Having spent a large amount of my youth at a Church of England all girls' school, I had decided drugs were evil. Take one toke on a spliff and it would be a slippery slope towards your school portrait appearing on the front page of the Mail: "GCSE Student Tragically Dead at 16 from Doing Too Much Reefer".
Skip past my puritanical phase, though, and by 19 I was smoking weed pretty regularly, thanks to my boyfriend and my male housemate. No surprise there, really: weed is the most commonly used drug in Britain, and 93 percent of those who use drugs (around 14 million people) have smoked cannabis.
I got stoned after work, before going to the cinema and with my friends after parties. Slowly, I bridged the gap between newbie and someone who knows what "indica" is, and hoped to share the ritual I'd grown to love with some of my close female friends. Problem was, I barely knew any women who smoked. Unlike my male friends, who were all experienced weed smokers – and proud of that fact – my female friends avoided it. I realised I couldn't share my experience with women, and was instead just having weed mansplained to me by all my male friends.
Men had always smoked weed. They knew how to do it. They always rolled the joints, they had bizarrely expensive grinders, they owned an unnecessary amount of paraphernalia. Men rapped about smoking weed, men smoked weed onscreen in stoner comedies like Harold & Kumar and Pineapple Express. Men, like everything in my life, owned it. I could partake, but I would only ever be a guest in the bro-stoner house of bongs. Although women had been smoking weed as a natural painkiller in childbirth for hundreds of years, men had monopolised the culture around it.
"I think there are a lot of reasons for this," said Natalie Lyla Ginsberg, a Policy and Advocacy Manager at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). "But the first thing that comes to mind is a matter of safety. You know, it's illegal, and men have a greater sense of safety – the feeling that they could do something and get away with it. Plus, culturally, men are encouraged to be more rebellious than women."
Safety is certainly an issue. Even female friends of mine who do smoke sometimes feel unsafe picking up from dealers who are almost always men, especially when those situations might require you to get in a car with a random guy. I've even heard of women being given worse quality stuff because their (male) dealers don't think they'll notice, before texting them and asking them if they've got a boyfriend, or if they fancy hopping in their Mazda for slightly longer next time.
And so, the authority men feel perpetuates. Even excluding the limited access, weed culture is just another example where regressive understanding about women and women's roles manifest. We are often wrongly stereotyped as highly-strung control freaks, something that is only compounded by being still disproportionately responsible for unpaid domestic tasks as well as responsible for doing the bulk of emotional labour. That idea of the woman as the carer – as the responsible one who remembers birthdays and appointments – doesn't mesh well with perception of weed: its ability to relax you and focus you on yourself. Subsequently, women, when burdened with these tasks, may not feel they have time to use a drug that might affect those responsibilities.
These restrictions start young. Much like the way our society pushes women into caring roles that could leave them feeling at odds with smoking weed, young women – around the time that a lot of these norms are introduced – become burdened with insecurities. Insecurities that might prevent them from enjoying a drug that pushes them to self-analyse.
Ginsberg said, "I wonder if part of it is to do with the fact that girls are taught – especially in school – to be very self-conscious, and concerned about how they're viewed; all these things that cannabis culture is the opposite of. Yet, at the same time, while drinking can help you not think about those things, cannabis makes you think, which, sometimes, in the wrong setting, can amplify insecurity and inspire paranoid thoughts—'Why is he looking at me? Why isn't he looking at me?'"
Weed is a social drug, but it's also one that brings you into yourself. When society places so much scrutiny on you in the first place, no wonder it doesn't necessarily seem like a good choice. But things are changing.
Conversations around weed may have been historically male-dominated, but thanks to actresses like Jenny Slate and television shows like Broad City, a mainstream female weed culture is starting to emerge (or at least re-emerge). Broad City, which follows two stoners, Ilana and Abbi, living in New York has become a huge hit, having been renewed by Comedy Central for a fifth season, and is testament to the normalisation of women who smoke. Rihanna relentlessly Instagrams photos of herself smoking weed. Jenny Slate smokes "once a day" and also gets high on the internet. Women everywhere are reclaiming a culture, be it financially or conceptually.
So why now? As with many subcultures, the internet has allowed for the dissemination of information without that info having to filter through social constrictions. Broad City, for example, started as a web series, allowing anyone to access it, and a large female stoner community can be found online in spaces like tumblr. Usage has also increased: whereas surveys of the UK in 2002 and 2008 showed women were less likely to take drugs than men, that gap has finally closed, as a 2014 survey found both genders equally likely to have taken drugs.
"I think it's a bubbling pot of things, including the intersection of the current state of US cannabis policy, general cannabis culture and modern feminism," said Ginsberg. "Over half of US states have medical usage, over half of the US population supports legalisation, so it's no longer as taboo and risky as a woman to talk about smoking cannabis."
Although attitudes towards marijuana are liberalising and women are gaining more access, structural issues surrounding cannabis – how we legislate it and who our legislation affects – show wider issues with the drug. For example, in places like London, you're more likely to get arrested if you're from a lower socio-economic class and less likely to be let off, whereas the more affluent are three times more likely to be let off with a caution, when compared to the unemployed.
Luckily, cannabis arrests are falling rapidly in the UK, with police officers opting for "cautions" instead, and some police bosses telling their staff to outright not bother with cannabis possession. Further to this, the intersection of oppression – being a black woman or a woman from a lower socio-economic background – is bound to increase your risk of incarceration, if not in the UK then definitely in the US. The ACLU, a well-respected public interest law organisation, published an in-depth report in 2013, finding that "on average, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though [both] use marijuana at similar rates".
Ginsberg shared the legal concerns: "Incarcerating people and giving people criminal records is one of the most damaging things you can do to someone. In the context of women, taking away your baby is not only horrific to the mother, but is literally the most harmful thing you could possibly do to a baby."
Structural issues might seem to engulf the problem of sexism within the culture, but the emergence of female stoners speaks to a societal normalisation of the drug as a whole – something, hopefully, that will lead to legal change.
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