Masha Belinson | Florida Women In Cannabis Winner 2020

Masha Belinson - Florida Women In Cannabis 2020

1 – Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where you are from, where you went to school, where you live now? Are you a Florida Native?

I was born in Kiev, Ukraine, immigrated to Philadelphia, PA, and grew up there until I went off to college. I attended American University in Washington, DC, for my undergraduate degree, and received my MBA from George Washington University. My studies focused on marketing,  investment banking and corporate finance. I wanted to work on Wall Street and I thought that was going to be my future. Instead, I wound up hating Wall Street but accidently falling into a business analyst position in a software development company. In this role, I travelled all around the world doing software demos and talking to investment bankers and traders about their software needs. I hopped from there to credit card banking, to e-commerce and then to real estate. I launched my first startup, raised some money, made lots of mistakes and went back to the corporate world for a while. I managed to bounce into each industry during its bubble and crashed with them when they crashed. I started to crash internally, as well. Little tiny breaks inside, but no one could tell.

If you don’t know your purpose it doesn’t matter how many times you change jobs, change cities or change partners. Where ever you go, there you are. If you don’t know yourself you will not be happy anywhere. If you don’t have a purpose, nothing is satisfying and your thoughts become toxic.

I moved to Deerfied Beach, FL, in 1999 with my future ex-husband, 2 African grey parrots, an iguana, a wheaten terrier, a car and 2 motorcycles. We bought into the “dream.” Got the preconstruction house, had a beautiful baby boy, loved our pets, our motorcycles and worked our mainstream jobs for a while. Then we moved to Miami Beach and also lived in Sunny Isles for a few years. In 2016, I got divorced and moved to Boca Raton, FL. 

I like to joke and say that Boca Raton is the epicenter of the cannabis industry, but in reality, that’s really what I’d like to see it become. ACS Laboratory’s corporate office is in Boca, as is Green Lane, Spring Big, Jushi, Bloom Medicinals, Phyto Partners and soon there will be dispensaries here, too, thanks to our efforts at BocaCann. 

2 – Do you support Medical Marijuana? How about Adult Use? Please explain why.

I support Medical Marijuana and Adult Use. I’m a patient and I believe all use is medical use. This is a plant that has more than 112 known cannabinoids and countless terpenes and has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It supports our endocannabinoid system (which regulates balance in the body); that system mirrors the phytocannabinoid system in cannabis plants. Animals have endocannabinoid receptors, which receive the phytocannabinoids of the plant and result in homeostasis. We need the full spectrum of cannabinoids (not just THC). When our bodies are out of balance we crave cannabinoids. Those can be in the form of CBD, CBG or Delta8. THC just so happens to be the only cannabinoid most people know, but its only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much we don’t know yet and we don’t know what we don’t know. This plant is a powerful medicine and it’s been hijacked by politics and greed.

3 – Why did you decide to start working in cannabis. Do you have a personal story of a family member or friend?

In 2012, a week before my 39th birthday, I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer. I had 3 tumors in my left breast. I knew it was because of the stress and toxicity in my life. I knew I was putting everyone ahead of myself and that I was conflicted and unhappy. I started doing research on causes and cures. I found a private Facebook group called “Cannabis Oil Success Stories,” and after reading these stories about how people cured their tumors, even stage 4 cancer with cannabis oil, I knew I had to try this option rather than chemo and radiation. I also completely changed my diet and cut out sugar and other toxins. I started practicing daily prayer, kundalini chanting and meditation. I ordered a container of Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) and started dosing daily.

There was no way I was going to pursue the traditional medical protocol, which treated the disease and not the person; and so, I took my life into my own hands and transformed it spiritually, emotionally and physically. After 5 weeks, I had been ‘fired’ by 2 different surgeons because I wouldn’t follow the protocol and chose cannabis oil. I finally found a surgeon who would operate first and not make me do chemotherapy or radiation prior to the procedure. I was honest with him and told him I was taking RSO. Everyone should be 100% transparent with their doctors and feel good about the treatment path they have chosen.

On November 28, 2012, I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction – I was only 40 years old. I faced my bewildered surgical oncologist who scratched his head in wonder when he saw the analysis of the breast tissue post-surgery – the tumors had shrunk to nothing.

“I don’ know what you did,” he said “but you don’t need chemo or radiation. Your tumors are gone!” I told the doctor that he knew what I did and that I had no intention of doing chemo or radiation post surgery anyway. However, I asked, “Why did you operate?” And he replied “I’m a surgeon, that’s what I do, I operate.” 

Unfortunately, its not in their protocol to recheck the tumors before operating. They assumed that they wouldn’t shrink, since I didn’t do chemo or radiation; and I didn’t have enough conviction to ask them to check before operating, even though I knew I was intentionally shrinking them.

After that experience, I knew that someday I would work in the cannabis industry and that no patient should have to go through what I went through medically and emotionally. No one should have to experiment with untested medicine, figure out how to dose themselves and then have to be ashamed of the stigma in front of their friends and families.  

 “Are you sure you don’t just want to get high?” my business partner asked. 

“No, this is my medicine!” I remember saying. 

 I knew  was my calling and what I wanted to do. It was my purpose to help burn through the stigma and re-brand cannabis as medicine.

4 – When did you begin working in Cannabis? What is your current job title and how did you get your start.

I officially came out of the ‘green closet’ when I started doing small educational events in 2018. I took the same format from working in non-profit events for 7 years. At the time, there was a real lack of relatability in these cannabis events. Prior to producing events, I started watching the industry in 2016, and asking for introductions, listening to people talk and asking them how I could help them. I didn’t know my place in the industry yet and I needed to understand the Florida rules for Legalization. During this time, I kept connecting the dots and connecting people. I loved the energy, the entrepreneurialism, the potential of healing the world and making money while doing it. I was home. This was not going to feel like work!

Give, give, give, give, ask was my mantra.

The first event I organized was in June 2018, and it launched my agency, Extract Collective. There were maybe 70 people who attended. The next month, I invited cannabis companies, and then we started inviting city commissioners and the mayor of Boca Raton. Eventually, the cannabis companies sponsored at a small level; and the events kept growing and getting better. I would always ask the sponsors what they wanted to get out of the event, how could I make it easy for them and how to provide value. How could we offer content that was interesting and different? How could we make the events free, while still giving sponsors value and covering our expenses? I was obsessed. I finally had a purpose, but was uncertain if I would be able to make enough money to cover my bills and support my son.

I also started to attend different cannabis events and learned who the players were. I learned it was smart to be in the center of it rather than working directly for any one company. I met ACS Laboratory when they sponsored one of my first events in Boca Raton called BocaCann. This event was tied to an initiative to repeal the dispensary ban. The events always had a purpose beyond just cannabis 101. ACS was a sponsor, and continued to sponsor some of my other events. 

My current title is: Corporate Development with ACS Laboratory – I oversee marketing, strategic partnerships, education; manage content strategy, SEO/PPC, lead-generation, acquisition and retention. We test cannabis in Florida and hemp from 44 states. We just launched the Hemp Clippings program for Florida Hemp Farmers. My clients are Florida cannabis companies (MMTCs) and hemp farmers, processors and extractors from across the country. Its my job to understand the compliance regulations across the industry and how they impact businesses. How does a change trickle down from legislation, to the compliance panel standards, to the laboratory, to our external communications, to our clients? How are businesses impacted by these changes? 

Explaining how cannabis companies test their medicine was a fascinating topic for me, as I enjoy simplifying complex concepts. When I started working in the cannabis industry, I realized that there was a lack of transparency in testing and that the patients were confused. This patient journey is an ongoing challenge. I took everything from my past in finance, software, internet marketing, search engine optimization and everything converged for this role. 

5 – How has working in the cannabis industry changed your perspective on marijuana and hemp.

It’s changed my behavior as a consumer so much! This industry is all about the product. 

Now, I want to see the lab results (Certificate of Analysis) of any product that I consume. It’s made me so picky. If someone isn’t testing for terpenes, I would not buy that product. I want to know which terpenes are present, I want to know if there are other cannabinoids – and you can only see that from a COA.

Also, understanding the extraction process is very important to me. Not all extractions are created equally. I’m obsessed with the solventless extraction method. You can tell the difference in quality and the yumminess of the terpenes. Cannabis/hemp cultivation is an art. The plant is so beautiful with its green, budding trichomes. Scaling that art creates problems never anticipated. Now that I understand all the means of production from grow/extract/process/manufacture/retail, I have to expand my brain to understand the scalability. Working in the cannabis industry is not easy, but it’s rewarding. Every year feels like 7 years.

6 – The cannabis industry is dominated by men, how has that affected you in pursuit of your current job. Has it limited your ability for you to be able to what you do. Has your being a woman given you the ability to approach cannabis from a different perspective.

I’ve worked in male dominated industries my whole life – finance, software, etc.

Speaking in very generalized terms, men and women communicate in different ways, and I like working with the typical directness of men. I haven’t felt uncomfortable, discriminated against, or held back. 

Do I think I’ve made less money because I’m a woman and not a man? 100%. But that’s completely up to me to know my own value and not take projects that won’t make sense for me. It’s very important to set boundaries. That should be for men and women – people need boundaries. That includes knowing your worth and charging for it. Not being afraid to walk away. 

Overall, I think it takes a while to make money in the cannabis industry initially because no one wants to pay for your time. Everyone wants you to work on commission or contingency, until you break in, unless you work for one of the larger corporate companies. So, you give and give and give and give, but eventually you have to ask. And when you ask make sure it’s a big ask. Ask to get paid for your time.

7 – As a Florida Women in Cannabis what do you believe needs to happen (change) to help mainstream the cannabis message.

I think what’s missing is some sort or mentorship or apprenticeship mentality. It’s very much every person for him or herself. I think we have to unify as an industry. People have different interests, but if you look at different industries that have banded together and have credit unions and other benefits, the industry is stronger as a whole for its unity and common goals.

I like being part of a group like Women in Cannabis (WEIC), and greatly miss the in-person gatherings, as they have been replaced with virtual networking. I had a mentor when I started in the cannabis industry, and although she sadly passed away from stage 4 breast cancer 2 years ago, she taught me a great deal. Most importantly, she taught me to “do the work” and “know my value” to “work with good people” and to “do more of what makes me happy.”

I also think that everyone needs to take more of a patient-centric approach. Patients drop out of the cannabis program at a very high rate – maybe they can’t afford the medicine, maybe their card is expired, they have to go see a doctor, etc. There is no one who is advocating for patient’s rights, and I think this will make a big difference in helping to mainstream the cannabis message.

8 – Do you use Medical Marijuana, do you have a MMJ card. Do you use CBD, or have hemp clothing?

Yes, to all of the above. I only have one or two hemp clothing items, but hemp silk is really incredible and will be coveted when more readily available. I love the fact that there are 30,000 uses for hemp. Hemp can do it all and could save the world if implemented correctly. I do use medical marijuana, but since I started using CBD, I do not crave THC anymore. Many days I even forget to smoke.

9 – Women tend to make most of the healthcare decisions in the home yet we keep marketing to men. I call it the Mannabis Syndrome. In your opinion what does the cannabis industry need to do to better market cannabis to women.

I think offering smaller, more feminine products will help make cannabis more approachable for women. I personally love the discreet, pretty pouches / toiletry cases that keeps product fresh and free of giving off any scents. 

Not all products need to be femininized, but I do see more and more products making changes to target and appeal to women. Things are moving in the right direction!