While not widely known, there are many important women in cannabis culture history. Cannabis has been around for centuries and has been heralded as a miracle plant by many since its discovery. Medicinal use has been traced all the way back to 2700 BC Ancient China. Throughout its history, through the 1900s when it became stigmatized, and to today, women have played an integral part in the cannabis field. It’s not completely surprising that women are so important to cannabis, as the female plants are the ones revered for the potency and ability to produce the best buds.
It’s important to highlight the women in the cannabis industry because, as in many industries, it has been historically pioneered by men. Even testing and research was predominantly done on males to garner their research information until fairly recently. Even though current research shows women make up a large portion of cannabis users in polls, they don’t always get the recognition they deserve. In today’s world, we are seeing a beautiful change, as women-owned businesses are becoming highly regarded and promoted. While the majority of cannabis businesses are still owned by men, women are breaking barriers in the field as farm owners, dispensary owners, processors and beyond.
Women’s cannabis use throughout history
Women have been self-medicating with cannabis for centuries, dating back to ancient China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia. The Ebers Papyrus were a compilation of Egyptian medical texts dating back to 1500 BC that recorded use for pain relief during menses and childbirth. There are a handful of well-known women in history who have used cannabis medicinally or recreationally. Some were even pioneers in advocacy for legal cannabis. Some of the women on our list may even surprise you.
Queen Victoria (May 24, 1819-January 20, 1901)
As cannabis spread from the East to the West, Westerners traveling through India would bring the plant back to the British Raj. Queen Victoria was initially given cannabis to relieve her menstrual cramps by her personal physician, Sir J. Russel Reynolds. It has been reported that she also used the plant to ease her morning sickness while she was pregnant. Reynolds wrote in 1890 “When pure and carefully administered, cannabis is one of the most valuable medicines we possess.”
Margaret Mead (Dec. 16, 1901-Nov. 15, 1978)
Margaret Mead was one of the most outspoken women of the 20th century, particularly when it came to cannabis legalization. Mead was an American anthropologist, author, and speaker during the 1960s and 1970s. She testified in front of Congress on October 27, 1969, in favor of the legalization of cannabis. In her testimony, she said, “It is my considered opinion at present that marihuana is not harmful unless it is taken in enormous and excessive amounts. I believe that we are damaging this country, damaging our law, our whole law enforcement situation, damaging the trust between the older people and younger people by its prohibition, and this is far more serious than any damage that might be done to a few overusers because you can get damage from any kind of overuse.” Despite her controversial viewpoint of the times, she remained a respected scholar until her death. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915-July 17,1959)
Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, was an American Jazz and swing music legend. Her career spanned 26 years and earned her the title of one of the most important and influential voices in jazz history. She used to take cabs between breaks from her shows to smoke cannabis, as she didn’t want to risk being caught smoking at the clubs she performed at. She was persecuted by infamous “drug Czar” Harry Anslinger, the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau Of Narcotics (now the DEA). He infamously hated jazz music and was a known racist. Holiday became public enemy No. 1 to fight to demonize drugs and drug users. She had unfortunately developed a heroin habit at this point and was then arrested on a narcotics charge, and stripped of her license to perform. Her last performance was at Carnegie Hall in 1956 and was met with mixed reviews. Her voice was altered from years of drug abuse and she was noticeably frail. This essentially ended everything for her and she eventually passed away from cirrhosis at the young age of 44.
Mary Jane Rathbun (Dec. 22, 1922-April 19, 1999)
Mary Jane Rathbun, aka Brownie Mary, was an American Rights activist of the 1960s. She became widely known when, as a volunteer nurse for AIDS patients in San Francisco, she brought in brownies infused with cannabis to aid her patient’s pain and suffering. She lobbied for the legalization of medical use cannabis and helped pass San Francisco’s Prop P and California’s Prop 215. Both were written to legalize the medical use of cannabis in AIDS patients. She also contributed to the opening of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club-the first dispensary in the US. Before she started to distribute her “magical” brownies to AIDS patients, she sold her brownies for profit. She was caught by an undercover police officer and arrested. She was given community service at the Shanti Project-a support group for people with HIV or AIDS. She noticed that the cannabis helped with the patient’s nausea and suffering and began giving them out, free of charge. All in all, she was arrested three times for cannabis-related offenses, though she basked in the media attention as it brought a much-needed spotlight on the medical potential of cannabis.
Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928-May 28, 2014)
Known as one of the most famous authors and poets of the 20th century, a playwright, director, dancer, professor, as well as a civil rights icon, Maya Angelou had a lifelong relationship with cannabis. Angelou spoke freely about her use of cannabis starting in her late teens/early 20s. While quite a taboo topic for the 40s and 50s, she was never one to bite her tongue on the subject. Coming from a tumultuous childhood and young adulthood full of abandonment, abuse, and being moved from place to place, she carried a lot of trauma with her into her adult life. She said, “From a natural stiffness I melted into a grinning tolerance. Walking around the streets became an adventure, eating my mother’s huge dinners an opulent entertainment, and play with my son was side-cracking hilarity. For the first time, life amused me.” While she was an admitted cannabis user, she also stated that she used it rationally. “I disciplined myself. One joint on Sunday and one of the morning of my day off.” Her ability to be outspoken, responsible, and creative genius was truly an inspiration to many and her cannabis use did nothing to tarnish her reputation.
Women in the cannabis industry today have so many opportunities from cultivating, to processing, to dispensary owners, and more. We owe this to all the aforementioned women and their allies. Their fight paved the way for our success today. A beautiful example is our own Jenny Scarpulla-C.O.O. of Juniper Jill. Extasy James is the owner of Good Grades NYC dispensary in Queens, NY. They not only carry Juniper Jill products, but they are first woman-owned legal dispensary in NYS! Unlike times gone by, women are going to continue to take the industry by storm and lead the way for legal cannabis.
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