Weed Is Trending, But For Whom?

Is it just me, or is everyone suddenly obsessed with weed? Over the past year or so, I’ve noticed marijuana increasingly being positioned as a chic lifestyle choice, marketed toward the sort of women who shop at Everlane, splurge on Byredo and have very little in common with the basement-dwelling stoner bros Judd Apatow managed to build an entire career out of. The prevailing stoner aesthetic — novelty glass bongs and rolling papers with unsubtle leaf motifs — has been supplemented by an explosion of incredibly stylish brands and businesses that cater to (and are often run by) women, selling everything from pipes and papers to magazines and, of course, actual weed. Weed and CBD oil seem to be sneaking their way into everything from body lotion to wedding receptions, to the point where this feels like it could be the defining lifestyle trend of 2018.

Flipping through Broccoli, a recently launched print magazine that explores cannabis culture from an art and culture perspective, I’m drawn to features on artisan candle-makers and lush travel photography that wouldn’t look out of place in more mainstream women’s titles. An extremely on-trend (albeit weed-themed) ikebana image adorns the cover of its inaugural issue, and much like Gossamer, weed is merely the entry point from which to tell other, non-weed-related stories. The connecting thread: a desire to “shine a light on interesting women,” according to Broccoli creator Anja Charbonneau, formerly creative director of aesthetes’ favorite Kinfolk.

I ask what she makes of the “mainstreaming” of cannabis — and, more to the point, what she thinks is driving the trend. “I think it really is just the shift in legalization,” she says, referring to recent shifts in the legal status of cannabis in many states, with Canada likely to follow suit in 2018. “People want weed to look like something that fits into their life. As soon as they don’t have to hide it anymore, they want it to look natural and beautiful.” With spending on legal cannabis estimated at $9.7 billion in the U.S. in 2017, it’s unsurprising that recreational cannabis is getting the same treatment as so many other consumer goods — that is, an influx of “lifestyle” brands that cater to women who want their cannabis consumption to fit in with the carefully curated aesthetic standards they apply to the rest of their lives.

Of course, within any industry, the real power generally lies in having a stake in the means of production — although thankfully, the women ‘n’ weed trend is starting to stretch beyond consumers to encompass executives and entrepreneurs, as well. Women currently hold 36% of executive positions within the cannabis industry (compared to an average of 22% across all U.S. businesses), with entrepreneurs like Jane West — dubbed “the Martha Stewart of pot” because of her eponymous cannabis lifestyle brand — setting up platforms like Women Grow, an organization dedicated to fostering female leadership within the cannabis industry.

So far, so good. But even as the cannabis industry opens its arms to one previously overlooked minority, it continues to exclude others — namely, the black community. For decades, drug laws in the United States have disproportionately targeted black people, who are almost four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people (even though their marijuana use is roughly equal). Black people with drug-related criminal records are now finding themselves shut out of the so-called “green rush,” barred from obtaining the business licences that would allow them to operate legally even though many of the offenses they were convicted for are no longer illegal. Little wonder that only 1% of storefront dispensaries in the U.S. are black-owned.

It’s something that comes up when I speak to L.A.-based journalist and podcasting doyenne Ann Friedman, who I call on account of an article she wrote five years ago about the exclusion of women from the cannabis industry. “I think these days there’s more of a racial disparity than there is a gender disparity when it comes to consuming and selling cannabis, or becoming part of the industry.” She posits that seeing more cannabis-related lifestyle content might bolster legalization efforts: “If it’s being normalized through lifestyle brands and publications and that somehow leads to more legalization efforts, I’m all for that. I do think there’s a correlation between the cultural and the political when it comes to this.”

There are some signs of progress on the scene, with the arrival of collectives such as The High Ends and the Seattle-based Women.Weed.WiFi, two platforms that counteract the frequently whitewashed profile of the industry by focusing more on women of color. Ashley Brooke and Tahirah Hairston, co-founders of The High Ends, voice their frustration at a prevailing narrative that often pushes a “white-centric image of what a ‘functioning weed smoker’ looks like while simultaneously feeding into negative ones of people of color.” In creating The High Ends, which functions as a community (and soon-to-be content platform) for women who want to explore their relationship with weed, the duo are keen to change perceptions of what “women who smoke weed” look like.

That there’s a responsibility on the part of the women-friendly publications springing up to take an intersectional approach to their stories is something that Gossamer’s co-founder Verena von Pfetten is well aware of. “We’re a lifestyle publication, not a political one, but the reality is that cannabis is inherently political — the ‘lifestyle’ we speak to and about very much depends on white privilege and the unfair protection it offers us and much of our audience. As two white people starting a business in this space, that’s something we never stop thinking about. We can’t speak to experiences we haven’t lived, but we can help to amplify the voices that need to be heard.” The brand’s first two events — the aforementioned Wing social and a panel discussion at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival — focused on the need for racial diversity within the cannabis industry. And interview subjects in their debut print issue (published in March) include the likes of attorney Tsion “Sunshine” Lencho, founder of Supernova Women, an organization for women of color in cannabis.

While creating original and thought-provoking lifestyle content remains central to their aims, both Gossamer and The High Ends are focused on the politics of weed. “We’re laying the groundwork for long-term partnerships with organizations that are fighting not just for legalization, but for legalization and criminal-justice reform to be intrinsically linked, as they should be,” von Pfetten tells me. Her focus on criminal justice reform is echoed by Brooke and Hairston, who cite laws in Oakland, California, that offer reparations to those previously criminalized for selling weed as instructive for other states. The city’s medical marijuana license system also prioritizes those from lower income backgrounds, or from Oakland neighborhoods affected by the war on drugs — many of whom happen to be black.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with cannabis being granted the glossy sheen of “lifestyle trend,” but it’s problematic when those doing so fail to consider the sociopolitical dynamics of an industry that’s been plagued by systemic racial injustice. Take last year’s article on cannabis and the wellness movement, which blew up on Twitter for all the wrong reasons — in particular, its focus on an aspect of cannabis culture contingent on a generous amount of (white) privilege. Though cannabis has been enthusiastically adopted within fashion and wellness circles, there are still serious limitations around who can comfortably consume it without fear of penalty and who gets to access the business opportunities arising from recent cultural and legislative shifts. To ignore that — and to paint people of color out of the new narrative around cannabis — will only reinforce the structural imbalances of an industry in desperate need of reform.

Collages by Louisiana Mei Gelpi. 

Otegha Uwagba

Otegha Uwagba

Otegha Uwagba is a writer, brand consultant, and the founder of Women Who, a community for creative working women. She is also the author of Sunday Times bestseller Little Black Book, a modern career guide for working women. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter and follow Women Who here and here.

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