Shanel Lindsay first started using cannabis at 17 to treat a cyst, she said.
“I had just gotten it drained and I remember after I smoked and all the pain went away," Lindsay said. "And I didn’t really think much of it at that point because it was just a one-time thing with a cyst."
But cysts run in Lindsay’s family, she said. And when her son was born two years later and she developed a postpartum ovarian cyst, she sought out marijuana for medicinal use. It was still illegal at the time, and even quality recreational marijuana was hard to find, she said.
“Not all cannabis is created the same. The stuff that you’re getting on the street is probably filled with pesticides and just isn’t good quality,” she said. “And I’m using this to actually treat my medical condition. So for me, it became super important to have cannabis I could trust and know was grown organically.”
Lindsay, 39, has spent the last decade growing cannabis and testing different strains and forms to determine what works best for both medicinal and recreational purposes. Those efforts have led her to helm a Boston company that sells the country’s first all-in-one cannabis cooker — a kitchen appliance designed to activate and prepare cannabis for baking, melting and infusing. She is one of a few Black women to lead a company in the multibillion dollar cannabis industry.
There has been rapid acceptance of marijuana in recent years, with numerous states legalizing its use. Recreational marijuana is legal for adults to use in 17 states and Washington, D.C., and medical marijuana is legal in 36 states.
But as of 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, 81 percent of cannabis business owners or founders were white, 4 percent were Black and 6 percent were Hispanic, according to Marijuana Business Daily. A lack of access to capital, systemic economic racism and laws barring convicted offenders from joining the legal industry limit who can participate in the burgeoning economy.
Lindsay has watched the societal shift and barriers to entry up close as a lawyer and business owner who fights for equity in the industry, and as someone who has been arrested on drug possession charges.
Lindsay was arrested in 2009 in Massachusetts after officers seized less than one ounce of marijuana, the police report said. At the time, cannabis was illegal in the state, but marijuana offenses of less than one ounce did not carry criminal penalties, so Lindsay did not serve any jail time.
“When I was arrested, my whole legal career flashed in front of my eyes,” said Lindsay, who attended Northeastern University School of Law and specialized in business, employment and insurance matters before pursuing cannabis law full-time.
“If I was publicly brought into Stoughton District Court and arraigned, I would have lost my job. I would have lost everything.” At the time, Lindsay worked as an attorney at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak & Cohen, P.C., a firm in Boston.
Lindsay said she realized then that she wanted to change the stigma around marijuana use and reduce personal and professional hurdles for people who wanted to use it but were fearful of retaliation at work or getting arrested.
“There was a lightbulb moment that happened,” Lindsay said. “I was just like, ‘How can I continue on with this? I’m a person who uses cannabis for all of these reasons. And how can my professional life be in such conflict with what’s happening in my personal life even though I have such a great skill set in both of them?’ It wasn't something I was going to give up. It was really helping me.”
As more states move to legalize marijuana, Lindsay said laws often do not include expunging records or releasing people incarcerated on marijuana arrests, and there’s no clear path for how they can join the legal market.
“When legalization happens, people who have been marginalized get completely pushed to the side. It becomes a money game — there’s a lot of money to be made here. And the forces that have made the money, they know how to go into a city, into different states and make those processes happen,” Lindsay said. “And so for us, it’s about making sure that there’s actually a pathway for people who have been on the illicit market to actually get to be part of the real market. Because if that doesn’t happen, all that’s going to do is continue to criminalize us and continue to have the same disparate impact while adding incredible insult to injury at the same time other people are making millions off of it.”
Lindsay’s efforts to make the industry more equitable includes working with a group of lawyers in 2015 to draft a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Massachusetts. The measure passed in 2016.
Adam Fine, a partner at Vicente Sederberg, a cannabis law firm, worked with Lindsay on the ballot initiative.
“Marijuana arrests and incarcerations and all the collateral consequences — Shanel really highlighted that issue in an extraordinarily effective way,” Fine said. “It was a large effort, and she was absolutely critical to the effort. The vision that she had for the law, and actual boots on the ground, speaking to the press, highlighting the different impacts that prohibition has caused, and the harm that it has caused.”
Lindsay launched Ardent in 2016. It sells two devices, NOVA and FX, that activate marijuana plants before infusing, cooking or baking. The company refers to the FX model as the "Easy Bake Ardent." Users can choose which strains or oils (THC, CBD, CBG, scents, flavors) to include for whatever outcome they want, including rolls, topicals or edibles. In addition to cannabis, the appliances can also cook soup, pasta and pastries.
Start-up capital for the company came from Lindsay’s mom, who invested her retirement savings of nearly $200,000. Lindsay secured other investments and got Ardent off the ground with a total of $500,000.
But outside investors have been few, she said.
“There were other companies that I saw literally get $6 million for an idea of a product that never made it to market. And I'm like, damn, I can't get you guys to give me a couple $100,000 to set up?” Lindsay said. “It makes you build an incredibly scrappy business. I’m not waiting on investors anymore. We're just going to run this company lean, we're going to be profitable from the beginning. My company's been profitable since year two.”
The devices have gained popularity as more states legalize marijuana and as the pandemic keeps people at home, Lindsay said. The company has earned $15 million in revenue since launching when cannabis was legal in just four states, she said.
“The growth that we've seen has definitely paralleled more states coming online,” she said. "We're in line with both trends — more legalization rolling through the country plus this idea of pandemic friendly items. I'm here in my office right now. I can make an edible from start to finish right here at my desk. The pandemic underscored the need for that kind of privacy."
Ardent is available in all 50 states, including those where recreational and medicinal marijuana are not yet legal.
Despite the venture’s success, Lindsay says her priority is bringing more people from underrepresented groups into the multibillion dollar cannabis industry.
She co-founded a nonprofit called Equitable Opportunities Now to push equitable applications of existing laws and new ones. This year, the nonprofit and local activists organized a boycott and social media campaign against members of the Commonwealth Dispensary Association — a trade group representing brick-and-mortar companies — to defend a regulation aimed at bringing historically underrepresented minorities into the industry.
The regulation, implemented by the Cannabis Control Commission, Massachusetts’ governing body for marijuana, permits an Uber Eats-style delivery service in which drivers pick up product from businesses and deliver it to customers, and it allows recreational marijuana retailers without storefronts to make deliveries. This delivery system is exclusively available to disenfranchised people for the first three years. The Commonwealth Dispensary Association sued to end the exclusivity, prompting at least 10 members to withdraw from the CDA within four days, according to The Boston Globe.
Resigning members include New England Treatment Access, the state’s largest marijuana company, and other well-known businesses, such as In Good Health, Garden Remedies, Cultivate, Sira Naturals and Mayflower Medicinals. The companies advocate for equity in the industry and could not support an association that wanted to curb that, they said in statements.
The dispensary association dropped its lawsuit Jan. 25: “It is in the best interest of the industry and our members to drop the lawsuit against the Cannabis Control Commission,” the association said in a statement at the time. “We all need to be working together on achieving our many shared objectives, including increasing the participation of a diverse set of entrepreneurs in the industry.”
Lindsay said that when it comes to the future of cannabis, “the No. 1 key component is making sure that equity is baked into the laws. That's incredibly important because you can't go after the law has been written and then try to fight for a seat at the table.”
“And you can see, even when it was put into the law, every single year now, we've had to fight over each little piece of it to make sure it gets implemented,” she added. "So right now, what I'm doing is continuing to use my voice to show the inequities within the industry.”