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Originally published Saturday, September 28, 2013 at 8:04 PM

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Pot legalization is changing image of women and weed

The marijuana industry and movement have long been a boys’ club. But a vanguard of women in Washington are breaking out of pot’s “pink collar ghetto,” the medical side. It’s important, advocates say, not only because women are key to reform and legalization, but also to

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The female marijuana plant, sold for its sticky psychoactive chemicals, is where the value lies in the pot industry.

But the industry has long been dominated by men and can be crassly sexist, particularly in underground pot commerce.

Women are relegated to supporting roles and sometimes blatantly viewed as sex objects, according to a study published this year. One Craigslist ad for pot trimmers posted by a grower in California sought a “good looking girl” willing to have sex. Another advertised that he’d pay extra for topless workers.

Legalization in Washington, though, should give women recourse for sexual harassment and withheld wages, and make the industry safer for women in general, said Lydia Ensley, a Seattle dispensary-operations manager.

She’s among a vanguard of women assuming prominent business and advocacy roles in what has long been a guys’ club.

There’s Alison Holcomb, the ACLU lawyer who drafted the state’s legal pot law; and Sharon Foster, chairwoman of the state agency drawing up rules; and Greta Carter, founder of a group trying to bring standards and ethics to pot-commerce, to name just a few.

For support and networking, locals have even started a monthly gathering of Women of Weed, which has grown dramatically with each meeting, according to its founder Aimée “Ah” Warner, CEO of Cannabis Basics.

“Quite literally by making cannabis a legitimate business they made it safer for women,” Ensley said. “It’s a whole new day.”

Making women feel more comfortable about marijuana is key to ending prohibition, according to Wendy Chapkis, a University of Southern Maine sociology professor. Women vote more than men, and the gap is growing among younger voters. “While smoking may culturally be a ‘guy thing,’ voting is increasingly a ‘girl thing,’ ” Chapkis wrote in an academic article titled “The Trouble with Mary Jane’s Gender.”

The more that women influence pot culture, the more they make other women at ease with it. That was crucial, according to Chapkis, to last year’s voter-approved initiatives legalizing weed in Colorado and Washington.

Initiative 502 in Washington sought to close the gender gap at the polls by having women appeal to women in campaign ads. “Women are the secret weapon in this business,” said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “Now that women are really starting to become involved in marijuana reform, you see people listening.”

Disparity’s influence

Men are more likely than women to use pot, according to surveys and polls.

That disparity has shaped the pot industry and reform movement.

The industry is “heavily testosterone-driven, no question about it,” said Carter, who owns a Seattle medical-marijuana clinic and plans to seek a state license to grow and process recreational pot. “Men are risk-takers,” she explained.

Few women have wanted to venture into the outlaw world of illegal dealing, with its guns and aggressive competition, said Carter, a grandmother, retired from a career in banking.

Instead, women with a passion for the plant tended to gravitate to medical marijuana. In turn, medical marijuana has become “something of a pink-collar ghetto,” as Chapkis put it.

As Washington state creates a legal recreational-marijuana industry, aspiring entrepreneurs appear to be overwhelmingly male, said Hilary Bricken, an attorney whose firm specializes in advising pot businesses.

“Almost everyone coming to see us are young white men,” Bricken said. And that gender imbalance is more pronounced, she said, than in other industries, such as entertainment, that her firm Harris & Moure specializes in.

That male dominance is also found in the advocacy movement, where the top three national groups — National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the Marijuana Policy Project, and the Drug Policy Alliance — are headed by men, and their boards of directors have a masculine tilt.

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) even faced internal turmoil in 2010 when seven staff members resigned over the director’s alleged inappropriate sexual behavior with female subordinates, according to High Times.

Rob Kampia, who remains in MPP’s top post, said afterward he had exhibited poor judgment. He took a three-month leave for therapy, reported The Washington Post, and the organization instituted new policies and training to avert future problems.

Steph Sherer, head of a national medical-marijuana group, Americans for Safe Access, was stunned by the movement’s gender imbalance when she got involved over a decade ago.

Sherer recalled going to her first NORML conference in San Francisco, where almost half of the registrants were women but not a single one was a speaker. “I had never seen anything like that,” she said. “In San Francisco you have to try to not be diverse.”

With her background in criminal-justice activism, Sherer gathered a group of women in her hotel room. “They said, ‘Oh, it’s always like this,’ ” she recalled.

Sherer is still the only woman leading a national advocacy group. “I feel like I’ve been in ‘Mad Men’ a few times,” she said. “I literally had a donor at a meeting comment on my cleavage.”

Not unusual

But for the most part, Washington women say sexism in the pot world is no worse than in other industries they’ve worked in, such as banking and real estate.

“The science world I came from was probably more severe,” said Dr. Michelle Sexton, who opened one of Seattle’s first labs for testing marijuana.

Warner, whose company sells soothing lotions and creams made with pot, said all of her mentors were men. “I never encountered blatant sexism or misogyny,” she said. “I felt more alone.”

Ensley said she quit working at a dispensary earlier this year where the owner pursued relationships with his employees and withheld wages from a woman who rebuffed him. She emphasized that the men she works for now are “some of the most kind, capable and creative” in the industry.

“You can’t run a successful business if you have Labor and Industries claims up the wazoo and sexual harassment,” Ensley said.

And while you can thumb through pot magazines and find ads that depict topless nymphs and naughty nurses, Ensley and others note that the sexist ads are not much different from what’s used to sell beer and booze.

Male dominance at the highest levels of advocacy groups is not all that significant, said Betty Aldworth, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Two of the leading national groups are led by their founders, and NORML’s executive director has held top posts with the group for more than two decades. “Given that the movement is so young, there hasn’t been turnover in those executive director roles,” she said. All three groups, she said, “have intentionally sought the voices of women to strengthen their organizations.”

Some women are even finding their gender to be an advantage.

Bricken said she feels well-respected when making a legal argument to male-dominated groups. “When a young woman makes a pitch, it seems somehow more digestible,” she explained. “It’s not the stereotypical image of a backwards-cap guy” in the pot business.

“For me,” Carter added, “the biggest disappointment entering the industry was not that it was male-dominated, but its lack of business discipline.” That led her to start a Seattle trade group called the Coalition for Cannabis Standards and Ethics.

Legalization gap

Sherer said she understands why many women still view legal pot with trepidation.

“Not everyone has had positive experiences with marijuana,” she said, particularly women who are caretakers for families torn apart by substance abuse and incarceration.

“A single mother who is strapped for resources, who has kids doing drugs she can’t control, has this last option of being able to call the police,” she said.

That helps explain why polls have shown a persistent gender gap nationally on marijuana. In an April poll by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of men supported legalization, compared with 48 percent of women.

Initiative 502 in Washington set out to change that.

The final TV ad of the campaign portrayed a soccer mom on her porch, flanked by pumpkins, making the case for regulating and taxing pot to keep it away from minors and increase funding for education and prevention.

The campaign’s appeal to women seems to have worked. Polling just before election day indicated that 53 percent of women supported I-502.

To get the backing of women in other states, Chapkis concludes, a more gender-conscious drug-policy movement — with more women in visible leadership positions — is necessary.

Franklin, of the national law-enforcement group against pot prohibition, agreed.

“It is extremely important when you look at people like Alison Holcomb,” he said. “She’s a mother, a prominent attorney. She is pretty much the 502 campaign out there.”

Franklin sees a historic parallel to the growing influence of women, particularly mothers, in marijuana policy: the repeal of the 18th Amendment prohibiting alcohol.

Women, prodded by activist Pauline Sabin, pushed the repeal effort, arguing that prohibition was hurting children by leading thousands into illegal bootlegging and violence. Sabin also feared that children witnessing the flagrant contempt for prohibition would lose faith in our laws.

Those are the same kinds of arguments Holcomb and Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, are making, Franklin said.

“Women really made prohibition happen,” said Foster, chair of the state Liquor Control Board. “And they were very much part of ending it.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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