Lashley & Pollock (2019). Waiting to Inhale: Reducing Stigma in the Medical Cannabis Industry


– McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia
Timothy G. Pollock – Haslam College of Business, University of Tennessee – Knoxville


Taehyun Lee – Carroll School of Management, Boston College
Jungsoo Ahn – Ivey Business School, Western University

Article link:

1. We are fascinated by your process model of category stigma reduction that shows how medical cannabis entrepreneurs and dispensary owners engaged in not only “front-stage” actions but also “backstage” (and side-stage) actions that were meant to be hidden from public view. When understanding backstage behavior through interviews, did you experience any struggle in terms of getting open and honest responses? How did you “build rapport with” the industry actors?

Kisha: Your question pinpoints perhaps the most difficult aspect of this study. When I started collecting data in 2013, the marijuana industry did not have anywhere the level of acceptance that it currently has—dispensaries were still being raided, and entrepreneurs were still being arrested. So naturally, people in the industry were wary of outsiders asking questions. 

I was very naïve when I started collecting data. I thought I could simply email entrepreneurs in the industry, explain that I wanted to interview them for my dissertation, and then proceed to collect data until I reached theoretical saturation. That approach was a dead end. Well, almost. One dispensary owner did agree to an interview, but the responses felt so rehearsed that it was obvious within the first few minutes that I would not get the data that I needed. I needed to figure out another approach. I found out about the multi-day second annual National Marijuana Business Conference. I flew out to Seattle not knowing what to expect. I stood out. I was a Black woman in a sea of White men in suits. I felt like they were looking at me with a mix of curiosity and perhaps suspicion. On that first day, I mainly just observed. At lunch, I sat with a group of men and kept the conversation light. This time was invaluable time for building rapport. The people sitting next to me asked a lot of questions. “What brought you here?”, “You have an accent, where are you from?”, etc. Then a surprising thing happened. I told them that I was from the Caribbean, and the conversation changed. They immediately assumed that being from the Caribbean, I must be a connoisseur and frequent consumer of weed. I did not correct them. At that point, they started telling me all kinds of stories, which I wished I could record, but didn’t. They introduced me to others at the table and invited me to afterparties. I did not accept the invitations, since I felt like there was a high likelihood that I would be the only woman in attendance. But I did accept an invitation for a private tour of a local dispensary in a couple of days. That tour was such a gift, since the dispensary owner was so forthcoming and encouraged his staff to tell me anything that I wanted to know. At that lunch, I also collected a ton of business cards. 

I followed up with contacts quickly, referencing our meeting and requesting interviews. This time, they were a lot more willing to participate and were more unfiltered with their responses. In fact, there were times that people told me stories that at the time, I wished they had kept to themselves. Later though, these stories became central to understanding “backstage” actions. Additionally, those first informants then connected me to others in their networks, and at that point, data collection through interviews was a lot easier.

Tim: I agree that going to that conference was pivotal to Kisha’s success in being accepted and trusted by her informants. She did a great job managing the opportunity, because she had folks offering to put her up if she came to Colorado to do fieldwork and such, in addition to helping her access others in the industry. She didn’t mention this, but she interviewed many of the people whose names became commonplace in the national press. She got in at exactly the right time, and did an awesome job making connections and then following up on the opportunities before they faded. And that inside access was critical to getting information on the backstage activities, as well as what they were doing on the front stage.

2. As is the nature of inductive research, it looks like your research question shifted during the research process. You stated that the focus was originally on “what motivated individuals to start businesses in a stigmatized industry”, which differs from the paper’s research question of “how can a category’s core stigma be reduced?” Could you share with us how the paper evolved? For example, at what point in the research process did you decide to also examine category-level processes (as opposed to focusing on the organization-level)? When and how did the category literature become an important theoretical framework for your study?

Kisha: I mentioned earlier that I’m from the Caribbean. Growing up, I knew so many people who used marijuana both as an intoxicant and medicinally. But marijuana was illegal and often linked to criminality, so I always thought about marijuana from the perspective of crime and risk. When I first started reading about the emerging industry in the United States, I didn’t understand why anyone would risk everything to enter such an industry. Again, a lot of the people entering the formal industry were college-educated. But during that 2013 conference, I quickly realized that these men did not think that risk was a factor. I did talk to a few women who considered the risks involved in being in an industry where they could be arrested, potentially imprisoned, and their children would grow up without a mother. But given that there were so few women in the industry, the dominant story was not about risk, but about changing how the industry was perceived. 

My dissertation examined removing organizational level stigma and the first version of the paper was also about removing organization level stigma. Right before we submitted the paper to a journal, Christian Hampel sent me his recently accepted paper on removing stigma in the Thomas Cook travel agency. Great paper, and we were forced to question whether we would be making enough of a theoretical contribution to removing organizational stigma. Fortunately, I had collected industry-level data, so we spent several months reframing the paper to make it about the category. In hindsight, our story was about the industry, but at the time, it was not fun to reanalyze and rewrite the paper. 

In the version of the paper that we submitted to ASQ, we did not explicitly go into the categories literature. One of our reviewers pushed us to either build on the categories literature or on the social movement literature, since our story also had a social movements flavor. We picked categories. We later realized that we had been talking about categories without explicitly talking about it, so we were grateful for the reviewer’s insight in that regard.

Tim: This was a great example of how papers can really evolve during the review process. We initially framed the paper totally within the stigma literature. As Kisha said, her dissertation still had a heavy organization-level focus on it, and even though we backed off on that in our initial submission we still talked about it. Most of our theoretical background section was comparing organizational “event” stigma and industry “core” stigma. We used the word category a bit, but the only cite to this literature in the first round was to Vergne (2012). We didn’t really start citing the categories literature and framing our study that way until the first revision, and even then we didn’t make use of the framing offered by Durand & Khaire (2017) until the second revision, because the paper came out after we’d resubmitted our R&R, and we weren’t even aware of it. We also didn’t use the front stage/back stage/side stage framing until the first revision. So yes, the paper evolved a lot.

3. The data collection period spanned from 2011 to 2015 when “the industry was not yet fully destigmatized.” Did you face any difficulties in studying a context that was continuing to evolve as you were analyzing and writing the paper, and if so, how did you overcome them?

Kisha: For sure! Studying an evolving industry is like shooting at a moving target. What’s more, the industry was changing while we were going through the review process, so reviewers would sometimes challenge us on whether some of our insights still held. One thing that helped a lot was bracketing. That is, we had to be explicit about what we were studying, and the appropriate period of time during which we studied the phenomenon. When I started collecting data, medical marijuana was gaining momentum, but soon after, a few states started to legalize recreational marijuana. I believed that medical and recreational were related but distinct in how they were perceived and treated, so we emphasized that we were focused on medical marijuana and treated them as separate but related. There were benefits to studying an evolving industry. For example, we were trying to make the case that medical uses for marijuana were removing its stigma. As the years went by during the review process, we were able to provide updated data to show the reduction in stigma.

Tim: We had one reviewer in particular who had trouble with our claim that you could study the process while it was still ongoing. That’s one reason we moved from talking about “destigmatizing” the industry to taking about “reducing stigma.” The reviewer didn’t think we could claim the process we inducted was a “destigmatization” process since the industry wasn’t fully destigmatized at the end of our study. We added the whole “success of the stigma reduction process” section during the review process to address this issue.

4. We found the pictures of examples (Figures 3 and 4 showing organizational showcasing and dispensary logos) helpful in understanding the theoretical concepts and findings of the paper. However, including pictures in an article is not yet a common practice in our field. When and how did you decide on including photos in the article?

Kisha: Very early in data collection, Tim insisted that I take lots of photos. I think he always thought that it would be cool to “show” parts of an industry that many people have not experienced first-hand. So I took lots of photos, and we included them with the manuscript, knowing that we could be asked to remove them. Surprisingly, neither the editor (Mike Pratt) nor the reviewers ever mentioned the photos. It was a non-issue.

Tim: We as a field generally do a crappy job using images as part of our storytelling. The old saw is that a picture is worth a thousand words, and this was definitely a situation where actually showing people what Kisha was seeing was a lot easier and more effective than just telling them about it. I really hope it becomes more common for anyone doing fieldwork to include pictures as part of their data collection, and that they use them in their findings.

5. Our understanding is that this study is based on Kisha’s doctoral dissertation. We’ve heard that some advisors dissuade students from selecting stigmatized contexts for their dissertations from fear that they would be labeled, or “stigmatized,” as the “[stigmatized context] researcher” in their early careers. Do you have any views or thoughts about this statement? Also, do you have any advice that you would like to offer to students who are thinking about or currently studying nonconventional contexts?

Kisha: When I first started the dissertation, I had a different topic. I don’t even remember what it was. I even wrote a 5 page summary on that topic and sent it to Tim. He provided a ton of feedback that I don’t think I ever read (sorry Tim). At that same time, I was reading a lot about the medical marijuana industry, mainly because it was entertaining and the whole thing seemed so bizarre to me. It never crossed my mind that this could be a legit dissertation topic. I was constantly telling my office mate (Nathan Bragaw) about the latest developments in the industry and I think he got sick of listening. One day he suggested that I do this as my dissertation topic since I was spending more time on it than my actual dissertation. I thought he was nuts! Again, in my mind, marijuana and criminality were closely linked, and what a shame that would be if in the process of getting a Ph.D., I put myself in a position to be labeled as a criminal or pot-head or any of those other things. But, this was so much more interesting to me that my other topic. I thought about it for a few days then mentioned it to Tim. I think I was secretly hoping he would confirm that this was a bad idea so that I could continue with my boring original topic knowing that I had tried. Tim seemed even more excited about the new topic than I was. I did get push back from lots of other people. For example, the first time I submitted a draft of the paper to AOM, a reviewer wrote what felt like an essay about why this type of work should not be encouraged in the Academy. I also know that I interviewed with at least one school that did not extend an offer for an in-person interview because of my dissertation topic. For a grad student, this kind of feedback from the field is nerve-racking. Tim was always reassuring though, and at some point, there was no turning back. I forged ahead, anxiety and all.

Tim: I remember Kisha’s original topic. It was about studying construction firms who did road projects for the state of Maryland and how their networks affected their ability to get contracts. Sexy! She was more interested in brokerage and networks at the time, so it made a certain amount of sense as a topic. However, I thought studying stigma and the medical cannabis industry was a great topic, and I also said at the time that if she did it well, it had ASQ written all over it. You have to be passionate about your dissertation topic and the phenomenon you study, and she was clearly more interested in this than road projects. It was also an intrinsically interesting phenomenon, there was lots of stuff going on that made it great to study, and I thought there would be lots of people studying it in a few years (and now there are), so this would give her a chance to get ahead of the wave. It also gave me the opportunity to make lots of jokes and tease her a bit about being the “pot lady” and that people would ask her to hook them up at conferences, which was a nice plus. If you are interested in studying stigma, you have to study stigmatized actors. So, you have to be willing to bear any risks involved.

My view on unconventional phenomena is that they provide the best opportunity to do something interesting and important. It’s kind of hard to stand out writing the five thousandth paper on S&P 500 companies, but unconventional phenomena attract attention, and because they are different, they create opportunities to study different things. I think too many scholars are timid and overly risk-averse; if you never take chances, you’re unlikely to do anything great, even if you strike out sometimes, too. This is what dissertations are for; to swing for the fences. If they don’t work out, that’s why you have other irons in the fire. As for being stigmatized yourself; well as our study shows, what’s considered stigmatizing can change, and it was changing for this industry. Plus, most people like reading about edgy and/or dark side stuff. You’ll always encounter a few judgmental tight asses, but if you do a good job with your study and demonstrate your scholarly abilities, more people will love it than hate it, and you’ll definitely be remembered for it.

Jungsoo’s Bio: Jungsoo Ahn is a Ph.D. candidate at Ivey Business School, Western University. His research examines how market actors, such as innovative entrepreneurs, incumbent firms, and committed third-party actors, co-create categories to influence audiences’ perceptions of the nascent markets and related producers.

Taehyun’s Bio: Taehyun Lee is a Ph.D. candidate at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. His research examines how market participants, such as entrepreneurial firms and professionals, employ different meaning systems to open up avenues for and to legitimate new markets.

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