Cannabis advocate and educator Beth Waterfall-McSweeney works a 9 to 5 job as a senior writer for one of the biggest law firms in the country. She also runs her own marketing consulting business and organizes monthly educational and networking events for professionals working in the cannabis industry.
She grew up in a conservative small town in Central Massachusetts and led a rather sheltered and uneventful life through college. Her father was a dentist and small business owner in town, and her mother was the business manager. They emphasized to their three kids the importance of good grades and to always be on their best behavior so as to not tarnish the reputation of the family business, which served local police officers, members of the clergy, town administrators and teachers. But Beth was always the most rebellious Waterfall.
She started using marijuana within the first couple weeks of her sophomore year of high school in the typical fashion, with friends in the woods at the Friday night football game. And because she used it and experienced its effects for herself, she learned quickly that marijuana wasn't the horrible drug that her parents, teachers, government and school programs like D.A.R.E. had told her it was. After high school, she went to a conservative Catholic college where alcohol and cocaine consumption were rampant, and Beth continued to use cannabis, often by herself while friends stayed out for another late night of binge drinking.
Now, after a 15-year career in professional services marketing, and 22 years of regular marijuana use, she’s founder of Massachusetts Mothers for Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana, Chair of Women Grow: Boston, the former editor of the New England Cannabis Network’s “Weed Blog,” and is actively consulting to multiple clients in the cannabis industry.
She’s got a lot going on professionally, but says she finally understands what it means when people say that it isn’t work when you have passion and love what you do. She commutes to Boston from her South Shore home for her law firm job during the day, and then she does what she loves to do at night and on the weekends. It's the busiest and the most exciting time in her life.
Joyce Brown: What’s the inspiration behind your marketing consultancy? Why cannabis?
Beth Waterfall-McSweeney: After college, marketing seemed to be the area that I gravitated toward professionally. I’m an artist, a reader and writer, and I love being with people and solving problems and puzzles. After a year “finding myself” in San Diego after college, I came back to Massachusetts and started in marketing for a publishing company, then followed the money to law firm and financial services marketing, which was dry, boring stuff. But I was raised to climb that career ladder, to want to make a lot of money, and in 2014 I became director of marketing at an accounting firm. However, I quickly realized this isn't what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. The big title and paycheck had me feeling the most miserable and anxious I’d ever felt. My job was literally killing me.
I started panicking about how the next step in my career would be a Chief Marketing Officer position. I didn't want that type of job. I want to work on the creative marketing stuff – not delegate it out while I work on budgets and business plans to help make a bunch of rich men richer. I don't have a passion for working with accountants or a passion for accountancy. Also, I don't have kids, so my career is a big part of my life, and it's important to me how I spend my day. I need a job that fulfills me – and, I’ve realized, one that does some good in the world.
My husband and I planned it out, prepared and saved, and I quit my job without having anything else lined up other than to let the wind blow me in whatever direction it was going to blow. Not knowing what would happen was more appealing and comforting than knowing my next job would be a six-figure spot in the C-Suite. Part of my preparation to essentially start over at 37 years old was to put my website together and talk to people about how I could help with marketing services. I’d spent 15 years curating all these professional skills, relationships, and marketing expertise, and I truly enjoy marketing, especially the writing and creative problem-solving side of it. I didn't want to throw all of the experience and investments away. I just needed a new home for them.
During that summer of unemployment and “finding myself” I started thinking about things that I wanted to learn about; where would I want to work, who do I want to be, what do I want to do. I love cannabis, but I thought – and a therapist had confirmed for me – there's no career in it. A college-educated professional can't possibly get a respectable job near cannabis! I don't want to be a drug dealer! Foolish. But one July night I read an NPR article about medical marijuana in Massachusetts. I knew we had a medical program here, but I didn't understand it because I’d never looked into it. I thought it was for people with very severe conditions, as it certainly is, but in Massachusetts, patients can also get a recommendation for a condition that drastically affects quality of life. I have a couple of sports injuries; I get migraines. I was suffering from panic attacks and anxiety, particularly going through this whole career change and wondering what I’m doing with my life. Thank goodness, I could get a prescription.
I'm somebody who likes to understand things. I'm a researcher, a problem solver. Once I started really learning about cannabis, I kept reading, peeling the layers of the onion and learning shocking stuff like how the government has a patent on cannabis as a neuroprotectant, which angered me because my grandmother had dementia and I thought of how perhaps the weed I’d had in my purse each time I visited her maybe could have helped her. I learned about prohibition’s racist origins and how correctional facilities are still making money off of prisoners who are facing outrageous sentences for nonviolent marijuana offenses. I learned that THC kills cancer cells and thought of my dear friend who died from cancer when we were 22 and how I’d give anything to go back and share one last spliff with her. My mind was blown. I’d been lied to and was angry, both for being lied to and also because I hadn’t previously taken it upon myself to learn the truth. I got impassioned about it and felt a duty to educate others.
I knew that a law firm that I’d worked for — and still had really good relationships with — was developing a medical marijuana practice. I contacted one of my attorney friends there and told him I was starting a marketing consulting business and learning about cannabis. He suggested I keep learning more about it, and he would make some client introductions for me.
The fire was lit. I was super curious; I wanted to understand it especially if I was going to service clients in that industry. And holy crap, did I have a lot to learn! I took classes from Ellen Brown, a master grower and cannabis educator who speaks at all the cannabis conferences; she's currently working at the first woman-owned dispensary in Massachusetts and I consider her a mentor.
I met other women in these classes that were talking about business ideas and using cannabis for wellness. I learned that there are going to be jobs for people that need to grow and transport marijuana products, and jobs for people to market the products, make the products, insure them, secure them, regulate them. I realized there was so much opportunity. I love the cannabis industry and can’t sleep at night sometimes with all the ideas I have. Now, it's all I talk about.
Joyce: As you know, Question 4 passed in Massachusetts and marijuana is now legalized. How involved were you in the campaign to support this initiative?
Beth: I learned pretty quickly that to be effective in the industry, to really understand it, you need to be an activist. And, Mary Jane needs us to be activists because people of power have lied about her for more than 80 years. My first activism was standing outside a hospital in Boston last Christmas holding posters about medical marijuana and trying to get the doctors to take it seriously. This fall I was out again with a “Yes on 4” sign at South Station after work. People need to see professionals embracing marijuana, and we definitely need more women coming out of the green closet to help normalize it. I look like a soccer mom.
Through connections with Women Grow, I met a couple of women attorneys in the Boston cannabis community who actually helped to write the initiative. I then got introduced to the marketing research firm that was helping the campaign, and we had a brainstorm session about how to reach more women and get them to vote yes on Question 4. Of course, moms are a pretty powerful population when it comes to elections.
I don’t have children, but I certainly know mothers in the cannabis industry now who were or remain afraid to admit they were curious about the industry because they don't want to be perceived as bad moms. We realized we had an opportunity to give information and a voice to moms who felt like they didn’t have a voice, or that they should be ashamed, before legalization. We developed Massachusetts Mothers for Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana. I'm the founder.
Through my involvement with the campaign and this new moms group, I had the unforgettable opportunity to host an event with guest speaker and renowned world travel expert Rick Steves. He is a big supporter of drug policy reform, and he has a worldly perspective on systems in different countries, particularly Europe. He has a realistic-pragmatic approach, more sensible than what we have in America. The War on Drugs is a horrible failure in many ways.
I did a little bit of canvassing, too, attended as many campaign press conferences and community informational meetings as possible, and did as much social media as I could every day and night. The highlight of campaign season for me was a couple of weeks before election night. I did a debate on local radio with the campaign’s communications director joining me in support of Massachusetts ballot Question 4, and a state representative and Plymouth County District Attorney in opposition. I felt like I put the Plymouth County D.A. in his place a little bit and got some good feedback. Experience from all those years working with lawyers has certainly come into handy recently!
Joyce: There’s still much work to be done, but why do you believe the stigma about marijuana use has been so hard to shake?
Beth: Many reasons. Medical marijuana has its credibility, but at the same time, our federal government says that marijuana is as dangerous as heroin. When we hear all these stories of people dying from opioid overdoses, people are equating that to cannabis because our government is telling us that it's the same level of dangerousness. It’s absurd, but that's what we've been told. For more than 80 years we've heard that cannabis is dangerous for us. It's something that black men use to rape our white women; it's something that Mexicans use to take over America; it's something that hippies are doing to avoid going to work.
We've had decades of terrible information from really powerful people. And we're human beings; it's in our blood to accept the information we've been raised with from people and entities we’re supposed to trust. Just like the sky is blue, we've been told that cannabis is evil. It's just wrong information. But it makes me think of one of my favorite quotes from George Bernard Shaw. He said, “All great truths begin as blasphemies." I think we're still at that blasphemous stage with cannabis, but the truth will prevail. It's about education now – educating the consumers and educating our communities. It’s been an education for me, and for my family. But I've seen people change their minds and I experience the stigma coming down, just like in other legal states.
In Colorado, their Department of Public Health is reporting that teen marijuana use is down. I think that's due to kids passing on grass because that's what grandma uses. It's being normalized, the taboo’s going away. There are more people like me who wear suits and don't look like stereotypical stoners, so when we talk about the industry, people see a professional person with a job who can use marijuana and have a successful life. People like me are the face of this new industry. But we have to be advocates and educators, and to continue the mission of honesty and compassion that decades of freedom fighters before us have led.
Joyce: From a marketing perspective, how are marijuana marketers going to overturn those old stereotypes?
Beth: I think if you're an effective marketer, you can take any client and do it well. As far as marketers being a part of that breaking of the stigma, I think it's about treating the industry like any other industry. I tell my clients that your website has to look professional. You can't have typos, blurry pictures, or illegible fonts. It has to look like a real business if you want it to be taken seriously. You need to provide accurate and useful information, and you can’t have a website and hand-cut business cards with stoned out cartoon characters, or green pot leaves everywhere.
I also think what's going to be effective at normalizing the industry and paving the way for more companies to be able to participate is to take it seriously and approach it as a legitimate business and help the industry emerge from the shadows. The sooner we can treat it as a regular business, the sooner it will no longer be a fringe industry. Marketers should also advise clients to be good members of the community and to get involved in community and charitable causes, just like businesses in other industries do. Maybe sponsor your town's soccer team if they'll let you do it. Just asking is a step at normalizing it. Hold events at your business to welcome and familiarize people with your business, be a member of your local Chamber of Commerce, arrange and speak at community events. Get involved and be a part of the educational movement. Once people understand marijuana, they won’t be afraid of it.
Joyce: It seems like women have the leading edge in the marijuana business right now. Why do you think this industry is so appealing to female entrepreneurs?
Beth: We have Prohibition to thank for it. Every industry has been built on tradition, but we don't have a tradition yet in this industry professionally. We're building something new, and women are seizing the opportunity to take that seat at the table, to be taken seriously, to be owners, to be leaders.
Women are the key buyers and account for 85% of all consumer purchases. We're the primary purchasers of over the counter medicines, and we're even the main purchasers of alcohol. We influence companies, and we can own them, and we can run them. And there’s an incredible need! Women – and people of all gender identities – have the chance now to transfer their skills into this new industry. I had a boring marketing job before, but I have real expertise that I can transfer into cannabis right at the beginning and build a business that helps other businesses grow. Ladies, we have experience, and the sky is truly the limit right now for those brave enough to dive into the industry while it’s still being formed.
Women are being motivated by each other, too. Groups are popping up, like Women Grow where women are collaborating, working together and bringing different skill sets and backgrounds to help each other and take ownership in the industry. And on December 8, Women Grow was named the Cannabis Industry Organization of the Year at the Clover Leaf Cannabis Business Awards, further showing that this group of predominantly women professionals is taking the reins and building a new industry that embraces feminine values such as inclusion, compassion, kindness and wellness.
Joyce: Tell me more about Women Grow; what is it and what do you do?
Beth: I’m the Chair of Women Grow here in Boston. It was created by Jane West and Jazmin Hupp in Denver in 2014 to connect, educate, and inspire the next generation of cannabis industry leaders. For New England currently, we have chapters in Boston and Burlington, Vermont.
We started the Boston chapter in January 2016, had our first event in April, and since then we've done an event on the first Thursday of every month. That goes for all the chapters across the country: Every Thursday night in 40-something cities, thousands of women (and yes, some men) are getting together and talking about different cannabis industry topics. In Boston we've had a couple of career-focused events, and talked about cannabis chemistry, wellness, and lots of talk about our laws and the Q4 ballot initiative. We also had a fun “high tea” event just for moms in July.
Remember the lawyer colleague that I mentioned earlier, the one that recommended that I start learning more about marijuana and the industry? We've stayed in touch and have been helpful to each other. We even did an event at the law firm I used to work for in October. It was fun and surreal going back to a former employer’s office as the weed expert and having one of the most influential corporate attorneys in Boston on my panel. It's amazing how things come full circle.
Our December event was more of a celebration, a social cocktail party. Kim Napoli, campaign outreach coordinator with the Yes on 4 campaign, spent some time discussing what's next for Massachusetts and we raffled off a bunch of fun prizes and raised money for Parents 4 Pot’s holiday gift drive. In January we're doing a couple events about home growing, since it’s now legal for adults in Massachusetts to grow 6 plants (up to 12 per household). However, people can't buy recreational cannabis in Massachusetts until 2018. We’re also planning a half-day conference about running businesses and connecting people with jobs. All of our events have an educational component and, of course, a networking aspect. People want to learn and want to connect.
Joyce: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Beth: Before opening my eyes to the cannabis industry, I dreaded someone asking me that in a job interview or at a family function. I didn't have a real answer because I didn't know. It made me feel like a loser. I was miserable getting myself further and deeper into a professional services marketing career where I didn't see many options to mix things up in a responsible fashion. I have a mortgage, for goodness’ sake.
But now I can say with great confidence and enthusiasm — something I'd always struggled to have in previous jobs — that I know the answer: I see myself continuing to advocate for fair and responsible legislation surrounding both medical and adult-use cannabis. The fight is so far from over, and this plant lit a fire of activism in me. And I think that my consulting work is a kind of activism, too, because I want good businesses, particularly those run by women and the people most affected by the war on drugs, to be successful, to be influential, and to bring good jobs to our communities.
I'd also like to own a cannabis lounge in the heart of Boston, and maybe branch out to Worcester and Providence, too. I love planning events and hosting parties, and just hanging and laughing with kind people, good wine, and delicious food. The sky's the limit with this industry.
Visit www.bethwaterfall.com to learn more about Beth's cannabis consulting and marketing services.