Battling sexism in new cannabis, and winning

By Lauren Yoshiko

Like many in 2011, a friendliness to cannabis, an established medical program, and farm-to-table food culture were high on the list of reasons for Liv Vasquez to move to Portland, Oregon.

Like a large number of Portlanders, the legalization of cannabis drastically shifted her career path; however, Vasquez’s experience is an exception to the usual narratives in New Cannabis. Not because she’s a woman — there may remain a disproportionate number of male business owners to female, but we’re here. Not because she experienced sexual harassment while working in a dispensary, for, unfortunately, that happens too.

Liv Vasquez’s story is different because she took her harassers to court. And she won.

Vasquez did not have a positive experience working in the industry, and the trauma of her abuse and the harrowing trial that followed nearly cost her everything. If only Vasquez could’ve known how her decision to fight that long fight would end up being her most impactful contribution to the cannabis industry at large.

The Dream of Legal Cannabis

Now a cannabis chef educator and consultant working in the plant medicine space, when Vasquez first laid down roots in Portland, she simply wanted to write a cookbook. She leaned on her 15 years as a cook and restaurateur in New York and LA to land a few bartending shifts as she got to know the city. She’d always enjoyed cannabis and was the friend people came to for brownies, so when she learned anyone could work at a medical dispensary, she applied for an opening and got her first shift working at Mindrite dispensary in October of 2014.

“When you’ve been buying in an illicit market for so long, you’re really not allowed to ask questions,” says Vasquez. “I was excited by the idea of a safe space to ask questions about strains and farms, questions like, what’s a dab? What’s RSO? It was about getting to be in a more professional setting to understand cannabis better.”

At this time in Oregon cannabis, medical dispensaries were thriving under very little regulation. As long as you had one Oregonian with a clean criminal record and $4,000 for an application fee, pretty much anyone could open up a medical shop. Most dispensary staff were guy friends of the shop’s owners, and younger female customers who were offered jobs at the shops they frequented. That’s how this writer got her first budtending job back in 2014.

The slow rhythms of only a handful of customers a day meant Vasquez was the sole person working the budroom at first. She was able to get to know the products and the patients, learning more about cannabis with every conversation. Then recreational sales commenced at the start of 2015, and the shop began serving anyone 21 and over. Lines now wrapped around the block daily and multiple employees worked throughout the day. Vasquez, with experience negotiating public policy while helming restaurants and an eagerness to keep up with rapidly shifting rules, was vital as the small team made the complicated transition.

A Rude Recreational Awakening

Over time, the rose-colored glasses that came with the excitement of cannabis legalization began to fade. Micro instances that gave Vasquez pause were starting to happen, like the general manager commenting on what a younger female coworker was wearing, and another male coworker seeming to always find a reason to get women to touch his back, asking for massages, etc.

“Lots of little things that made me uncomfortable, but weren’t directed at me,” notes Vasquez. “The women experiencing it weren’t saying anything about it, so neither did I.”

Then that massage inclined coworker was suddenly fired. Vasquez found out he had sent two female coworkers videos of himself masturbating, including the manager. The manager — a younger woman who didn’t have the experience to identify harassment and how to properly report it — had herself, dismissed the video until another employee said it happened to her as well. As more of their female coworkers opened up to Vasquez in the coming weeks, the list of consequence-free incidents grew.

One guy got caught watching porn while running the reception area. Another triumphantly told Vasquez about getting a boner when he caught a peek down a braless customer’s shirt.

One coworker named John would go to a nearby neighborhood bar and get drunk during or after his shift, often returning to the shop after. Vasquez states that on multiple occasions he pushed her against a wall while she waited for a cab, once actually growling in her ear, “You’re gonna go home with me whether you like it or not.”

“I got away from him both times and got a cab immediately,” says Vasquez. “The next time all of us girls were in the car together after work, I shared with them what had happened with John. Every woman in that car chimed in to say, ‘me too; that happened three weeks ago; he’s done that to me twice.’”

It seemed all of the male staff participated in these inappropriate patterns.

“The owners made allowances for them,” says Vasquez. “These guys felt empowered to take advantage of customers, employees, vendors — every woman in the community.”

The Breaking Point

When it came to working with customers, Vasquez was thriving. Her appetite for legislative updates and scientific studies made her a fast favorite with customers, and her bosses (the married pair of co-owners) had taken note. They’d promoted her to Education and Training Manager, and gave her a raise when she asked for it each year.

Then in 2017, Vasquez was nominated for Best Female Budtender at the Dope Awards. A cannabis industry award event and party thrown by an industry magazine, a huge portion of the Oregon cannabis community participated in the Awards and it meant that a lot of customers went out of their way to vote for Liv Vasquez at Mindrite. The nomination was a boon for Vasquez, reassuring her job performance, and she was riding high as the night began.

The owners were feeling equally celebratory, taking everyone to the awards and then back to the neighborhood bar afterwards to keep the party and the drinks flowing. They got blackout drunk by the end of the night. Vasquez recalls one literally falling off her chair.

“They generously paid for everyone’s drinks, but they didn’t account for rides home after. I made $12 an hour at the time — I was virtually stuck across town from my apartment.”

The last thing Vasquez remembers that night is going with one of her male coworkers to his apartment a couple blocks away.

“I woke up the next morning naked in his bed,” says Vasquez. “I knew he had raped me. I hadn’t had sex in over a year. I knew.”

Then she went to work with him. Every day.

“I went months trying to normalize it, trying to accept that it happened off the clock, you were really drunk, and that it doesn’t matter. I tried acting happier, but I’m in total fear every day.”

Her anxiety raged all day, keeping her on edge at work and close to catatonic at home afterwards. Vasquez started losing hair and vomiting before every shift. She couldn’t survive much longer like this. So she hedged her bets and decided to approach the owners with these examples of widespread harassment amongst the employees.

Vasquez wrote everything in an email, explaining the bigger issue underlying all these incidents, and providing links to affordable online HR trainings and courses to help solve this problem. She also mentioned the fact that her other job was a weekend shift at a tattoo shop, in a similarly majority male space, but one where women are often topless and still, no one makes a comment about it “before, during or after the customer leaves.”

“No one sexualizes them,” says Vasquez. “Is it so much to ask that these guys sell weed without sexualizing customers?”

Is it so much to ask that these guys sell weed without sexualizing customers?

Her bosses at the dispensary did not respond to her email. Months passed without a follow-up or harassment staff meeting of any kind. Vasquez was starting to get reprimanded for her work “slipping.” She didn’t feel like her usual bubbly, cheerful self either.

Vasquez hoped that maybe directly going to the owner’s wife, a woman of color, might be more effective. So she asked to speak with her in the office, and told her about the assault and that the manager hadn’t done anything. She talked about her physical, emotional and financial state, about losing her hair over stress and her PTSD being dangerously triggered.

“I told her I felt like I was dying,” recalls Vasquez. “And I asked her if she could help me; help fix this problem. She responded by saying that if I was really that scared, I should’ve gone to the police when it happened, and that it’s probably too late for that now. She said I should look into debt consolidation. Then she said my performance hadn’t been great lately, so I would be getting demoted. ‘We’re tired of you complaining about all the guys here.’”

Vasquez was handed paperwork shortly after that outlined her demotion, with a stipulation that she work on female-only shifts from now on, when those were available.

“I stood up, and called her out for intimidating me for whistleblowing,” says Vasquez. “I told her I refuse to train new female coworkers you’re ushering in to be abused. Then I walked out. “

I told her I refuse to train new female coworkers you’re ushering in to be abused. Then I walked out.
Into Battle

Vasquez still felt just as broken, and now she was unemployed. In a worse financial state than when she started at Mindrite. Two days later, the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and the Me Too movement began.

“I was empowered by what I was seeing,” says Vasquez. “I wanted to sue these people, but no cannabis industry lawyer returned my calls. So when the official Time’s Up organization started announcing a network of lawyers, I reached out. Within two weeks they sent me a list of lawyers who would work with me. I found my incredible lawyer, a wonderful man who specialized in employment law.”

He would end up fighting with Vasquez through two unemployment cases before the full lawsuit, because the dispensary owners fought her every inch of the way. For months. Nothing was negotiable and they had an outlandish list of demands for her to take back allegations, accept fault, and even delete personal Instagram posts.

“My voice was all I had,” remembers Vasquez. “I wasn’t going to settle so they could shut me up.”

So, a court date was set in October of 2019, two years after Vasquez had walked out.

The lawsuit named the business owners and the business, focusing on the culture of discrimination fostered by the two owners who enabled this pattern of sexual harrassment, and charged six counts of discrimination and sexual harrassment.

It’s worth noting how rare it is for a trial like this to happen at all. Not because it was a cannabis industry case, but because businesses avoid sexual harassment lawsuits like the plague. Going to trial means potentially higher negative impact of bad PR. Most of these types of lawsuits are settled out of court to maintain a low profile.

When they do occur, they certainly don’t usually take five days. This one did. But most don’t have this many witnesses. The defense had almost every current and former employee take the stand against Vasquez’s allegations, denying everything.

“I was basically standing up for women who were standing against me, who were all saying none of it ever happened,” says Vasquez. “It’s not easy to listen to other people talk about their opinions on your abuse.”

Every hour of trial took an emotional toll on Vasquez. She shares how listening to witnesses speak against her was twice as difficult when you can’t show any emotion.

“If I emote, I could be held in contempt of court. I couldn’t cry. I am listening to people demonizing me for speaking up for myself and for them, and I can’t even raise my eyebrows. I couldn’t smile all week either. If a juror saw me on the bus on the way home and catches me smiling while listening to a podcast or something, that affects how they perceive me in the courtroom.”

If I emote, I could be held in contempt of court. I couldn’t cry. I am listening to people demonizing me for speaking up for myself and for them, and I can’t even raise my eyebrows.

But her lawyer had come prepared, working tirelessly pre-trial to assemble evidence that supported Vasquez’s words, even tracking down a former employee to Florida and flying her in for the trial. Vasquez took the stand herself for two days of the trial, often needing to just “pick a spot on the wall and focus on it” to get through the painful testimonies.

At one point during closing statements, the defense presented a Powerpoint slide comparing the sheer number of witnesses denying the claims of this single person, asking the jury how they could possibly believe her over all these people.

In the end, the jury saw through the defense of an obviously toxic workplace. They disagreed on a couple counts, but overall gave a guilty verdict that awarded Vasquez $9,000 for lost wages and $50,000 in damages.

“I have the freedom to be able to tell my story now and that’s much more valuable to me,” says Vasquez. “There’s so much gaslighting that comes with sexual harassment. You constantly ask yourself if you’re going over the top taking these people to court, wondering if you’re being too sensitive…So to have these people validate that, on the record, was everything.”

A New Precedent

Vasquez has since sent her case out to multiple women in the midst of lawsuits of their own, and after the trial concluded, even one of the jurors reached out to let her know she gave her the strength to speak up about the harassment she was experiencing. It turns out that although the industry let Vasquez down, by standing up, she helped make the local industry a little safer and more welcoming for women. More like the industry she hoped for when she first started budtending.

Not that there isn’t still a great deal of work to do.

“This is still such a new industry,” says Vasquez. “Many of the people coming in don’t know the rules of the average workplace and don’t know what to expect. A white guy opens a dispensary and thinks he’s Scarface, when really he’s a manager of a retail store.”

Vasquez believes more equitable work spaces start with real structures for HR, promotions, and raises. From there, employees can feel comfortable to ask questions, and, when someone crosses a line, call it out. Especially those new, hopeful faces entering the industry for the first time.

“There’s a camaraderie that happens when you enter the cannabis industry that is kind of intoxicating. You feel like you’re trailblazing together, so you make allowances when things aren’t 100% above board. So stay excited, but remember your job isn’t your family. Have trusted allies in the community. Most importantly: know your rights. It took me going to court to learn that it doesn’t make it any less illegal when sexual harassment happens outside of work hours.”

Follow Liv Vasquez and her work in cannabis, food and plant medicine at @livviesmalls, and watch her on Netflix in the competitive cannabis-infused cooking show, Cooked With Cannabis.

Photos taken by Liv Vasquez during quarantine.

*HIGH interviews are conducted exclusively with individuals we love and respect in the cannabis space. OUR DREAM does not receive any compensation for this content.