Astrid founder Lisa Nguyen

Pictured: Astrid founder Lisa Nguyen

Meet Lisa Nguyen, the founder of the first female-led cannabis dispensary in Australia

The stoner image, from Seth Rogen in the Pineapple Express to Snoop Dogg anywhere and everywhere, is distinctly male. But Lisa Nguyen, a reluctant pharmacist come enthusiastic cannabis entrepreneur, wants to change that perception.

We're at Astrid in Byron Bay, a bougie-looking cannabis dispensary homed in the Habitat precinct. Astrid's founder Lisa Nguyen is telling me a fun fact that surprises me – the cannabis plant is actually female. 

“This plant ain’t want to be squashed into a square. It has a different mood every month, a different personality every month, it gets pollinated by a male plant – but every single time it gets pollinated, it’s going to be different,” she says. 

Hmm. Relatable. 

Walking through the Astrid store, medicinal cannabis products are set against mirrors and a mossy green background. Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved vaporisers are neatly showcased on a rocky-looking display cabinet. 

Prospective customers – or patients, given that cannabis is only legal for medicinal use in Australia – can book appointments with the resident pharmacist to discuss whether or not they qualify for a script. Anxiety and chronic insomnia are the top two conditions among Astrid’s patient base; chronic pain stemming from all manner of other conditions like endometriosis is another big one. 

On the surface, Astrid looks to be another business on the precipice of taking advantage of a new wave of local law reforms that have decriminalised cannabis for medicinal use, thus opening up the drug to a new, more above board socially acceptable market. It's happened in Canada and the United States, with businesses like Silverpeak in Aspen to Calma in Los Angeles setting a high-end cannabis tone. 

But behind-the-scenes, bringing Astrid to life is a tale of grit and persistence.

It goes back to before Lisa was even born. In the 1980s, Lisa’s parents fled Vietnam to come to Australia. They met at a party, fell in love, had three children, and hit the ground running with an entrepreneurial spirit helming a school uniform business.

As a result of their hard work, Lisa went to a Melbourne-based private school, followed by a selective high school filled with “amazing, feminist women” with a kind of work-hard, play-hard culture, a number of whom are now architects, lawyers and accountants who lent their expertise to the creation of Astrid. Despite wanting to study Commerce/Arts, Lisa's mum enrolled her in pharmacy at Charles Sturt University. Packed up in a car and sent to Wagga Wagga, campus life and regional life was where she first discovered cannabis - or "the plant" as Lisa calls it. Without being too on the nose, it was here with this experience that the seeds for what Astrid would become were first planted.

Beyond the masculine and feminine dynamic underlying cannabis itself, another facet that dovetails nicely with Lisa’s own way of seeing things is that on the one hand, cannabis is treated through a Western, pharmaceutical paradigm, but on the other, it’s part of nature. 

Lisa relates to these two worlds through the West and East dynamic of her parents, her upbringing, and different approaches to healthcare.

“I have the ability to grapple with the Western world, and the Asian world, the Eastern world. In the Asian world, there are a lot of medicines that are not powered by Western mentality – it’s very much nature first. Everything is found in nature, and you can fix it with natural things first,” she says. 

For example, her grandma refuses Codral and is a big “towel over your head and inhale these herbal fumes in the bathtub at the first onset of flu symptoms” kinda gal.

“But I’m also a pharmacist. I studied the science and the pharmacology side of things, so I understand the chemical structure. I don’t agree with a lot of it – because I believe that there is a blend between the two. And that’s where I believe cannabis is so special because there is a blend between the two. Cannabis is nature, it’s a plant, it’s a herb, it’s not always going to be the same. And not only that, it’s a female plant, and it’s a female plant that changes every month, just like we with our periods and our hormones change throughout the month.” 

To make Astrid a reality, Lisa has put a lot on the line. It costs money to start a business, and operating one in a new market with ever-shifting regulations is challenging for owners. Lisa started Astrid with money from selling her apartment, some money from her parents, and gold from her grandma she had buried in her backyard that Lisa converted into around $5000 in cash. When all that still wasn't enough, the family dug deep and started making fabric face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"I drew a picture, showed my Mum, and she was like, 'oh yeah, that’s easy.' My Mum’s response to anything? 'That’s easy. I can do that. I can sew anything,'" she says.

"So I was like, 'Mum, if you can sew me 10-20 of these, I’ll set up an online store.'"

Lisa Nguyen's Mum in their Melbourne factory sewing fabric face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. Proceeds from the sales went towards Astrid's startup costs.

Lisa's husband and Astrid's chief financial officer Hansen Tsai together with Lisa's grandma, one of Astrid's first financial backers.

It's certainly an interesting time for the fledging Australian cannabis industry.

At a Nine Big Ideas event in 2021 exploring the boom of cannabis as a new product and category, Pernod Ricard Winemakers global marketing director Eric Thomson observed that there is probably no drug that has been so consistently demonised by law enforcement and the culture than cannabis. That's why its turnaround and new reputation is so huge.

In America, cannabis went from being the subject of an aggressive war on drugs spearheaded by the Drug Enforcement Agency that mostly affected people of colour, to cannabis legalisation offering promises of some kind of social justice deliverance via business reparations for Black Americans in particular. Journalist Jia Tolentino has reported in her 2024 piece for The New Yorker "Legal Weed in New York Was Going To Be a Revolution. What happened?" that the results of this reality have been pretty mixed – with some of the biggest benefactors of the change being well-capitalised corporates rather than smaller upstarts.

In general, Australians lag behind the United States and Canada in terms of being pro legalisation – here around 42 per cent of Australians favour legalisation, whereas in the US and Canada around 80-90 per cent were in favour of it before it was legalised. Lisa adds that the level of openness to cannabis in Byron Bay, with Nimbin just down the road, is different to other Australian cities like Brisbane and Melbourne.

But if anyone can find a way to keep blazing the cannabis trail, it's Lisa.

"My dream is to have Astrid’s scattered across Australia and then eventually, as the world slowly starts opening its doors to cannabis legalisation, all across the world. I’d love to be able to walk into an Astrid in London, New York and Berlin and have the same, warm and incredible experience as in Australia," she says.

"It's been really amazing to witness the growth of medicinal cannabis in Australia since its legalisation. However, as an industry, there's still a considerable journey ahead of us – especially for representation of women in leadership, women in healthcare and women suffering from chronic conditions."

Learn more about Astrid online at or @astrid.dispensary on Instagram. Editor's note: This piece was unpaid.