When you can pop by Sephora and grab CBD beauty products, it looks like cannabis is “suddenly” everywhere, but to the keen observer, it's always been a part of our societal fabric — literally. In the form of hemp, cannabis has been used as a cloth, rope, paper, and food, while as marijuana, it's been used as a medicine, sacrament, and way of bonding with others and oneself. Given the plant's myriad uses over millennia, federal prohibition in the United States seems like only a blip in history.
But now that hemp is legal and more than half the country has legalized marijuana for medical use — not to mention the 11 states that have legalized adult use — we're seeing cannabis undergro a rebranding campaign, so to speak, in which products made from the plant are being marketed specifically to women — who indeed drive up to 80 percent of all consumer purchasing.
But women hold more than just buying power — or at least they should. While women once comprised 36 percent of leadership roles in the cannabis space, as the industry has become more mainstream, that number has dropped by about nine percent. But we're talking about a female plant, after all, and with that comes the potential for feminists to take charge of this emerging industry to ensure equity for women and minorities.
To this day, there remain racial disparities in policing, with blacks nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested for cannabis, despite comparable rates of use. And in Los Angeles — the world capital of the cannabis industry — officials have been struggling to crackdown on an onslaught of still, unlicensed cannabis shops, with enforcement primarily targeting communities of color (à la OG War on Drugs).
Ironically, as the cannabis industry fights for marijuana to be treated similarly to other legal intoxicants like alcohol, the racism inherent in cannabis prohibition isn't altogether different from the racist undertones of alcohol prohibition and the movement to end it.
The temperance movement, a social campaign which led to alcohol prohibition, was led by a group of white, Protestant women, who saw booze as a threat to society, order and civility. While the leaders of this movement — suffragettes — also championed women's voting rights, they were consistent and callous in excluding women of color from their civic activities.
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) intended to cure alcohol abuse with abstinence, but completely ignored how immigrant cultures used wine in religious ceremony, while going to extremes to prevent Black Americans from having access to drink based on stereotypes and propaganda. Not so surprisingly, the Ku Klux Klan latched onto the prohibition movement as a means of targeting minorities who continued to use alcohol in there cultural and religious practice.
Alcohol prohibition created widespread criminality across the nation that was tolerated in white communities, but was used to demonize immigrants and people of color. Mainstream white Americans perceived the country to be under siege by Catholic immigrants from countries like Italy or Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, who "threatened" the U.S. with their "foreign drinking habits and saloons.”
Harvard history professor Lisa McGirr wrote for the New York Times that in 1923, the WCTU called for the deportation of noncitizens convicted of prohibition violations. "Despite evidence that foreigners were less likely than native-born Americans to violate the law, anti-liquor crusaders marshaled alternative facts. The Indiana WCTU had falsely claimed that 75 percent of liquor law violators were foreigners.”
Today’s feminists must reckon with this legacy or be doomed to prop up persistent, harmful systems. The WCTU's participation in demonizing alcohol resulted in a 14 year policy failure that had major consequences—police forces were minimal before prohibition, but with people to prosecute, prison systems expanded.
This is precisely what is happening today with the War on Drugs. Founded in racism against Mexican immigrants and black Jazz musicians, cannabis prohibition mirrors, and magnifies, the negative effects of alcohol prohibition.
Kassia Graham, national project lead for Cannaclusive, an organization pushing for inclusivity in the cannabis industry, explained to Civilized her frustration with the limited accountability we assign to Susan B. Anthony and other early feminists: “White women continuing to champion the founders of First Wave Feminism with little critique is highly problematic.”
The first wave of feminism — like mainstream American society at the time — excluded women of color. For this and other reasons, Mary Pryor, Cannaclusive’s co-founder, calls herself a "womanist" first. "According to author and teacher, Alice Walker, 'Womanism is a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of Black women,'" she said. “Feminism tends to leave out black [people] and people of color based on the foundations of exclusion from its inception."
Alcohol prohibition taught us that criminalizing substances leads to violence in their trafficking and policing, and according to Graham, this drives the cannabis industry underground where it’s less safe for consumers and dangerous to people of color, “I’m not sure how many times the government has to see the patterns in order to make it stick," she said. "Prohibition has never worked. It’s only created crime and left many dead or jailed.”
Graham continues, “Feminism is for everyone — which is why it’s important for feminists, womanist, and allies of these movements to support cannabis. Advocating for cannabis legalization and equity makes one an advocate for the womxn, men, and children in Black and Latinx communities.”
When booze was back on the menu in the early ‘30s, the criminal code came to focus on cannabis, and the War on Drugs was well underway. Today, ICE uses weed charges in deportations, a blatant anti immigrant parallel to alcohol prohibition — one that needs to enter the talking points of mainstream feminism.
Today's feminists must also tackle injustice toward other marginalized groups beyond just women. Intersectional feminism calls for a fight against racism and xenophobia — and acknowledgment that cannabis enforcement has been one of the biggest tools in the kit of white supremacy, going on almost a century. When Women’s March attendees put a pink pussy hat on Harriet Tubman (an act deemed disrespectful), it was more apparent than ever that this wave of feminists must do what the suffrage movement never did: Listen to and support women of color who assert on behalf of their communities that cannabis prohibition must end, and that the industry must make space for marginalized people to profit off the plant.
“Embracing cannabis means saying goodbye to one of the routes of the school to prison pipeline," said Graham. "It also means prosecuting black and Latinx people for low-level cannabis related crimes will be more difficult. A portion of free labor (read: legal slavery) is likely to disappear. Most importantly, it means saying the War on Drugs is lost and was wrong in the first place.”
This is the responsibility inherent in modern day feminism. Creating justice and equity in the cannabis industry starts with directly addressing racist enforcement and its resulting indignities. People who have been convicted of cannabis felonies can lose their voting rights, which is a gross injustice that needs to be addressed. Those with the white privilege to not be arrested also have fewer obstacles to owning a cannabis company.
A robust cannabis sector will also drive economic growth, and if we’re steadfast, it will spread these opportunities to more than the same crew of old white men who make up the one percent — and most of the current corporate cannabis industry.
Another important organization moving the conversation on cannabis forward in feminist circles is Humble Bloom. They’re devoted to humanizing experiences with the plant through events, discussions, and brand collaboration. Like the women behind Cannaclusive, co-founders Solonje Burnett and Danniel Swatosh also believe feminists must do right by cannabis activists. Creating space for women, people of color, and people from the LGBTQ community to succeed in the cannabis industry is a social justice issue.
“We have a chance to have equity in a multi-billion dollar industry. We can shape it and stop toxic masculine domination in a space that could positively affect our quality of life — from relieving period pain, alleviating anxiety/pain, tapping into spirituality, medicine for a wide array of illness, and even increased sexual pleasure," Burnett told Civilized. "That alone should make all feminists become co-conspirators in the legalization movement.”
The overarching message is that it's on women to do the work — we can't expect white men to do it on our behalf. "Women especially need support because the cannabis industry right now is heavily male and tipped to the rich," Pryor said. "We really need DAY ONE equity from the start of cannabis legislation.”