“When it comes to being a young woman, none of us expect us to know what we’re doing,” she said.

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Hemachandra’s experience provides a glimpse into the often difficult paths women and color entrepreneurs take as they step into the fledgling medical cannabis industry in Maryland, which was started with a largely white cadre of male owners – especially among farmers – but has been pushed to diversify .

The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission came under scrutiny and brought to justice after the first 15 companies selected to grow cannabis in 2016 were all white-owned. Shortly thereafter, Governor Larry Hogan (R) ordered a study that found minorities and women in the industry to be disadvantaged. In 2018, lawmakers ordered a second round of licensing and ordered the Medical Cannabis Commission to award bonus points to help achieve racial and ethnic diversity.

According to David Torres, a spokesman for the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, the commission has changed its rules and application process to include issues related to diversity.

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For the second round, the commission “made the new application deadline widely known”, he said. Officials hosted more than two dozen educational and outreach events that were free to the public. Small businesses also received grants to educate and train potential applicants. As a result, according to Torres, more than 90 percent of the 200 applicants in the second round were black people or applicants owned by women.

“The [commission] I will continue to explore other ways to increase diversity, including holding public workshops and soliciting public input, ”said Torres.

In October 2020, Hemachandra received her growth and process licenses. She was initially refused these two licenses, but was granted a pharmacy license when applying for the first round in 2016. In the second round, a total of eight processing and three producer licenses were issued – all to women and the colored commission.

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

Hemachandra has his sights set on a 96,000-square-foot building that will employ 100 people when the processing room is fully functional.

“I’ve always wanted to have a business in Baltimore,” said Hemachandra, who refused to disclose the location of the potential facility as the deal was still ongoing. She plans to open it in the first phase early next year.

Hemachandra knows the work it takes to start a business in an industry that can be particularly difficult for people with money and connection problems from marginalized groups.

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She chose Montgomery County to open her pharmacy because the county didn’t ask her to purchase the property the pharmacy would be on – a condition that a number of counties have. By leasing the property, Hemachandra was able to open for $ 650,000, she said.

“Leasing cut a lot of money upfront,” she said, adding that she has never got a bank loan for her business. Instead, all of the funding was provided by private investors: “That was all we had.”

The cannabis industry offers opportunity, but there is still a long way to go, according to Chris Walsh, executive director of Marijuana Business Daily, a Denver-based business news publication dedicated to the recreational and medicinal cannabis industries.

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

“The good news is that industry and lawmakers across the country are looking for ways to increase diversity and create a more equitable playing field,” said Walsh. “There is still a long way to go and it remains to be seen how far we can move the needle. But I am encouraged that it be taken seriously. “

Hemachandra’s quick path into the industry began with her father, Kuda. He and her sister Pam run the Canadian branch of the company, which started business while she runs operations in the United States.

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She remembers when she started attracting investments from “old white men” in cigar lounges in Canada almost 10 years ago.

“You’d look at us like you’re lucky,” she recalled. “It’s scary to ask strangers to believe in us.”

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

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

Of its 18 employees, 11 are either women or minorities. Three out of four executives are either women or minorities. She is co-chair of Dream, the Maryland Medical Dispensary Association’s diversity and inclusion initiative, where she has helped establish mentoring programs and educational opportunities for aspiring industrial workers. She is a board member of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association.

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“Gender plays a huge role in bias,” she said, recalling “myriad” examples of being fired and overlooked in the industry because of their gender. “It still happens to this day.”

Hemachandra credits her 2-year-old daughter Amaya with her desire to open doors to more women.

“I think a lot of what I do – to make sure there is justice – is for them,” she said. “It’s super important to me. I want to work towards a more equitable space for women. “

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

“She is a strong woman who is always ready to teach you how to get your point across,” said the 23-year-old Belt. “She is very organized and dedicated and one of the nicest women I have ever met. She makes it easy to follow her. “

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Belt came into the industry in part because a family member who had recovered from cancer was a customer at the pharmacy. One day when she was dropping him off there, she started a conversation with Hemachandra.

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

Belt also values ​​Hemachandra’s commitment to diversity and mentoring.

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

Hemachandra’s business has also been a haven for employees like Michael Chippi, 61, who has had two drug abuse convictions in Pennsylvania in four decades.

Before joining Herbiculture as a patient care specialist, he believed that because of his background, he could only work in construction.

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

Hemachandra said she has hired three people with criminal records since the pharmacy opened.

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

“This was a means to an end,” he said. “It is great.”