We know a lot about cannabis. Anecdotally, through academic studies, and even Seth Rogen & Snoop Dogg’s twitter accounts.
However, women’s relationship to and use patterns with cannabis are rarely discussed.
Women’s pain is internal and inherent. We are directed as a first port of call toward medicines that carry risks of blood clots higher than the AstraZeneca vaccine and a proven link to depression in birth control, and obliterated sex drives and suicidal thoughts in antidepressants. I know this personally: I’ve been prescribed both, birth control to manage painful periods, antidepressants to stabilise my moods that had been ravaged by birth control. I recall telling a GP before my first prescription of the former that I had experienced both anxiety and depression, and asked whether these pills would have any effect on my mood. “No”, he responded. “We haven’t found that to be the case”.
Menstrual pain is to be dealt with silently and privately: heat packs, paracetamol, gritting your teeth. Endometriosis is to first be dismissed by your doctor, then finally acknowledged after years of searching for a diagnosis. Menopause symptoms are to be managed with a cocktail of hormones and the strongest fan Argos has to offer.
I first came to know of the ways women use cannabis differently to men through my Aunt, Ainslie, who used CBD with small amounts of THC to manage her menopause symptoms. “It was amazing,” she explained. “It got rid of my hot flushes, restless legs, and night sweats.”
She reflected on her experience with a male GP with whom she spoke about her use of CBD to manage her symptoms. “He laughed at the suggestion and looked at me like I was crazy”.
“The fact that women just have to put up with [menopause symptoms] makes me mad. Everyone should have access to CBD and medical cannabis to treat it.”
I also spoke with Jessica McEachern from Calgary Harm Reduction Alliance who has “been using weed for cramps since [she] was a teenager.” and finds that it “helps a lot more” than paracetamol or ibuprofen.
She hadn’t seen nor looked for research on the relationship between cannabis and relief for menstrual pain, but suspected there “is a large gap, as women’s issues are largely underfunded.”
Cannabis-based medicines are to many a life-saving beacon of hope. While legalised in 2018, medical cannabis is almost impossible to access through the NHS; In the three years since legalisation, the number of patients prescribed medical cannabis through the NHS is estimated to be in the low hundreds. Currently, it is only prescribed on the NHS for “rare, severe forms of epilepsy”, “adults with vomiting or nausea caused by chemotherapy” and “people with muscle stiffness or spasms caused by multiple sclerosis”. Private prescriptions offer some salvation, with around 5000 people now accessing medical cannabis via private clinics. Unfortunately, however, its cost is inaccessible to many.
There is no shortage of research into the impacts of cannabis in treating these conditions. New and exciting studies are released daily, including the announcement of a world first trial into whether cannabis-based mouth sprays can treat brain tumours in conjunction with chemotherapy. Although this incredible research on medical cannabis continues to take place, unsurprisingly women are still being left in the dark when it comes to researching conditions that affect them.
A brief search of the terms ‘cannabis’ and ‘women’s health’ on Google Scholar reveals journal articles dominated by pregnancy, the health of fetuses, and motherhood. Few engage with women and people who menstruate as people, not vessels for childbearing.
Aside from this, women’s consumption of and experiences with cannabis is extrapolated from men’s.
New research sheds light on the the fallacy of this approach:
A study from the Brightfield Group contained powerful statistics that explore how women use cannabis. It found that women’s use is more diverse, being more likely to consume cannabis through vaping, gummies, and topical ointments than their male counterparts. It is heavier, consumed from a younger age, and more frequently throughout the day. Importantly, it found that women use cannabis and cannabis-based products in equal, and often greater amounts than men.
This data contains valuable lessons for the booming cannabis industry, as discussed in Brightfield’s report:
“Creating a following of young, heavy consumers is any cannabis brand’s dream. But that dream will stay fictional for brands focused exclusively on the traditional user. To successfully appeal to female purchasers, brands must account for women’s distinctive approaches to cannabis.”
There are also clear differences in the reasons why women consume cannabis
The Australian Symposium of Medical Cannabis in 2020 revealed data that saw 13% of women suffering from endometriosis use illegal cannabis to manage their symptoms, offering the highest pain relief of 15 self-management strategies assessed.
The North American Menopause Society found that 27% of menopausal women in North California use or have used cannabis to manage menopause symptoms, including insomnia and hot flashes.
Cannabis consumption is also associated with improved sexual function for women, and its topical use is reported to alleviate vaginal dryness. It can mitigate symptoms of vaginismus that cause painful sex in up to 17% of women.
Women and non-binary people are also reported to consume cannabis to deal with internal issues more than their cisgender male counterparts, capitalising on the drug’s capacity to manage symptoms of anxiety, depression, and even the associated mental health ramifications of gender dysphoria for trans people.
In addition to these compelling surveys, there are myriad well-written, impactful, and personal stories written by women on treating their symptoms with cannabis-based medicine. The discrepancy lies in the lack of academic research to substantiate these powerful claims. This exists, however, not because the anecdotal evidence has been disproven by research. The research is simply not there.
Of course, we are inundated with research into the impact of cannabis on erectile dysfunction.
Women (specifically BAME and other marginalised women) are no strangers to adapting to a diminished ownership of their own health.
Old wives’ tales, whispers over wine, Facebook groups and digital storytelling, women have long taken their health into their own hands where they feel unheard by medical professionals. The pervasive narrative of the ‘hysterical woman’ persists, supported by a recent study that found that women’s pain is taken less seriously than men’s pain where women who expressed the same degree of pain were taken less seriously than men and observers considered the woman’s pain to be less intense.
This is unacceptable.
There is a need to reduce the gendered data gap in every facet of society. As Caroline Criado-Perez highlights in her transformative book ‘Invisible Women’, we can see the effects of data extrapolated from men and applied to all in office temperatures, the average smartphone’s size, and speech-recognition software. There is virtually no part of our day to day lives uninfluenced by false generalisations based on a lack of specific research on women’s experiences.
So why prioritise addressing these issues in cannabis research?
The language surrounding the cannabis industry is one of buzz, excitement, and innovation. It is considered ripe with potential, and on the cusp of unprecedented mainstream integration. The industry is untethered from legacies of racist and sexist social exclusion that continues to inhibit more established sectors.
As a nascent industry, there has been a strong emphasis on environmentalism, sustainability, and racial equality. However, if the cannabis industry wants to be modern and forward thinking, women must be included in the discussion.
If a concerted effort toward reducing the gendered data gap, integrating intersectional feminism, and prioritising women’s wellness was made, the cannabis industry would be pioneering in more ways than one.
Specific and prioritised funding for studies investigating the ways in which cannabis can impact women’s health and wellness is crucial, in addition to spotlighting the work of existing researchers in the space.
Existing and emerging cannabis companies must explore the potential for products specific to women’s experiences of cannabis, taking into account both the diverse ways and reasons why women use cannabis-based products.
Space in health, academic, advocacy, and corporate sectors should be made to allow women to share their experiences with, research of, and efforts toward understanding the link between cannabis and women’s health. We must foster an environment in which women feel comfortable proactively engaging with managing their own health and wellness, complemented by cannabis and cannabis-based products.
It is time to feminise the cannabis sector.