Alison Gordon is a Brand and Marketing Strategist Specializing in the medical cannabis industry. As co-founder and EVP at Rethink Breast Cancer (prior to joining the medical marijuana industry), Alison’s extensive work with patients, physicians and government, coupled with her entrepreneurial approach and marketing experience, has uniquely positioned her in the marijuana industry. We caught up with her this week.
Can you walk us through a typical day in your life?
It’s quite difficult to describe a typical day in this “wild west” industry! Those of us pioneers in the new world of regulated and legalized marijuana tend to work at all hours of the day and night…it’s quite normal to find me on a conference call at 1 a.m with people on the West Coast. None of us seem to sleep! That said, I tend to check my email before I get my kids up and ready for school. After that I am in meetings or on the phone with all sorts of people – investors, CEOs of the licensed companies in Canada, clients in the US, cannabis advocates and patient groups like Rethink Breast Cancer who are working to properly educate their constituents about medical cannabis. I am always working on at least five or six things at one time, so it’s a major juggling act.
The industry is constantly changing in terms of regulations, mergers and acquisitions, and new opportunities, so I have to stay on top of the latest news and behind-the-scenes goings on. I am fortunate to have a strong group of friends and colleagues who are leaders in the field in both Canada and the US, and I carve out time daily to share information and perspectives on all the new twists and turns in the industry. I also spend time combing through Instagram, and love to share industry-related stuff on my account. It is definitely an exciting time to be working in this space!
Did you ever think you would end up in this line of work? What has been the evolution of your attitude toward marijuana?
Prior to entering the medical cannabis industry two and half years ago, I was extremely fortunate to have spent fourteen years building and growing Rethink Breast Cancer. I really wasn’t looking to make a change. That said, medical cannabis is something I have been thinking about for the last ten, when a close family member was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, and she used the medicine to help with all sorts of symptoms from treatment and disease. I felt strongly that marijuana needed to be “rebranded” on both the medical and recreational side.
The stigma associated with cannabis is really outdated and based on past propaganda. Stats Canada estimates that 43% of Canadians aged fifteen or older have tried marijuana, and 33.5% have used it more than once—3.4 million Canadians have used it in the past year. These are big numbers, so it seemed like it was time for cannabis to come out of the closet! Alcohol use has many health and behavioural risks but does not have close to the stigma of marijuana. It just didn’t make sense to me as a person or as a marketer. I saw a big opportunity to take my branding and marketing expertise, as well as my patient and physician relations experience, and be part of the rebranding of cannabis — in the same way that we had “rebranded” breast cancer. The time felt right to enter the industry with Health Canada launching the MMPR program.
What are the biggest misconceptions surrounding medical marijuana?
One of the biggest misconceptions is that “medical marijuana” is different from “marijuana.” They are the same plant grown in the same way. That said, Health Canada has strict guidelines as to how a licensed producer (LP) of medical marijuana grows the plant. For example, LPs are required to test their plants for mould, heavy metals, chemicals etc. This means that a patient who is buying their medicine through Health Canada’s medical marijuana program (the only way to legally get it) has more transparency and accountability for what is in their medicine than if they buy it on the streets or at a dispensary (which is not legal in Canada).
To date, there has not been a lot of clinical studies on the medical benefits of marijuana, and this lack of evidence-based data is problematic for changing perceptions. That said, cannabis has been used as medicine for centuries, and there are many amazing people that for years have been informally studying the plant and working to educate people long before this became an “industry.”
How do you think the branding of medical marijuana needs to shift?
I decided to work in the medical cannabis space as I saw a huge need for rebranding in the industry on many levels. There has not been a lot of public education around the medical benefits of cannabis, and doctors and patients alike are not necessarily aware of the way that cannabis works with our endocannabinoid system (google this — it’s fascinating). There are thousands of stories from patients who have been successfully using medical cannabis to treat their seizures, pain, arthritis, chemotherapy symptoms and much more. People have been able to get off heavily addicting and debilitating drugs like Oxycontin with the use of this powerful plant.
From a marketing perspective, cannabis has traditionally been associated with rappers and hippies, and the industry has been very grassroots in its approach to products, design, packaging etc. As a marketer I saw huge opportunities to professionalize the space and create stylish and exciting brands that speak to a variety of demographics. Soccer moms love to vape too! More recently, as states like Colorado, Washington and Oregon have legalized adult (recreational) use, you are starting to see some cool brands emerge. I am really excited to be able to bring my experience and expertise to the industry and create and grow the brands that will become the Coke and Pepsi of the cannabis world.
What advice do you have for other women starting out in this field?
It is definitely an interesting time to be a woman working in the space. Over the past two years I have seen the number of women at conferences and in business grow significantly. I believe women bring a unique perspective to the cannabis space (and industry!) as we have a strong history working with medical cannabis. There are many female trailblazers in Canada who are advocating for more research, better access to the medicine and patient rights. For example, Hilary Black who founded the BC Compassion Club Society (BCCS) in 1997. For twenty years, BCCS has been helping patients with a variety of illnesses to gain affordable access to safe, high-quality cannabis in a supportive setting.
Unfortunately there is a still a large gender gap in the industry, and I am generally the only woman in most of the meetings I attend. There are organizations popping up to address this discrepancy, like Women Grow, an international group dedicated to empowering and supporting women in the cannabis industry.
My advice to anyone starting out in this field is to educate yourself around the many complex and shifting regulations. You may have an amazing idea, but it is not necessarily possible to execute it depending on the different laws in each state and a highly regulated country like Canada.
Starting out, you need to talk to as many people as you can who have been working in the field. The industry is still quite young and many companies will not survive the challenges that currently exist in the Canadian market. By speaking with a lot of people, you can find out who the strong players are that have the credibility and expertise to succeed. Personally, I am always interested in working with people who understand both the business and culture side of the market.