Amanda Reiman, PhD, Founder of Personal Plants
Dr. Amanda Reiman is a social ethnobotanist and founded Personal Plants, which educates people about the healthy use of psychoactive plants. She also serves as the chief knowledge officer of New Frontier Data, an analytics and technology company covering the cannabis industry globally.
She’s a professor, a researcher, and an activist, who has sat on several Boards of Directors. She was the manager of marijuana law and policy for the Drug Policy Alliance, was the first chairwoman of Berkeley’s Medical Cannabis Commission, and is a member of the Rolling Stone Culture Council. She earned her PhD in social work from UC Berkeley, where she studied the unique community dynamics of early medical cannabis dispensaries.
Dr. Amanda Reiman graciously agreed to an interview in April 2023, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] Dr. Reiman, you’ve had a wealth of experience as a university professor, an activist, a researcher, and a modern-day ethnobotanist. New Frontier Data is very lucky to have you. My brain is collapsing under the weight of your impressive resume! Can you tell me more about your relationship to plant medicine and why you founded your company, Personal Plants?
[Dr. Amanda Reiman] Sure. I have a pretty typical story. I used cannabis for the first time when I was in my early 20s. I always felt an affinity for the plant. I think we all have had experiences, especially with food, where we eat something, and we’re like, “Yeah, I don’t really like that. It gave me an upset stomach, or I didn’t like the taste.” And then we try other foods, and we’re like, “Oh, I will eat this all day long if given the opportunity!” And that’s how I felt when I first used cannabis.
I felt it hit on many issues that I personally deal with—anxiety, especially social anxiety, having a brain that really doesn’t stop working, having difficulty separating myself from my work—and cannabis gave that to me. I also was diagnosed with arthritis in my early 20s, so looking for an alternative to pain medication—especially long-term pain medication—cannabis was really something that I found to be fascinating for all the things that it can do.
I was also in grad school at the time, studying to be a social worker. So when I was discovering cannabis, I was also discovering the history of the War on Drugs and the impact that drug policies have had on individuals, preventing generations of people from becoming successful by saddling them with drug felony charges that came with a whole host of collateral sanctions.
I was interested in finding alternatives to the War on Drugs: what would that look like? And that was really when I found the concept of not demanding abstinence, of helping people benefit and having different parts of their lives improved without necessarily being tied to whether or not they were using drugs.
All of this was coming to a head at the same time. I was living in Chicago. It was definitely very illegal to use cannabis back then. I was growing my own cannabis in my apartment and was very determined to change how we view substance abuse. That’s always been my overall goal because if we change the way society approaches substance use, it changes the way we view people who use substances. The War on Drugs, as we all know, was never about the drugs. It was about the people using the drugs. And so that became my overall goal with my work.
I moved to California in 2002 to start the PhD program at Berkeley in social welfare with the idea that I wanted to study drug policy and alternatives to the current policies from a social work perspective—from the perspective of the tenets of my profession, which include the dignity and worth of every person, the importance of human relationships, and social justice. I felt this was missing from how we approached drug use.
I moved to the Bay Area before widespread internet use. I was struck by what was happening in the Bay Area around cannabis. There were dispensaries, and medical patients had access.
Dispensaries back in those days operated more like community centers; they had education, they had entertainment, they had a way for patients to relate to each other, socialize, and get their needs met. A lot of them offered holistic health services, and from a social service perspective, this was pretty revolutionary. It’s very hard for people—especially people without insurance—to access any kind of healthcare, and here it was being offered to them for free, along with access to cannabis.
Of course, as I later learned, a lot of that was tied to the LGBTQ movement around AIDS and community healthcare. I was really fascinated by this and decided to write about it for my doctoral dissertation. So in 2005-2006, I studied how these early cannabis dispensaries operated as health service providers. And it was really the very first study ever to sample patients from inside the dispensary and to ask them why they were using medical cannabis, what they were getting out of it, and how that was impacting their use of pharmaceutical drugs, alcohol, and illicit substances. That was really what got me going.
How that translated into Personal Plants is that I am a scientist, and I look at the evidence. From what I can see, both the prohibitionist side and the cannabis industry side aren’t necessarily forthcoming with the truth. And so you have a prohibition stance that is like, “Cannabis is bad all the time. It’s dangerous. It has no medical value. Nobody should access it.” And then you have the cannabis industry side, like, “Cannabis for everyone. There are no risks. There is no addiction.”
I felt it was important to present a side in the middle, which says, “Yes, cannabis does have a lot of benefits, and we’re even just scratching the surface of what a lot of these benefits are. However, it’s not without risk.” I want to support the light, healthy, and balanced relationship with cannabis. Because of what I know from the research and as I’ve gotten older, cannabis is an extremely useful plant to you as you age. There are a lot of things around aging that are not well-suited for pharmaceutical drugs. There’s a higher risk of alcoholism as people get older.
The idea behind Personal Plants was to step away from the propaganda on both sides and provide a more balanced, holistic view of what that relationship would look like.
[OnlineEducation.com] Thank you so much for sharing that. I want to go back to your dissertation because you mentioned the community centers, which seem like a more feminine, collaborative approach to having an organization as opposed to the more masculine leaning, decisive action, achievement, market control, and competition that we’re seeing now that the cannabis industry is maturing.
In fact, during your Tokeativity presentation on plant medicine and the divine feminine—which was brilliant—you mentioned that the cannabis industry is beginning to follow the path of other industries in its overabundance of masculine energy. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
[Dr. Amanda Reiman] Oh, absolutely. The very early cannabis activists were primarily gay men and women because many of these early dispensaries were born out of HIV/AIDS. It was really about recognizing and destigmatizing a group of people that needed access to something they weren’t getting and that no one was willing to stand up for them because of who they were. This is what we saw with HIV and AIDS. I think many of those same values—which I believe to hold a lot of feminine energy—were partly due to early dispensaries. A lot of folks came to early dispensaries, of course. You had your professional people and your folks just coming to pick up their medicine and go about their day.
From my observations doing my early research, a lot of the people used to hang out in the dispensaries all day because back then, a lot of them had lounges that people could stay and consume in, and they were folks who didn’t have anywhere else to go. These were folks that didn’t have families, who maybe had unstable employment, or had health conditions preventing them from having stable employment. They had a lot of needs, and they were also people that were not embraced by greater society as worthy of help, so many of these early dispensaries were there to help people. That was their goal. Their goal was not to make money because there was no money to be made. There was no industry.
Folks were barely just covering the cost of obtaining the medicine or paying their rent, which usually was exorbitant because landlords were taking a risk of having cannabis businesses in their buildings. They were paying very high rates; they were paying a lot of lawyers just in case they got raided and had to shut everything down, which did happen. So there was a ton of risk and not much reward other than providing a service to people who needed it.
That kind of caregiving nature is very feminine. And again, I go back to the social work profession, which was founded by women and has traditionally been very feminine-minded. The backbone of that industry and profession is providing care to people who have been marginalized and helping them advocate on their own behalf.
Many early dispensaries were also about putting people on a bus, taking them to Sacramento, and demonstrating and protesting. You would have patients come in and send a letter to their representative or city council member. A lot of activism was wrapped up in the service, which I think, again, comes from a very feminine energy place.
When we look at the industry today…when I say that it’s starting to mirror other industries, I mean that the bottom line is what is important. One reason we saw many of these lounges and services disappear was because of 280E, the inability of cannabis businesses to deduct any of the costs of having a massage therapist or an acupuncturist there. And once that ruling came down, I think it really changed things because it shifted what dispensaries had to think about. Instead of just thinking about providing as much care as possible, they had to think about their bottom line.
Regulation is a double-edged sword because I do think that consumers should know what they’re getting; products should be tested; labeling should be accurate; and there should be some kind of tax attached to the sales of cannabis so that we can support equity, research, and community programs. That is all true.
However, it brings the idea that, “Well then, you better make some money.” And that kind of viewpoint and shift meant that all of a sudden, it was about chasing investment. When you’re chasing investment, you have to show your investors that you’re going to make them money. That’s the nature of capitalism.
And so I wonder if it was avoidable. I don’t see a situation where the United States is like, “Yes, we’re going to legalize this product, but we’re going to put no regulations around it and not tax it.” That’s just not the way our system works. But we definitely gave up something in our quest to have a more normalized experience.
[OnlineEducation.com] That makes sense. I want to shift gears and talk specifically about being a woman. Have you ever faced gender discrimination in your cannabis activism, policy work, raising capital, or even writing research grants?
[Dr. Amanda Reiman] Oh yes. Across the board. The reason I got a PhD was that I felt like no one would listen to me otherwise, being a woman social worker.
If I just have a master’s in social work, and I’m in the room, trying to direct how things can be done, no one will listen to me. And I was right. Getting a PhD definitely helped—having the Dr. in front of my name, having the cloud of being an academic, of having taught in a university. It definitely helps.
But it’s like a drop in the bucket compared to the gender discrimination that exists. The fact that I was writing grants and wanting to study cannabis from a non-harmful perspective was what really discriminated against me, more than being a woman. I think it is improving primarily because women are holding people accountable…
Pitching to investors, who’re really just like, “Oh, I’m going make this widget, and I’m going to sell it for this much and make you this much money.” That’s really the blueprint. Unfortunately, it feeds itself. It’s kind of like a loop because many investors are men, and they innately feel more comfortable funding people that look like them. There’s this thing: “Well, this person is in my own image, and I trust myself, so therefore, I trust this person.” You have investors who are white, primarily, who are funding other white men because they feel comfortable funding people that look like that and who they feel they can relate to. Those people make money in their businesses and become investors, which perpetuates the cycle.
Even though I see a lot more opportunities for women when it comes to fundraising, it’s such a small percentage—these female venture capital firms that are like, “We’re funding women”—compared to the overall fundraising landscape.
When I first started Personal Plants, I was trying to get on board with that. I was trying to pitch and get VC money. But honestly, after doing it for a little while and hearing the questions they were asking me, what was I selling, and how much money was I going to make…I was like, “No, this is a platform to help people not have bad experiences with cannabis and to help them have a balanced relationship.” They were like, “Yeah, but what are you selling?”
And so after a while, I was like, “I’m just gonna get off this train.” And I did, and I stopped raising money. I said, “You know what, I’m just going put this out there because it’s important.” And I’ve raised enough through friends and family to have a brand and a platform and what I needed to market myself. I decided that if what I’m putting out there is valuable, people will notice it.
I think many women get in that space where they’re just tired. We’re just tired of constantly fighting this narrative around what we should be doing, our place, and our role. A lot of us just want to take matters into our own hands and not have to rely on that system for our success.
[OnlineEducation.com] Absolutely. The cannabis industry is relatively new, and I was wondering, especially with the social equity focus in many states, whether it would be different. When it started out, about 20 to 30 percent of the companies were female-led, but it’s dipped to around 8 percent. Do you know why that is?
[Dr. Amanda Reiman] I think, like I mentioned, a lot of the early people that led dispensaries, that opened dispensaries, were women. And so when the industry started to formalize, many people felt like, “Well, I need these women on my team because they know what they’re doing.” They were doing this already. They understand the ins and outs of the legal system and how that applies to the business. And then they were like, “Alright, I think I got it now. I don’t need you anymore.” And they started moving more toward what we see in other industries.
I think the only reason we had that bump at the beginning was because the people that held the institutional knowledge at that point in time were women. But once that institutional knowledge was passed on, the idea was that the women went from being an asset to being a liability.
[OnlineEducation.com] Wow, I didn’t even think about that. That’s a great point you bring up. I thought about the consolidation of companies that happens as markets mature. I also wanted to mention social equity. In the cannabis industry, the landscape is so varied. Some states are doing different policies than others, and you have a regulatory background in addition to your activism. Is there a state or a model that should be held up as an example to other states as they continue their adult-use legalization efforts?
[Dr. Amanda Reiman] That’s a great question. I think the answer is not really, but [rather] to take pieces of what different states are doing. Different states are doing some things really well and other things not so well.
Each state has unique circumstances moving from prohibition to legalization. For example, New York and California both had very effective and efficient gray markets before they legalized—gray markets that aren’t that distinguishable from the regulated market except that it’s cheaper.
And so, unlike a state like Illinois or Missouri, which didn’t really have this type of gray market, New York and California had to transition a whole bunch of people from the unregulated market to the regulated market. There really weren’t many carrots for them to do that. If I’m in New York and I’ve been buying cannabis from the same guy for five years—and he has a venue, and I pick out what I want, and he delivers it to my apartment, and it’s working just fine—why would I do something different?
So what was going to bring people over to the regulated market? In my mind, it was taxes. Suppose they had decided on a tax amnesty period, where, for example, the excise tax is not applied to regulated sales for the first year. In that case, I think they would have captured a lot more people instead of fighting to get them to move over, and in the meantime, not making the revenue they want or expect from their market.
But that’s a very unique problem. Like I said, Missouri doesn’t have that problem. Illinois and Michigan didn’t have that problem. Some unique things hold true. Any market without home grow is silly and ridiculous, and I can’t even imagine why we would assume that allowing people to grow a plant will somehow harm the industry from being as successful as it could be. We have no evidence of that from any other industry.
[OnlineEducation.com] I loved your blog post on that recently, by the way. “You’re like, ‘Whole Foods doesn’t tell people to not have home gardens.’” That’s ridiculous.
[Dr. Amanda Reiman] Yeah, and it’s very short-sighted because we know that people who are growing their own cannabis are not fulfilling all of their needs by growing their own. And so growing your own can be an on-ramp for using a dispensary, but that’s another discussion.
I think California did a pretty good job with the issue of home grow, not allowing localities to ban it and protecting the right to do that. It’s important to have access for medical patients. You have a state like Washington that folded the two programs together rather than keeping them distinct. I do think that patients have unique needs and that they need more cannabis than the average person. They also have more financial barriers to access than the average person. And then when you have whole swaths of a state without access, it will impact medical patients.
The issue of local control is tough. States like New Jersey, New York, and California all allow places to opt-out. In California, that’s written into our state constitution, so it’s hard to change something like that. But states that have pushed to create access everywhere in the state—versus just in the urban areas or the metropolitan areas—should be looked at.
And then how health tax revenue is spent is also going to be state-specific. For example, Colorado, when they passed their law, they decided, ”All right, it’s all going to schools.” They decided that when it goes to the state, they’re going to get the money, and then they’re going to give it to schools.
When we were drafting Prop 64 in California, we polled California and said, “Hey, do you want to do the same thing? Do you want to just give the money to the state and have them give it to schools?” And they were like, “Hell no! We don’t trust the state to do that. They were supposed to do that with the lottery money, and it ended up going to other places.”
California has wanted something more earmarked for specific agencies, which is how we ended up drafting the law. A lot speaks to what the constituents want and what the state’s laws and policies will allow. But I think, overarching, we want as much access as possible. We want medical patients to get what they need at an affordable rate. We want people to be able to grow their own. We want methods and strategies for transitioning people from the illicit market over to the regulated market. And then we want taxes to be reasonable.
One of the things that I think is important for folks to understand is that when we’re talking about excise tax, there’s usually three different taxes that are applied to the consumer when they’re first in cannabis: excise tax, sales tax, and any kind of local tax that exists.
Here in California, we have a flat rate excise tax of 15 percent. In states like Illinois, the excise tax is based on potencies and is more similar to how alcohol is regulated on the federal level.
Here’s the thing about excise taxes. Excise taxes are designed to basically fund the public health and safety outcomes of using that substance. Excise taxes around alcohol go to things like DUI injuries and property damage, and people in the hospital on public insurance who have liver cirrhosis from alcohol overuse. Excise taxes for tobacco go to treat people who have emphysema and COPD.
When we’re designing cannabis laws, there’s an overestimation of harm because we haven’t had the opportunity to do the research. We’re setting excise taxes way too high. We are overcompensating for harm that does not exist on the same level as alcohol and tobacco.
Something that states are doing across the board is setting their excise taxes too high. We will see more of a deep dive into that as research builds. But those are some of the aspects of state regulations. I don’t think any state has found the ideal way to legalize cannabis.
[OnlineEducation.com] If you haven’t written a blog post about this tax issue, you should! You bring up some really interesting points. I wanted to ask you one more question: what is your advice for women and other underrepresented folks interested in launching cannabis-related companies?
[Dr. Amanda Reiman] I would say know your market. There are definitely markets out there that want small family-owned companies or small-batch products, but it’s not every market. Some markets have had really firm holds by the multi-state operators, the large brands. The consumer overall doesn’t care that much; they are way more influenced by potency and price than they are by who’s making the product. That’s not to say it’s not possible.
And I know that this is not what people are going to want to hear: it may be a better idea to not get involved right now. We’re seeing a lot of instability in the market right now. Investments in cannabis have plummeted since Covid. We’re seeing a lot less money coming in to fund the cannabis market, and a lot of that money is coming in in the form of debt investment versus equity investment, which puts the operator at a higher risk because now someone’s basically assuming your debt versus getting equity in your company. This means if you’re not able to pay back that debt, then you’re basically giving up your company.
[OnlineEducation.com] Is this California-specific? Do you think this situation is different in the Northeast with a less mature market?
[Amanda Reiman] I think it’s the same everywhere. I don’t estimate that consumers in the Northeast are going to be very different than consumers on the West Coast or in the Midwest; they’re driven by potency, effect, and price. We haven’t seen any of the really big players get involved. We haven’t seen Amazon or Unilever or any of those companies get involved in cannabis, but we will.
For folks wanting to get involved, think about what’s your niche. Don’t try to build a bigger, better edible. Think about who is your niche consumer. Right now, a lot of companies are just speaking to the heavy consumers; they’re speaking to the people that consume a lot of THC, who consume regularly because they’re the biggest spenders.
But there’s a lot of the market that isn’t being reached: people who are looking for lower dose products; people that are looking for things with minor cannabinoids, or different methods of ingestion than just smoking.
So for people who really want to be involved, think about who isn’t being served. When you go into a dispensary, who is not represented? And then figure out what they want and speak to them directly. Right now, that will be a much better situation than just trying to out-MSO the MSOs. They’re making it much cheaper than you ever could at this point.
[OnlineEducation.com] Thank you so much, Dr. Reiman.