We don’t talk nearly enough about the significant contribution of women in the long-fought battle for cannabis legalization. Women have taken huge risks, sacrificing their livelihood to bring marijuana to people who desperately need it. In the 1940s, women like Billie Holiday began to openly use and talk about marijuana, a dangerous (and inevitably deadly) thing to do as a woman of color. In the 1980s, women like Mary Jane Rathbun risked jail time to bring medical marijuana relief to people suffering from AIDS. Today, women like Wanda James put a face on the future of cannabis through female-owned legal dispensaries.
Women advocate, care-take, and drive this billion-dollar industry that will be the first not dominated by men. As it should be since only female plants produce the cannabinoid-rich plants we love.
Let’s learn a bit more about these powerful women in cannabis history.
Eleanora Fagan (1915 – 1959), better known as Billie Holiday, was a jazz singer with a career spanning nearly thirty years. Holiday had a pivotal influence on jazz music and pop singing and used cannabis frequently with her fellow musicians, such as Louis Armstrong.
While she had a noted alcohol and heroin abuse problem, ultimately leading to her painful death from cirrhosis of the liver, Billie Holiday was also the first high-profile victim of the ‘War on Drugs’ led by Harry Anslinger, the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the DEA). For years, Anslinger made Billie the symbol of black jazz culture and deteriorating white American values. Even while Billie Holiday lay on her deathbed, Anslinger and his team were working on an investigation and looked to arrest her again. She died the night before they could do so. This marked the beginning of a decades-long policy of racist drug prosecution policies.
Mary Jane Rathbun (1922 – 1999), known as Brownie Mary, was a medical cannabis rights activist—often referred to as the “Florence Nightingale of the medical marijuana movement.” Her advocacy for cannabis legalization began in the 1960s, yet it was her care as a volunteer at San Francisco General Hospital for those who had AIDS during the 1980s that built her fame. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, Rathbun used her famous marijuana brownie recipe to help ease the pain of this disease and get patients to eat a little.
Brownie Mary lobbied for the legalization of cannabis for compassionate medical use, and she helped pass San Francisco Proposition P (1991) and California Proposition 215 (1996) to achieve those goals. She also helped establish the San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, the first medical cannabis dispensary in the United States.
It is also important to mention Anna Boyce, another nurse at this time, featured in the first television spots for Prop 215 targeted to California families in 1996. Anna also risked jail time to bring marijuana to her husband, who was dying of cancer.
This brings us to a modern-day heroine, Wanda James, who was the first (and for a long time, only) African-American cannabis-dispensary owner in the legal Colorado market.
As the first black female dispensary owner in Colorado, Wanda James is an industry pioneer. It is well documented that the War on Drugs disproportionately targets people of color. African Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Americans even though people in this country use marijuana at roughly the same rates, as reported by the ACLU. This makes James’ accomplishments all the more significant, and she asserts that there should be far more like her in the industry. Before owning a dispensary, James served on Barack Obama’s finance committee in 2008 and currently works as CEO of Simply Pure, which she co-owns with her husband, Scott Durrah. Seeing the long road women (particularly those of color) have taken in the fight for cannabis legalization, James is a trailblazer at the epicenter of cannabis culture.
March is Women’s History Month, and it gives us such pride to discuss women like the ones mentioned in this article who have fought back against injustice, racism, and lies about cannabis consumption to make sure people have open access to it. But the conversation shouldn’t come up just during this month; we urge you to talk about and support female cannabis advocates and entrepreneurs throughout the year!
The preceding article is from one of our external contributors. It does not represent the opinion of Benzinga and has not been edited.
Images in article body provided by Confident Cannabis. Lead image by Ilona Szentivanyi. Copyright: Benzinga.
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