Female cannabis plants are the ones worth money — the ones that yield medicine. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that cannabis and women have long and entangled roots. According to Dr. Ethan Russo, in his 2002 paper 'Cannabis Treatments in Obstetrics and Gynecology: A Historical Review,' known instances of women using cannabis medicinally date back to Ancient Mesopotamia. In ancient Judea, the plant was used in childbirth. Doctors in 16th century China prescribed it for menstrual disorders. In modern America, however, the 10 percent of women who experience disruptively painful periods, and one in three women who experience pain during sex, often to not have access to this natural and longstanding remedy.
In a country where Viagra is often covered by health insurance but birth control is not, perhaps it should come as no surprise that a medicine that’s been used for thousands of years to help aid in women’s ability to enjoy sex has been criminalized. According to Ellen Komp, Deputy Director of California’s NORML chapter and author of 'Tokin’ Women: A 4,000 Year Her-Story,' the subjugation of women and the stigmatization of cannabis both date back to Ancient Sumeria, during which time the goddess Ishtar, who was associated with cannabis, became less celebrated for her healing powers, and more revered for her sexuality. This shift, according to Komp, was part of a larger trend during which religion became monotheistic, society became more industrial, and women were pushed out of public life.
"Up until 2600 BC, women were doctors, scribes, cooks and things," Komp told Civilized.
"Around 1000 BC, women started being excluded from formal education. All of a sudden, they weren’t scribes and doctors any more. They were entertainers and midwives." The movement toward monotheistic religion (particularly Christianity), represented a trend away from self-sufficient spirituality, and toward a more patriarchal view. This, Komp believes, directly ties into early suppression of cannabis. "Using plant allies gives you a direct contact to the spiritual. You don’t have to go to church and put money in a collection plate to access that."
Dr. Lawrence Seigel - a clinical sexologist - sees a similar trend in organized religion orchestrating an obstruction of female autonomy in modern American legislature. "There is an agenda," Seigel told Civilized, "and part of that is about women being subservient to men…The entire lens through which conservatives look at medical care is basically hurtful to women."
According to Seigel, sexism in the American legislature is the driving force behind pushes to limit access to substances and services that allow women to have sex for pleasure rather than for procreation, among them, birth control and cannabis.
Thanks to the advent of modern cannabis lubricants and suppositories like the ones made by Foria, many American women are finally able to use cannabis in the medicinal way that it was used by ancient women. "We now have about 5 years of feedback from our customers that our cannabis products are helping with everything from arousal, pleasure enhancement, and increased sensation to pain-relief, spasm-relief and more," Kiana Reeves, Director of Communications for Foria, told Civilized.
'Prohibiting marijuana was ostensibly about protecting women'
One reason that women may frequently turn to cannabis and other forms of alternative medicine is that traditional medicine often dismisses them, both in terms of the people hired to give care, and the ways in which female patients are treated. "Women are just not treated well in mainstream healthcare," Seigel said, "There’s a lens that physicians wear, and there’s a bias against women. If a man complains to a doctor about tightness in chest, shortness of breath, a feeling his heart racing, he’s immediately sent to a cardiologist and given a work up.
"A woman complaining of the same things is far more likely to be told she’s just experiencing symptoms of stress."
Indeed, studies have shown that when it comes to reporting pain in particular — women are less likely to have their symptoms treated with painkillers. Pain management is one very common use of cannabis-based medications, which is why women, who cannot find relief through traditional medical channels, often suffer if they do not have access to the plant. "We developed Relief, the very first cannabis-infused vaginal suppository for menstrual cramps." said Reeves. "Foria Relief included both THC and CBD because science has shown that the combined effects are synergistic, balanced, and profoundly good for muscle spasm and pain."
In addition to biases that often prevent women from receiving adequate care in the mainstream healthcare system, women often rely on plant-based treatments like cannabis because many pharmaceuticals have not been tested on women either in animal or human trials. This can have deadly ramifications for female patients, who are sometimes given drugs that are more dangerous to them than they are to men. One study found that of ten drugs that had been approved by the FDA as of 2001, eight of them were more harmful to women than they were to men.
The dearth of meaningful research and treatment options for women becomes especially pronounced among one population: pregnant women. After the disastrous use of the drug thalidomide in the 1960s, which was prescribed for morning sickness and led to an epidemic of birth defects, the medical community became very wary of testing pharmaceuticals on pregnant women. Few subsequent treatments were developed, and pregnant women are still left with few options when they experience problems like severe nausea. Though cannabis has been used as part of the process of pregnancy and childbirth since ancient times, there has been no notable research done on the possible positive effects of using cannabis while pregnant. The current Schedule I status of cannabis in the United States makes it particularly difficult to research in this capacity.
One study conducted on expectant Jamaican mothers did find, however, that the babies of mothers who used cannabis while pregnant were actually more advanced in their development. Even in states where cannabis is legal recreationally, however, the use of cannabis by pregnant women is often highly stigmatized, even though researchers do not fully understand the effects that cannabis can have on expecting mothers and their unborn children. "We live in this society that has this blind, broad rhetoric that drugs are bad. There’s no logic to it. It’s this rhetorical banter. When you’re talking about a woman who is pregnant, all most people can hear is, 'Oh my God.' She’s using drugs."
Even in the absence of adequate research, pregnant women are already using cannabis to treat symptoms like morning sickness. A recent study by Kaiser found that women who experienced nausea were much more likely to use cannabis while expecting. Rather than use this information as an impetus to conduct research on whether cannabis can be safely consumed by pregnant women (and in what doses), studies like the Kaiser one take a paternal tone towards women. "Pregnant women need to be screened and given the information about the possible negative effects," Dr. Nancy Goler, the study’s main author, wrote.
This condescending outlook is in line with the one that has shaped the treatment of women throughout history, and the ways in which traditional female medicines like cannabis have been maligned and prohibited. In reference to the early days of American cannabis prohibition, Komp pointed to anti-cannabis propaganda that positioned female citizens as people who had to be protected from the "evils" of the plant. "Similar to the way that the war on drugs was about protecting children, at the time, prohibiting marijuana was ostensibly about protecting women. There was more of a moral judgment against women. Women were supposed to be more pure — the mothers of us all."