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If you’re a feminist, you need to seriously consider supporting the full legalization of cannabis for both medicinal and recreational purposes. There are a number of arguments that could be successfully made regarding how overturning prohibition is in line with feminist principles, but my reasoning is much simpler, more practical, and direct. We need to make cannabis legally and easily available to adults in order to help people who have been victims of intimate abuse, sexual assault, and sexual violence. Maintaining cannabis prohibition is hurting and in some cases criminalizing those who have already been terribly and gravely injured.
Rape is considered by many to be the most under-reported violent crime in the world. Victims of sexual assault and rape are everywhere: they are men, women, genderqueer folk, military service people, members of the clergy, customer service representatives, taxi drivers, old people, adults, teenagers, children, and people of every race, income level, education level, and religion. These people, even by the government’s low-ball estimate, represent about 20% of the female population. Estimates are even less accurate in cases of male and LBGTQIA* victims, who are very unlikely to make a report. Feminism has long been concerned with ending sexual violence and also with creating social support for survivors of sexual violence. Legalizing cannabis would be a step in the right direction.
Sexual assault affects many survivors for the rest of their lives. A significant percentage of people who have been sexually assaulted develop post-traumatic stress as a result of their assault. The thing about PTSD is that it has historically been nearly impossible to treat. It leads to increased depression, anxiety, insomnia, increased likelihood to commit suicide, etc. While PTSD is relatively uncommon in the general population, the few studies exploring the prevalence of the condition among victims of sexual assault all seem to imply it occurs with staggering frequency: more than 30% of sexual assault and rape survivors will develop PTSD, according to one recent study. When you crunch the numbers, this means that as many as 1 in 9 women will suffer from PTSD symptoms at some point in their lives.
The federal government, while underestimating sexual assault statistics, paints a grim image of PTSD in our country: they claim at least 50% of sexual assault survivors develop PTSD and that 94% of survivors experience the symptoms within two weeks of their assault. For some survivors, those symptoms will go away after a few weeks or months. For some, however, the trembling, the flashbacks, the avoidance of social situations will last for the rest of their lives.
Cannabis may be the only currently known effective treatment for PTSD. Studies indicate cannabis can help with a slew of serious symptoms, including flashbacks, nightmares, and insomnia. The lack of a standardized treatment is one of the biggest issues for medical professionals working with people who have PTSD: each person responds differently and is triggered by different things. Given that PTSD is caused by trauma and not by an inherited chemical imbalance in the brain, there has been limited success in treating PTSD sufferers with standard psychiatric medicine. In fact, many PTSD sufferers report that their symptoms are exacerbated by traditional anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications.
Doctors have been studying PTSD and the use of cannabis in its treatment for decades. Yale University professor R. Andrew Sewell, for example, has been studying the usefulness of cannabis in “extinction learning,” the process of re-writing those parts of memory that trigger PTSD symptoms. This is clearly much easier to do in military veterans with a fear of explosions than in rape victims, for whom a color, a touch, a kind of fabric worn by most people may be triggering. While PTSD is sometimes considered“curable” or “treatable” in soldiers, it may often be a life-long companion for rape and sexual assault survivors.
Yes, we should be making cannabis accessible for our veterans who return from their active duty with PTSD. However, the population of sexual assault survivors is much, much larger and is too often ignored in the debate about cannabis legalization. Cannabis should be legalized for the millions of humans who have suffered sexual abuse or assault and who may be struggling in an uphill battle for the rest of their lives.
Some day, when cannabis is legal for all adults to use, I hope shelters and clinics will offer free cannabis to sexual assault survivors suffering from PTSD. I know many cannabis growers (some of whom are survivors themselves) who would love to donate their excess harvest to such a good cause. I imagine those hidden shelter houses of battered spouses stocked with vaporizers and magic cookies for the grown-ups, many of whom can not leave for fear of their abuser finding them. People who have long been abused, hurt and ignored by society would find not only a safe place for their bodies but also, hopefully, a safe place for their heart and soul to begin releasing and moving past their pain.
Before you scoff, remember that cannabis has been shown to decrease suicidal tendencies in users with chronic depression (especially in men, who are more likely to use a gun for suicide and therefore much more likely to successfully kill themselves). Consider how crippling the flashbacks often associated with PTSD can be for a person trying to leave something like a sexual assault behind them. Consider how many years, decades even, a person can struggle with the memories of one single violent attack. And then consider how quickly and safely cannabis can help to counteract the worst of PTSD.
Before you say, “Well, just make cannabis legal for medical conditions like PTSD,” please remember, as we’ve already discussed, that few rape survivors report their attacks. Given the loopholes and witch-hunt prosecutions of medical marijuana patients in many states (such as my home state of Michigan), it’s not too hard to imagine a judge refusing to allow a medical marijuana patient with PTSD their affirmative defense to a cannabis-related criminal charge because there isn’t a police record/court case related to their sexual assault.
It’s all too clear that our culture and our justice system is hostile to victims and survivors of sexual assault. This is one of many reasons why the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported. Giving our government the power to victimize survivors a second time by denying them legal protections or prosecuting them when they seek out cannabis for their PTSD is the wrong approach. Sexual assault survivors shouldn’t have to put themselves on a registry or jump through any extra hoops, such as filling out multiple-page certification applications and talking to two different doctors, just to have access to a totally safe, non-toxic plant. Too many of them probably turn to alcohol instead, which may temporarily numb their pain but offers none of long-term or therapeutic benefits for PTSD sufferers that cannabis does.
In order to ensure that each and every rape and sexual assault survivor has immediate, unfettered access to a medication that can drastically improve their quality of life and their ability to process and move past their trauma, cannabis should be completely legal for retail sale to all adults. That way someone could buy it without answering invasive, possibly triggering questions and have a steady supply while they are dealing with the worst of their symptoms.
In a perfect world, no one would be raped. No one would be sexually assaulted, and no one would be physically abused by someone they love and trust. In a perfect world, medical professionals would have figured out how to treat and cure PTSD. Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. We have to make the best of the mess we have right here, right now. And I think our little mess of a planet would be just a little bit nicer if we could all agree that survivors of sexual assault have earned themselves as much free cannabis as they would like. There certainly shouldn’t be criminal penalties attached to trying to make yourself feel better. I think that’s something that all feminists should be able to agree on, if they’ve had a chance to learn the facts about cannabis. So spread the new battle cry: free weed for rape survivors!
*Author’s note in comments.