In recognition of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we are writing Part 2 of Women in Weed: A Herstory. This article is part of Seedsman’s Woman in Weed week, which you can read more about here.
Women worldwide consume cannabis, work in the cannabis space and champion its legal liberation. The cannabis plant we know and love is female, and women are the fastest-growing demographic of legal cannabis users. However, men have tended to take up more space in the cannabis industry and dominate the plant’s narratives and archetypes.
This has been slowly changing: in the US, in 2019, women occupied 37% of exec positions in the industry (compared to a national average in other sectors of around 30%). Sadly, this has dropped to 22% in the last couple of years. Whether or not this results from the regressive impact on gender equality the pandemic has had, who knows. But one thing is clear. There is still more work to be done to ensure women’s experiences, needs and work are duly recognised in this field.
In an attempt to redress the balance and champion the work of women and cannabis, this article will trace the herstorical moments from the 1980s until now.
1988 – Dr Allyn Howlett Discovers the CB1 Receptor
In 1988, Dr Allyn Howlett made the all-important breakthrough of discovering the CB1 receptor, the receptor to which THC binds to produce its effects. This finding laid the foundations for our subsequent understanding of both the effects of cannabis and the role of the endocannabinoid system in human health.
Dr Howlett is currently a professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where the Howlett Lab continues to investigate the function of the CB1 receptor.
1992 Mary Jane Rathburn Helps Establish the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club
Otherwise known as Brownie Mary, Rathburn became famous for the weed brownies she sold in San Francisco in the 1970s. During the 80s and the AIDS epidemic, she gave away the brownies for free to AIDS patients to help stimulate their appetites, provide pain relief and boost their immune systems. Growers donated weed to her culinary endeavours, and it is thought that in the latter half of the 80s, she was giving out 1500 brownies to patients a month.
As a result of this work, she was instrumental in helping to establish the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club – the first public medical dispensary in the US. She was also co-author with Dennis Peron on Proposition 215, which ultimately made medical cannabis legal in California in 1996. Brownie Mary died in April 1999, a true legend in the cannabis world.
1994 Mila Jansen Invents the Pollinator
Story has it that whilst sitting by the tumble dryer watching her kids’ clothes spin, Mila had a flash of inspiration and came up with the revolutionary idea for the Pollinator. The Pollinator made making skuff or hash from leaf litter easy by separating the trichomes from the leaf via the spinning of a fine-meshed drum and a tray to collect the resin at the bottom of the box. This was a total game-changer, because until then, people mainly had had to rely on imports from India, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Morocco – unless they were hand rubbing or hand sifting themselves from their home grows (which was a time-consuming process – only for the serious hash lovers).
After creating the Pollinator, Mila went on to create the Ice-o-Lator and the Bubbleator, which are similar in their use of a spinning drum but have the addition of ice and water. These inventions are used by thousands of hash makers worldwide and were pivotal in the development of bubble hash and the various bubble bags on the market today.
1995 Fernanda de la Figuera is Acquitted for Growing Cannabis in Spain
An activist since the 1970s, Fernanda de la Figuera, was prosecuted for growing cannabis in 1995 and obtained the very first acquittal registered in Spain. Spanish law permits growing cannabis for personal use, but she was the first to test this out in court and was duly pardoned! She then started a cannabis social club in Andalucía, run by and for women, called Marias X María, committed to providing women with safe and easy access to cannabis. She focuses on women because she says, they are often the ones taking care of society’s sick.
She has had another run-in with the law more recently, in 2019, for the collective growing of 180 plants for Marias X María. She was charged and sentenced to 9 months in prison, but because it is less than the two year threshold for mandatory jail time, she may not have to do any time in prison. That’s if she goes quietly. Not one to shy away from trouble though, she intends to appeal this charge and take her case to the European Court of Human Rights in an attempt to set a precedent.
1998 Cristina Sanchez Discovers the Anti-Tumour Effect of THC
Christina Sanchez, a molecular biologist at Complutense University in Madrid, first noted the anti tumour effects of THC using cells from a human glioblastoma line cultured in petri dishes in 1998. This discovery, published in Febbs Letters, placed her among the first scientists to recognise the anti-cancer potential of specific cannabinoids.
She has gone on to conduct considerable research into the anti cancerous properties of cannabis, discovering that cannabinoids send cancer cells into a process called apoptosis, or cell death, without releasing any inflammatory molecules that could harm the surrounding tissue. Thisis a major win for cancer medications. Alongside her work at the University, Sanchez sits on the board of both the Spanish Society of Cannabinoid Research and the Spanish Observatory of Medicinal Cannabis.
2004 Wanda James Becomes the first African American Woman to Own a Cannabis Dispensary
Wanda James and her husband Scott Durrah opened the first African American owned medical cannabis dispensary in 2004, the Apothecary of Colorado. The apothecary became famous for the edibles they produced and they went on to open Simply Pure in Denver, Colorado, in 2010, which combines a recreational dispensary, a craft cultivation facility and an edibles business. Simply Pure services hundreds of dispensaries and a hospice, and prioritises veteran customers and patients because Wanda and her husband both served in the military before becoming entrepreneurs.
Cannabis isn’t just about business for Wanda James. She is also a leading advocate in the cannabis industry, and her political and entrepreneurial work on cannabis reform has led to her being named one of the 100 Most Influential People in Cannabis by High Times magazine in 2018, and one of the 2016 Cannabis Business Executive (CBE) 50 Most Important Women in the Cannabis Industry. She is committed to social justice and an equitable industry and her political engagement and expertise have helped further the legalisation efforts of numerous municipalities including Colorado, Jamaica, Maryland and Illinois.
2018 Charlotte Caldwell and Hannah Deacon, Mothers of Epileptic Children, Help Legalise Medical Cannabis in the UK
In 2018 the UK law changed to allow cannabis based medicinal products to be prescribed in certain circumstances for therapeutic use. This change followed significant pressure from the public and the media, around the high profile cases of Hannah Deacon and her son Alfie Dingley, and Charlotte Caldwell and her son Billy. Both boys have severe childhood epilepsy and were suffering multiple life threatening seizures a day. In a desperate last attempt to keep their sons alive and reduce the number and intensity of the seizures, they turned to medicinal cannabis.
Billy Caldwell received the first NHS prescription for medicinal cannabis in 2017, but the Home Office cruelly cancelled this shortly afterwards, leaving Charlotte in a frantic situation as his seizures returned. Due to the UK government’s immobility on medical cannabis, both mothers were forced to leave the UK to access cannabis medicines prescribed by paediatricians. They were successful in their endeavours and the cannabis significantly reduced the intensity and frequency of the boys’ seizures.
When Charlotte and Billy returned from Canada with 6 months supply of cannabis medicine in June 2018, it was regrettably seized by customs, leading to his hospitalisation and rapid deterioration of health as his seizures returned. Public and media outcry over his life threatening situation resulted in the medicine being returned to the family several days later. After 5 months in Holland, Hannah and Alfie returned to the UK ready to apply serious pressure on the government, to ensure that Alfie could legally continue with his prescriptions and experience the benefits of cannabis that he had experienced while in Holland (where his seizures went from over 150 per week to going 30-40 days without one). Alfie’s condition deteriorated back in the UK without his prescriptions, but they were granted a special license to get the cannabis medicine they needed after a few months.
These emergency licenses prompted the UK’s review of medical cannabis, which ultimately led to the change in the law in November 2018. Alfie was the first child to be prescribed medical cannabis on the NHS after this date. He has now been seizure-free for over 500 days. It took Billy longer to get his prescription for medicinal cannabis on the NHS, but he was finally granted a life-long prescription in October 2020. He has been seizure free for a year and a half now.
2019 Dr Sue Sisley Sues the DEA for Restricting Production of Cannabis for Research Purposes
In 2019 Dr Sue Sisley filed a lawsuit against the DEA challenging the monopoly on the provision of cannabis for research purposes in the US. At the time, she was conducting a trial on cannabis for veterans with PTSD and had been given cannabis that was mouldy and diluted with stem, sticks and leaves. She felt it was not of sufficient quality to be used in a trial.
In the US, the only place licensed to produce cannabis for cannabis research for over 50 years had been the University of Mississippi. She raised the concern that all of the clinical trials conducted in the US had therefore been based on low-quality plant material and that research should have access to real world cannabis. The government had addressed these concerns in 2016, promising to license other growers, but they still hadn’t done so. Her license application was still pending (put in through the Scottsdale Research Institute), which prompted her to take legal action in June 2019. In August 2019 the DEA issued a press release stating it would be moving forward with processing the pending applications (of which there were 33 on their desk). In 2021 the Scottsdale Research Institute received a draft agreement from the DEA allowing them to cultivate cannabis under a Schedule 1 license, thereby finally ending the 50 year monopoly.
A Huge Thanks
We are aware that this Herstory only captures a tiny fragment of the magnificent contributions to the cannabis field made by women, and we want to express enormous appreciation for all of the other women pioneering or supporting the liberation of the plant and its potential.
This includes all of the mothers across the globe fighting for access to cannabis for their children’s health, all of the women administering cannabis medicines quietly to their community, the multitude of female scientists helping to further our understanding of the plant, the clinicians willing to prescribe cannabis to those who need it, the female breeders working behind closed doors due to legal issues, the activists helping to reform our laws, the influencers helping to de-stigmatise the plant, and all of you working in this space whose stories we many never hear.