08/12/2014 02:11 EDT | Updated 10/12/2014 05:59 EDT

Please Don't Hyper-Sexualize Women To Market Cannabis

With all the rapid change around medical cannabis and talk about legalization efforts, it's important to note that these changes are not without challenge: women's disproportionate responsibility for dependent children intensifies the risk associated with smoking cannabis and being known as a cannabis user.

The marijuana industry is largely a boys club. This is evident not only when looking at the current owners of the new Licensed Producers, but even looking over the last decade at the owners of dispensaries across Canada, with relatively few exceptions. However, with the recent changes in medical legislation, push for legalization and change in public opinion, the way the media frames women and cannabis has certainly evolved.

Over the last two decades, we've seen a substantial change in the way the media views women and cannabis. Beginning with the whole "reefer madness" attitude of the 1930s, which focused on how cannabis leaves women sexually vulnerable, and then moving to the much more dominant "stiletto stoner" image. These typologies frame women as in need of protection, models of self-control or as sexual objects, common constructions under a male dominated system. This still carries forward today: "booth babes" and objectification in advertisements embedded in cannabis culture -- those women dressed scantly smoking bongs. This only serves to further the branding of cannabis and the related industry as boys-only.

It's not to say it's all a 'boys club': women have and continue to successfully operate businesses in the cannabis industry. There are women in Toronto like Amy Anonymous who started off making her own baked goods for patients, now owning her own dispensary, CannDo, or one of the original pioneers in British Columbia, Hillary Black, founder of the B.C. Compassion Club Society. But more recently it's become evident in my research that these roles are far and few between. What we see more often is variations of female baking crews, such as the High 5 Girls. The reliance on the hyper-sexualized female as a marketing strategy is problematic because it furthers gendered roles of where women belong in this industry.

Why is this important? Inattention to these gendered stereotypes and inequalities, as Dr. Wendy Chapkis, author of Dying to Get High, explains, creates obstacles to women's full participation in drug policy reform, the cannabis industry, and complicates efforts to end marijuana prohibition. With all the rapid change around medical cannabis and talk about legalization efforts, it's important to note that these changes are not without challenge: women's disproportionate responsibility for dependent children intensifies the risk associated with smoking cannabis and being known as a cannabis user.

We see conventional women stepping up, where articles such as "Marijuana Moms" and shows such as Weeds are popular. We have more women like Jodie Emery, professionally dressed and becoming a strong and loud voice for legalization efforts in Canada. What's important about these images is they are relatable. Advocacy centred on the reform of marijuana laws are no longer for "pot heads" -- whatever that image may entail, but more like a (relatively) conventional Whoopi Goldberg and her love for her vape pen.

Even more recently, Colorado based groups such as "Women Grow" are helping women step into leadership roles in the policymaking and legislative arena. Even female targeted blogs such as seem to be gaining more momentum and popularity among "conventional" female smokers, with the tag line "Classing up the joint" -- no doubt moving away from the cliched stiletto stoner and into a more sophisticated presentation of women and all things cannabis.

This is coupled with women who are also involved in reforming cannabis laws, with organizations such as the NORML Women's Alliance, who state "... there is no doubt that once women, especially mothers, become educated about the social and economic costs of marijuana prohibition... the scope of the national, mainstream conversation will be changed for good."

As Katrina Kolar, a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto, pointed out at this year's NORML Canada conference, the newest image to emerge are "Lobby mommys" -- mothers across Canada and the U.S. who are leading the change for access to medical cannabis, particularly for their children. Lobby mommys are stepping forward and flipping the right-wing rhetoric that has been used for years in support of marijuana prohibition right on its head.

We commonly hear the prohibitionist stance on the illegal status of cannabis as a measure to protect children, and here we have mothers, from across North America, stepping in and demanding access for their children with debilitating conditions, arguing that they are the parents and they know what's best for their children. And this is important because too often poor legislation for medical cannabis access misses the day to day challenges that patients are dealing with -- most prominently when we are focusing on access to extracts. Even viewing the effects of cannabis prohibition more generally on breaking up families and imprisonment has been the tipping point, where mothers are now standing up to say enough is enough.

We've all read about Charlotte's Web, or more recently Liam McKnight and his struggle with Dravet Syndrome, and it is their mothers who are in the forefront advocating for change. According to Liam McKnight's mother, Mandy, the Health Canada rules around medical cannabis would force her six year old son to smoke or vaporize cannabis. Most people are surprised that extracts aren't available under the new federal marijuana program and many of these parents are risking their liberty for the wellbeing of their children. These are most likely families that have tried all other options, and see the most promising change in their children's conditions when using cannabis in an oil or edible form.

I've been following the parents of Liam McKnight on Facebook for over a year now, first interested in researching medical cannabis and children, becoming one of the many members of "Liam's Army". Liam's mom, Mandy, has taken all of the group's members through this experience. It's preciously sharing this experience that helps push this movement for reasonable access forward, and normalizes the idea of legalization, because it exposes the arbitrariness of the laws surrounding cannabis access.

Liam's Army has now reached over 982 members and even more recently has received national attention. But the McKnight's are certainly not the only family facing these challenges centred on access to extracts. This is where the social movement around cannabis access is heading, and these are the women at the forefront of it. To quote Kolar, "Go Moms!"

This blog previously appeared on Lift.


Photo gallery The 10 States That May Legalize Marijuana Next See Gallery