continue working for the company when it expands to the grow and production facility where he can use his “green thumb” and learn more about the growing aspect of the industry.

“This has been a means to an end,” he said. “It’s great.”

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