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More women smoke weed than the data suggests, here’s why

Some studies exclude women outright. Others ignore gender-based stigma, but altogether...the voice of the female cannabis consumer often goes unheard.

4 min read

Jenna Valleriani was getting her hair cut when her hairdresser confided that she uses cannabis, but despite being legal, she still keeps her consumption a closely-guarded secret.

“She said, ‘I use cannabis at night because it’s really relaxing but I could never tell the moms at my kids’ school because they would judge me very harshly for it’,” said Ms. Valleriani, director of global patient advocacy at Smiths Falls, Ont.-based Canopy Growth.

That stigma is skewing data on cannabis usage among women. While men increased their cannabis consumption from 17.5 percent to 20.3 percent between 2018 and 2019, women remained flat from 12.3 percent to 13.4 percent, according to a February 2020 report from Statistics Canada. But surveys and clinical studies may not accurately reflect the number of women using weed, causing gaps in health care and products for women, Ms. Valleriani said.

“A lot of the more male-focused products and marketing has been a result of men reporting cannabis [use] in higher numbers,” she said. “But a lot of women are still not disclosing because there’s still a stigma in being known as a cannabis user.”

With 66 percent of women hiding their cannabis use, according to a 2017 report by female-focused cannabis brand Van der Pop, the numbers misinform how marketers and health care researchers approach cannabis.

“The fact is that women have to make really careful decisions about how they disclose, when they disclose, and who they disclose to,” Ms.Valleriani said. “And it becomes more layered and complicated if you’re a mother and you have a family, depending on the type of job you have, or how you’re using cannabis. Smoking still carries more stigma than if you’re using a little bit of cannabis oil at night.”

As women struggle with the gender bias around cannabis, they are typically consuming differently than men. Instead of smoking pot, which is the main method among men, women tend to reach for more discreet, wellness-focused products like small vape pens, odor-masking purses and unassuming topicals and sublinguals, according to a 2019 report by cannabis analytics company Headset. 

The need for female-focused products has given rise to female entrepreneurs making pot products for women, such as Van der Pop, a Seattle-based cannabis product and education provider, and SheCann, an online community for Canadian women seeking information and support related to medical cannabis.

But those products were not widely available in the first wave of cannabis products that rolled into the market, forcing female users to search for alternative ways to learn about pot, according to Michelle Arbus, vice president at Toronto-based Strainprint Technologies Ltd., a cannabis data and analytics company that allows its app users to track and manage dosage. Women are looking for trusted sources of information and, in the absence of adequate data and research, women have turned to digital communities to discuss cannabis without the fear of judgement. 

While less than half of Strainprint’s users are women, they are the most engaged in logging their cannabis usage to evaluate and learn about how pot affects them individually, Ms. Arbus said. 

“With the app, women can manage [their cannabis usage] for themselves and it’s empowering,” she said. “I can have a handle on my health without having to go to my doctor, because it’s still taboo and maybe my doctor doesn’t agree. So I have to help myself.”

As gender bias prevents women from sharing their pot habits, broader barriers are keeping women out of health care studies. A 2019 study from University of York in England found that women are also underrepresented in cannabis studies. Research into the association of psychosis with cannabis focuses almost completely on men, limiting understanding of how the drug affects human health and the opportunities to create products that address female health needs.

As the primary child caregivers and homemakers, women tend to have less time to devote to lengthy clinical trials, said Sabrina Ramkellawan, founder of Canadian Institute for Medical Advancement. And due to concerns around unknown effects on pregnancy and complications with how estrogen increases cannabis sensitivity, women tend to be left out of medical studies. As a result, most cannabis companies are not creating the health care products that are in demand for women.

“I’m surprised that with all the 2.0 products out there, I’m not seeing many topicals or suppositories,” Ms. Ramkellawan said. “Again, we’re not focused on what women really want. With endometriosis and pain, suppositories are something that women want. Chocolates are great, but from a medical perspective we’re losing focus on medical patients.”

Ms. Ramkellawan also points to the lack of female representation in the upper ranks of cannabis companies. Only 37 per cent of the senior-level jobs at cannabis companies are held by women, according to a 2019 Marijuana Business Daily survey. And without more women in positions of influence advocating for new products, opportunities are easily overlooked, she said.

“When I’m in the boardroom, I have men all around me,” Ms. Ramkellawan said. “Although I have some say, it’s challenging when you don’t have enough women around the table making decisions on products. It’s like perfume—they’re looking at packaging cannabis products in a female-looking way, as opposed to thinking about the products that women need. For a lot of people, the idea of a product for women is something that looks pretty, but it’s not about what women really want.”

Extracts:

  • This story explains why women are underrepresented in both cannabis demographic data and studies on cannabis itself
  • It should help you gain a more accurate view of the cannabis community
  • Two thirds of female cannabis consumers still hide their usage: 2017 study

Disclosure: Canopy Growth and Headset have investment relationships with Canopy Rivers, owner and operator of The Rise.

This is not an offer to sell or a recommendation to trade in securities. This content may contain forward-looking information and/or data from third parties and is subject to limitations as discussed under The Rise's Terms of Use. Forward-looking information is based on assumptions that may be incorrect and is subject to risks, including those set out in Canopy Rivers' AIF and MD&A available at www.SEDAR.com. The views expressed above are those of The Rise’s editor and do not necessarily reflect the views of Canopy Rivers. Readers should not place undue reliance on this content.