Marijuana and the Modern Lady

What it means that more women are defending pot as a natural form of relaxation
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(jeffeaton/flickr)

In January 1989, in the wake of the extreme measures passed by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, the marijuana-centric magazine High Times ran an advertisement from a group calling itself the Freedom Fighters asking readers to join its “cannabis protest movement”:

“For three years we’ve been asking our readers to get involved in the cannabis reform movement,” the ad read. “During that time, we have witnessed the steady erosion of our civil rights. Now Congress has passed a truly reprehensible bill aimed at illegal drug users. Don’t you think it’s about time you stepped out of that cannabis closet you’re hiding in?”

The advertisement was primarily speaking to men. After all, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that, even in 2012, men were nearly 50 percent more likely to smoke pot than women. High Times, with its centerfolds of scantily clad women and often boorish humor, has reflected those statistics for nearly 40 years. But, given the current softening of pot's political and social stigma, more women than ever are following the Freedom Fighters’ advice and are coming out of the “cannabis closet” by exposing themselves in public as marijuana users.

From articles about closing the pot gender gap to sociological studies of “Mary Jane’s Gender,” women and weed are a hot topic.  Discussions of "hot bud-tenders" (the women who work at marijuana dispensaries) and how pot gives women a better sex life are rife. Yet larger questions—about who these women are, how they’re being portrayed, and what the effects of their “coming out” might be—remain.

The image of the pothead has long been a male one. The stoner is a trope, a media fixture recognizable in Half Baked, Friday, The Big Lebowski, Pineapple Express, and This Is the End, among other works. As Wendy Chapkis, a sociologist at the University of Southern Maine, put it, the stoner’s slacker attitude “relies on a mismatch between expectation and condition; this is why it is most available to white heterosexual men with some measure of class privilege.” 

In other words, a stoner is usually a dude who can spend all day sitting in his underwear, smoking weed and eating Cheetos and Goldfish. A woman—especially a hardworking, college-educated adult woman—would more likely be portrayed as pathetic instead of funny.

And yet, recently, more women are starting to use the internet to come out of the cannabis closet. Whether on Facebook, through online journals like Ladybud, or in the comments section of popular articles on Jezebel and The Stranger, women are exposing themselves as tokers—and as mothers, lovers, students, employees, taxpayers, voters, and otherwise upstanding citizens. Many of the comments following these articles voice an overwhelming sense of relief: “I finally felt like I wasn’t alone!” There’s an air of cognitive dissonance about it, that a woman, especially a nurturing professional woman, could both smoke pot and not be Jim Breuer in Half Baked was, to many, a revelation.

Because of the often surprising nature of their confessions, pot smoking is still not something many women are entirely comfortable admitting. Even in an age where the majority of Americans support legalizing marijuana and two states (Colorado and Washington) have already legalized recreational use, adult women still often feel the need to hide their smoker identity. Unlike younger women who gladly post photos of themselves with their favorite herb, adults with kids and careers are rarely so open about their use. Most tellingly, the woman who agreed to be the token in a segment on NBC's Today about "stiletto stoners" in October 2009 had her image blacked out and her voice altered to protect her identity.

This makes sense. In a world where drug testing is still a common workplace requirement and mandatory minimums for pot possession could land you in prison for up to three years, it’s a scary world in which to expose yourself. Yet, as scholars are growing more concerned about rising rates of female alcohol abuse, some women are defending marijuana as a healthier, less harmful, more natural, and less addictive source of relief for pain and anxiety. The “Marijuana Mommies” of Beverly Hills, for example, went on CNN this past June to argue that their pot use made them better mothers.

The growing number of women coming forth and announcing themselves as cannabis users represents a sea change in both how women view pot, as well as in how female pot smokers are viewed. And it may also be the reason why so many regular women—famous smokers like Rihanna and Lady Gaga aside—are beginning to open up about their habits.

A growing number of these women are getting involved in reforming cannabis laws. Activist women in organizations like the NORML Women’s Alliance, Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse (MAMA), and Moms for Marijuana not only support women’s marijuana use, but they’re also working to challenge drug laws that they feel unduly harm pot users while leaving violent criminals out on the streets. As the NORML Women’s Alliance puts it, “There is no doubt that once women, especially mothers, become educated about the social and economic costs of marijuana prohibition… the scope of the national, mainstream conversation will be changed for good.”

And, as an article in The Atlantic pointed out in November of last year, women are key to passing marijuana reform legislation, whether they smoke pot or not. Ads run last November specifically targeted mothers, with a “Washington mom” telling her audience that, through the potential tax-and-regulate system, legal marijuana would bring a bevy of benefits—including tight controls over selling pot to minors and millions of tax dollars raised for prevention and education—to families across the state. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, acknowledged in the Atlantic article that getting women to vote for legalization was the only way to pass a bill: “If women get weak-kneed, the men will start to drop.”

Women have also long been involved in supporting medical marijuana rights. Mary Jane Ruthbun, better known as Brownie Mary, was a well-known medical marijuana activist who baked pot-laced brownies for AIDS patients in San Francisco in the 1980s. And women were a key constituency for ads targeted to California families in 1996, when the first television spots for Prop 215, which legalized medical marijuana use, aired featuring a 67-year-old nurse named Anna Boyce whose husband used marijuana when he was dying of cancer.

But as the divide between medical marijuana and legalized marijuana use for adults grows ever more blurred, women are moving away from the Brownie Mary model. Instead, women are beginning to defend their smoking as a natural form of relaxation. For the first time in years, since the legacy of “Just Say No” and the drug wars of the 1980s have faded into the past, women—regular, professional, adult women—are starting to admit that they smoke pot, not only because it helps those with cancer and AIDS and because taxing pot sales could fund struggling public schools, but because it’s something they simply enjoy.

Recent books have claimed that women began drinking more when they sought to achieve parity with men at work. Now, we’re beginning to understand the negative effects of all that booze. With more women admitting to cannabis use, the question could just as easily be posed for pot: How can we know the effects of marijuana on women if no one feels they can cop to their smoking?

The results of women exiting the cannabis closet could potentially be profound. If regular women—not just the stiletto stoners, Brownie Marys, Lady Gagas, or Jim Breuer-wannabes—admit to being one of the 17.4 million Americans who regularly smoke pot, we may begin to comprehend the real effects of weed on women. Not only could we begin to understand how marijuana specifically affects the female body, but, given women’s deep impact on drug legislation, the 750,000 annual marijuana arrests (which cost taxpayers up to $3 billion a year) could be reduced. And restricting the sale of pot to only those 21 and older could mean that rates of adolescent marijuana use would go down, a chief concern for parents who support legalization.

And as for the harmless, hapless stoner, so long a part of the American media lexicon? Maybe he could be retired, or at least replaced some of the time.

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Emily Dufton is a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University, where she works as a teaching assistant in GW's University Writing Program. She served in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa, where she worked as an agriculture extension agent.

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