A friend of mine recently linked me to Sherrie Silman’s Feminspire article Why Weed Legalization is a Feminist Issue. I highly recommend that you read it for yourself, but the basic gist is that feminism’s core tenet is one of equity for all persons, regardless of social location. Additionally, feminists have long help strong beliefs about the right of a person to bodily autonomy (i.e. a person should be able to do what they wish to their own body, so long as it doesn’t harm others). With this in mind, it follows that the legalization of cannabis aligns very well with the values of feminism. The criminalization of cannabis has disproportionate impact on already marginalized groups of people, it undermines bodily autonomy, and it prevents people who get therapeutic benefit from consuming cannabis from accessing their remedy. Silman focuses particularly on the benefits of cannabis in mediating the symptoms of various menstrual cycle disturbances, including PMS, menstrual cramping, and endometriosis. She also emphasizes the hypocrisy of cannabis criminalization when legal substances like tobacco and alcohol are much, much more harmful to the body, while simultaneously possessing few to none of the medical benefits of cannnabis.
I’m in agreement with pretty much all of the above, except for one word: legalization. The media has whittled the cannabis debate down to two options: legal or illegal. In reality, there are a whole plethora of options in between, falling on the spectrum of decriminalization, which deserve careful consideration as well.
Legalization, which allows for regulated and taxed retail sale of cannabis products, has some obvious benefits. It allows folks who consume cannabis to purchase it in safe, convenient location, it provides measures to ensure the quality and the safety of the product, it provides an additional, and likely significant, source of tax revenue which could be put towards health promotion or social programs, and it most obviously protects folks who consume cannabis from facing a criminal record, fines, and/or jail time. That’s all well and good. However, what Silman forgot to mention is that there are downsides full legalization, and that these downsides are feminist concerns as well. In the US, where the legalization ball is already rolling, Big Tobacco and Big Agri-Food (I’m looking at you, Monsanto) already have their sights set on the burgeoning cannabis industry as their next big cash crop. In Canada, legislation recently went through which states that, as of March 31, 2014, patients in Canada’s medical cannabis program will only be able to obtain their cannabis from growers who are licensed by Health Canada. This system will essentially create a state monopoly over medical cannabis, favouring large-scale monoculture farms. Small local, organic, cottage-type growers will find it nearly impossible to jump through the hoops required to gain a license; their patients will lose their trusted organic supplier, and the cottage growers will lose their livelihood. Additionally, large-scale monoculture farming is notoriously bad for the environment, whereas small-scale, cottage-style groweries have very little environmental impact. Corporate- and state-monopoly systems are distinctly anti-feminist. Legalization should be built in such a way that it empowers the average person, not just big corporations. And it certainly shouldn’t come at the expense of the people who are supposed to benefit from it.
So, you ask, what’s the solution then? Well, there’s the whole realm of decriminalization, which rarely gets touched upon in these debates. Decriminalization removes criminal penalties from use and/or production and/or sale of cannabis products, but does not necessarily include measures for taxation or regulation of cannabis products. It’s hard to talk about decriminalization generally, because there are a plethora of different variations and ways that it could be implemented, but the benefit that I see is this: Decriminalization protects folks who consume cannabis (and preferably those who grow and sell it as well), but doesn’t give governments and large corporations the same opportunities to set up exploitative monopolies. Cottage growers, hopefully, could continue to produce organic, locally- and ethically-grown product, and home growers could continue to supply themselves, their friends and their loved ones, as well as enjoy a fulfilling horticultural hobby. Again, this is speculation, and would depend on the type of decriminalization implemented.
Ideally, I’d like to see a system which falls somewhere between decriminalization and legalization. I’d like to see a system where folks who consume cannabis have the option of buying their product from a retail store, but also have the options of buying from a cottage growery, buying from a friend, or growing their own. I’d like to see a system which protects local grower from state- and corporate-monopoly. I’d like to see a system which includes measures to test the quality and safety of cannabis products, but which also includes measures to prevent the environmental destruction that results from large-scale monoculture farming.
Basically, I don’t want to see such a strong counter-cultural symbol turned into the next big cash cow, tossing aside all the values of the communities who embraced it from the start. Instead, I’d like to see an industry which is safe, socially responsible, environmentally friendly, supportive of local farmers and business people, and empowering to individuals.
Too optimistic? Maybe. But I’ll keep hoping.