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The Secret to Legal Marijuana? Women

Why women have signed onto marijuana reform -- and why they could be the movement's game-changers.
 
 
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In September, ladymag Marieclaire ruffled some feathers when it published a piece about women who smoke weed. But its most interesting effect was not the "marijuana moms" chatter it unleashed, and instead the fact that it brought to the mainstream media a more open discussion of the fact that women can be avid tokers, too.

Public acceptance of pot is at an all-time high, and the fact that women have drastically changed their attitudes may be what is most fascinating about the sea change in public opinion -- and policy -- regarding marijuana. In 2005, only 32 percent of polled women told Gallup they approved legalizing pot, but this year 44 percent of them were for it, compared to 45 percent of men. In effect, women have narrowed what had been a 12-point gender gap.

Women are also smoking more weed. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that current marijuana use increased from 3.8 to 4.5 percent among women, while there was no significant statistical change for men.

Indeed, it appears the growing acceptance of marijuana is fueled by women having joined the movement for reform.

Women "can reach people's hearts and minds," says Mikki Norris, co-author of Shattered Lives: Portraits from America's Drug War , managing editor of the West Coast Leaf , and director of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign. "I think we can really take it from the third- to the first-person, and make it personal."

Norris, who's participated in numerous successful marijuana campaigns, may be onto something. If pro-weed women are a new momentum behind the normalization of marijuana, they may also become the driving force behind game-changing drug reform.

If that's the case, then it's worth examining why some women have signed onto the marijuana reform movement -- because it may soon be why many others will as well.

'A bigger amygdala'

The avenue through which women have been foremost leaders in the movement is medical marijuana advocacy.

There are currently 13 states that have legalized medical marijuana use and at least 14 other states with pending legislation or ballot measures. In California, where cannabis has been legalized for medical use since 1996, a Field poll found 56 percent support for adult legalization -- and the matter may very well make its way onto the 2010 ballot.

Every woman I spoke to referenced cannabis' medicinal properties as a major reason they are so personally impassioned by the marijuana reform debate.

One of these is Valerie Corral, dubbed "the Mother Teresa of the medical marijuana movement," by Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Corral was introduced to the medical benefits of marijuana in 1973, when she was the victim of a car crash that left her an epileptic. At one point, while on pharmaceuticals, she was having up to five seizures each day.

In 1974, her husband read an article in a medical journal that described how positively rats had reacted to cannabis when treated for certain ailments. Soon thereafter, Corral started applying a strict regimen of marijuana, and kept a catalog of its effects.

"Within a few weeks, I noticed change," Corral said. And over time, she was able to control seizure activity in a way that allowed her to wean herself off the prescription drugs. To this day she does not take anything other than marijuana for her epilepsy.

Not only did medical marijuana change Corral's quality of life, it changed its course. She went on to found Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), a patient collective based in Santa Cruz, Calif. that offers organic medical marijuana and assistance to those who have received a terminal or chronic illness diagnosis.

WAMM currently serves about 170 patients. When I spoke to Corral, she was late to hit the road for her Thanksgiving holiday. She had spent the morning with a patient who was anxious about his radiation therapy. She then spent the afternoon delivering marijuana before counseling -- "and learning from" -- terminal patients.

While Corral knows first-hand the physical benefits of marijuana, she believes its most important effect is "the way it affects how we look at things that are difficult."

"No matter what else happens to us," Corral said, "the quality with which we live our lives is so important."

Cheryl Shuman, a 49-year-old optician in Los Angeles, would agree. Up until she started using cannabis therapy to treat her cancer, she was on a daily regimen of 27 prescription drugs, attached to a mobile intravenous morphine pump, and undergoing constant CAT and MRI scans. In 2006, her doctors told her she'd be dead by the end of that year.

"I had to make a decision [regarding] which way I was going to go and quite frankly, I thought if I am going to die, I want to control how my life is going to be," Shuman said, her voice breaking. "And the only side-effects were that I was happy and laughing."

It turns out those may not have been the only effects of her cannabis therapy. Her cancer has been in remission for 18 months now -- and that coincides precisely with the start of the marijuana treatment.

Shuman had previously used pot medicinally in 1994, when going through a harrowing divorce. Up to 80 milligrams of Prozac a day, coupled with multiple therapy sessions a week, did not help her get over the sense that she could barely make it through each day.

During one session, she says, "my therapist said, 'I could lose my license, but I think what would help you more than anything is just smoking a joint.' I didn't know how to respond! I said I couldn't do that -- I don't drink, I've never even smoked a cigarette!"

But after researching medical marijuana and realizing that cannabis had been available in pharmacies until the early 20th century, Shuman acquiesced and tried a joint. At 36 -- after learning to inhale -- Shuman says she found she "finally had some peace."

This year, Shuman became the founding director of Beverly Hills' National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) chapter -- and she hopes to attract women to the cause.

Corral, for her part, acknowledges that the role she fills within the marijuana movement is one that fits the traditional female archetype. "Maybe it's because we have a bigger amygdala," she laughs, referring to the part of the brain that processes emotions. "It probably is!"

Debby Goldsberry, director of the Berkeley Patients Group, a medical marijuana dispensary, feels similarly: "It's our job in our families and in our circles of friends to be caregivers. It makes sense that women would gravitate to cannabis."

In a recent study of a sample of patient reviews at a chain of medical marijuana assessment clinics in California, Craig Reinarman, a sociology professor at UC-Santa Cruz, found that only 27.1 percent of the patients were female. Another study, conducted on a sample of patients at Goldsberry's Berkeley dispensary, found that 30.7 percent of those patients were women.

Those numbers are close to the general expert estimate that women constitute about a third of marijuana consumers.

Mainstream myth-busting

Since more women are smoking weed, it's no surprise there has finally been an onslaught of girl stoner coverage in the corporate media.

It probably started with " Weeds" -- a Showtime series about a bodacious soccer mom who deals and smokes pot -- which is now readying for its sixth season premiere. But the big dam opener this year was the aforementioned publication of the Marieclaire article, " Stiletto Stoners," which paints the portrait of a whole class of "card-carrying, type A workaholics who just happen to prefer kicking back with a blunt instead of a bottle."

Julie Holland, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine, has been called onto NBC's Today Show twice now to explain why women are gravitating towards weed.

During one of her appearances, Holland seemingly shocks the hosts by telling them that 100 million Americans have tried weed -- 25 million of them over the past year. The most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that 10.6 million women used marijuana in 2008.

Also surprising to the TV hosts was Holland's assertion that marijuana is the least addictive substance among many. According to a 1999 Institute of Medicine report, the rate at which people who try a substance and go on to become addicted is 32 percent for nicotine, 23 percent for heroin, 17 percent for cocaine, 15 percent for alcohol, and 9 percent for cannabis.

"Look at what the choices are. Cannabis isn't toxic to your brain, to your liver, it doesn't cause cancer, you can't overdose, and there's no evidence that it's a gateway drug," Holland said. "I believe that the majority of adults can healthfully integrate altered states into their lives, and it makes sense to do it with the least toxic substance you can. "

The public seems to agree.

Societal mores around marijuana are at their most progressive in at least 40 years, when Gallup first started asking Americans whether they believed marijuana ought be legalized. This year, 44 percent of those polled -- up from 36 percent in 2005 -- said they are in favor of legalization. A May Zogby poll found marijuana legalization was even more popular with its respondents, at 52 percent.

Harry Levine, professor of sociology at Queens College and co-author of Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice , attributes a lot of the mainstreaming of progressive views on pot to the medical marijuana movement.

"What it has done is change the image of marijuana from this tie-dye 1960s hippie-dippy kind of thing to a real drug, a real substance that has medical uses," he said. "You can separate it from the scary image of drugs."

Why do girls smoke?
 
As weed is no longer considered by the public to be a "hard drug," three presidents -- 41, 42, and 43 -- have admitted to smoking marijuana. "The whole association of failure and dropouts [with marijuana] has been smashed in an important kind of way," Levine says.
 
In other words, you can smoke pot and be successful. Look at Natalie Angier, for example. In her book Woman: Intimate Geography , this Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer interjects a personal note of -- and case for -- female empowerment through weed: