Marijuana and the Modern Lady

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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