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The Marijuana Reform Gender Gap

Marijuana law-reform organizations are now tailoring their outreach efforts to directly appeal to women.  When it comes to cannabis, women are from Venus and men are from Mars. But that gender gap is starting to narrow.

By Paul Armentano

If you think that men and women think the same way about cannabis, think again.

That’s the takeaway from a study published in February in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City analyzed data provided by over 614,000 participants in the 2002–2012 National Survey on Drug Use—the nation’s largest survey assessing Americans’ use of and beliefs about licit and illicit substances. Regarding cannabis, the researchers correlated subjects’ demographic characteristics with their expressed beliefs regarding marijuana’s risk to health.

While the authors acknowledged that various factors, such as participants’ age, income and ethnicity, are likely to affect one’s opinions about cannabis, no single factor is as influential as gender. For instance, women are twice as likely to perceive the regular use of marijuana as posing a “great risk” to health. The fact that men and women don’t view marijuana’s potential risks similarly explains a number of other cannabis-specific gender gaps.

For example, according to comprehensive data provided by the Pew Research Center, men are far more likely than women (54% to 42%) to acknowledge that they have tried cannabis, and men are 25% more likely than women to admit they smoked pot during the past year. A 2014 study led by researchers at Washington State University speculated that these differences in use patterns could, in part, be because cannabinoids affect men and women differently, particularly in regard to drug tolerance and THC sensitivity. The authors theorized that the latter phenomenon could result in women being more prone than men to experience heightened anxiety or paranoia after consuming cannabis.

The reality that females are less likely than males to have firsthand experience with marijuana may also explain why fewer women than men say that they feel comfortable being in close proximity to someone using cannabis. The Pew data show that nearly six in 10 women (57%) feel uncomfortable being around people who use marijuana, compared with 44% of men.
Given this information, it’s hardly surprising that gender differences exist in Americans’ support for legalization. Pew, which has been tracking men and women’s views on the subject since 1969, notes that most males (57%) endorse legalizing pot while less than half of females (48%) support the idea. In fact, in every Pew-sponsored survey going back to the late ’60s, men have expressed greater support than women by almost identical margins.

Yet despite the differences in usage patterns and comfort level, women’s attitudes toward cannabis appear to be evolving rapidly. In the Johns Hopkins/Columbia study, the percentage of female respondents who believe that using marijuana is risky fell from 59% in 2002 to 47% in 2012. Over this same decade, there was a dramatic increase in the percentage of women expressing support for legalizing cannabis.

So, are women simply becoming more accepting of cannabis because more states are amending their laws and normalizing the plant’s use? Or are women’s attitudes changing as a result of targeted messaging by reformers? The answer is arguably a bit of both.

As female voters, along with Americans in general, are becoming more tolerant of and familiar with cannabis culture as its legal status rapidly changes, many marijuana law-reform organizations are now tailoring their outreach efforts to directly appeal to women. For example, during Washington State’s 2012 legalization campaign (and, to a lesser extent, in Colorado), organizers developed ad campaigns targeted specifically at women voters aged 30 to 50. They appealed to this important demographic by arguing that cannabis law reform would a) be tightly regulated, b) allow police to target more serious crimes and c) create new revenue streams for family-friendly causes like school construction. One TV spot for Washington’s I-502 even went so far as to feature a middle-aged female narrator who admitted that she didn’t “like marijuana personally,” but nonetheless believed that “it’s time for a conversation about legalizing marijuana.”

Ultimately, the targeted media campaign worked. “In both Washington and Colorado, the percentage of females in support of regulated markets was greater than the national average,” British researchers concluded in a 2014 paper, Selling Cannabis Regulation: Learning from the Ballot Initiatives in the United States in 2012. “Well-crafted messages that spoke to this demographic—particularly emphasizing that youth access can be better controlled through legally regulated markets than prohibition—seem to have worked in keeping women on the yes side.”

The lessons learned in 2012 resonate with Dale Sky Jones, Board Chair of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (CCPR), which hopes to similarly succeed at the California ballot box in 2016. “The CCPR campaign is being led by many women in various roles,” she tells Freedom Leaf. “Finding common ground, like supporting universal preschool, is a way communities can be enhanced through cannabis policy reform. We know we’ll have safer communities if we control, tax and regulate cannabis for adults, and we know that these messages are appealing to women voters.”

The NORML Women’s Alliance, founded by Sabrina Fendrick (now Project Manager with Berkeley Patients Group), initiated one of the first nationally coordinated efforts to effectively target women in hopes of shifting female attitudes toward favoring legalization.
“Women have a complex and unique experience when it comes to cannabis use, as well as its prohibition,” Fendrick explains. “It’s important to frame the conversation in a way that resonates among women both as consumers and maternal beings that want to protect their families. With the right messaging, we can educate this crucial demographic on how legalization will protect our children from the black market, keep our neighborhoods safe and put Americans back to work.”

In 2014, Women Grow—a group of female marijuana industry leaders—was founded to serve as “a catalyst for women to influence and succeed in the cannabis industry,” Fendrick, a member, notes. In March, the group held its first lobby day in Washington, D.C., in which more than 70 women met with members of Congress following a morning press conference at the National Press Club.
Female leadership in the previously male-dominated marijuana-law reform hierarchy is on the rise. While NORML, MPP ands DPA have men at the top, ASA (Steph Sherer) and SSDP (Betty Aldworth) are led by women; Alison Holcomb, now National Director of the ACLU’s Campaign to End Mass Incarceration, ran the successful I-502 campaign in Washington.

“Throughout history, women have been discouraged from engaging in practices that might make them question how they’re treated in society,” observes Amanda Reiman, Manager of Marijuana Law and Policy at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Substances like cannabis, experiences like a higher education and even the choice of who governs our country have been discouraged for women in place of substances and activities that numb the mind and encourage complacency. But this is changing. Modern-day therapeutic use of cannabis is bringing women back to the plant that served their female ancestors thousands of years ago. As more women embrace mind expansion and shun mind-numbing pharmaceuticals, interest in the plant and its uses among this population will only continue to grow, and a sense of risk will become more in line with reality.”