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Photo illustration: Bryan Gee. S

In 1968, at the swell of the Women’s Lib era, Benson & Hedges launched Virginia Slims cigarettes with a catchy slogan: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The suggestion was that a slim smoke made specifically for women was a required accessory to independence, a way to signal to society and women themselves that they were not just deserving of equality, but ready to seize it.

The problem is that paying hard-earned, still-unequal dollars for a toxic, addictive substance didn’t have much to do with freedom.

Virginia Slims wasn’t the first company to co-opt women’s struggles to sell a little buzz – cigarette makers had been doing it since the late 1800s, and Valium (or “Mother’s Little Helper,” as the Rolling Stones called it) was pushed on frustrated housewives to dampen their longing for a more fulfilling life. It was also far from the last. These days, liquor branding attempts to convince women that a slosh of Girls' Night Out wine can make up for the stresses of sexism: The effort to woozily sidestep the need for social change marches on.

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For the past year or so, another chapter in this long history has been writing itself in my inbox, in the form of a flood of news releases about the exploding cannabis industry. An annoying amount are about what I’ve been calling “weed for girls” – pink, pretty products that are more intensely gendered than really seems necessary. These run the gamut from rose-gold vape pens and diamond-encrusted leaf pendants to a shady pitch for an “MB2e machine,” a “botanical extractor” that makes “magical butter” that can help me lose weight by enlisting “the downregulation of the specific cannabinoid receptor, CB1R.” There are also many calls to end the supposed stigma faced by women who “use cannabis,” especially moms, and launch announcements for female-focused cannabis businesses, such as 48 North and Fleurish.

I was already fed up with what I considered a flimsy corporate message of empowerment when a fresh news release invited me to a “global cannabis women’s summit” called Crafting the Future. I thought I’d attend and write a quick take on the latest faux-minist attempts to sell stuff. Instead, I realized the full scope of women’s involvement in not just the business side of cannabis, but its continuing political movements. There is, in fact, a feminist angle to this historic decriminalization, one that has the potential to end a war on drugs that has ruined countless lives, especially those of racialized women and their families. The trouble is, it’s being overshadowed by dollars.

While it wasn’t the only subject of discussion, those dollars were clearly on the mind of the crowd at Crafting the Future. The event was organized by Lisa Campbell, a long-time advocate who recently began working with Lifford Wine & Spirits, one of many beverage companies and importers aiming to add cannabis products to its portfolio. The summit was held this past Wednesday at Lifford’s Toronto headquarters, a renovated old Victorian on Jarvis Street where 100 or so people, at least 90-per-cent white women, mingled in the early evening. Before a set of speeches, we learned how to infuse olive oil with the correct dosage of cannabis before making a pureed beet hors d’oeuvre, snacked on an impressive spread of smoked salmon and meats sponsored by hot Mississauga-based cannabis company TerrAscend and sipped on a very tasty sangiovese. Vapers and smokers gathered on the lawn outside.

Most women were there with an entrepreneurial aim. One wanted to design cozy, female-friendly dispensaries, and a number complained of the patronizing, bro-y service they received at those that currently exist. Tricia Ryan of George Brown College explained that an increasing number of students at the school’s Food Innovation and Research Studio were presenting business plans that included edibles and she figured it was her job to help them succeed. There was talk of how hard it is for women to get start-up loans and venture capital funding, and Jane West of the U.S. networking group Women Grow discussed her own rocketship journey through the industry.

According to the Crafting the Future invite, Canada’s nascent cannabis industry has the potential to be worth $6.5-billion by 2020. If capitalism is the only project at hand then yes, I agree, women should get some of that cash.

“There’s definitely women pioneers in this industry,” said Rebecca Haines-Saah, a community-health professor at the University of Calgary who has been studying cannabis for more than a decade. When I spoke to her on the phone before the summit, she mentioned Abi Roach, who has owned a head shop and pot-friendly café in Toronto’s Kensington Market since 2000, and is still lobbying for people to be able to smoke in public spaces, not just at home. She also brought up Hilary Black of the B.C. Compassion Club Society, a veteran activist who testified in Parliament last fall about why affordability is crucial for medical cannabis users, and now works for a licensed producer.

“I think it’s interesting that at this time when a lot of people are going to make a lot of money, women are also trying to stake a claim,” Ms. Haines-Saah said.

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But merely earning some women money is not enough to make an entire industry female-friendly – especially when that industry is as politically fraught as cannabis. So far, the federal government has signaled that it will consider some sort of amnesty for those convicted of possessing cannabis, but only after the drug is legalized in October. In the meantime, provinces differ: B.C. has said low-level cannabis trafficking offences won’t bar people from entering the legal industry, while Alberta appears to have outlawed anyone connected to the illicit trade from securing a retail licence. Limiting the participation of black-market veterans is one reason the brand-new industry already “favours those with wealth and connections,” said Annamaria Enenajor, a Toronto lawyer and the campaign director for the lobbying organization Cannabis Amnesty. At the summit, a young Jamaican immigrant called Alicia, who only gave her first name, told me her interest partly stemmed from a belief that black and other racialized people may as well make money off of cannabis, if they’re the ones who have paid the price.

Unsurprisingly, it was a woman of colour who dove into these politics at Crafting the Future. While most of the speakers were relatively new to the industry, Reena Rampersad has a long history with both the business and its drawbacks: Her father was arrested for smoking a joint in the 1970s and her late brother also had a criminal record for possession. The owner and chef at High Society Supper Club in Hamilton, Ms. Rampersad is also the volunteer coordinator for Cannabis Amnesty. She lauds a program that exists in Los Angeles and Oakland where a percentage of licences are actually reserved for those with prior convictions, or who come from specific marginalized communities.

When asked if the mainstream Canadian industry pays enough attention to those who have suffered from the war on drugs, Ms. Rampersad quickly said no. “The inherent racism of criminalization always gets edited out,” said the former social worker, whose parents were born in Trinidad. “The reasons why it was prohibited in the first place.” And while it’s most often young, racialized men who end up with criminal records for drug possession, historic discrimination has hurt women, too, including those left fatherless or parenting alone when men were jailed. Ms. Rampersad has also worked at the Vanier Centre, a women’s prison in Milton, Ont., and said at least half the women there were in for low and medium drug offences, usually possession charges received while working as drug mules to support their families. These records affect them in later custody battles, or in dealings with child-protection services.

Decriminalization won’t necessarily fix that. Ms. Haines-Saah recently gave a talk about cannabis to a group of family judges in Alberta, who told her they were nervous about what the new laws meant for their responsibilities. “They all said, ‘I know how to judge intoxication by alcohol, but if we have a parent who consumes cannabis recreationally or medically, I don’t have a metric for how much or when it’s risky for child protection,’” she said. Again, this will affect certain women more harshly than others – especially Indigenous women, whose children are already apprehended at unfairly high rates across the country.

Convincing middle-class moms to become consumers risks further vilifying those who have historically been penalized. One idea that kept popping up in my inbox is the need to create a distance between the new, professional female user and the old stereotype of a stoner dude – multiple news releases promised that using cannabis won’t turn women into either Cheech or Chong. Sure, those guys leaned into the dumb pothead stereotype, but they were also both young, racialized men. Richard Marin, who played Cheech, had Mexican parents, and the early 20th-century evolution of benign cannabis into terrifying “marihuana” often relied on anti-Latino racism. Rolling that history into pink papers and lighting it up is a dishonourable move.

At the summit, speakers were careful not to disparage those who worked in cannabis when it was still just marijuana. As she cautioned potential edible entrepreneurs about why those products are particularly tricky to bring to market, Robyn Rabinovich of TerrAscend made it clear that she meant “no disrespect to the people on the black market who screamed the loudest and pushed the hardest” for decriminalization to happen at all.

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This paying of homage is common, Ms. Enenajor said. “The industry is so saturated right now that people are trying to get an edge,” she said. “A lot of them are doing so by attempting to make themselves appear to be part of the original crew, sort of the original fighters for cannabis legalization. A lot of them are quite interested in amnesty and adopting an amnesty position as part of their corporate social-responsibility framework.” That is, for now.

To their credit, the women I met this week found the girly pitches in my inbox amusing, or even insulting. I was reminded that health-care workers have long wanted cannabis as an alternate to opiates for this reason: It’s much less addictive. Further discrediting the pretty “wellness” approach, Andreina Herrera, who works as an intake officer at a chronic-pain clinic says her patients are less worried about how stylish their accessories are than whether they can afford their medicine. And although Ms. Haines-Saah expressed her own skepticism about cannabis “lifestyle” pushes, she also noted that female entrepreneurs are already conceiving products that could help many women, such as cannabis-infused vaginal lubricants that actually work.

In the end, looking at cannabis through a gendered lens reveals a familiar picture: There’s plenty here for feminists to consider, but shopping our way to equality has never really been an option. As October approaches, many women in the industry have good intentions to build businesses that are both financially successful and politically responsible. What remains to be seen is how many keep up the work as, come the fall, millions start to roll up and the millions start to roll in.

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