I’ve never really liked smoking pot. More to the point, I’ve never really liked the way pot makes me feel: foggy and sleepy and clumsy. Once, while stoned, I attempted to make a peppermint tea and ended up pouring a kettle of boiling water onto my hand. I was in my early twenties at the time, and though I was no pothead, a night out with friends usually included passing around a joint. But even after a few small puffs, I often found myself feeling much higher than I wanted to be. The realization would hit with a sudden thwap, my heart would race and I’d worry about how long the high would last. And the lethargy, bloodshot eyes and salt-and-vinegar Miss Vickie’s binges that followed didn’t exactly correspond with my idea of myself as an ambitious young professional.
I had already cut back to using it just a few times a year when, during a Christmas party at a colleague’s home, a batch of special brownies was served alongside a Middle Eastern-style spread of falafel, tabbouleh, hummus and eggplant. I went for it. Good food, work chums and weed: It should have been a fabulous combination. But the brownie made me anxious and uncomfortable, not my usual chatty self. I felt as though I didn’t belong. I couldn’t figure out how to engage in the conversation and wondered if everyone there secretly despised me. I was 30 years old, and it was the last time I got high.
I tell you this not because my experience is particularly unique, but precisely because it seems pretty common. I tried it when I was young; I didn’t like how it made me feel; I stopped. It just wasn’t for me. And now that I’m a boss at work and a mother at home, the idea of casually using pot to unwind — the hassle of buying it, rolling it and smelling like it, and the possibility that it might all go sideways — seems even more preposterous.
I am, however, in the exact demographic targeted by a new wave of cannabis companies positioning weed as the ultimate self-care aid, and betting that professional women, including mothers, are the key to this untapped market. If Statistics Canada’s most recent data is to be believed, 3.4 million Canadians ages 15 and up currently use pot. But according to an Ipsos poll from September, 2017, that number could nearly triple when weed is legalized on Oct. 17. The tactic to lure millions of potential female customers is all about health and wellness. New brands will sell strains that boast relief from stress, aches and anxiety, and others promising to infuse our lives with deeper sleep and better sex — not to mention make us more productive workers and more present when we’re with our kids. If these companies have their way, the old stoner stereotype of bong hits, Pink Floyd and lay-about college dudes will be replaced by candles, Beyoncé and women attempting to have it all (or being way more chill about not coming close). As April Pride, founder of Van der Pop, which makes beautifully designed pot paraphernalia put it: “Our goal is to make sure that a woman has her happiest and healthiest life, and show her the ways in which cannabis can support her in that goal.”
With the chorus getting louder on the harmful effects of alcohol on women, and as someone who struggles with both relaxing and getting a good night’s sleep, this sounded pretty good to me. So, four years after that last bite of brownie, I decided to give weed a second chance. I got on a plane and spent three days in L.A., enjoying hikes, massages and microdoses of marijuana courtesy of the world’s most buzzed-about cannabis company. I wanted to see if all this talk about pot as a wonder-woman drug had any merit or if weed marketers were high on their own supply.
Let me introduce you to the new world of weed, where women treat insomnia not with a sleeping pill but with a joint, ease cramps with a CBD capsule instead of Advil and unwind with a puff on a vape pen rather than a glass of vinho verde. Forget everything you know about pot and the people who use it — this is weed 2.0, and it’s so different from its previous iteration, it may as well have a different name. Which is why its proponents don’t call it weed, or pot or even marijuana. Instead, they refer to it by the plant’s proper name: cannabis.
In this world, consumers speak about the differences between indica and sativa plants (an oversimplification: indica makes you calm, sativa peps you up); THC and CBD (the former is psychoactive, the latter is said to deliver a “body high”). There’s also a lot of talk of cannabinoids — the chemical compounds found in cannabis (THC and CBD are two of more than 100) — and the body’s cannabinoid receptors, part of the body’s endocannabinoid system that processes physiological functions like mood and appetite.
If this new world has a capital, it’s in California. The state legalized recreational use for adults in January and it’s developed a culture around the drug that, not surprisingly, emphasizes wellness and style so convincingly, even Gwyneth Paltrow is hitching her glossy wagon to the industry. Here, the market skews hip, with brands like Beboe (the so-called Hermès of pot) selling cannabis pastilles made with organic ingredients and rose-gold vaporizers (that have been featured in Paltrow’s Goop). There are panel discussions at trendy boutiques on cannabis and self-care, given by doctors and attended by lifestyle influencers, that include guided meditations and platters of thinly sliced raw vegetables instead of cheese plates. And there are platforms like Miss Grass, an online magazine and retailer (a.k.a. “the Goop of cannabis”) that covers everything from cannabis etiquette to CBD skincare to making your own superfood CBD-chia pudding. As for Gwyneth herself, the high priestess of clean-living has fessed up to owning vape pens and enjoying cannabis occasionally. Goop has even featured recipes for CBD-spiked cocktails on its website. (Cannabis julep, anyone?)
It’s this quintessentially Californian blend of women’s lifestyle and wellness that’s headed straight for Canada, thanks to companies like 48North, a licensed producer entirely focused on female consumers. According to its research, 41 percent of current cannabis users in Canada are women (though other reports suggest that number could be closer to 35 percent), and the company will launch a number of cannabis wellness brands here under its umbrella, addressing everything from fitness to skincare to anxiety. “Health and wellness is both recreational and medicinal,” says 48North CEO Alison Gordon. “Part of health and wellness is having fun with your friends and laughing and having a fun night out — that sort of mental health — and part of it might be a natural supplement that helps you with menstrual cramps.”
The numbers suggest this is a smart move. In a survey conducted by Van der Pop of 1,530 women in North America, 90 percent of them were considering trying cannabis for medicinal reasons, while most women already using cannabis do so for health and wellness reasons, including pain relief, relaxation, stress relief and anxiety reduction. This group of “recreational wellness” users is one of the most valuable market segments, says Kerri-Lynn McAllister, Chief Marketing Officer of Lift & Co, an online cannabis education resource and organizer of one of Canada’s largest weed expos.
New recreational cannabis brands like AltaVie are betting on it. With its sleek white, grey and gold packaging, AltaVie will offer both flower (dried cannabis you roll in joints or vaporize) and cannabis oil–filled soft gel capsules in Canada in signature strains, with names like Campfire and Harmonic, come October. The company wants to attract women looking for ways to slow down, de-stress and take time for themselves. The hope is that women who’ve never used cannabis will incorporate it into their “broader wellness regime,” says Alanna Fonseca, manager of strategy for recreational business. Ultimately, AltaVie products, she says, will “help you be present in the moment and make mindfullness more attainable.”
I used to like taking ambling walks in the park and watching Freaks and Geeks when I was high; but the way women are expected to consume weed — excuse me, cannabis — sounds a lot less fun. It’s about self-improvement and the eternal quest to be a better partner, parent and professional, as well as dealing with a myriad of health concerns. (Don’t expect marijuana brands targeting men to be so serious.) For women using cannabis this way, getting super stoned is not usually the goal. Many women are “concerned about dosing cannabis appropriately, and more interested in lower-potency products,” says Lift & Co’s McAllister.
This is where companies like Dosist come in. Billing itself a “health and happiness” company, California’s most-hyped cannabis brand makes vaporizer pens in six formulas — Calm, Sleep, Relief, Bliss, Passion and Arouse — designed to give users a consistent, reliable experience. “What Starbucks has done for coffee” is what Dosist wants to do for cannabis, says president Josh Campbell, a Vancouverite. “We control exactly what the user experience is.” They do that in a couple of ways. Dosist’s formulas are different ratios of CBD, THC and terpenes (essential plant oils said to have positive effects), and are tested four times so each batch is the same as the last. Once you’ve inhaled for three seconds, the pen will vibrate to let you know you’ve had a dose. Dosist is “strain agnostic,” says Campbell. “You’ll never see us talking about OG Kush or Girl Guide Cookies or a host of other names I won’t get into, because that has nothing to do with what we’re doing. That’s the 1.0 version.”
The company has its sight firmly set on the Canadian market, where its products will be available once the government adds concentrates (what you find in pre-loaded vape pens) to the list of approved cannabis products — something expected within the first year of legalization.
I was invited to California along with other members of the media to legally sample Dosist’s products. Which is how I found myself standing outside a Venice Beach restaurant, using marijuana for the first time since the brownie episode. I was nervous about being in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. But Campbell assured me that a Dosist dose is completely different from what I’d had in the past. “You’re not going to get intoxicated from it,” he says. “You also have no calories. You’re high-functioning off of it as well. And you don’t have the negative physical implications you would with alcohol.”
What I noticed first was the taste — it was actually pleasant, a little lemony. Instead of being surrounded in a smelly cloud of smoke, there was almost no vapour when I exhaled, and next to no odour. And I really didn’t get high at all. A dose is just 2.25 mg, an amount so small it’s known as a microdose. The Calm formula that I sampled is a 10:1 ratio of CBD to THC, which means it doesn’t have much in the way of psychoactive effects. In fact, I wasn’t sure it had any effect at all until half an hour later when I realized I was listening to our server describe the house carbonara with absurd intensity. This was nothing like weed of my 20s. I was completely relaxed and happy (though the carbonara might have had something to do with it).
Over the course of the next few days, we paired activities with Dosist’s various formulas. A hike with a dose of Bliss, for example, and a dose of Passion for an evening walk along the beach, or a little Sleep before bed. After running from Santa Monica to Venice Beach and back, a short 5k, but my first in a month, I took a dose of Relief, and though my thighs still ached the next day, I felt strong. During the trip, I was never stoned or unable to function; I wasn’t anxious or introspective, either. Instead, I was the definition of chill — happy, optimistic, laid-back, social — my perspective just a little bit altered.
I asked Campbell why the effect was so different from my past experiences. “In your 20s, you probably had dried flower, and you probably smoked it,” he said. “Flower is inconsistent. The THC, cannabinoids and terpenes vary considerably based on time of year, how it was grown, what farm it came from and what plot on the farm it came from.” With the Dosist pens, he says, you know what you’ll get every time you use one. “It’s like you had tomatoes on your pizza before, and now we’re giving you sauce.”
I found another convert in Anna Duckworth, one of the co-founders of Miss Grass, who had no idea when she moved from Toronto to Los Angeles two years ago how integral cannabis would become in her life. Back in Canada, she sometimes smoked pot to relax. The results were mixed. “I certainly didn’t have access to cannabis that had a consistent effect on me. It would be whatever the guy was selling me — sometimes it would be good and sometimes I would be paranoid,” she says. Because of this, she’d only smoke in the company of people who loved her “unconditionally.” But when she moved to L.A., she saw cannabis as part of the “fabric of the Californian culture” and felt “it would be rude not to explore what was happening culturally.” (About as Canadian a rationale for getting high as you could imagine.) In L.A. dispensaries, she discovered types that were organic and pesticide-free, as well as a buffet of products you could consume without smoking: tinctures, sublinguals and gourmet edibles made with dried fruit rather than sugary candies and chocolate. Today she uses cannabis as a “self-care tool” with a whole set of rituals around it (lighting a candle, burning a smudge stick).
Health is a top priority for Duckworth, who suffered from undiagnosed Celiac disease, a traumatic experience that further marked by frustration with the health-care system. In cannabis, she found a way to regain power over her wellbeing. “I was on this journey to experiment with my own body and to take back the control that I thought I had lost,” she says. “I became almost bookish about understanding how cannabis affected my body.” Before she launched Miss Grass with Kate Miller, Duckworth landed a job as head of content at Dosist, which is when friends started turning to her for advice. “They were coming to me because I was relatable to them,” she says. “I stand in opposition to what the zeitgeist tells us a cannabis consumer is all about. I’m career-motivated. I’m up early. I’m fit, I exercise, I eat well, I’m ambitious. I care about things. I’m not apathetic. All of these things that the Seth Rogen stoner stereotype has taught us: I am not. And I am not a special case.”
Back in Toronto, determined to replicate my blissed-out California experience, I rolled some four-month old weed of unknown origin (the only stuff I could get my hands on), into a small, flaccid joint. One evening, after my son had gone to bed, instead of pouring myself a glass of wine, I crept outside like a teenager, keeping close to the house to stay out of my neighbour’s view. I took one quick puff, then another — the smell was horrid — and hurried back inside. Almost instantly, my heart beat faster. Sounds sounded louder (did my husband always talk at such a high volume?). I felt tense. There was not one chill vibe to be found. The next evening, I busted out the rosé instead.
Clearly, smoking a crappy joint on the down-low is nothing like a discreet puff from a (legal) vape pen in the California sunshine. Still determined, I fell back on the next available option: a batch of special brownies, baked by a friend and cut into small squares. I had no idea what strain they were made with or how much THC and CBD was in a serving, so I took one teensy, hesitant nibble. I wasn’t sure it did much of anything; the next evening I took a slightly less minuscule bite. And 40 minutes later, I felt pretty good: calm and happy and just slightly elevated. For the next week, I had little nibbles in the evening instead of a drink. I wasn’t stoned but I was less stressed, my mood was better than usual and I slept well. I moved our liquor to the basement.
Many of the women I spoke with who use cannabis either don’t drink or cut back on alcohol after introducing the drug to their lives. For some, like Duckworth of Miss Grass, cannabis has helped with socializing. “I would have a drink and go home at 9 p.m. and miss the social aspect of whatever my friends were up to,” she says. “But now, I use cannabis so that I can have this full experience people are having socially. And that has been transformational.” Others trading in wine for weed do so because of hangovers. “Ever since I hit my 30s, my hangovers have been really bad,” says Toronto-based Michelle Bilodeau, who co-hosts High Tea, a podcast for women who smoke weed. “I had one really bad hangover when my daughter was a couple months old, and I didn’t ever want to feel like that again. So I’ll have a couple of drinks [when I socialize] and then I just smoke weed. I can function the next day and still have a good time with my daughter, and still focus on her.” April Pride of Van der Pop stopped drinking almost entirely after her second son was born. She didn’t like how she felt the next day. Cannabis was the right alternative, she says.
The vast majority of mothers who use cannabis — a whopping 90 percent — say they do so to relax, according to a small survey of more than 200 women conducted by Miss Grass earlier this year. But 49 percent of them also use cannabis to be intimate with their partner, something several brands are focusing on. Dosist makes two pens for sexual intimacy: Arouse is meant to get you in the mood, with a THC-forward concentrate “designed to help you relax while increasing sensitivity,” according to the Dosist handbook. With a slightly higher ratio of THC, Passion is “about heightening focus and deepening engagement” to help users achieve orgasm. California-based Foria makes a THC lubricant, which purports to increase sexual satisfaction in women. “It’s like the first time I used a vibrator and discovered what a really good orgasm could feel like, where you’re like, ‘What the hell was that?’” says Amy Wasserman, the senior marketing director at Canopy Growth, one of Canada’s largest cannabis holding companies. Aside from ramping up their sex lives and chilling the heck out, 66 percent of moms who use marijuana say it helps them be a more present parent, according to the Miss Grass survey.
But cannabis has a long way to go before being accepted as mother’s new little helper, which drives marijuana marketers crazy. They point to wine-mom memes as mass acceptance of alcohol (a personal favourite: “boxed wine is just a juice box for mom”), while cannabis users, especially mothers, face stigma. It really struck Wasserman while she was at a trade show and noticed wine-mom messaging all over stationary. “It was all about how to be a better mom with wine. Like, ‘Keep your kids from whining with wining,’” she recalls. “It’s this pushing of alcoholism and wine consumption to women. I think a lot of women are looking at that and saying, ‘First of all, don’t tell me that drinking wine is going to make me a better mother. And second of all, if you’re going to tell me that wine is going to make me a better mother, don’t be judgmental when I pull out a CBD oil or a pre-rolled joint. It’s condescending to say that one thing is socially acceptable and one thing is not.”
It’s impossible to ignore the privileged nature of these debates. There are, of course, myriad issues around pot use and legalization that extend far beyond wellness and social acceptance. Our government has yet to address whether it will pardon those who’ve received criminal charges for cannabis possession, which includes roughly 500,000 Canadians, with Black and Indigenous people disproportionately affected. Reporting in both Canada and the U.S. has shown that being Black makes you far likelier to be subject to these charges, as well as an increased stigma surrounding cannabis use. The very fact that I, a white woman, feel comfortable writing about using an illegal substance in a national magazine, speaks volumes.
Some medical experts are also suspicious of the rose-gold glow surrounding weed 2.0. Cannabis may sound like a cure all for all that ails the modern woman, but there’s little research to back this up. Dr. Jürgen Rehm, the senior director of the Institute for Mental Health Policy Research and senior scientist in the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, says that while there is some evidence that cannabis can improve pain such as a sore lower back, there’s no good research to support claims it helps with mental disorders. “If you want to use it because you feel better, for wellbeing, OK. But do not start using it for anxiety disorders or for manifest depression,” says Rehm. Health care professionals who can recommend and administer therapy and medication are much better routes, he says.
And while many of us believe marijuana is non-addictive, Rehm says that’s not accurate. Because THC is a psychoactive component, it can potentially cause dependence. There are also consequences for excessive use. “As with almost everything, the dose makes the poison. If you start smoking 20 joints a day, that’s not good for your brain.” Low amounts of a CBD product, though, are a different story. “If the ingredient [in whatever you’re using] is mainly CBD, that has way lower risks than THC. Very clearly.” Rehm says the problem is ultimately that cannabis is currently seen as “the best thing since sliced bread, and this is not true.” He emphasizes the need to stay on top of the facts. And the fact is that at this point there’s not hard research into the long-term effects of cannabis use. His advice: Don’t over use it, check that you have products with higher CBD content and avoid products with THC.
There are plenty of health buffs, however, who have jumped onboard. One of them is Michelle Rabin, a Toronto-based recipe developer who spends a lot of time in the boxing ring and lifting weights. She’s currently working with Dirt, a company that specializes in cannabis-based events, founded by Sarah Best. “I’m someone who takes my cardio very seriously and I smoke very rarely,” says Rabin. “Edibles are a great way for me to control how much THC or CBD I’m intaking without having to put anything gross or dirty into my lungs.” Rabin concocted her own version of an energy bar, called the Kush + Push, with dates, cacao, hemp, flax and 8 to 10 mg of cannabis. (Naturally, it’s organic, vegan, and gluten- and dairy-free.) “I compare it to wearing a really heavy backpack and someone just comes along and says, ‘Hey, let me just take that bag from you,’” says Rabin. “And you’re like, ‘Wow, I feel so much better. That bag wasn’t bothering me, but who knew what it would feel like when you took it off?’” According to Best, it’s “a hyper-focusing product, and post-exercise, it’s incredible for rest and relaxation.”
Rabin and Best held Dirt’s first event in March, a gourmet multi-course dinner party with dishes infused with a coconut oil THC distillate that has all of the perks but none of the flavour of cannabis. They launched Dirt’s wellness program with the inaugural Kush + Push event in June, when two dozen men and women, myself included, mingled in a loft-like downtown yoga studio on a humid Sunday evening. We munched on the bars, which were presented on a tray, wrapped in parchment and twine. (They are delicious.) After we’d each polished one off, we moved into the yoga room for a 60-minute class. Outside, rain began to fall. Inside, candles gave off a soft glow and the soundtrack played a mellow version of “Bring Me A Higher Love.” We did twists, sun-salutations and warrior poses, and I felt great. Healthy. Peaceful. Calm. But high? I wasn’t so sure.
I went home, and set about making my grandmother’s orange cake for a work bake sale. As I mixed eggs, sugar and butter together, I looked out over my garden, and thought how beautiful it seemed, the peonies almost in bloom. And I thought of my mother and how I wish she lived closer so she could see them open. I poured the batter into the pan, and felt a deep connection to my grandmother, who died before I was born, but who, I then realized, lived on through her recipes and, in turn, through me. I guess I was a little bit high. And it was lovely.