Marijuana and the Modern Lady

What it means that more women are defending pot as a natural form of relaxation

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.

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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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