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Melissa Pierce Wants to Make Cannabis Culture More Accessible for Women

Searching for CBD oil in Chicago.

Photography by Alyssa Schukar

Melissa Pierce tried cannabis for the first time at 40. It was Valentine’s Day 2016, and Pierce and her boyfriend, Michael Una, a communications consultant, were on a date. For much of her life, Pierce, who grew up in a conservative household, held onto the DARE motto that had been drilled into her as a child of the 80s: cannabis is bad, and it will ruin your brain. Una, on the other hand, had experimented with cannabidiol edibles and wanted to share the experience with Pierce.

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“Michael had tried edibles as a young man in college, so he didn’t really know anything about milligrams or dosage,” laughs Pierce, sitting across from Una at Oromo Café in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Before Pierce continues, Una interjects with a wide smile spreading across his face. “I really don’t come off very well in this story,” he says. “But it’s still a good story.”

“Well, I ended up taking about 200 milligrams of cannabis, which was half the bag of gummies. A dose is closer to ten or twenty,” says Pierce. “Needless to say, I spent about six hours just blissed out in bed.”

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Two years later, the experience is now woven into Pierce and Una’s relationship origin story. It also has become part of the narrative around Ellementa, the country’s fastest growing cannabis network for women, which Pierce, the company’s Chief Operating Officer, started with her partners, Ashley Kingsley and Aliza Sherman, the same year she first dabbled in edibles.

“That made me realize that you really need other women to shepherd and shaman you through in new experiences,” continues Pierce. “No one is going to know what the experience is like in the body of a 40-year-old woman except another 40-year-old woman. No matter how great they are.”

The idea behind Ellementa is a simple one: a network of spaces, both online and in person, where women can teach one another about cannabis. Pierce and Sherman also bring in health and wellness experts—doctors, spiritual practitioners, yoga instructors—who dole out professional advice, too. The model has struck a chord with woman across the country. In just two years, Ellementa already has chapters in 44 cities across the North America. By the end of the year, their reach will extend to over 50 cities internationally.

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Cultivating women-focused spaces has been a central theme in Pierce’s career. Before starting Ellementa, she founded Chicago Women Developers, a group that teaches women how to code and break into the male-dominated tech industry. For Pierce, the fast-growing cannabis industry presented a similar challenge. “The cannabis culture, at least online, felt really masculine,” says Pierce. “Aliza and I knew from experience that when women are trying to do something as intimate as regulate their bodies, they really need welcoming spaces where that male energy is not present. Women talk differently when they’re just with women. They share things that they wouldn’t otherwise share. We knew that was the kind of space we needed to create.”

On that note, Pierce and Una finish their drinks and we make our way to Merz Apothecary across the street. With more than 13,000 products, the 35-year-old Merz is an impressive palace of natural health and beauty products. Last year, the local institution added CBD, or cannabidiol, products to the list of merchandise.

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Once inside, Pierce and Una begin browsing the shelves. First they peruse a selection of lotions. Pierce tries a few different varieties, spreading small dabs on her hands and wrists. She holds a candle to her nose. Una makes his way toward the back of the store where a clerk stands in front of a shelf full of CBD oils and capsules.

“We’ve started to incorporate CBD capsules and creams at home,” says Pierce. “I tried a CBD bath balm, too. That was lovely.”

Pierce asks to see both the oil and the capsules. The clerk passes the two items over the counter. Pierce examines both and hands them to Una.

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“This is going to be so much more fast-acting,” she says pointing to the oil. “Ideally, I would want to look up the company before buying the product. I’d want to know where they distill their product, and how and where they grow it. Are they indoor or outdoor plants? Do they use pesticides? It’s really hard to get cannabis certified organic, so you want to do your research and know what you’re putting in your body.”

Una nods. “I’ve learned a ton over the past two years,” he says. “In stoner dude culture, there’s very little information passed on, other than like, here’s how to hit a bong the right way.”

After some consideration, Una decides to buy both the capsules and oil. As they head for the door, Pierce reflects on the journey over the last two years.

“It’s been a pretty deep dive,” she says. “But I’m sitting with women every month who have been much further down this journey. You know, before the professionalization of medicine, there were medicine women. We were the doctors. I kind of see Ellementa as a re-harnessing of that.”

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