Throughout our culture's long and dark history of cannabis prohibition, the cultivation and distribution of marijuana has been overwhelmingly male dominated. But it wasn't always this way. In fact, in some of the earliest foraging societies women typically took the lead as both herb gatherers and healers.
As we moved from small, polytheistic, matriarchal societies to large, monotheistic, patriarchal societies, female plant medicine providers became frequent targets of witch hunts and other coordinated campaigns of eradication, as they represented a serious threat to both "religion" and "medicine," both male-dominated fields.
The good news is that weed's increasing cultural and legal acceptance has begun to close the ganja gender gap at last. And while the media only got excited once they discovered stiletto stoners, cannabis culture has actually long benefited from the amazing courage and conviction of its true OG females, who come from all walks of life and serve the herb as growers, dealers, healers, artists, activists, entrepreneurs, and political leaders.
In Tuesday night's episode of Weediquette on VICELAND, host Krishna Andavolu explores exactly how and why this new pot paradigm is encouraging more and more women to loudly and proudly proclaim their love of cannabis, as he spends some quality time with those at the forefront of a new, female-led marijuana movement. So to provide some historical perspective, VICE spoke with Ellen Komp, the author of Tokin' Women: A 4,000 Year Herstory. A longtime pot activist and deputy director of California NORML, Komp's blog (Tokin' Woman) has celebrated "famous female cannabis connoisseurs" since 2008.
VICE: Let's start with how you personally formed a connection to the cannabis plant and how that led you to become an activist and an advocate.
Ellen Komp: I was turned on to cannabis by a sorority sister in college who made it her mission to get me high. It took quite a few tries. Finally, when I realized I was high, I was like, "Oh! This is all it is?" I'd expected to feel drunk or stupid or something, but cannabis was much more interesting than that. It in turn opened me up to a lot of other interests and experiences, but I never really connected with the injustice of the drug war until I encountered The Emperor Wears No Clothes by Jack Herer. After staying up all night verifying things in that book with dictionaries and encyclopedias (because there wasn't any internet at that time), I became an activist overnight and have never stopped. That was going on 25 years ago now.
Did you find marijuana activism to be male-dominated at that time?
There were very few women involved. I was always perplexed by that, and always tried to get more to speak up. One reason may be that many women have had their parental rights interfered with because of marijuana, and so they're afraid their kids could be taken away by Child Protective Services. It never occurred to me at the time that they would want to organize into their own groups, like the NORML Women's Alliance andWomen Grow, but of course those organizations have now taken off like a rocket. It's great to see.
Are there benefits of cannabis use that are unique to women or more pronounced for women?
Menstrual cramps, baby! A remedy which goes back to Queen Victoria.
Also, personally, I know cannabis really helped open me up socially. Men often tend to socialize around alcohol and violent sporting events, and women sometimes feel threatened in environments like that. So starting with interpersonal relations and extrapolating out from there, I believe women are typically safer and more comfortable in a situation where pot smoking is going on than heavy drinking.
You've intensely investigated the role women have played historically in the cultivation and medicinal use of cannabis. Take me all the way back and tell me what you've learned through your research.
In Tokin' Women, I start in the 3rd millennium BC—a time when both goddesses and plants were revered as healers. Back then, a predominant Sumerian goddess named Ishtar was associated with cannabis, and up until the Semitic invasion in 2600 BC, women practiced the healing arts without restriction. But by 1000 BC, women didn't have that freedom to be healers anymore. And the goddess religions were subverted, with the goddesses themselves turned into sex idols. Even the Epic of Gilgamesh, from the 18th Century BC, which is the oldest surviving written story of mankind, basically turns Ishtar into a Harlot, and is thus thought to be a turning point in the patriarchal takeover of human culture. Then, in the Bible, prophet after prophet keeps telling the Hebrews "My God is going to be really really pissed if you do not stop burning incense to Ashtoreth [the biblical name for Ishtar]."
And that was possibly the first crack down on cannabis, by the way, which was likely akey component of all that "incense" they were burning.
Of course, until very recently, women couldn't even go to medical school, and female plant healers were persecuted as witches. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake partly for using "witching herbs" like mandrake, for Christ's sake. That was in the 1400s, so we know the middle ages and the dark ages were indeed dark times for herbal medicines and the predominantly female-led traditions that gathered and administered them.
In the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen, a German composer, philosopher and Christian mystic grew hemp in her garden and wrote two volumes on herbal medicine. She was an incredibly respected woman who corresponded with the Pope and all of the great leaders of her day, but from there I can't find much marijuana herstory until 1800, when Napoleon invaded Egypt and his troops discovered hashish. Soon European artists and intellectuals were trying hashish, including a lot of women. One was Harriet Martineau, who was the great great great grandmother of Princess Kate Middleton. She was also a social reformer, a novelist, and the first female sociologist. Martineau once wrote of her travels in the desert that ale provided "the greatest possible refreshment, except thechibouque"—a pipe used to smoke hashish. She also related how since Jewish women were not allowed to smoke cannabis on the Sabbath, Arab women would blow smoke at them. Which I believe is the first shot gunning in recorded in history.
Is there a particular female cannabis enthusiast of the past whose story speaks to you?
The author Isak Dinesen (a.k.a. Karen Blixen) really inspires me. She was played by Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, which was based on her own bestselling memoir of running a coffee plantation in Kenya. She was a great fan of the works of Baudelaire, and enthusiastically followed his example in experimenting with hashish. Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley, Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, and Orson Welles all courted her attention. She was a giant.
For more on women's role in the weed movement, watch Weediquette Tuesday night at 11:00 PM EST on VICELAND.
David Bienenstock is the author of How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High. Follow him on Twitter.
Nearly half of U.S. states have legalized marijuana in some form, whether medical or recreational. But marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and as a result, the legitimate businesses selling the drug are subject to sky-high tax rates.
Dispensaries can’t deduct traditional business expenses like advertising costs, employee payroll, rent and health insurance from their combined federal and state taxes. That means dispensary owners around the U.S. often face effective tax rates of 50 to 60 percent — and in some states, those rates soar to 80 percent or higher, according to members of the pot industry who spoke to The Huffington Post.
In other words, the federal government rakes in tax revenue from pot shops while prohibiting them from accessing the same financial benefits afforded to non-cannabis businesses.
“We now have thousands of basically small- and medium-sized businesses across the country in over 20 states that are perfectly legal, who are being discriminated against in terms of the tax system because they can’t deduct legitimate business expenses,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) told The Huffington Post. “Their effective tax rate is two, maybe three times higher depending on where they are in their business cycle.” Blumenauer introduced the Small Business Tax Equity Act (HR 2240) in 2013, which would allow marijuana-related businesses to make traditional tax deductions.
Federal tax code 280E, an antiquated Internal Revenue Service rule enacted in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” campaign, explicitly prohibits any deduction from any business that “consists of trafficking in controlled substances.” Marijuana is currently listed alongside heroin and LSD as a Schedule I narcotic under the Controlled Substances Act.
“280E is left over from an earlier era, and it’s not fair,” Blumenauer said. “It’s time to treat marijuana like a grown-up, legitimate business, and have people play by the rules and be fair to them.”
In 2013, Blumenauer forged an unlikely alliance with conservative anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist when the Oregon lawmaker introduced his pot business tax reform bill.
“There is no reason why the tax code should deny ordinary and necessary business expenses to legitimate businesses established under state law,” Norquist wrote in a letter to Congress urging the bill’s passage. “The result is an arbitrary and punitive situation where legal employers face very high average effective tax rates that Congress never sought to impose on businesses.”
In an attempt to better serve the marijuana businesses in Colorado, which began permitting the recreational sale of pot last month, state lawmakers approved a measure that allows dispensaries to claim some state income tax deductions, especially related to the growing of cannabis. But Colorado dispensary owners told HuffPost that their effective tax rates are still around 50 to 60 percent because anything related to the specific sale of the plant can’t be deducted.
“All we want is to be treated like other businesses,” said Mike Elliott, executive director for the Medical Marijuana Industry Group which represents marijuana businesses in Colorado. “The federal government doesn’t recognize our businesses as being legitimate, but they do demand our taxes. It’s really unfair treatment.”
Elliott added marijuana business owners have no problem paying taxes, a widespread mentality among dispensary owners eager to convey the image that they are functioning as legitimate, law-abiding businesses. “We are on board with paying our taxes,” Elliott said. “But right now these unusually high rates are just a means of punishing the businesses, a ‘head in the sand’ approach.”
Dispensary owners are hopeful that changes in the federal tax code are coming. They point to recent statements from President Barack Obama, who said that he thinks marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol, and Attorney General Eric Holder, who signaled that a change in federal banking access for marijuana businesses may be on the way.
“Allowing small, legal marijuana businesses to have the same tax treatment as any other small business is critical to ensuring the regulated industry can wipe out the black market,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who has sponsored a number of measures advocating tax and banking rights for marijuana businesses.
Not everyone is on board with offering legal marijuana businesses the same treatment when it comes to taxes. “We should give fewer — not more — incentives, to people cashing in on addiction. This is about creating the next big tobacco, and we want to now give them tax breaks?” said Kevin Sabet, a former senior adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana.
As these marijuana businesses continue to pay exorbitant sums in taxes to the state and federal government, many dispensary owners say they’re counting the days until the IRS decides to audit them. California’s Harborside Health Center, widely considered the world’s largest marijuana dispensary, lost a battle against the IRS in 2011 when it tried to deduct standard business expenses and was ordered to pay millions in back taxes.
“We haven’t gone through an audit yet,” said Tim Cullen, co-owner ofDenver’s Evergreen Apothecary. “Of course we pay our taxes, but it just feels like it’s a matter of when, and not if, that audit occurs.”
Since Colorado’s recreational pot shops opened on Jan. 1, dispensaries have generated a tremendous amount of revenue for both the state and federal governments. In the first week alone, less than 40 dispensaries around the state reportedly took in more than $5 million in sales revenue, with approximately $1.2 million of that going to state coffers alone — and those figures are from just a fraction of the more than 500 total medical marijuana shops that are eligible to apply for retail licenses in the state.
More than one dispensary owner, who requested anonymity when speaking about specific financial issues, told HuffPost that they estimated by the end of the year, they’ll be paying more than $1 million in sales tax to the federal government. And for some businesses, that tax is in cash.
Since most banks refuse to work with marijuana businesses out of fear that they could be implicated as money launderers if they offer traditional banking services to the pot businesses, many owners conduct all of their transactions in cash. Beyond the burden of managing taxes and employee payroll, cash-only businesses can put retailers’ safety at risk. NBC News recently detailed several heists that have occurred at Colorado dispensaries.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), an advocate for mandatory banking for marijuana businesses, said he’s hopeful the recent remarks from the president and attorney general signal that at least some change is coming. He added that when it comes to these businesses, safety should be their top concern.
“The crime potential for an all-cash businesses, whether that’s robbery, burglary or assault — a violent crime — or tax evasion, fraud and skimming — a white collar crime — is pretty substantial,” he said. “At the heart of the banking and tax issue is we want these businesses to be safe.”
More than a dozen states are expected to legalize marijuana in the the coming years. One recent study has projected a $10 billion legal marijuana industry nationwide by 2018.
Marijuana is growing up. As Colorado and Washington’s recreational marijuana industries blossom and new markets in Oregon and Alaska begin to take shape, so-called ganjapreneurs are looking for ways to take cannabis mainstream. Before long, they hope, marijuana products will be as widely available as alcohol — and just as socially acceptable.
“Ideally, I would like to see the 21-to-35 year-old taking a four-pack of these to a barbecue,” Joe Hodas, chief marketing director for the marijuana product manufacturer Dixie, said earlier this year of the company’s new watermelon cream-flavored “elixir,” Dixie One. The drink contains five milligrams of THC — just enough to produce a subtle buzz.
“This is a full experience in a bottle, much like beer,” Hodas said. “Sometimes they’ll want a beer, sometimes they’ll want two or three beers. This sort of affords you that calibration.”
Since starting in 2010, Colorado-based Dixie has developed a wide array of marijuana products, from THC-infused chocolates to concentrated cannabis for e-cigarettes. Many of its offerings are aimed at experienced marijuana users with high tolerances — the company’s top seller is a line of elixirs containing 75 milligrams of THC. Lower-dose products are proving increasingly popular, however.
“It’s been selling really surprisingly well,” Hodas told The Huffington Post recently of Dixie One. “In some of our stores, it had been outselling our 75 mg elixir. We were going to be happy if it sold decently well, but it was outselling in some cases. That said to us, we were correct, there is a market for that consumer.”
Encouraged by the success of Dixie One, the company is focusing on casual cannabis consumers. This week, Dixie released another low-dose product, a mint that releases THC directly into the bloodstream as it dissolves in the mouth.
“I think the low-dose consumer is an expansion demographic for us,” Hodas said. “It’s my belief that the core marijuana user is a small circle, and in a much larger surrounding circle is the casual user and a much larger market.”
At the moment, the recreational cannabis industry is limited to Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon. Marijuana advocates and business owners say it’s only a matter of time before more states follow, bringing cannabis products like Dixie One to store shelves and backyard barbecues across America. More than 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and this month voters in Washington, D.C., approved a referendum to legalize recreational use in the nation’s capital.
Already, Colorado and Washington state illustrate how cannabis is shedding its stoner image and entering mainstream culture. Marijuana products have been featured prominently in gourmet dinners and in cooking seminars in both states. The drug has become a fashionable substance to offer as a celebratory toast at weddings. Yoga enthusiasts can seek zen at marijuana-fueled classes.
Earlier this year, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra held a “Classically Cannabis” fundraiser, where well-heeled attendees sipped drinks, shook hands and smoked pot from joints, vaporizers and glass pipes, while a brass quintet played Debussy, Bach, Wagner and Puccini.
“Cannabis is being elevated into the pantheon of refined and urbane inebriants, no different than boutique rye or fine wine,” said Matt Gray, the publisher of a new gourmet marijuana cookbook.
A number of worrying episodes have accompanied the legal high, however. In March, a 19-year-old college student leapt to his death from a hotel balcony in Denver after eating marijuana-infused cookies. In April, police said a Denver man shot his wife to death after he said he had eaten marijuana candy and prescription pills.
Hospital officials in Colorado have said that they have been treating a growing number of adults and children who have consumed marijuana products, whose potency can be hard to judge.
State laws in Colorado and Washington already require a “serving” of THC in an edible marijuana product to be limited to 10 milligrams — about the amount in a medium-sized joint. (The rules in Alaska and Oregon have not yet been set.) Some products, such as candy bars, may contain multiple servings, however, and package labels do not always include serving size or dosage information.