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A Look Into the Evolution of Women and Cannabis

By Danyal Swan September 25, 2021

In recognition of Women’s History Month, we’re taking a look at the history of women and cannabis. 

Women and cannabis aren’t a new combination. However, despite a long history of use around the world for both recreational and medicinal properties, here in the U.S., there has been a stigma surrounding cannabis use for ages. This stigma has always been harsher for certain groups in our society than others. Namely, drug-use has been used as a means to shame women and criminalize members of minority races for decades — regardless of the actual danger (or lack thereof) presented by the plant in question.

But, why is this exactly? 

It’s not as if smoking, drinking, or any other similar action is inherently masculine or feminine, and drug use has no ties to race or ethnicity. So why, throughout history, have our so-called “protected classes” been given an inordinate amount of shame around their pharmaceutical use? In the case of women and marijuana, there are a few clear answers we can point to by taking a walk down memory lane. And, as per usual, they mostly stem from the early Victorian purity culture handed down to the states during our nation’s early years. 

To gain a full understanding and appreciation for the history, however, one should start back at the beginning, when most societies allowed women to use cannabis and enjoy its many beneficial effects on the body and mind.

The Spiritual and Healing Properties of Cannabis

Due to their nature to cause psychoactive visions and hallucinations, many naturally occurring drugs have been taken throughout history as a way to communicate with spirits or beings on another plane of existence. When the tattooed, mummified remains of the Siberian Ice Maiden, a young woman who passed away from breast cancer in 500 BCE, were buried with cannabis, historians assume that the maiden must have taken it to help relieve her pain.  

They also believe that her use of marijuana signals wealth and an honorable position in her community, perhaps related to her consumption of the drug, placing her in the right position to be tethered to “the other side.”

Marijuana Multi-Use Menstrual Relief

Blonde girl holding red joint

One of the biggest reasons for which women have consumed marijuana throughout history was as a pain reliever for periods and menstrual cramps. The uterus has always been an organ that fascinated humanity with its power of creating the perfect conditions to grow new life yet the burden of an incredibly painful 4-14 days of bleeding every month. In ancient Egypt as far back as 1400 BC, it is recorded that women used cannabinoids from hemp to treat both the pain from menstruation and childbirth.

Hatshepsut, one of the few female pharaohs, is alleged to have been one of these women. The Egyptian goddess of wisdom, Seshat, is frequently depicted wearing a headdress that resembles symbols we would associate with a marijuana leaf in modern-day. In later years, Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, reports that the women of ancient Egypt consumed cannabis recreationally to “lift their spirits.” Interestingly enough, even Queen Victoria was rumored to use cannabis for her own reproductive issues (except for childbirth, which was aided by the far more dangerous choice of chloroform) though she is usually associated with the purity culture that eventually led to the criminalization of marijuana in western nations.

Marijuana was also considered a go-to for menopause relief — a common use-factor for CBD that persists  in modern-day. Though, many women will opt for a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of CBD to THC as a means to get better sleep while menstruating. Ancient societies also used such treatments for heavy bleeding, but present-day doctors caution patients to always come in to see a professional when experiencing a period far outside their normal expectations. In some cases, it can be difficult to distinguish between a severely heavy period and an early-term miscarriage, both of which are conditions that should be treated with more medical care than cannabis.  

It is important to remember that in the overwhelming majority of cases, THC and CBD are incredibly good at masking symptoms. If you are having any concerns about your menstruation or your use of medicinal marijuana in managing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS), endometriosis, or any other similar conditions, never hesitate to contact your doctor.

Cannabis As A Sexual Aid

The use of cannabis as a suppository birthing aid was eventually passed from 2nd-century Egyptian women down to midwives across Europe. Simultaneously, in India, cannabis begins to get wide use as an ingredient in an aphrodisiac called “bhang.” Bhang is essentially a spiced mixture of fruit, leaves, water, and cannabis and was used in tantric sex practices. “Hashish” is even referenced as an intense aphrodisiac used by Queen Scheherezade in one legendary tale from One Thousand and One Nights.

Right before the abrupt shunning of cannabis in “polite” American society, cannabis was recognized in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia and U.S. National Formulary and pronounced a “satisfactory” drug to aid in a multitude of female sexual issues. Similar to how women in the period between the 1800s and 1940s were prone to being diagnosed with “hysteria” for any thoughts or actions deemed unsuitable by the powers in place, they were also given marijuana as a catch-all remedy for any issues in the bedroom. 

Cannabis would be prescribed loosely to any woman who had a perceived “lack of sexual desire” (many of whom, unfortunately, were likely either not interested in sex, not interested in men, or just not that into their partners in particular). Now, with such a society building up from a culture of repression mounting with tension toward more with sexual and personal liberation, how did we end up taking several steps back? The answer can be attributed mainly to one film: Reefer Madness (1936).

The Backlash and Illegalization

Image by James Vaughan via Flickr

As prohibition came to an end in the 1930s, certain conservative U.S. policymakers turned their attention to cannabis, considering it a “devil plant” corrupting their youth. As its reputation for more sexual benefits spread, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger decided to take a stand. He went about creating and compiling media making false claims to turn the public against cannabis. The film he produced, Reefer Madness (a movie now enjoyed ironically by cannabis lovers and detractors alike for the humor that can be found in any over-acted, black-and-white, 1930s public service announcement), made baseless claims that were taken very seriously by a naive American population seeking the comfort of a paternalistic government after times of war.

By making nearly every racist and sexist allegation under the sun, Anslinger’s fear-mongering was so effective in scaring your average middle-class family that even the American Medical Association could not step in to shake the stigma. By mid-1940, the government had banned cannabis, and women who’d relied on it for safe, effective treatment of their menstrual, mood, or physical disorders were left to go without.

Throughout the years, one of the least damaging ways to treat a human’s physical and mental pain rested firmly beneath the sole of Uncle Sam’s boot, tied up in legalese surrounding state’s rights versus federal rights and arguments over medicinal versus medical use. This situation only intensified when Richard Nixon took office, officially launching the “War on Drugs” in 1971 as a way to target black citizens and anti-war protesters. Now, we fight the ongoing battle against the opioids that have been overprescribed to our most privileged classes and overpoliced in our least protected communities.

Despite the legalization of marijuana across more than half of the nation, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration still lists marijuana as a “Schedule 1” substance, alongside heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. These drugs are listed as having a higher potential for abuse than “Schedule 2” drugs, like Vicodin, cocaine, methamphetamine, oxycodone, and more. While this misclassification doesn’t seem to be budging just yet, it’s pretty safe to say the times are “a-changin.”

The Climate for Women in 2021

Nowadays, it can seem like women will always face some sort of backlash or harassment over personal life choices like consumption of marijuana — medically or otherwise. But those dissenting voices are being drowned out by the voices of the many who support women’s rights to make important medical decisions for themselves. As more and more states decriminalize and legalize weed, more women are not just permeating the scene but helping lead and improve the game. A few names to remember are:

Nancy Whiteman

Wana Brands, founded in 2010 by Nancy Whiteman, is a powerhouse in the cannabis industry. Based in Boulder, Colorado, the company was founded with the mission of enhancing peoples’ lives creatively, physically and mentally through the use of cannabis. At Wana, that takes place in the award-winning Soft Chew, which perfects the texture of marijuana gummies with the use of pectin. The success of the edible has earned Whiteman the moniker the “Martha Stewart of Cannabis Edibles” and the “Queen of Legal Weed.”

Having a deep love for the plant is essential for making it in the marijuana industry - but it’s not enough. Networking is absolutely key, as is leaving room for women in the space. When presented with the fact that less than 25% of cannabis operations are women-run, Whiteman emphasized the need for a STEM-level business and entrepreneurship program for girls to encourage business acumen from a young age.

Jane West

Jane West, image by LennoxRees via WikiMedia Commons

When Denver entrepreneur, Jane West, began receiving press for her side business, she was asked to step down from her day job. That’s because her confectionary cocktail party events company had a special twist: cannabis. Despite the legalization of weed, making events like those West throws more common, she received some negative attention due to the stigma related to cannabis. In 2013, Jane stepped up to the plate to carve out a space for women in the cannabis industry with her networking organization Women Grow.

When asked to speak about women in the industry, West assured that the industry hasn’t been entirely taken over by the “boy’s club” mentality. The fact that cannabis is a newly regulated sector and poses the potential for trillions in profits is very enticing for women and other members of marginalized groups to carve a place for themselves in positions of power and influence. With the flexibility of the industry, there is plenty of room for innovators to corner a segment of the market they are uniquely positioned to serve. 

Stephanie Karasick

Stephanie Karasick tried every pharmaceutical she could think of to help with her depression and anxiety. After years of struggling, Karasick turned to medical cannabis. A week into this new path, Karasick noticed her uptick in mood - and that strains affected her differently. She took detailed notes of the strain consumed, how many doses it took to achieve her desired effect, how she felt before and after medicating, and how long the effects lasted.

After journaling and dialing in her own cannabis routine, Karasick had a thought – if I can track every step I take with a smart watch, why isn’t there a solution for tracking my medical cannabis results?

Karasick took this question and developed Strainprint™, the first medical cannabis journaling app created by patients, for patients to help identify the best products for their symptom management, with the ultimate goal of bringing real, self-reported data to the medical cannabis space. Strainprint has over 1.8 million tracked sessions since its launch in 2016, and has been referenced in several academic research studies and peer-reviewed publications to date, furthering their mission of advancing the scientific understanding of cannabis and its legitimacy as alternative medicine. 

Wanda James

When Colorado activist, Wanda James, opened SimplyPure, she became the first African American woman to legally own a dispensary and the first black-owned dispensary in the United States. James built this business from the ground up with her partner Scott Durrah in July 2010, with a dream of providing the “most positive experience with cannabis” as well as educational opportunities for consumers and anyone interested in entering the industry. James is a former Navy lieutenant, an avid proponent for the legalization of marijuana. 

One James’ top tips for other women looking to break into the cannabis industry is to stop underselling themselves and “brag more.” Due to the long history of misogyny in the workplace (and nearly everywhere else), women have been conditioned to make themselves smaller and quieter so as not to make anyone else feel bad about themselves. Men, on the other hand, are taught to take up space, to make their voices heard and their contributions known. 

James encourages women looking to model the confidence of men without emulating a stereotype of masculinity—a great start being skipping the imposed modesty in work conversations, opting instead for more commanding language like “was in charge of” when describing professional accomplishments.

Cyo Ray Nystrom

The Founder and CEO of Quim Rock, Cyo Ray Nystrom, left the startup world to launch her women’s reproductive health CBD oil with her partner Rachel Washtien in 2017. Intimate Oils is an all-natural, plant-based cannabis topical product designed to address vaginal health and sexual wellness. Nystrom, whose father was convicted for non-violent drug offenses in the early 1990s, is a strong proponent of community action. She has traveled the length of California to attend public hearings on regulations for small-batch cannabis manufacturers or delivery companies. Her interest in creating female reproductive health products was inspired by her own experience struggling for years with her own vaginal health issues. 

Though she began working on this problem at age 23, it wasn’t until a few years later that the link between cannabis and some vaginal/sexual health effects were made, giving Nystrom the idea to launch a gender-inclusive self-care line. It was not long after the launch before the business was able to expand to dispensaries across California.

When asked what one of the most challenging hurdles that women entrepreneurs have to overcome, Nystrom says apologizing is priority number one. She explains that when women apologize for things they haven’t done wrong, it plants a seed in others’ minds that they have. Curbing the impulse to apologize at every turn is essential to being taken seriously in the workplace.

Maha Haq

Founder and President of web-based educational program Cannaclub University, Maha Haq’s goal is to help students interested in cannabis sciences to learn, create alliances, and successfully navigate an educational path that leads to a job in the industry post-graduation. After spending time volunteering with cancer patients at a hospital, Haq’s interest in medical cannabis and its therapeutic effects grew immensely. Cannaclub University was initially launched at Haq’s alma mater, UCLA, but now spans across the nation. 

On top of her responsibilities at Cannaclub University, she also advocates for more opportunities to be opened for people of color and women in cannabis, giving keynote speeches on the topic of industry inclusion.

On the importance of cannabis education, Haq notes that the injustices that have happened and continue to happen need to be at the forefront of the conversation. In the future, Haq hopes to provide opportunities that empower students interested in legal cannabis by opening her own cannabis business and joining the ranks of female execs, changing the industry for the better.

Looking Towards The Future of Women In Cannabis

Whether through policy or packaging, the women at the forefront of the cannabis industry are making a noticeable impact on the legality, accessibility, and variety of hemp-based products on the market. And, just like we’ve taken this trip through time to learn about past uses for THC and CBD, learning the names of the women who pioneered through the industry up to this point, we look forward to seeing further contributions from women in cannabis in the future.

Content Manager for MÜV Florida and Contributor for Zen Leaf Dispensaries. A cannabis connoisseur with a passion for explaining the miraculous possibility of the plant, Swan began her journey with cannabis as a recreational user and quickly realized its positive impact on her depression and severe anxiety. She joined the cannabis industry as Receptionist and MedTender and witnessed first-hand the immense potential of the plant for a wide variety of ailments, deepening her passion for alternative medicine. Swan is dedicated to self-education on the plant and sharing its potential with all. She holds a Journalism degree from the University of Iowa.

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