Throughout history, people have turned to cannabis to decrease pain, increase appetite, help ease the symptoms of anxiety, and even manage seizures. The medicinal use of cannabis can be traced to China, as far back as 2700 BCE. It may surprise you to learn that at each point in history—and especially after cannabis became stigmatized in the 1900s—women have played a significant role in pioneering the usage and legalization of cannabis.
The importance of the female influence should come as no surprise considering it is the female, not male, marijuana plants that produce the consumable buds we love so much. Female cannabis plants are also higher in THC than their male counterparts. It’s only fair that women get their flowers for their contributions to cannabis.
Why Is the History of Women in Cannabis So Important?
Currently, the cannabis space exhibits some gender disparities like most other industries in the U.S. For example, many of the top-grossing cannabis companies are still owned and operated by men. Until recently, research on the effects of cannabis excluded women, despite the fact that women have been on the front lines of much of the industry’s progressive movement. It’s important to learn and acknowledge the history of women in cannabis for this reason.
Since ancient Egypt, Persia, and China, women have used cannabis to relieve pain, alleviate psychological discomfort, and even just relax. From the herbalist women in 7th century Mesopotamia to the female cannabis farmers and entrepreneurs today, women and cannabis have a long history. Queen Victoria was prescribed marijuana to reduce the discomfort of her menstrual cramps in the 19th century, and Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, wrote about cannabis in her 1869 short story “Perilous Play.” And these storied moments in cannabis history are just the start.
To learn about the relationship between women and cannabis today, we need to discover the women in history that got us here.
Female Cannabis Pioneers of the Twentieth Century
You may already know some of these cannabis pioneers—if not, you will likely recognize their work. To achieve legalization of medical and recreational marijuana in many states across the U.S., individuals and groups had to fight for it. Many of these were women who were willing to stake their reputations and risk jail time for their early and unapologetic advocacy of marijuana. Some advocated for the legalization and decriminalization of cannabis, and others conducted the research that helped legitimize the efforts to legalize. Their hard work and devotion bound them together and made them cannabis pioneers worth celebrating.
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In 1969, Margaret Mead advocated for the legalization of marijuana before Congress. At 68 years old, the renowned anthropologist testified her belief that “marijuana is not harmful unless it is taken in enormous and excessive amounts.” Mead noted its usage in other parts of the world in her arguments. She believed the prohibition of marijuana in the United States caused more damage to the country, law enforcement, and the trust between the youth and the elderly than marijuana itself could cause to the user.
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Allyn Howlett is a biochemical neuropharmacologist who in 1988 contributed to the revolutionary discovery of the CB1 cannabinoid receptor in the endocannabinoid system. Her research revealed the connection between the cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant and the brains’ receptors that respond to it. This discovery expanded the cultural understanding of how and why cannabis works. In addition, it offered critical scientific research which led to the reemergence of medicinal marijuana in California. This set the stage for passing two significant pieces of legislation permitting doctors to approve the usage of medical marijuana for patients with severe health conditions.
Mary Jane Rathbun
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Appropriately named Mary Jane Rathbun was a medical cannabis rights advocate in the 1960s. Advocating for the right to legalize marijuana in California, she became known as the “Florence Nightingale of the medical marijuana movement.” During the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Mary Jane volunteered at San Francisco General Hospital, where she became known as Brownie Mary. She illegally offered cannabis brownies to patients, which helped ease the pain of those fighting AIDS. The fame that came from her three arrests drew national media attention. She became known for her devotion to relieving pain for those in need and shone a light on the medical uses of cannabis.
Eventually, Mary Jane Rathbun went on to help pass California Proposition 215 in 1996 and San Francisco Proposition P in 1991. These were the two pieces of legislation which benefited from Allyn Howlett’s research. Brownie Mary also contributed to the opening of the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the first dispensary in the United States.
Female Cannabis Farmers
The pioneers of the past paved the way for the pioneers of the present. Because of all the women who came first, today there is a growing industry of female cannabis farmers.
The beauty of the cannabis industry is that entire crops can be grown indoors. Farming can take on a whole new meaning when it comes to cannabis, and more and more women are taking on this traditionally male profession. In fact, hemp farming is the fastest-growing farming demographic for women.
Here are some of the female-run and operated cannabis farms in the United States.
Royal Key Organics, California
Royal Key Organics is a farm run by Erin Hamilton, a Texas native, and her husband. Erin has a visual arts background and designs all the packaging, while her husband helps run the business side. Together, they’ve created a successful organic operation.
California Artisanal Medicine, California
Owner Anna Willey is a California transplant from Colorado. She was the first woman to open a dispensary in Colorado. Though Willey notes the cannabis industry is still a “boys’ club,” she grew to be a premier cultivator in both the Colorado and California markets in just two years.
Fig Farms, California
Chloe Healy is the co-founder of Fig Farms. Californians are likely to mention the Fig Farms name when discussing the best cannabis in the region. Chloe and her husband opened Fig Farms during the medical marijuana era and continue to grow today. She says the male-dominated, ego-centric cannabis industry can be challenging to navigate but ultimately believes “the plants like girls better.” She must be right because Fig Farms cannabis is an award-winning company and a California favorite.
Small, women-owned cannabis businesses are sprouting nationwide. The de-stigmatization of female cannabis growers helps businesses like these grow and opens greater opportunities for the future of women in the cannabis industry.
Female Cannabis Entrepreneurs
From cannabis-positive marketing campaigns and public relations to CBD-infused lube, savvy, creative women are pioneering the movement of female cannabis entrepreneurs. At the forefront of innovation, marketing, and distribution, these women are meeting the needs of women with the medicinal magic of cannabis.
Wanda James is a pioneer and modern-day cannabis legend. An entrepreneur, Wanda James was the first Black female owner of a dispensary in Colorado. In fact, not only was she the first, but she was the only one for a very long time. In addition to owning her dispensary, James advocates for cannabis equity and reform, as people of color are often disproportionately targeted for the usage and possession of marijuana in both the United States and Canada. In Colorado, James advocated for passing amendment 64, which legalized cannabis in the state.
Dr. Chanda Macias
Dr. Macias is the chair of Women Grow and the first Black female cannabis entrepreneur to own a multi-state operation. Her company not only grows cannabis but has many storefronts across the country. Too, Dr. Macias is partnering with Southern University to launch the first national CBD line created by a historically Black university. Dr. Macias’ perseverance is an achievement to honor.
As the founder of Salar Marketing Firm, Cynthia Salarizadeh’s mission is to educate people on cannabis and de-stigmatize the plant. Her marketing firm specializes in marketing and public relations on behalf of the cannabis industry. She also created a luxury “weed wine” available in California called House of Saka.
Mary Jane Gibson
Mary Jane Gibson is a comedian, actor, journalist, Weed+Grub podcast co-host, and medical marijuana advocate. Since 2017, Gibson has traveled the world with brands and public figures researching and spreading awareness about legalizing medical marijuana, CBD, and adult use of cannabis. She is an active writer for Rolling Stone and Green Entrepreneur.
As a CEO and founder of a cannabis product line, Cyo Nystrom has broken barriers. She’s also one of the first to truly bridge the gap between cannabis and sex positivity. Her sex-positive line of female health cannabis products openly connects the dots to ways cannabis can help offer healing and comfort to the body.
Female Cannabis Culture Creators
Culture creators are the pioneers of the future. They are the Margaret Meads and Mary Jane Rathbuns of today and will lead the cannabis industry forward into the years ahead. The influence of culture creators sets the tone for who will partake in the cannabis industry.
Is the industry accessible? Does it have integrity? How can we innovate? What needs to change? These women paved the way for addressing some of these questions.
Founder of Women Grow Jane West is one of the cannabis industry’s biggest influences. West’s legacy is to support women within the cannabis industry community. Women Grow hosts numerous events every year that have attracted over 100,000 guests. Women Grow’s aim is to make legal cannabis the first female-led billion-dollar industry and is a shining example of a female-focused cannabis community. Currently, over 80 percent of Women Grow is organized by women and women of color. This is an impressive and encouraging indication of the cannabis culture women have created.
Dr. Rachel M. Knox
Dr. Knox is a physician who is using her platform to promote a more holistic approach to Western medicine. In her practice, she focuses on the role of the endocannabinoid system and works to dismantle misinformation about cannabis with her patients. With the de-stigmatization of marijuana’s usage medicinally, practitioners like Dr. Knox may be influential culture creators in merging standard health care practice and medicinal cannabis.
Madeline Martinez began as a California correctional officer but changed course after witnessing the harm caused by the war on drugs. In 1998, Martinez began advocating for the legalization of medical cannabis in the state of Oregon. Her passion led her to open the world-famous Cannabis Cafe in Portland, which was a safe place for people to consume medical cannabis—and the first consumption lounge in Portland. A longstanding advocate for cannabis, Madeline Martinez has now aimed her focus at federal reform. She is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and the NORML Women’s Alliance.
The Future for Women in Cannabis
With a diverse group of women pioneering the cannabis industry, the future looks bright. If these farmers and culture creators are any indication, the cannabis industry will continue to grow in diversity, economic accessibility, female representation, women of color in leadership, and integrative primary health care. The history of women and cannabis is still being written. One hundred years from now, these will be the women who pioneered for the next generation or two.
Organizations like Women Grow and others have allowed significant progress and opened the door to a diverse team of women to become entrepreneurs. However, there is still work to be done. People like Madeline Martinez have devoted most of their lives to making cannabis accessible, and that history is still in the making. Work must still be done to de-stigmatize, decriminalize, and legalize cannabis.
Taking the same principles of natural medicine relief from reproductive pain and discomfort, women continue to not only use cannabis themselves but create empires that make it accessible for others. These farmers, entrepreneurs, and culture creators are continuing the long legacy between women and cannabis. Some have said the future is female, and it seems so is the future of cannabis.
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- Russo, E.B. (2014). The pharmacological history of cannabis. Handbook of Cannabis, 23-43.
- Russo, E. (2002). Cannabis treatments in obstetrics and gynecology: A historical review. Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics, 2(3-4), 2-6.
- Howlett, A. C., Champion-Dorow, T. M., McMahon, L. L., & Westlake, T. M. (1991). The cannabinoid receptor: Biochemical and cellular properties in neuroblastoma cells. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 40(3), 565-569.