Is the pot scene sexist? 

The Grass Ceiling.

  • Illustration and design by Robert Nixon.

There’s an idea in the collective consciousness that everyone working to free the weed and change pot laws must be totally cooooool. That simply by being public about marijuana puts a person into a realm of awesomeness that is to be admired.

Marijuana, they might say, opens your heart and helps you have compassion for others. Like, everyone in the pot scene is totally kind, man.

But if you ask a woman who has spent any amount of time in the pot scene, they might tell you something different.

Brandy Zink is legal secretary at the Cannabis Counsel in Detroit, and she serves on the steering committee and is a founding member of the Michigan chapter of Americans for Safe Access, the nation’s largest medical marijuana advocacy group. She’s been an advocate for medicinal cannabis since 2000, and she uses marijuana for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and epilepsy.

When she first started working to gather signatures for an Ohio marijuana initiative back then, she thought it’d be easy, and that marijuana prohibition would end quickly. “Fourteen years later,” she tells Metro Times, “I’m still on this journey. I’ve given the best years of my life to this movement.”

And those years have come with some very harsh lessons along the way, including the time she was told by multiple people that if she wanted a grant to do her work reforming pot laws, she had to have sex with the man in charge of awarding it.

“People wanna stay on the conspiracy theory about how big oil or big pharma or beer wants to keep marijuana down. In reality, it’s the Mad Men mentality,” she says. “It’s still a boys club, where they’ll high-five each other. Women need to take the responsibility to speak about it.”

In the marijuana industry, Zink points out, women are expected to do the trimming, the gardening and the caregiving, and “few are in the roles of power,” such as running their own dispensary. 

“It seems to me women have a more subservient role,” Zink says. “It’s the grass ceiling. We need to burn through the grass ceiling.”

After nearly 80 years of prohibition, she adds, “the industry is in its infancy, and we come from an underground world where people are used to dealing in lies and subterfuge. For me, it becomes, ‘Who has integrity?’ I think we have a certain level of tolerance for intolerable behavior” in the cannabis industry. 

“There is a fear that our movement is vulnerable to opposition,” she adds. “It’s no different than when a senator taps his foot in the restroom. We try to sweep all these things under the rug and not discuss them … It’s the boys club that makes the rules. Men don’t always make the greatest decisions.”

Christeen Landino, assistant executive director of Michigan NORML, agrees. “The guys think they’re the ones who know the best way to do things. The men are like, we have to do things our way. We’re like, look, we’ve been doing it this way for 10 years.”

And after 40 years of marijuana reform run primarily by men, pot is still illegal on the federal level. 

“A lot of the men seem to be…  more apt to listen to women, but whether they follow what a woman says is a different story,” Landino says. “They’ll say ‘Oh, that’s a really good idea, Christeen, but we have a better idea over here.’ They can’t compromise. I’ll stand up to them. I’ll go belly to belly with them. I don’t care. I don’t get a lot of backlash.” 

Landino says she’s 65, so that changes how men interact with her. 

“A lot of other women have to deal with [sexism],” she continues. “The ones that are pretty — their ideas are totally fluffed off, completely. The younger women too.” 

“I know women who faced sexual harassment and gave up entirely and walked away,” Zink says, noting that the result is the loss of “passionate, dedicated people.” 

“The sexism with the movement is harmful — both to the women and to the movement,” she says. “We shirk away and don’t talk about it. And if any woman does speak up, we’re labeled ‘crazy,’ ‘bitch,’ ‘hysterical.’ We face sexual harassment, and we have a real problem being accepted or heard, and our truth isn’t heard. I almost left this movement because of it.”

“Sometimes it’s like batting your head against a wall,” says Landino. “And you have to keep batting it till you get through. I’ve been dealing with Michigan NORML since 2002. Now I’m assistant E.D., and I’m finding there still is a lot of sexism. Even reporters would rather talk to a man than a woman about what’s going on.”

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, grew up first in Southfield, then in Grosse Pointe. “Obviously, High Times and [cannabis industry] ads sexualize women,” she says; however, “It’s not an issue in the policy world.” O’Keefe points to a long list of female state legislators across the country who have sponsored bills to change their states’ marijuana laws. Though in the industry, she concedes, “There seems to be a lot of men,” though she stresses that “in the states where we focus the most [on legislative policy], it hasn’t been an issue.” 

Zink recounts the local medical marijuana movement’s discussions that took place prior to the hearings that led to PTSD being named a qualifying condition under Michigan’s medical marijuana program. 

Women who suffer from PTSD as a result of domestic violence wanted to testify along with veterans as to marijuana’s efficacy in treatment. A small group of veterans thought that the women’s stories weren’t credible, and that the women’s PTSD wasn’t valid.  

It was a battle the women ultimately won, and they testified in the second round of hearings on the topic. 

Despite the battle, and perhaps in the spirit cannabis is famous for, Zink is thankful for the veterans, both for their service and for “bringing the discussion of PTSD to the forefront, and speaking bravely about it. It helps others with PTSD to speak about it. And it helps to break the stigma,” she says.

Zink notes that as time goes on, more and more women are getting involved in reforming marijuana laws. She acknowledges that women might be hesitant, because they fear for the loss of their jobs, homes and children, so even if they do use marijuana medicinally, they keep it private. 

“I think it’s really important to keep speaking out and find allies in the movement who don’t discourage women from speaking out,” O’Keefe says. “It’s an important voice to be heard.” 

Landino also has some advice for women facing sexism, whether it’s in the marijuana scene or elsewhere: “You do have the strength. You do have the will. You do have the power. Don’t let that thumb come down on your head. This is 2014. Not 1914. Stay strong, and try to give a positive attitude. If you have something negative to say, try to say something positive to cure it. Believe in yourself.”

O’Keefe points out there are many more women working on marijuana policy reform than there were when she started working on the issue a decade ago. 

For Zink, “It’s not a lonely place anymore. My sisters are standing with me.” 

Updated [4/18 2:30 p.m.] correcting Landino's quote from the word "bum" to "thumb."

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