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Editor’s note: This article is a continuation of Brandie Wilson’s series, The Underground. It is a sociological analysis of the role of women in the underground cannabis economy of Humboldt County and Northern California. The first article in the series can be viewed here, the second installment can be viewed here and the third part can be viewed here.
My review of scholarly literature found that research surrounding women and the marijuana economy is largely based on ethnographic work and work done in the legalization movement. These are very two different scopes of work and should be treated as such. They have continually been conflated, but they act separately.
According to researcher Wendy Chapkis, whose article was published in The Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, there is a variable of invisibility regarding women in the research and data that is not being accurately accounted for. “The realtive invisibility of women within cannabis culture has had both individual and social effects. On the one hand, it can provide some measure of protection. Because women are less likely to be seen as drug users, women are less likely to be targeted by law enforcement.”
The invisibility of women in the underground economy is due to safety and the well-honed skill of identity management. Women have become very skilled at the underground economy task of being hidden in plain sight. These savvy women have found successful ways of being able to operate and function within the daily routine of the legitimate society while also navigating their underground community as their underground identity.
I assert that this is the true reason that we do not publicly see women of the underground economy, even though they are there. Women are less likely to be targeted by law enforcement as well as larger society as drug users, thereby letting women slip through unnoticed, which is a benefit that must be accounted for when doing any research regarding women and weed. It will take any researcher a good amount of time to find the women that they are wishing to encounter. This is not because they do not exist but because at each level you meet the people within the economy that are your peers. There are numerous women at every level; it will take the time of building a reputation to have the access to these women.
One very shining scholarly example of the fact there are women and have been for sometime is in the work done by Karen August for her thesis. Two of the men August interviewed stated that they learned how to grow from their moms and friends.”I learned from my mom and her friends. They were always talking about growing and what to do to get better pot. I learned mostly from listening to them talk. Then when I started growing I just asked my mom what she did when I needed to know something.”
August shows two women were responsible for grooming another generation of growers. I would venture to guess that it was actually a whole network of women that were grooming another generation. When ever you see or know of one woman there are always more. Furthermore, the quote above shows there have been female growers beyond the current time period, meaning that it is very likely that they have passed on their knowledge to other women as well.
Just like in many other areas of life, we see peer groups in the underground marijuana economy, and female empowerment is real in this economy. Women understand and know that historically this has been a man’s game. However, it has been and continues to change at a fast rate. The following quotes, pulled from an article by Bob Young for the Seattle Times (even though it is not academic work) are good examples of what is happening: “Women are the secret weapon in this business,” he says at one point and later: “Now that women are really starting to become involved in marijuana reform, you see people listening.”
In recent years, women have been increasing their, participation, visibility, diversity of skills, and status level in the underground economy. Yes, women are the secret weapon and have been for some time. Women may just now have become visible in the legalization movement, but they have always been involved with marijuana in one way or another. In recent years, the participation of women at higher levels of the underground economy has definitely increased.
This is not to say high-ranking women within the economy did not previously exist, but the numbers were definitely less than they are now. The numbers themselves are uncertain, as there is no real way to quantify the increase other than via the visibility of women, which puts the stress of varied legal issues upon the women of the underground. This change in the gender dynamics in relation to the marijuana economy are not only due to the efforts of women but men as well. Women are not the only people within the economy that are taking on different roles and changing the face of the industry. Many different networks within the larger underground economy are working together to change the gendered ideologies of days gone by.
One interview I conducted was Marllory, a 26 Humboldt native woman who spent her life in the underground economy. Marllory tells a story of a woman who ran an entire mountain scene; this woman was a sort of mentor to her. She helped show Marllory how to have strength and stand on her own in an economy that is has a large male presence. Marllory still works for this women today and continues a friendly relationship with her as well. Marllory has a very high standing in the underground economy of Humboldt County and has always lived a life entrenched in it.
Marllory worked her way up through the ranks of the underground marijuana economy. She was able to do this by utilizing the social resources and networks that she made throughout her work in the marijuana economy. Nothing was handed to her; she has a fierce business sense and an attitude that demands respect. In fact, many times she had to work harder than her male counter-parts, standing up in a room full of money, men, weed and egos, and demanding her rightful place and pay. Driven by the hustle, she worked her way up to become a high-level broker, which is a powerful position requiring an extreme level of trust from both the buyer and the seller. She is not the exception to the rule, but rather she is an excellent example of what women are doing. I have seen, known and interviewed countless women who have similar stories and are at high or very high levels of operation.
Another example of women having a long-standing presence in this economy is the first time I met a woman grower. Before ever coming to Humboldt, entering the marijuana economy or even attending college, I met a woman grower from Northern California. This was in my early twenties, and that was well over fifteen years ago. This woman was a substitute teacher in the central valley of California. She was divorced and owned her own piece of land in the hills of Northern California. This woman spent the summers working her land and raising her crops. At the end of the summer, she would employ a worker or two to finish up the season when she couldn’t be there, and she would return to the central valley to teach. This woman would continue to spend weekends and free time at her land in Nor Cal.
During the school year she would sell her marijuana to folks in the central valley of California. She did this as a way to make it out of the valley, which she did accomplish in a timely manner. She worked, sold her goods, stayed ethical and held her ground. After a few years, she left the valley and moved to her land in Northern California. The owning and selling of her own product made it possible for this woman to do all that she dreamed. A major and crucial part of this work is identity management. In order to maintain both lives this woman had to be very savvy about managing her identities. Identity management is a very important and needed skill in the underground marijuana economy.
Check back in two weeks for the next segment of The Underground, which will focus on identity management and access. For previous installments in The Underground, click here.
Photo Credit: Women at work during the First World War Members of the Women’s Auxiliary Force (WAF) working on an allotment in Highbury in 1915.