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Maha Haq has dedicated her entire adult and professional life to the legal cannabis industry. Now, as Managing Partner of Highspitality Group and Director of Retail Strategy at Green Thumb Industries, Haq has emerged as a leading voice in cannabis consumption lounges, as well as college campuses across the country through a one-of-a-kind cannabis education program called Cannaclub. From beginning her cannabis career as a budtender to climbing up the corporate ladder as both a woman and first generation American, to accepting a position with one of the largest cannabis consumer packaged goods companies in the country, Haq shares the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of the cannabis industry and what needs to be done to destimagatize cannabis-use and to continue fostering inclusion. Plus, we spotlight an exciting new partner product release featuring live rosin gummies powered by AZUCA TiME INFUSION™ technology, provide a rundown of recent legalization efforts across the nation and more.
Q: You were an early adapter to cannabis having started working in the industry in 2012. How did you get involved?
A: I started working at medical dispensaries in the Los Angeles area shortly after turning 18. This was legal before adult-use was passed in California. I started as a budtender and went up the management ladder rather quickly, I was a GM of the shop by 19 and continued working as an operator throughout my early 20s.
But what really served as a catalyst was my mom, who actually caught me smoking weed as a teenager. At that time, I was a high school drop-out and essentially, excuse my language, a f***-up. So after my mom caught me in the act, she asked me to write a report explaining my actions and why cannabis should be acceptable. Since my mom is a clinical cancer researcher, I took the opportunity to talk about cancer and cannabis.
I went the full nine yards and treated this report as a school assignment I was actually passionate about. I cited medical journals I knew my mom would be familiar with. And when she saw my paper, she was extremely impressed and invited me to the hospital she worked at (and that I used to volunteer at) to present to a couple of patients and physicians on the benefits of cannabis for cancer patients. I even went as far as teaching some of the patients how to roll a joint *laughs*! Since that moment, I felt the need to continue educating patients on medical cannabis and decided to work at my local dispensary. My mom definitely sparked the scientific interest in me and her trust/acceptance brought me to where I am today. She knew from then that studying cannabis was my motivator, and it indeed is still today.
Q: As a managing partner of the Highspitality Group and through your work at Green Thumb Industries (GTI), you have been at the forefront of navigating strict compliance issues when it comes to social consumption lounges. What have been the most challenging aspects of operating legal lounges?
A: Most clients we had at Highspitality didn’t understand why consumption lounge compliance was met with such scrutiny by local officials. It has been a challenge because there are so many aspects that must be checked in consumption lounges. First off, in dispensaries, you don’t need to have complex ventilation or odor control, but that is absolutely needed in a social lounge. We have procedures for overconsumption as well, so if there is a customer who has consumed too much, we have protocols to alleviate adverse reactions and even pass-outs. At the Lowell café, which was the first to open in West Hollywood, they would see 8 to 10 guests pass out per week. The security personnel and staff have received first responder and paramedic training, a protocol set in place that no other sector of cannabis has to follow. We urge our clients to make sure they have designated staff trained as such.
Also, one of the biggest concerns from local officials is driving behind the wheel after leaving a consumption lounge. To mitigate these situations, we recommend our lounge clients to not carry edibles that often have delayed onset. Any edible or beverage offered must be a fast-acting product that has a quicker onset of 15 to 20 minutes, instead of traditional edibles that hit you in 90 minutes. We also suggest strict time limits for tables at these lounges, typically 90 minutes like restaurants, so we don’t want consumers just waiting the entire time for their cannabis edible to finally kick in. Otherwise, Highspitality highly recommends consumption lounges to offer more inhalable products like pre-rolls, flower buds (for bongs/pieces), and dabs.
Q: As the legalization of adult-use cannabis is becoming a reality for more states across the country, what do you envision will be the future for social consumption at events? Why are they so important for the industry and normalization?
A: There are so many innovative initiatives for social consumption taking place. One example was Grass Lands, a curated cannabis experience at the Outside Lands music festival in the Bay Area. The two-day festival with mainstream artists offered a social consumption space and brand activation section where attendees could actually purchase cannabis just like you’d purchase food or alcohol at a concert. I envision festivals like Outside Lands to continue hosting cannabis-friendly activations, and other large festivals like Rolling Loud to adopt similar formats. This sector will continue to grow – it just makes sense to have legal cannabis transactions at the festival site at a designated area like an alcohol bar.
Q: In 2018, you founded Cannaclub, a collegiate organization focusing on cannabis education, advocacy, and opportunities for the next generation. What are your biggest tips for young people hoping to explore and advance in careers in the cannabis industry?
A: If a student or anyone young comes up to me and says “Hey Maha, I want to break into the cannabis space,” my advice is always to find a job or internship. There’s so many jobs out there and connecting young people with cannabis jobs is one of the main functions of Cannaclub. We post jobs, we share opportunities (one of core pillars), and collaborate with brands and companies on internship programs. Cannaclub started at my alma mater UCLA, and is now at 26 universities across the country. I always advise to take advantage of all the resources at Cannaclub and utilize the group/community if someone doesn’t know where to start.
The most frequent question that young people emerging in the cannabis industry ask is “what part of cannabis do I fit into?” One of the things I did when starting out 10 years ago was to work in each part of the supply chain so I could understand the process from start to finish, seed to sale. I ended up liking the dispensary side after experiencing each sector of cannabis. If that’s not feasible, I would recommend working for a vertically integrated company and seeing what part of that you like best. These various experiences will allow you to find your niche in the industry and give you the full picture of how cannabis goes through the supply chain. You’ll enjoy working where you fit in most.
Q: Has it been challenging to work in the cannabis industry as a woman, and a first generation American? Do you think the cannabis industry fosters diversity, and what advancements should be made to make it more inclusive?
A: It 100% has been challenging to be a woman in this space, no second thought about it. I’ll set the stage: when I got my first job at a dispensary, all of the budtenders were women, and at that time you’d have to go through extreme lengths on the internet like Craigslist to find a cannabis job. All of the listings wanted “female budtenders only” and, being young and naïve at the time, I thought “wow, this is such an inclusive space for women.” But when I actually got there, I quickly understood why and how the shop owners or managers would treat all of their female budtenders. We had to wear a certain type of uniform, let’s just say it was similar to a Hooters waitress outfit, and I did not want to tolerate that. To combat the sexist uniform, my coworkers and I planned a day to wear jeans. We got some flack, but we kept on doing it and addressed the elephant in the room that we were not going to let anyone dictate what we wear at a medical dispensary. I knew it wasn’t going to end there. Next I worked at a cannabis tech startup where I was one of four women in a company of 48. It was not the best experience, but it shed a light on how some parts of cannabis are indeed a boys’ club.
However, there is a bright side, a lot of female executives are emerging in the cannabis industry. In fact, there was a recent report by MJBizDaily showing how there are more CEOs and executives in cannabis than in any other industry. But that doesn’t mean the work stops there. There is a constant battle and push for female inclusion in this space, just like in any other industry.
The legal cannabis space is a young industry, and we have a chance and responsibility to mold it in an appropriate manner to promote diversity. We foster diversity like no other industry through social equity programs and opportunities, but there is always room for improvement. This plant has harmed the Black and Brown communities via the War on Drugs, but now we are aware and making way for reparations through this space. However, it shouldn’t start and end within the cannabis industry; other fields should look at us as an example and create similar initiatives. We, as cannabis professionals, should bridge that gap and continue fostering diversity.
As a first-generation American, it was difficult to navigate discussions about my work with my South Asian family — but having worked at the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative and going to University of Maryland, School of Pharmacy to study cannabis legitimized the plant for them. I believe advances in education and research can help make cannabis acceptable in such communities.
Maha Haq started her cannabis career in 2012,working at medical dispensaries in Los Angeles, CA. Haq later worked at a cannabis delivery service, vertically integrated grows and manufacturing, business consulting firms, and an analytical testing lab. Since 2020, Haq has worked as an operations consultant for cannabis dispensaries, consumption lounges, and events through her firm Highspitality. She is now the Director of Strategy at Green Thumb Industries (GTI).
Haq is a UCLA graduate and holds a M.S. in pharmacological sciences, concentrating on Medical Cannabis Sciences & Therapeutics, from the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. She is the founder Cannaclub, a collegiate organization focused on cannabis education, advocacy, and career opportunities with chapters at 26 universities. Haq previously served as a researcher at the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative and currently sits on the board of the Los Angeles chapters of the Cannabis Chamber of Commerce and NORML. She is also an instructor at Oaksterdam University in Oakland, CA. Haq was listed as Entrepreneur Magazine’s “100 Powerful Women of 2020.”
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Cannabist’s Dissolvable Powders are back on shelves in Florida, now in easy-to-use drink sticks. Powered by AZUCA TiME INFUSION™ technology, each container includes 10 drink sticks with 10mg of THC per dose. The line of drink sticks includes four refreshing flavors including Fruit Punch, Strawberry Kiwi, Peach and Strawberry. Just add a drink stick to 16 ounces of water or other beverages. Find them at Columbia Care’s Cannabist locations throughout Florida.
Heading to MJ Unpacked in NYC this May? Make sure to stop by the Azuca booth to meet the team and learn about our latest innovations. And don’t miss Azuca CEO and co-founder Kim Sanchez Rael as a panelist for “How do CPG and Retail Brands Translate Coast to Coast?” Stay tuned for more details!
Azuca CEO and co-founder Kim Sanchez Rael joined Pro Cannabis Media’s Gold Rush Live this month to discuss all things edibles from formulations and quality control to consumer education and social consumption. Check out the full interview here (with Kim’s panel starting at 1:07:02).
National: The U.S. Department of Transportation is proposing drug testing rules changes to allow saliva as an alternative to urine screening. Advocates say it could result in fewer positive tests for people who used cannabis days prior and aren’t high on the job.
New York: New York’s Cannabis Control Board advanced proposed regulations giving people with cannabis convictions the first shot at dispensary licenses—ahead of current medical cannabis businesses. The proposal, which is part of a broader new “Seeding Opportunity Initiative” announced by Gov. Kathy Hochul (D), will now undergo a public comment period.
Delaware: The Delaware House of Representatives rejected a cannabis legalization bill. A majority of members supported the legislation, but it did not reach the 3/5 supermajority threshold needed to pass.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating the amazing women behind Azuca.