Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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In Lady Buds Six Women & Queer Folx Come Out of the Cannabis Shadows

Lady Buds

The 2016 legalization of marijuana for recreational use by the state of California appeared to be a dream opportunity for the growers and entrepreneurs in its northernmost territory, long known for its prolific pot production. However, for the women and queer folx featured in Lady Buds, a new documentary from out director Chris J. Russo, the reality on the front line of a quickly transitioning market was very different. They were suddenly faced with the deep pockets of highly connected corporations eager to cut them out of their industry.  

The film takes a nuanced look at a complicated situation by focusing on the stories of six people connected to different aspects of the industry and have been — for better or worse — impacted by its legalization. Chiah Rodriques is a second-generation cannabis farmer; Karyn Wagner, a Humboldt transplant and widow, hopes to keep her late husband’s business alive; The Bud Sisters represent the long history of the region as elders of the community; Sue Taylor, a former Catholic school principal turned entrepreneur, is fighting to open her own dispensary to help educate seniors on the medicinal properties of marijuana; and finally, Felicia Carbajal is a Latinx cannabis activist arguing for racial equity in the burgeoning market after decades of immeasurable damage done to their community by the “war on drugs.”

Sue Taylor in Lady Buds

It’s this diverse set of voices that really brings the complexity and humanity of the cannabis industry to life in the film. It was also something very important to its director, Russo, who attended women entrepreneurs in cannabis events and farmers’ markets and conducted more than 100 interviews to find the subjects of her film. “I wanted to include mothers, businesswomen, elders — women whose stories conveyed universal themes with the hope of reaching a broad audience,” Russo tells The Advocate.

The inclusion of queer voices in the film wasn’t by accident. “As a queer-identified filmmaker, it was very important to include queer voices in the film, not only because I feel a responsibility to give our community a voice,” says Russo. “I also wanted to highlight the little-known history of LGBTQ+ cannabis activism that occurred during the AIDS crisis in San Francisco in the ’90s. If it weren’t for queer heroes Dennis Peron, Scott Imler, and Brownie Mary — the activists who helped pass the Compassionate Use Act in 1996 which legalized medical marijuana in California — we wouldn’t have the burgeoning legal industry we have today.”

Chiah Rodriques in Lady Buds

While there are glimpses of hope for the future to be found in Lady Buds, the women face their share of hardships as they struggle to not be left behind by an industry that’s both complicated and prohibitively costly to become a legal part of.  Some find a way to survive and even thrive, while others face harder realizations. At its core, the film is ultimately a David vs. Goliath tale, as Russo explains. “While the film’s backdrop is cannabis, I believe at its heart is a commentary on corporate capitalism,” she says. It often seems as though the women are doomed to be squeezed out of their livelihoods. For example, if factory farms driving down the costs of their crop to unsustainable lows doesn’t force them out, the wildfires regularly sweeping through their part of the state appear determined to. 

Lady Buds director Chris J. Russo

Russo hopes that highlighting these struggles will inspire consumers to be more conscientious with their purchasing power to support local small businesses and farmers. (MedMen, a prominent cannabis corporation, looms large as the boogeyman of the film.) “I hope the film helps to destigmatize cannabis so more people can benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. I hope queer audiences appreciate the LGBTQ+ history that’s honored in the film that will also be shared with audiences far and wide,” Russo shares. 

At turns heartbreaking, frustrating, and inspiring, Lady Buds is consistently a compelling and eye-opening look at the frontlines of a complex situation — one that many have no idea is even occurring when they’re making buying decisions at their dispensary. 

Lady Buds is in select theaters and on VOD November 26th

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