By Elise McDonough
Published by High Times in April 2015
“I was the only chick in the room at a lot of meetings,” Dale Sky Jones recalled, when I asked about her past experiences as a woman working in the cannabis movement. “For well over 20 years, the conversation about drug policy reform has been largely held by white men.”
Now Executive Chancellor of Oaksterdam University and Chairwoman of the Board for the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, Sky Jones played a leading role in the Prop 19 campaign to legalize cannabis in California, which garnered 46 percent of the vote in 2010.
“I was an unexpected spokesperson,” she said. “Women stopped and paid attention because a woman was speaking to them, and now every campaign since then has put a woman out front.”
With cannabis legalization finally breaking through in Colorado and Washington state in 2012, and then passing in Oregon, Alaska and the District of Columbia last November, the marijuana movement is definitely on a roll. And that’s in no small part due to newly won approval from a critical voting block—women aged 35 to 55.
According to Selling Cannabis Regulation, a research paper published by the Global Drug Policy Observatory, growing support from these so-called “soccer moms” pushed legalization campaigns to decisive victory.
“In the final month before the 2012 vote in Colorado… female support for Amendment 64 went up by 7 percentage points. Support from men, conversely, decreased,” the Daily Beast reported, while “in Washington, it was the female swing vote that tipped the ballot.”
In 2012, Betty Aldworth was the spokesperson and advocacy director for Amendment 64, Colorado’s Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol.
“Mothers are concerned about the effect of legalization on their teenage children,” Aldworth explained, so the campaign focused on how youth access would be reduced through a regulated market. “We made reference to the notion that drug dealers don’t check IDs, and we talked about the consequences of getting busted with marijuana as a teenager, introducing the idea that marijuana prohibition is far more dangerous than marijuana itself.”
After conversations with bureaucrats in the state budget office, the Amendment 64 campaign realized that a large portion of the tax revenue generated by legal marijuana sales could be earmarked towards funding school construction and repair, creating another powerful selling point for the "mom demographic” by making a “concrete argument that ultimately we’d be strengthening Colorado’s education system.”
While middle-aged women remain among the least likely demographic to support legalization, let alone use cannabis personally, they’re also, ironically, perhaps more in need of the plant’s considerable medicinal and stress-relief properties than most people.
“I no longer wake up on the weekends feeling like shit,” said cannabis-friendly event planner Jane West, after describing her former wine drinking habit as opening up a bottle when she started making dinner, followed by a second bottle when dinner hit the table.
“Women in my demographic are prescribed antidepressants at a rate higher than any other group of Americans,” West said. “And I want them to be open to learning more about the plant and all of the benefits it can provide, including understanding that marijuana is safer than alcohol and a healthier alternative to prescription medication. When that happens, we will create a whole new demographic of cannabis users.”
An affluent 38-year-old mother of two and newly converted weed enthusiast, West became a media darling after appearing on CNBC to promote her marijuana-friendly event planning company. The pseudonymous appearance cost her a well-paid day job, so she decided to jump into the marijuana industry full time by promoting upscale, cannabis-friendly events as a way to shatter stereotypes about the types of people who smoke pot.
“It does wonders to reduce stigma around the use of cannabis when people who are responsible and otherwise law-abiding citizens come out as cannabis consumers,” explained Amanda Reiman, manager of marijuana law and policy at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Even in states where marijuana is legal, women haven’t felt assured that they can talk about using marijuana without being labeled a ‘stoner mom’ or have their parenting come into question.”
To combat that lingering stigma head-on, West teamed up with young go-getter Jazmin Hupp and other high-profile female cannabis business owners to found Women Grow, a national organization aimed at fostering female mentorship, collaborations and networking. Hupp brings skills honed in the worlds of tech start-ups and venture capital to the cannabis space and seeks to help create an inclusive industry that services a diverse customer base.
“Women are going to become a dominant buyer of this product,” Hupp predicted, “and you’re more likely to create a product that appeals to women if you are a woman yourself or if you have women on your team.”
Much like during her time in the male-centric world of Silicon Valley, Hupp initially found that females were less likely to start businesses because of the lack of successful examples to follow. So after identifying the need for female role models, she set up a Speaker’s Bureau and PR presence to help feature successful entrepreneurs at cannabis conferences and in the press, “so that the role models are already there, and women aren’t discouraged from entering this industry at the exact right time they should.”
Role models and mentors can be found in unlikely places, as single mom, hashmaker, and pot grower Jenn Doe Hendricks learned after her first place Cannabis Cup win for Best Medical Non-Solvent Hash in June 2014. Working with Medi Brothers, Jenn grew out Kottonmouth Kush x Strawberry Cough and made ice water hash that earned the judges’ praise for its excellent aroma and stony effects.
The first female Cannabis Cup winner in the coveted hash category, Hendricks said she’s “always been that one girl in a crowd of guys,” a sentiment echoed by many of the women interviewed for this article. An underground grower since the age of 18, she grew up in Utah where the male-dominated cannabis culture was secretive and scattered.
“I encounter sexism all the time, but I don’t think they do it on purpose,” Hendricks explained. “You feel pushed out at times, so you need to have a strong personality to take opportunities without feeling overwhelmed by that male presence.”
After her Cup win, Hendricks said that numerous women have contacted her through social media to voice their congratulations and support.
“There were girls reaching out for advice on extraction, as well as experienced women growers who thanked me for showing people that it’s OK to be a mother and a grower," Hendricks said. "I gave these girls hope and encouraged others to enter the Cannabis Cup. Let’s show people that we aren’t just pretty faces, we’re smart and we’ve been doing this forever.”
Legalization has emboldened many women to start new businesses, and “they are also gentrifying and gentling pot's testosterone-laden image,” according to the Denver Post. Women are dominating the fields of edibles and topicals, managing greenhouses and dispensaries and heading up prominent activist organizations like Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Americans for Safe Access.
Amber Iris Langston, deputy director of Show-Me Cannabis (a pro-legalization group working to get a measure on the ballot in Missouri for 2016) described struggling to make her voice heard.
“You have to fight harder for that recognition,” Langston explained. “I have to elbow my way into conversations that I should have been part of.”
After organizing a January event focusing on women and cannabis, Langston feels the seeds for true reform in her home state have been planted and will continue to thrive.
“We had about 50 women networking and got them to share their stories," she said. "There was definitely more than one woman dealing with having her kids taken away because of a cannabis offense.”
While bright young women like Langston strive to end the harms of prohibition in the heartland, long-time activist and Colorado businessperson Jaime Lewis is expanding her Mountain Medicine edibles company, after working for the past five years to establish Good Chemistry, a successful retail cannabis store. Chairperson of the Cannabis Business Alliance, Lewis said “some of us cannabis queens have been fighting this fight before it was pretty” and hopes that new businesses will understand the immense responsibility involved in marketing, advertising and educating the public about cannabis.
“Using women as sex objects to help sell and promote the product has added a layer of stigma attached to those of us in the industry who are running companies and trying to promote responsible consumption,” Lewis said. “We’re pulling this product out of the black market, so having those tacky advertisements doesn’t help any of us.”
When it comes to marketing cannabis, business owners have an enormous, untapped base of potential female customers, but as pot starts to go public, crass commercial values have seeped into the cannabis industry. When I asked Jenn Doe what kind of marketing turns her off, she said “skanky girls looking like they should be at car shows."
“While at a business conference in Las Vegas, Wellness Education Cannabis Advocates of Nevada organized a professional networking event at the Hustler Club, which was definitely a show of sexism in the industry.” Jazmin Hupp said, sharing her worst example of bias. She believes the most successful strategy would be to market along the lines of wellness as opposed to inebriation, following the example of yoga studios or nutritional supplement companies.
“Cannabis helps women transition through menopause, helps women struggling with cramps,” Lewis explained, while other women I spoke with mentioned anorexia, breast cancer and PMS as conditions specific to women’s health. Appealing to female consumers is simple, as long as you “try not to sexualize your product,” according to Amanda Reiman.
“Marijuana is a female plant and she is very sexy, but I think there’s a respectful way to talk about her and women respond to that,” Reiman said.
Betty Aldworth offered similar advice to would-be marketers, saying “women from 35 to 65 age range will be trying cannabis for the very first time, and if you are creating imagery that is objectifying and dehumanizing, you are sending women the message that the product is for men.”
Male cannabis promoters should aim to trigger an identifying feeling as opposed to an alienating feeling and consider the needs and preferences of their mothers, sisters and wives when designing a pot store or new product line.
“Historically the vast majority of representations of women in cannabis culture have been hot chicks with bongs between their legs and pipes between their lips,” Aldworth asserted, “and it’s a very sexualized and objectified imagery.”
Hopefully it’s imagery that this new American industry will leave behind in favor of more diverse messaging that appeals to every type of pot lover. As Jaime Lewis told me, “whether you want to smoke it wearing tie-dye or a ball gown and pearls, you should be able to do it and not be judged for it.” As women increasingly break through the "grass ceiling" and enter the cannabis business, they will remake the image of pot smokers nationwide and create an unstoppable force for legalization.
Dale Sky Jones is optimistic about the odds of passing a legalization initiative for California in 2016, declaring “We finally have a coalition that has the breadth and depth to go the long haul, and men are celebrating that there are powerful women in charge."