Women Are Leading the Way for Legalized Weed

A new paper shows that women between the ages of 30 and 50 have played an integral role in marijuana legalization thus far.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

Marijuana legalization activists have a secret weapon: moms.

New research this week from the Global Drug Policy Observatory—a branch of the the Research Institute for Arts and Humanities (RIAH) in the U.K.—found 30- to 50-year-old women to be integral to the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington. The paper, titled Selling Cannabis Regulation, studied the 2012 ballot initiatives and exit polls, looking at how voters engaged with marijuana reform and how their views changed.

The conclusions of the study, combined with testimony from activists, reveals middle-age women to have played a key role in America’s marijuana legalization thus far. As more states move to pass legalization legislation, their role in the narrative will likely surge. But with the concept of marijuana as a deadly illicit narcotic firmly implanted, many moms still wrestle with whether it is, in fact, safe in moderation. Until they do, pot’s fate may hang in the balance.

In the final month before the 2012 vote in Colorado, the new data show, female support for Amendment 64 went up by 7 percentage points. Support from men, conversely, decreased. In Washington, it was the female swing vote that tipped the ballot. In an Oct. 31 poll from Washington, 12 percent of women claimed they were undecided about Initiative 502. But on Election Day, many chose “yes,” bringing female support to 53 percent, up from 48.

“Research shows that women were the key demographic in these historic marijuana campaigns,” says Dave Bewley-Taylor, the research hub’s director and co-author of the paper. “Activists directed much of their attention on 30- to 50-year-old women and, at the end of the day, it was women who made history.”

It’s the nature of women’s conflicted stance on marijuana that places them at the center of the debate. “The emotive nature of the issue would suggest that the reasons behind this are highly individual, but based around common themes, including those relating to youth access/safety,” Bewley-Taylor tells The Daily Beast. “It is important, therefore, for pro-reform campaigners to keep women on the ‘yes’ side. Women responded positively to well-crafted messaging.”

Through interviews with campaigners themselves, Bewley-Taylor was able to take an inside look at the motivation behind the “well-crafted messages.” Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado and co-director of Amendment 64, said the choice demographic was decidedly women. “We did know that our target demographic by and large was 30- to 50-year-old women,” Vicente said. “We did know that tying money—marijuana tax money—to school construction did well amongst women.”

The goal in Colorado and Washington’s campaigns centered largely on assuaging concerns about safety. For moms specifically, better control of youth access through regulated markets, spending on education through cannabis taxation, and education about the potential medical benefits were all extremely effective. In other words, middle-age women, generally, aren’t opposed to the drug itself—but the implications of harm that the law perpetuates.

Without a clear grassroots movement of women standing up for marijuana, the stigmatization of it persists. This is particularly rampant among parents who claim that they can perform their job perfectly adequately—or even better—under the influence.

Cheryl Shuman, a PR marketing maven in Beverly Hills who calls herself the “Martha Stewart of Marijuana,” has made it her mission to prove that women can medicate with marijuana and still be good moms. After using cannabis to recover from a terrifying battle with ovarian cancer, Shuman said she decided to devote her career to educating women and moms about the medical benefits of cannabis. But her Housewives-esque “Beverly Hills Cannabis Club” and “Marijuana Moms” groups aren’t exactly accessible to the typical Midwestern mom.

In an interview this year on Bethenny Frankel’s talk show, a mom in the audience stood up to chastise the “marijuana moms” (two of Shuman’s peers) for saying that medical marijuana helps them lead better lives. “Your children are beautiful,” the audience member, who identified herself as a clinical social worker, began. “Which is why it brought tears to my eyes to see that you are using…. I find it really sad. You’re kind of condoning to your children that it’s OK to check out of life in a certain way.”

Attempts by one of the moms to explain that she takes cannabis in pill form for early-onset arthritis or by another to say that she uses it for nutritional problems—were interrupted by shouts of “bullshit” from the audience. Seven months after that interview, with four states where marijuana is legal recreationally and 24 medicinally, it would be interesting to see if the moms and their stories may have been received differently.

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To be sure, the fact that any moms are willing to get on national television and admit that they are using marijuana regularly is already a huge landmark. Sabrina Fendrick, deputy director of strategic partnerships at nonprofit lobbying organization NORML, has been studying the patterns of marijuana and women for the last five years. In January 2010, Fendrick launched the first international women’s marijuana outreach program, which she called the NORML Women’s Alliance. At the time, Fendrick remembers, very few women (outside of “4/20 girls” or “stiletto stoners”) were speaking out about it.

“Women, especially older women and moms, are more risk averse. They trust authorities. The government has been telling them it’s evil and bad and they have a tendency to err on the side of caution,” Fendrick tells The Daily Beast. “I think educating women about how it’s actually prohibition that’s dangerous is actually a good thing—which is hard because they’ve been told for a really long time that marijuana is a bad, dangerous thing.”

While polls showed support for legalization hovering around 40 percent in 2010 (it’s now about 50 nationwide), Fendrick suspects it was much higher. “I knew some mothers who wouldn’t even tell a pollster on the phone—just out of fear,” says Fendrick. For some women, this manifested as fear of being ostracized at work, or putting themselves in danger of losing their kids at home.

This fear, while still evident in some areas, appears to be dissipating. In a VICE documentary released two months ago, Jessica Roake, a D.C. mother of two, travels to Denver to go on a pot tour and try her hand at smoking (which she did often in her twenties). At a dispensary filled with plants, a jovial Roake gives the dispensary owner feedback about the names of his strains: “See but like ‘Green Crack’? That’s a real branding problem. If you want to try and get rid of the stigma for moms, Green Crack is not gonna help.”

After checking out a few more varieties, she lands on one that feels close enough to home. “‘Black Sugar Rose!’” she says. “That’s totally a Chardonnay name. That’s accessible. You know... you’d be like ‘Come over, have a mom party, [we’ll] just get a little Black Sugar Rose.’ Later in the clip, Roake smokes a pre-rolled joint that we’ve watched her purchase in a Denver dispensary.

Visibly uneasy about the concept of smoking as a mom, at the outset, she’s a convert by the end. “Could weed ever become sort of like the glass of wine for you? Where you could use it to get to a reliably comfortable state?” VICE asks on screen. A very high Roake declares: “Yes, no, it totally could be like wine,” adding that she would need to figure out “the dosages.”

Today, stories like Roake’s—a mother openly smoking marijuana recreationally—are few and far between. Until they’re brought into the light, says Fendrick, pro-reform campaigners will have to fight for a yes vote from women. “[They] can be the most effective, strongest, and powerful political demographic of the voting electorate,” Fendrick says of moms, adding spiritedly: “I always say, ‘If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy.’ If we can get Mama on board—this is a done deal.”