This article will appear in SA’s 1st Cannabis glossy magazine, The Seven Leaf, due to be launched at The Cannabis Expo in Cape Town from 4 – 7 April 2019. Be sure to pick up a copy and come say hi at Fields of Green for All & Bioleaf’s stall!

There is a stark contrast between modern-era, male-dominated Cannabis culture and the traditional cultivation of the healing herb by women across the world. What was once the lowly tilling of the soil is now huge business and male dominance in business is something we are all familiar with.

How did this shift happen? I believe that it was due to Cannabis becoming illegal in the first half of the 20th century. Women have a lot more to lose than men. The stigma that came with the vilification of the healing herb by old white men in power made women much more reluctant to use the plant than men. The stigma attached to a woman using “the devil’s lettuce” is much more damaging than a man “having a toke because he is naughty.” In exactly the same way as alcohol prohibition played out, the underground Cannabis world became largely the preserve of men while women retreated into the shadows for fear of being labelled bad mothers devoid of morals.

The remainder of the 20th century saw women, particularly young women involved in illicit activities related to Cannabis, become a specific focus of criminal prosecution with disproportionate penalties and conditions of incarceration. With this came the practice of denial of child custody and other family rights, with devastating consequences for families and communities. Women who continued to cultivate Cannabis and those who, largely through economic desperation, became involved in “trafficking” also became caught up in human trafficking and sexual exploitation. That is the sorry story of the human rights tragedy that is the “war on drugs”.

However, due to the tireless work of activists and irrefutable scientific evidence, more and more countries are evolving their Cannabis laws to come into line with the 21st century.

In Southern Africa we are rushing headlong into what some see as the new ‘green’ economic revolution while the more pragmatic among us know that there is a huge amount of work to do if we are to ensure that our governments introduce regulations that are equitable and sustainable.

“Sustainable”: This is a term that is used so often that it is in danger of becoming a cliché. For want of a better word, sustainable regulations must include provision for the marginalised in our societies and so it follows that gender equality in the emerging Southern African Cannabis economy must be on the agenda in parliament.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by world leaders at the United Nations in 2015, embodies a roadmap for progress that aims to be “sustainable and leave no one behind”. Gender equality is central to the achievement of all 17 SDGs. Women and girls represent half of the world’s population. This means we are half of the potential possible in the world.

When we think of gender inequality, what comes to mind? Poor women represent 62.3 percent of the poor population aged 15 and above with no formal education. Only 40 percent of “educated” women have secondary education.
The most pressing issues facing women in the world are lack of financial resources, lack of secure land tenure, lack of food and therefore proper nutrition and lack of access to health care or reproductive care. Women around the world participate in the largest portion of unpaid care work. The list goes on. I do not claim that Cannabis will solve all these far-reaching problems but how can we, the blooming cannabis industry, specific to females in this movement, contribute solutions to gender inequality facing women around the world?

The Cannabis industry would not exist if it were not for the female Cannabis plant and I think that women having an extensive hand in this industry is the only thing that will keep it sustainable. For this we need to concentrate on the informal sector of our economy. In South Africa we have already seen how corruption and bigotry threaten to “capture” the emerging Cannabis markets by the nefarious actions of “gatekeepers” peddling dodgy licenses. As women we need to fight against the swamping of our female dominated informal sector by over-zealous regulators who will only perpetuate the status quo.

What happens to the Gogo in the rural area and her patch of Dagga that is the source of a small cash income?

What happens to the mother who trades the odd bankie with her vegetables at the taxi rank?

What happens to the caregiver who has been risking her liberty carrying bags of contraband on the nation’s highways for decades?

Are these women, most likely to be breadwinners, out of a job after legalisation?

The only way forward is to support women’s right to economic independence through sustainable Cannabis business practices. Starting with reform of our patriarchal land rights system, let’s build a solid foundation for education of women in the agricultural sector, business incubation support, training of entrepreneurs and allocation of Cannabis tax resources for those South Africans who have been most affected by decades of prohibition. There also needs to be special protection put into place to safeguard uneducated and previously disadvantaged  people from being exploited by so-called “investors” in the newly legal Cannabis market. We all know stories of foreigners in shiny cars promising the world when all they are actually here to do is steal our sun!

I believe that each and every woman working with the Cannabis plant is acutely aware of the challenges. In December 2018 I was invited to speak on a panel addressing issues facing women in Cannabis at the International Cannabis Policy Conference in Vienna, Austria. Hosted by the renowned “Think & Do Tank”, FAAAT.net, the conference specifically addressed the sustainable development goals that can be attained through the reform of Cannabis laws worldwide. The most powerful point to emerge from that panel is that Cannabis business is not always about the Cannabis. There is huge potential for gender inequality to be addressed through the myriad support businesses that emerge around our beloved plant. Let’s support women with businesses that support us. Growing networks should be a priority right now and we have the huge 21st century advantage of social media and the internet. A few examples of exciting things happening now:

  • Traditional Healers, the majority of whom are women, have been given protection by the Constitutional Court judgement for their private gardens. This has created a shift in focus to training and standards for traditional Cannabis medicine and the Traditional Healers Organisation, among others, are actively seeking the input of experts with a view to ensuring the quality and sustainability of their medicine.
  • There are a group of women in South Africa who are learning about business incubation by being part of an international movement called Tokeativity. Based in Oregon, USA, we meet in a chat room and swop ideas, advice and stories.
  • The hilarious “2Girls1Bowl” show is making great strides towards getting rid of the stigma which still clouds women and their use of Cannabis. Last weekend a woman won a bong smoking competition that got loads of coverage on social media!
  • Female social media influencers are coming out of the Cannabis closet in their droves. Here I must give the nod to the amazing Zol Barbie. A mother, a business owner and a model, Zol Barbie heats up the pages of Instagram with her provocative poses and outspoken support for all fighting for change in South Africa.
  • Hundreds of small Cannabis businesses headed up by women (particularly the fun filled edibles business) are springing up all over SA. We love all the women taking advantage of Cannabis’ creative spirit to fill our world with beautiful things and pay the bills too! Cannabizart, African Goddess and many others are working very hard in a tricky market.
  • You will find women at the heart of all Cannabis events that have become so popular lately. Private Social Clubs and 420 friendly accommodation and restaurants are keeping Cannabis culture alive and well.
  • The mainstream media could do more to highlight the importance of women in Cannabis in South Africa but this April’s edition of Fair Lady magazine celebrates Cannabis month with an article around the pros and cons of legalisation so that is a step in the right direction.

These are just a few examples of women thriving since September 2018’s landmark Constitutional Court judgement.

To all the women in SA, now is the time to shine. Remember that big is not better and we have no need for the corporate glass ceiling culture. Look after yourselves, your family and your community, like you have always done. There is support if you need it, just reach out and let’s make the South African Cannabis industry into an equality model for the rest of the world.

Myrtle Clarke, April 2019.