“Cannamoms” Find Community Can Overcome Stigma

January 10, 2024

Almost nobody in Ashley’s* life knows that she uses cannabis to help cope with her anxiety as a mother. She’s told her toddler’s other parent, and she’s shared her experiences with a couple of friends. But she hasn’t told her mother, with whom she lives, and she definitely doesn’t speak about it with other parents she knows.

Cannabis has, in her words, made her a better mother. It’s legal where she lives. Yet she still feels a need to keep her use a secret. Many others feel similarly, fearing legal or child-custody repercussions, or simply the special stigma that society reserves for mothers perceived to transgress.

“I’m still so scared of the stigma, I’m scared of the consequences,” Ashley, 26, told Filter. “I get a lot of comments about how my performance is as a mom. I don’t want to give another reason for people to have a problem with what I’m doing.”

Ashley smoked cannabis occasionally before her daughter came into her life—just a moderate amount every couple of weekends to relax and unwind. When her daughter was born, she ceased smoking entirely, burdened by the guilt she felt of being “a mom taking drugs.” But it wasn’t long before she became curious about other parents out there self-medicating. And when her daughter was around 10 months old, she opened an incognito tab on her computer and searched “moms who do weed.”

“That was when I first heard the term ‘cannamom,”’ Ashley said. “I looked on each social media platform and there’s a cannamom community everywhere. And it was so clear to me that people who engage in [cannabis use] don’t care less about their kids, they don’t love their kids less.”

Connecting with other moms online has alleviated the shame Ashley has felt concerning her own cannabis use.

Ashley, who lives in New York, is able to access cannabis legally at dispensaries, which gives her comfort that she knows exactly what she’s consuming. Initially, she used to cut tiny pieces of gummy edibles and take them when her daughter was already asleep. Now, she occasionally “micro-doses” those gummies when she’s with her daughter, something that helps her manage her anxiety disorder.

“It helps me feel calmer, it helps me hold the moment. I’m not constantly thinking, when can I get a moment to myself? How many pees do I have to take with my child sitting on me? It’s no longer about rushing to the next thing, or trying to make things happen as fast as they can,” she said. “I’m not focusing on the fact that she’s not doing what I want her to do, I’m connecting with her. Instead of placing judgment on either of us, we’re having soft, slow, tender moments. And it’s not that I can’t have those without weed, but it just helps it happen more often.”

Connecting with other moms online has alleviated the shame Ashley has felt concerning her own cannabis use. The communities she visits include r/cannamom on Reddit, where she first found others in her position. Another popular space is r/entwives, a subreddit for women and gender-minority folks who use cannabis. (Its name references the tree people known as “ents” in The Lord of the Rings, a nod to the main cannabis subreddit, r/trees.) It has nearly 120,000 users, who post anything from questions to rants or pictures of their cats.

“It’s a safe space, everyone is kind, everyone is gentle,” said Kara, 52, a moderator on r/entwives who lives in Maryland. “Everyone is super-supportive, and people come with all sorts of questions. It’s just so nice to have that space, it’s vital.”

For many, this online community has led to real-life connections. In Kara’s case, a particularly meaningful one: her girlfriend, Erika.

“We met on Reddit, we started talking on Reddit, and then we started dating on Reddit, and now here we are!” Kara told Filter.

Erika, 49, said that the community focuses on being a positive, stigma-free space—though people have been gently called out for posts that seem to endorse behaviors like driving under the influence or smoking around pets. She’s also seen moms seek safety advice, like how best to store cannabis in child-proof containers.

“It’s about that kind of accountability,” she told Filter.

Erika and Kara both have adolescent children from previous relationships, and Kara is a full-time carer for her 21-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy. They’ve both been open with their children about their cannabis use, but it hasn’t always been that way.

“It was only after legalization that I felt I could have that conversation with my kids without fear of recrimination and repercussions from my ex.”

Erika, who is based in Ontario, said Canada’s 2018 legalization of cannabis made a huge difference to her ability to discuss her use with her kids, mainly by alleviating concerns about custody agreements.

“It was only then that I felt I could have that conversation openly with my kids without fear of recrimination and repercussions from my ex, that gave me the freedom to say, look, we should have this conversation,” she said. “It’s a stigma that’s not there with alcohol, in terms of it being something adults can use in a recreational, responsible way. With marijuana, it’s like, ‘Use it one time, you’re on a slippery slope.’”

Someone all too familiar with the impacts of cannabis-related stigma is Barry Lessin, a harm reduction psychologist in Pennsylvania who has worked with individuals and families impacted by substance use for over 40 years. He often sees patients who are using cannabis to self-medicate anxiety, chronic pain or other health issues, and who are benefiting, he said. However, his patients often feel shame around their cannabis use, which may cause them to hide it from their support networks, as Ashley does when microdosing her gummies.

“Once they’re educated about the idea that your relationship with the substance is like your relationship with nicotine, or your relationship with caffeine, it helps to destigmatize and take the judgment out of cannabis use,” Dr. Lessin told Filter. “They can see that yes, it is medicine. It’s validating for them [to clarify] that a lot of that [stigma] is related to drug laws, drug policy and the drug war, and then they’re more comfortable with using it in a way where they’re not hiding it.”

For many parents who are benefiting from cannabis, medical practitioners’ relationship with the substance adds to the stigma, making it even harder for mothers, in particular, to openly consume it. 

“There’s an awful lot of us who haven’t necessarily found the help or support that they need in the conventional medical system.”

Women are often dismissed in medical settings, with doctors downplaying or ignoring their pain. Erika said that doctors’ lack of experience means many moms have no choice but to self-medicate.

“There’s an awful lot of us who haven’t necessarily found the help or support that they need in the conventional medical system, whether it’s their physical health, hormonal issues, mental health, the assumption is that you’re going to be doing the wrong thing,” she said. “The conception is that it’s not something a professional person, a mother, does.”

Headlines about the continuing spread of legalization may make such experiences surprising to some, but the drug war has a long shadow, as Lessin knows.

“That stigma is really, really engrained,” he emphasized. “Up until 15 years ago, I, as a psychologist working in the field, had an abstinence-only, drug-war infused, one-size-fits-all approach. It wasn’t until I stepped out of that and took a look at the larger picture that I realized, okay, this kind of treatment isn’t helping.”

Very few medical schools, he noted, teach about the endocannabinoid system, which regulates functions like sleep, mood, appetite and memory. So doctors are often uneducated on how cannabis can help with mental or physical health.

“Until it’s being taught in medical schools, it’s going to be a barrier,” Lessin said. “Psychologists and therapists and others coming into the field, 90 percent of them are being taught in the old way of abstinence-only.” he said. He encourages his patients to advocate for their health care, and sometimes speaks to their doctors on their behalf. “It’s part of empowering people. It’s about education.”

“Being an adult is hard, parenting is a different level, and it’s not irresponsible or weak to say that you struggle.”

For Susie*, a 37-year-old mother of two teenage boys, self-medication has been a lifesaver. In the past, she’s struggled with being over-prescribed pharmaceutical anxiety medications, even though she attempted repeatedly to tell doctors she felt numb and couldn’t function on the doses they were giving her. Transitioning to only medicating with cannabis has radically changed her life for the better, she said.

“They had no problem prescribing me Xanax all day long, and they just kept increasing the dosage to the point where I wasn’t a functioning human being anymore,” she told Filter. “I couldn’t have been more medicated, and that was apparently just so acceptable.”

With cannabis, “the fact that it’s decriminalized now means so much.”

In Missouri, where Susie lives, adult-use dispensaries opened in 2023, but it’s been legal medically since 2018 and partially decriminalized since 2014. For Susie, legalization means she’s sure of what she’s purchasing—a kind of security that’s important to her as a mother, she said—and feels able to be open about her use with her children and support circles.

“Not having that would be so exhausting for me, it would be like living a double life,” she said. “I never thought the day would come where I could go and buy weed and not be in trouble at all. Before I couldn’t do anything, but now I can smoke some weed and I can go to dinner, go to the movies, I don’t have issues of freaking out, I don’t have that anxiety anymore.”

Susie also visits r/entwives, where she’s found a community of like-minded women. She’s previously struggled with her drinking, and said cannabis has helped her to rely less on alcohol.

According to Erika, that’s a common type of experience for members of the subreddit to discuss—she’s had her own past struggles with alcohol, too. “The freedom of not having that shame and judgment a lot of time leads people to realize they need help in other areas,” she said. “It’s a lot safer for people to discuss things that are taboo, like relationship issues around the use of substances, and usually it’s alcohol.”

“Being an adult is hard, parenting is a different level, and it’s not irresponsible or weak to say that you struggle,” Erika continued. “There’s a weird, puritanical notion that a woman, or a mother, somehow needs more protection from these dangerous, bad things, because we can’t make decisions rationally, and we aren’t allowed to take responsibility for our mental health.”

“We’re letting go of the fear and the shame.”

As Lessin said, there’s no one-size-fits all approach when it comes to cannabis consumption. Susie, Erika and Kara have each found their own routine with cannabis use that works for them, and Ashley plans to review her use as her daughter gets older.

“The hardest years of parenting, or the most chaotic ones, are the first few ones,” she said. “Once we get through that, I’ll relook at my cannabis use and I’ll refine it, or stop, or cut down. Maybe as she gets older and has sleepovers, I’ll plan a night where I’ll watch a movie and get a little bit high.”

Using cannabis since her daughter’s birth, Ashley recognized, has forced her to come to terms with her preconceived notions about the drug.

“Even a year ago, I would have said that moms who are using cannabis are bad moms,” she said. “And now I realize: No, those moms are sometimes better moms, because it’s about whatever helps us show up for our kids. We’re letting go of the fear and the shame.”



*Names changed to protect anonymity at sources’ request.

Photograph by Elsa Olofsson via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0

Eve Cable

Eve is a journalist based in Montreal, Quebec, covering community news and harm reduction. She is a reporter at the Eastern Door, and her work can be found in The Rover, Xtra, THIS magazine and more.

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