fter her mother died from breast cancer in 2011, April Arrasate, an attorney with an undergraduate degree in chemistry and biology, wanted to make cannabis-based medicines more accessible to patients battling chronic diseases. Putting her legal background to work, in 2013 Arrasate successfully secured one of only four cannabis cultivation licenses in her home state of Connecticut. The same year, she founded Curaleaf LLC, a manufacturer of medical-use cannabis products based in Simsbury.
Calling on her early career experience working in pharmaceutical synthesis at Sanofi Genzyme and Harvard Medical School’s Channing Laboratory, Arrasate helped Curaleaf develop an extensive product line. She served as the company’s chief operating officer until 2017, when Curaleaf was acquired by New Jersey-based PalliaTech Inc.
Today, Arrasate is a shareholder in the now-public company.
Sensi spoke with Arrasate recently about Core, her career, and what it has been like to be a female influencer in the still male-dominated cannabis industry. Excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity, are below.
Why did you choose to get involved in the cannabis industry?
I was working as an attorney when my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. I was her caretaker for two years before losing her to the disease. It really exposed me to the American cancer machine and what it’s like to die in America. I was shocked, and I found it to be very brutal.
I thought about transitioning my legal practice into some sort of patient advocacy, but around that time medical-use cannabis became legal in Connecticut. My mother’s radiation oncologist had been very outspoken about allowing cannabis for cancer patients, so it just sort of all fell into place. I applied for a license for cultivation and processing, raised capital from several investors—almost all of them white men—and founded the original Curaleaf. The brand, which is everywhere now, is a shrine to my mother.
Why did you start your new company in Massachusetts?
When recreational-use cannabis became legal in Massachusetts I decided I would come here and create a company that had a more diverse environment. I wanted to see more women, more people of color. The thing that made Curaleaf successful was that I was so mission oriented in fighting the injustice people dying or undergoing cancer treatment faced. That same sort of “injustice fire” was fueled when I looked at the multi-billion-dollar cannabis industry juxtaposed with people still sitting behind bars for the possession of a plant.
What about the birth of Core Cannabis?
I partnered with a local gentleman, Tomas Gonzalez, and brought in another partner, Peri Higgins, who I had worked with in the past. We wanted to create an organization that was diverse through and through, so we worked hard to raise all of our capital from women, people of Latino descent and other people of color, and people who were local to the area. I’m proud that we have that kind of diversity in our DNA.
I also wanted to find a way to memorialize the injustices that some of these same people faced, which is where the idea for the museum came from. I wanted to educate people about the facts. My goal is to give a voice to those who have been victims of the drug war, and to inspire the passing of more reasonable drug laws, even in the sense of our treatment of pharmaceutical products versus illicit drugs. I wanted to shed some light on our human relationship with these substances.
“I decided I would create a company that had a more diverse environment. I wanted to see more women, more people of color…I was so mission oriented in fighting the injustice people dying or undergoing cancer treatment faced.”
—April Arrasate, founder of Core
Why did you decide to open Core Cannabis in Jamaica Plain?
Tomas is from Jamaica Plain, so that was the neighborhood we were working with. It made sense to locate the business there. I also went to college in Boston and always loved Jamaica Plain. I used to go The Milky Way restaurant and bowling alley with friends, and that’s the space we’re in currently.
Can you tell us about some of the community partners that Core Cannabis supports?
As someone who grew up in the community, Tomas has been a big part of a lot of social justice efforts. Even though we are still pre-revenue we felt it was important to support the area’s nonprofits. We support several organizations including the Chica Project, an organization that works to advance Latina women in leadership roles, as well as the JP Music Fest, which is a platform for local musicians. We want to be good neighbors, and we try to impart that mission in everything we do.
What do you think about the role women play as leaders in the cannabis industry currently, and how do you see it evolving?
It’s just like everything else. Being an attorney, there were always fewer women at the table. In biotech there were always fewer women at the table. I’ve always been either one of a few or, in many cases, the only woman at the table. I always took it for what it was and didn’t really think about it for a long time. But it became very clear at Curaleaf that I was in control, and I decided that the next company I founded, I would do it very differently.
It wasn’t so much that I went and sought out women or people of color as partners when founding Core. It just happened that over time I had these people in my orbit. It sort of happened organically, which is nice because some organizations seem to have token people in their org charts in order to satisfy the social justice initiative Massachusetts has for the cannabis industry.
“I would advise women to be bold. This is a young industry. Women have an opportunity to pave a path.”
—April Arrasate, founder of Core
Do you have any advice for women who want to get involved in the cannabis business?
My former lead investor used to describe me as “fearless.” I don’t really think of myself that way, but I do think it’s what has allowed me to excel. When I lost my mom, I also lost my marriage. I had been out of my career for two years. I really had nothing to lose, which created a sort of fearlessness inside me.
I think overall, women are less bold than men out in the world. Decades and decades of society have relegated women to a particular set of roles. I would advise women to be bold. This is a young industry. Women have an opportunity to pave a path. As a lawyer, you have to know centuries’ worth of law, but in cannabis it’s pretty finite. You can learn what there is to know, and then go make your own path—as long as you have a certain level of fearlessness.