Marijuana is getting ever more legal. As of November 6, we have nine states where it’s legalized for recreational use, and 30 where medical use is legal. The latest measures on state ballots are likely to push those numbers higher. Most of us now see marijuana as socially acceptable.
But is it really socially acceptable for everyone?
Studies show that people use at roughly the same rates, regardless of race. When it comes to legal consequences, of course, the rates are very different. In New York City where I live, marijuana has officially been decriminalized since the 1970s. Yet people of color continue to be arrested at grossly disproportionate rates—a pattern that holds nationwide.
White people clearly have the privilege of using with far fewer consequences than people of color. But this privilege encompasses not only legal consequences. It’s also about social narratives that either demonize people of color or make us invisible. And despite higher incarceration rates among men of color (Black and Latina women are also arrested for drugs at higher rates than white women), these social attitudes often target women of color most intensely.
Historically, women of color have been seen as deviant. Any behavior that seems socially unacceptable is even more so for women of color.
We see these narratives play out in the media. When it comes to TV shows, music or the news, people of color are hardly ever seen using drugs in a “positive” way. Drugs lead to bad outcomes or are used in ways that seems problematic. And we typically see men at the forefront.
TV shows have begun depicting more women characters who smoke weed—and in somewhat less stigmatizing ways than previously. Starting with Weeds, where a recently widowed mother becomes a drug dealer then eventually a major kingpin, and moving on to current shows like Broad City, Gracie and Frankie, and Disjointed, women are regularly shown using marijuana as a facet of their lives.
Notice anything about the lead characters in all of the shows I just mentioned? They largely overlook the population of women of color who use. In the music world meanwhile, women of color have disclosed their drug use, but are typically demonized.
As we move forward with legalization, are we showcasing all types of marijuana use?
Historically, women of color have been seen as deviant. Any behavior that seems socially unacceptable is even more so for women of color. And such prejudice and stigma causes severe harms.
In 2015, for example, 28-year-old Sandra Bland was stopped for a traffic violation in Texas. She was arrested when the officer found her to be “noncompliant.” She was later found dead in her cell, apparently hanged. Media reports used toxicology reports that showed high amounts of THC to implicitly justify her arrest and death.
In the medical field, too, women of color can suffer extreme consequences for being suspected of using drugs. Queen Adesuyi, policy coordinator at the Office of National Affairs of the Drug Policy Alliance, tells me that Black women with newborn children are 1.5 times more likely to be tested for illicit drug use than other women. Positive tests frequently result in children being taken away.
As we move forward with legalization, we need to think about accessibility and acceptability. Are we treating everyone who uses equally? And as part of that, are we showcasing all types of marijuana use?
Despite being culturally ignored, women of color use marijuana in a wide range of ways. I spoke with several, to ask them about their reasons for using and their experiences of doing so as women of color.
Real-World Experiences of Women of Color
Using marijuana to help with medical issues—whether or not local laws allow this—is common. Keisha, 26, a queer Black community organizer who lives in Harlem, tells me that marijuana initially helped with her insomnia—and then also became a way to alleviate her anxiety. Various pills and essential oils didn’t help with the insomnia, she says: “I felt like I had tried everything.” After experimenting with different marijuana strains, she was able to find the one that worked. Now she can’t imagine a life without it.
She had to self-diagnosis because many doctors still do not believe her condition exists.
Daphne, 24, a Puerto Rican teacher who lives in Far Rockaway, has had to learn how to manage endometriosis ever since she started showing symptoms at 18. The condition involves tissue lining growing outside of the uterus, creating lesions that adhere to other organs. Symptoms include nausea, extreme pain and fatigue.
After several hours of experiencing her symptoms, Daphne finds that her body cannot handle the pain. She had to self-diagnosis because many doctors still do not believe her condition exists. Though she used marijuana prior to experiencing endometriosis, she started experimenting with different strains in order to create her own treatment. “I really did not want to take a bunch of medications,” she says, “so smoking weed and paying attention to the strains was important. I wanted something natural that was instant, and weed was that for me.”
“If your building and your apartment are federally owned, you don’t have as much privacy as someone who has their own house.”
Queen Adesuyi notes that many women of color also use marijuana to self-medicate for trauma. Various oppressive forces that women of color face impact them daily. Microaggressions, overpolicing and the constant anxiety of living in a world that does not care for you all take their toll. In this context, women of color may be particularly discouraged from disclosing or seeking treatment for experiences of sexual and physical abuse or mental illness.
Queen grew up in public housing, and recounts feeling unsafe because of the heavy police presence in her building. “If you live in a place where your building and your apartment are federally owned,” she notes, “you don’t have as much privacy as someone who has their own house.” This often creates more stress and anxiety for people of color—as well as more consequences for those who use marijuana.
Aware of how rarely women of color are mentioned in the push for legalization, Queen advocates to ensure they feature in discussions around marijuana use to alleviate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Concerns for veterans, she explains, dominate the marijuana-for-PTSD space because of society’s heightened concern for them. But these conversations need to include women of color who use for the same reasons—having often, as we’ve seen, experienced trauma of their own.
Marijuana is also used as a tool to assist in introspection and connection. Daphne, for example, says that she also uses marijuana for her spiritual practice.
Simone, 35, a Black social worker from Canarsie, Brooklyn, says she uses marijuana when she wants to reflect on or brainstorm new ideas. “I love to smoke, listen to music and go for a walk,” she tells me. “It’s really soothing for me.” She finds that marijuana amplifies her mood: When she’s feeling loved and happy, using marijuana increases that experience for her.
The Struggle to Be Heard Amid Negative Stereotypes
All the women I interviewed mentioned hearing negative stereotypes about women who use. Growing up, Daphne heard her relatives speak negatively about her mother, who used drugs. This initially caused her to believe the same things—but after using marijuana herself, she was able to dispel these perceptions.
“My mom was a very heavy drug user, weed included,” she recalls. ”Growing up, I had these perceptions and resistance towards it. Using [marijuana] recreationally became an exploration [or] experiment to dissolve what I had known growing up, like proving this is not something that is going to harm me.” Marijuana was essential for Daphne to move through her negative experiences of her mother’s drug use, offering her the revelation that there are various types of use.
Keisha understands that her identity as a woman of color makes her less safe.
In Keisha’s childhood household, a big distinction was made between legal substances and illicit ones. Use of alcohol for coping, or of pills for pain management, was encouraged. But marijuana was considered detrimental. “My mother used to say, ‘If it wasn’t for alcohol, I don’t know how I would’ve survived with you kids,’” she recounts. “But I could never tell her I use marijuana.”
Despite marijuana’s important role in Keisha’s life, she knows that she can’t disclose her use to everyone. “I’m careful,” she says. “I can’t just talk about it too freely, I have things to lose.”
Keisha understands that her identity as a woman of color makes her less safe. “If someone who is white is smoking weed, people might look at her, they might observe her, but no one is going to call the cops—while if I’m smoking weed, someone is going to take the initiative to do so.”
Queen echoes these concerns. “As a person who smokes marijuana, I feel it from all my different identities: As a queer person I feel under attack, as a black person, as a woman, as a person from a low-income community—and all those things combined. It feels unsafe to smoke; I could lose everything because of it.
We need to understand that policy alone won’t dismantle systems of oppression.
As we create policies for legalization, we need to ensure we include the voices of women of color. As Queen emphasizes, “It’s not just about legalizing marijuana, it’s thinking about who was harmed during prohibition and how we can acknowledge that harm.”
By including women of color in this conversation, we step closer to reversing these harms. But we need to understand that policy alone won’t dismantle systems of oppression.
“It is going to take a large shift,” says Queen. “It’s not even about policy. It’s bigger than drug policy, when we’re talking about how Black women are seen in society—it’s not even an issue with the plant, but with how people see Black women.”
Legalization needs to occur alongside a larger cultural shift. White people can no longer dominate marijuana spaces. Women of color need to be included and seen, or we’ll continue to be dehumanized and criminalized for our choices.
The main image is from Realistic Marijuana User Stock Images, a Drug Policy Alliance project.