Saturday 05 December 2009
Why women have signed onto marijuana reform -- and why they could be the movement's game-changers.
In September, ladymag Marieclaire ruffled some feathers when it published a piece about women who smoke weed. But its most interesting effect was not the "marijuana moms" chatter it unleashed, and instead the fact that it brought to the mainstream media a more open discussion of the fact that women can be avid tokers, too.
Public acceptance of pot is at an all-time high, and the fact that women have drastically changed their attitudes may be what is most fascinating about the sea change in public opinion -- and policy -- regarding marijuana. In 2005, only 32 percent of polled women told Gallup they approved legalizing pot, but this year 44 percent of them were for it, compared to 45 percent of men. In effect, women have narrowed what had been a 12-point gender gap.
Women are also smoking more weed. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that current marijuana use increased from 3.8 to 4.5 percent among women, while there was no significant statistical change for men.
Indeed, it appears the growing acceptance of marijuana is fueled by women having joined the movement for reform.
Women "can reach people's hearts and minds," says Mikki Norris, co-author of Shattered Lives: Portraits from America's Drug War, managing editor of the West Coast Leaf, and director of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign. "I think we can really take it from the third- to the first-person, and make it personal."
Norris, who's participated in numerous successful marijuana campaigns, may be onto something. If pro-weed women are a new momentum behind the normalization of marijuana, they may also become the driving force behind game-changing drug reform.
If that's the case, then it's worth examining why some women have signed onto the marijuana reform movement -- because it may soon be why many others will as well.
'A Bigger Amygdala'
The avenue through which women have been foremost leaders in the movement is medical marijuana advocacy.
There are currently 13 states that have legalized medical marijuana use and at least 14 other states with pending legislation or ballot measures. In California, where cannabis has been legalized for medical use since 1996, a Field poll found 56 percent support for adult legalization -- and the matter may very well make its way onto the 2010 ballot.
Every woman I spoke to referenced cannabis' medicinal properties as a major reason they are so personally impassioned by the marijuana reform debate.
One of these is Valerie Corral, dubbed "the Mother Teresa of the medical marijuana movement," by Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Corral was introduced to the medical benefits of marijuana in 1973, when she was the victim of a car crash that left her an epileptic. At one point, while on pharmaceuticals, she was having up to five seizures each day.
In 1974, her husband read an article in a medical journal that described how positively rats had reacted to cannabis when treated for certain ailments. Soon thereafter, Corral started applying a strict regimen of marijuana, and kept a catalog of its effects.
"Within a few weeks, I noticed change," Corral said. And over time, she was able to control seizure activity in a way that allowed her to wean herself off the prescription drugs. To this day she does not take anything other than marijuana for her epilepsy.
Not only did medical marijuana change Corral's quality of life, it changed its course. She went on to found Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), a patient collective based in Santa Cruz, Calif. that offers organic medical marijuana and assistance to those who have received a terminal or chronic illness diagnosis.
WAMM currently serves about 170 patients. When I spoke to Corral, she was late to hit the road for her Thanksgiving holiday. She had spent the morning with a patient who was anxious about his radiation therapy. She then spent the afternoon delivering marijuana before counseling -- "and learning from" -- terminal patients.
While Corral knows first-hand the physical benefits of marijuana, she believes its most important effect is "the way it affects how we look at things that are difficult."
"No matter what else happens to us," Corral said, "the quality with which we live our lives is so important."
Cheryl Shuman, a 49-year-old optician in Los Angeles, would agree. Up until she started using cannabis therapy to treat her cancer, she was on a daily regimen of 27 prescription drugs, attached to a mobile intravenous morphine pump, and undergoing constant CAT and MRI scans. In 2006, her doctors told her she'd be dead by the end of that year.
"I had to make a decision [regarding] which way I was going to go and quite frankly, I thought if I am going to die, I want to control how my life is going to be," Shuman said, her voice breaking. "And the only side-effects were that I was happy and laughing."
It turns out those may not have been the only effects of her cannabis therapy. Her cancer has been in remission for 18 months now -- and that coincides precisely with the start of the marijuana treatment.
Shuman had previously used pot medicinally in 1994, when going through a harrowing divorce. Up to 80 milligrams of Prozac a day, coupled with multiple therapy sessions a week, did not help her get over the sense that she could barely make it through each day.
During one session, she says, "my therapist said, 'I could lose my license, but I think what would help you more than anything is just smoking a joint.' I didn't know how to respond! I said I couldn't do that -- I don't drink, I've never even smoked a cigarette!"
But after researching medical marijuana and realizing that cannabis had been available in pharmacies until the early 20th century, Shuman acquiesced and tried a joint. At 36 -- after learning to inhale -- Shuman says she found she "finally had some peace."
This year, Shuman became the founding director of Beverly Hills' National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) chapter -- and she hopes to attract women to the cause.
Corral, for her part, acknowledges that the role she fills within the marijuana movement is one that fits the traditional female archetype. "Maybe it's because we have a bigger amygdala," she laughs, referring to the part of the brain that processes emotions. "It probably is!"
Debby Goldsberry, director of the Berkeley Patients Group, a medical marijuana dispensary, feels similarly: "It's our job in our families and in our circles of friends to be caregivers. It makes sense that women would gravitate to cannabis."
In a recent study of a sample of patient reviews at a chain of medical marijuana assessment clinics in California, Craig Reinarman, a sociology professor at UC-Santa Cruz, found that only 27.1 percent of the patients were female. Another study, conducted on a sample of patients at Goldsberry's Berkeley dispensary, found that 30.7 percent of those patients were women.
Those numbers are close to the general expert estimate that women constitute about a third of marijuana consumers.
Since more women are smoking weed, it's no surprise there has finally been an onslaught of girl stoner coverage in the corporate media.
It probably started with "Weeds" -- a Showtime series about a bodacious soccer mom who deals and smokes pot -- which is now readying for its sixth season premiere. But the big dam opener this year was the aforementioned publication of the Marieclaire article, "Stiletto Stoners," which paints the portrait of a whole class of "card-carrying, type A workaholics who just happen to prefer kicking back with a blunt instead of a bottle."
Julie Holland, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, has been called onto NBC's Today Show twice now to explain why women are gravitating towards weed.
During one of her appearances, Holland seemingly shocks the hosts by telling them that 100 million Americans have tried weed -- 25 million of them over the past year. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that 10.6 million women used marijuana in 2008.
Also surprising to the TV hosts was Holland's assertion that marijuana is the least addictive substance among many. According to a 1999 Institute of Medicine report, the rate at which people who try a substance and go on to become addicted is 32 percent for nicotine, 23 percent for heroin, 17 percent for cocaine, 15 percent for alcohol, and 9 percent for cannabis.
"Look at what the choices are. Cannabis isn't toxic to your brain, to your liver, it doesn't cause cancer, you can't overdose, and there's no evidence that it's a gateway drug," Holland said. "I believe that the majority of adults can healthfully integrate altered states into their lives, and it makes sense to do it with the least toxic substance you can. "
The public seems to agree.
Societal mores around marijuana are at their most progressive in at least 40 years, when Gallup first started asking Americans whether they believed marijuana ought be legalized. This year, 44 percent of those polled -- up from 36 percent in 2005 -- said they are in favor of legalization. A May Zogby poll found marijuana legalization was even more popular with its respondents, at 52 percent.
Harry Levine, professor of sociology at Queens College and co-author of Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice, attributes a lot of the mainstreaming of progressive views on pot to the medical marijuana movement.
"What it has done is change the image of marijuana from this tie-dye 1960s hippie-dippy kind of thing to a real drug, a real substance that has medical uses," he said. "You can separate it from the scary image of drugs."
Why Do Girls Smoke?
As weed is no longer considered by the public to be a "hard drug," three presidents -- 41, 42, and 43 -- have admitted to smoking marijuana. "The whole association of failure and dropouts [with marijuana] has been smashed in an important kind of way," Levine says.
In other words, you can smoke pot and be successful. Look at Natalie Angier, for example. In her book Woman: Intimate Geography, this Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer interjects a personal note of -- and case for -- female empowerment through weed:
All the women in my immediate family learned how to climax by smoking grass -- my mother when she was over thirty and already the mother of four. Yet I have never seen anorgasmia on the list of indications for the medical use of marijuana. Instead we are told that some women don't need to have orgasms to have a satisfying sex life, an argument as convincing as the insistence that homeless people like living outdoors.
As Angier writes, alcohol is a "global depressant of the nervous system" so marijuana can be a woman's best friend. In that vein, Holland has clinically observed that many of her female patients choose marijuana over alcohol -- for all kinds of social situations -- because it makes them "more present instead of absent."
"You can relax but not be incapacitated. You can keep your wits about you and protect yourself," Holland told me, adding that women don't always tolerate alcohol the way men do.
Diana, 37, a published writer in Madison is one such woman. She uses marijuana as a social lubricant: "If I drink, I know I'll be throwing up by night's end, even if it's only a couple of beers. But with weed, I know I can make it to closing time -- and keep up with all the steely-stomached drinkers."
Paloma, 25, a Bay Area union organizer, told me she smokes weed two to three times a week to "relax, sleep, work on arts and crafts or clean the house and cook" without being distracted by what she calls her "explosive" attention deficit disorder.
A few women smokers said they did not initially like the effects marijuana had on them. Tessa, 29, a doctoral student in Portland, said, she didn't enjoy weed in college "because I would not be able to do anything besides be high and stupid. Now I know to smoke less -- maybe a hit or two -- and then relax on that."
What a lot of women like Tessa don't know is that there are several kinds of weed that have different effects on the mind and body. Women who live in places where marijuana can be purchased at dispensaries are often more attuned to the fact that cannabis sativa gives a euphoric head high while cannabis indica results in a lazy body high. And then there are hybrids -- the equivalent to blends in wine culture.
Ally, 34, an architect and mother in San Francisco, sees weed as similar to vino: "Smoking a joint and taking a bath is what drinking a glass of wine and taking a bath was to my mom," she says, balancing a baby on her knee. "It's 'me' time!"
Think of the Children!
The acceptance of pot has led to discussion of how marijuana reform might positively impact families and children. This may change the debate because family values have long been employed by drug warriors as reasoning for why weed ought remain criminalized.
Enter Jessica Corry, a pro-life Republican from Denver. A mother of girls aged two and four, this 30-year-old newly-minted lawyer is widely hailed as a rising star in Colorado politics. She is currently working on her first book, which she described to me as an "analysis of how race consciousness and political correctness are silencing America's students and our entrepreneurial spirit."
A real conservative. Yet she is also one of the most outspoken proponents of marijuana legalization.
In 2006, she started a group called Guarding Our Children Against Marijuana Prohibition, which supported a statewide initiative to legalize marijuana.
"I had high-ranking Republicans politely encouraging me to write my political eulogy," Corry said. "Fortunately, they were wrong. While the initiative failed, it garnered more general election support than that year's Republican candidate for governor."
Corry doesn't smoke pot -- though she is open about past use. "As a mother," she says, "I'm far more concerned about my kids having access to a medicine cabinet than having access to a joint or a liquor cabinet. Marijuana, when consumed independently, has never been linked to a single death."
Mothers like Corry are drawn to marijuana regulation as part of a larger appeal that encourages the use of harm reduction to more pragmatically deal with substance abuse. Examples of harm reduction include providing designated drivers for drinkers and clean needles for heroin addicts.
Concerned moms may be moved to action by studies such as the Teen Survey, conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia. This year, there was a 37 percent increase in teens who said pot is easier to buy than cigarettes, beer or prescription drugs. Nearly one-quarter said they can get weed within the hour.
Those stats matter to women. In light of this, children and family will be included in the mission statement of the Women's Alliance, a group NORML will launch next year. The coordinator, Sabrina Fendrick, plans to include mention of how current marijuana policy undermines the American family and sends mixed messages to young people.
An Economic Savior?
The harm reduction approach extends itself from families and children to our ailing economy. With the largest economic recession since the Great Depression firmly in place, more people see the benefits of taxing and regulating marijuana for adults.
Economist Jeffrey Miron has calculated that, assuming a national market of about $13 billion annually, legalization would reap state and federal governments about $7 billion each year in extra tax revenues and save about $13.5 billion in law enforcement costs.
This kind of math attracts libertarian support, ranging from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California who recently called for an open discussion on legalization, to Rep. Ron Paul, a physician and Republican congressman from Texas, who has long advocated it.
The problem with a fiscal approach, however, might be that it could have more traction as a top-down rather than a bottom-up movement. Deborah Small, a drug reform veteran and founder of Break the Chains, a group that engages communities of color around drug reform policy, believes the reason the medical marijuana movement has been so successful is that its female leaders have made it a "real grassroots movement."
"Male-dominated libertarian philosophy and money has dominated" the general marijuana reform movement, Small says, and "there's a struggle in this next stage to see whether the movement will be driven by people with a lot of money or people on the ground -- or if they can agree to work together."
Perhaps male drug reform leaders can learn from the ladies. Jessica Corry, the GOP mom from Denver, turns the economic discussion back to the home: "It's generational child abuse to waste billions of dollars every year on marijuana prohibition."
Mikki Norris, the California marijuana activist, observed gender-specific focus groups in Oakland on Measure Z, a 2004 ballot initiative that ultimately succeeded in making marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority. She heard the women's group speaking on behalf of their children -- "they wanted money for their kids' education and they didn't want kids arrested for pot." Men, on the other hand, were more worried about children getting involved with drugs, she told me.
Norris said, "I just think women have a better grasp of home economics," or what's really important in a family.
Today's economic climate lends itself to easy parallels with the fight to repeal Prohibition in the 1920s, which was also framed as a family issue. Harry Levine, the sociologist, reminded me of Pauline Sabin, a high-society Chicago feminist who organized women in the fight to repeal the 18th Amendment.
"Sabin said that because of the violence, the corruption, the bootleggers, and all the resulting lost tax revenue, that alcohol undermined the home and therefore women should speak out for themselves and children," Levine said.
Many point to the moment when women joined the fight against Prohibition as the tipping point for the ultimate success of the movement.
Women as a New Force
The women in the marijuana reform movement have different reasons for trumpeting policy change. Some see cannabis as a medicinal wonder drug, others see tangible -- and sensible -- socio-economic benefits to taxing and regulating it.
Trends indicate that as more states legalize the use of cannabis for medical purposes, more people will discover first-hand that legalization of marijuana does not equate with anarchy and instead with more effective control of a substance so readily available to Americans -- and American kids -- across the country.
And as Californians may next year, Americans will soon be exposed to the choice between regulating marijuana for adult use or continuing a failed drug war that incarcerates 850,000 people a year -- tearing apart families, ruining futures, and siphoning from public funds that might otherwise benefit the next generation. All this for a relatively mild psychotropic that at least a third of us has tried.
As the recession continues to unravel communities across the country, the economic incentive to end this drug war will affect the opinions of many who might never otherwise have considered legalization. The time may very well be now.
Similar to the prohibition of alcohol in the early twentieth century, what we have today is a federal policy that is at odds with public opinion. It is a policy without a plurality of citizen supporters.
And many women are at the vanguard of the movement that recognizes this and is fighting for change.