Women of compassion

It’s surprisingly—and refreshingly—not a man’s world when it comes to Sacramento’s medical-cannabis community

Jeanne Larsson owns A Therapeutic Alternative.

Jeanne Larsson owns A Therapeutic Alternative.

Photo By William Leung

Buddy Peeler is a qualified medical-cannabis patient writing under a pseudonym

In 1966, “Godfather of Soul” James Brown sang, “It’s a man’s world.” (Since I get paid by the word, he actually said, “It’s a man’s man’s man’s world.”) A lot has changed since the late legend recorded this classic—or has it?

The hippie era was full of sexist males who treated their old ladies just like their short-haired fathers did. It is no wonder that our current youth culture refer to women as “bitches” without batting an eye. I grew up in a family of strong women, and that word was not to be used, unless you enjoyed having seven women curse at you.

The medical-cannabis industry often seems like a man’s world, too, but best estimates put it at a surprising 30 percent female.

“Personally,” explained Jeanne Larsson, director of A Therapeutic Alternative, “I have been treated with nothing but respect from my fellow male dispensary operators, some of whom I consider friends.”

Thousands of cars a day drive by Larsson’s A Therapeutic Alternative, and most people would never know that it is a dispensary. Located in a handsome bungalow just a block away from McKinley Park at 3015 H Street, A Therapeutic Alternative is a female-operated dispensary.

“We are not what people expect,” said Larsson. “We are run as a medical facility, we know our strains and we have a lot of knowledge of the different ailments that cannabis is helpful with. We are more nurturing, more comfortable and more trustworthy because we are middle-aged women.”

Dispensaries can sometimes be an uncomfortable place, but ATA feels more like a friend’s home than a club, which makes sense because the structure is itself a home. The sunny waiting room was once the living room. Larsson is an easygoing, middle-aged mother of four boys. Her husband is a welder. She lives in a man’s world.

“More women are starting to provide their own medicine, and I think that is fantastic,” she said. “In the beginning, male growers would send somebody’s girlfriend with their high heels, tight little shirt and Victoria’s Secret pop-up bra to come in to vend, because it is a male-dominated business. When they walk in and ask for the manager, they’d get me. They’d be like, “Ahh!”

Bobby Zawkiewicz (wo)mans the operation at The Farmers Market.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Veteran cannabis advocate Bobby Zawkiewicz operates new collective The Farmers Market deep in the neutral zone between Sacramento and Rancho Cordova. But if you visit the dispensary, don’t ask for “Bobby” and expect a man, because Bobby is a feisty, 5-foot-2-inch blond female. A longtime politico, Zawkiewicz is the co-founder of Sacramento County Patients Collective alliance and is currently the treasurer of Sacramento’s American’s for Safe Access chapter.

Located at 3791 Bradview Drive, just off Old Placerville Road and near the vast runways of the old Mather Air Force Base, The Farmers Market offers a lofty selection of organic and connoisseur cannabis, hash, edibles and balms. It also has a variety of popular and rare clones.

“Some of the males feel that they have the upper hand out there,” said Zawkiewicz, when asked about sexism in the industry. “But overall it is becoming more acceptable, because they are finding that there are a lot of women who have a lot of knowledge, and they are beginning to respect that.”

Respect is Zawkiewicz’s mantra. From the growers to her staff and especially toward her patients. “I make sure that when patients come in, they are treated as a medical patient,” said Zawkiewicz. “I treat the farmers and the cultivators with a lot of respect, and I don’t see that happening at some of the other collectives.”

This goes against the tradition of the red-eyed male budtender, employed by too many dispensaries around the Sacramento area. Or the stoney manager, who, on the phone, often engages in the old Cheech and Chong routine of “Dave not being there.”

“I believe that females are more nurturing toward the patients,” she argued. “I think that it is just nature. We have true compassion. I think that the females put more into the patient services area and the males put more into the products side of it.”

Aundre Speciale oversees Abatin Wellness Center, pictured, in addition to Capitol Wellness Collective.

Photo By William Leung

If Iggy Pop is the Godfather of Punk, and Elvis and Buddy Holly are the Cain and Abel of rock ’n’ roll, then Aundre Speciale is the Queen of California dispensaries.

Speciale runs three medical-marijuana dispensaries, one in Berkeley and two, Abatin Wellness Center at 2100 29th Street and Capitol Wellness Collective at 2400 14th Street, in Sacramento.

Speciale is a product of California’s foster-children system and spent her teenage years as a SoCal punk-rock anarchist. The Long Beach native learned the ropes of cannabis politics from the legendary marijuana activist Jack Herer. She counted the late comedians Rodney Dangerfield and Sam Kinison as friends. For two decades, Speciale has been on the front line of the cannabis activism and has seen her fair share of sexism.

“I got comments about being a mother, and especially [about being] a single mother, doing what I do,” said Speciale, with a hint of irritation. “Everything from ‘Is it a good example for your children?’ to ‘You are taking a risk at losing your children.’ But I am not ashamed of what I do. I believe that what I do is very legal, extremely moral and the right thing to do.”

Speciale, like Zawkiewicz and Larsson, believe in providing a female-friendly service. She reminisced about how, in the early days of Sacramento medical-cannabis dispensaries, “It was hard … to find a dispensary that fit my needs as a woman and a mother.”

She remembers it being like a bar or nightclub atmosphere. “I wanted to have a place that felt more comfortable, homier, specifically female-friendly for mothers and grandmothers,” she explained.

Speciale’s Abatin Wellness Center sets a high bar for other medical-cannabis dispensaries, as it provides mandatory counseling with every visit. Abatin Wellness Center got a huge publicity boost when talk-show host, medical-marijuana activist and retired lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Montel Williams revealed that he was a consultant for the collective.

And, indeed, Abatin is not your typical dispensary, nor does it look like one. The counselors are not there to scold you on your marijuana use, but are there to help adjust your medicine to the proper dosage that works for you. Or just to talk, if you want. Truly a compassionate place for people suffering from debilitating diseases and conditions.

“Almost half of the relief that patients are looking for is compassion, a friend, someone to talk to,” Speciale explained. “So many patients are ill, disfigured or don’t feel OK, and they sit alone.”

One thing these three women have in common is that they’re strong, passionate and their hearts are truly in the right place. They are kindhearted and serious about their mission. Speciale put it in a nutshell.

“Being a mom,” she began, “I really want to help people and make it a better place. I believe in starting right where you are and helping the person beside you.”