50.50: Feature

Latinas for marijuana! Meet the women fighting to decriminalise cannabis in Mexico

Feminists say new proposals to legalise the recreational use of cannabis must go hand in hand with women’s rights

Carli Pierson
20 April 2021, 9.53am
Mexico City, November 2020. The banner reads ‘Women forging joints, forging fights’.
Photo Tlali Marquez. Illustration Inge Snip

From ‘Twerk and Smoke’ sessions on Zoom to ‘yoganja’ (yoga plus weed), feminist activists in Mexico have joined the fight to legalise marijuana.

“The fight to change drug policy in the country will be feminist or it will not be at all,” said Rebeca Soto, a 31-year-old woman with pitch-black hair, a fringe and a delicate gold nose ring. By day, Soto works with a municipal government initiative that helps substance users access government and civil society resources. By night, the Mexico City-based activist runs Feminismo & Flow, the cannabis collective she helped establish.

From Chile to Mexico, feminist collectives in Latin America have led the way in responding to the region-wide epidemic of violence against women and girls. Now, cannabis-promoting groups are making space for themselves within the movement.

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This month, Mexico’s Senate, the upper house of parliament, is expected to approve the legalisation of recreational marijuana, a milestone for a country that has long been in the throes of a drug war. In March, the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, passed a bill that would allow adults to smoke marijuana and apply for a permit to grow a limited number of cannabis plants at home.

The legislation would also grant licences to small farmers to grow and sell weed. Activists such as Soto say the new law could be a game changer and increase business opportunities, especially for women.

It could also disrupt violent organised crime, which affects women in a variety of ways. ’Intimate partner violence’ has increased in Mexico over the past 20 years, but so has organised crime-related violence waged on women's bodies – as Maria Salguero, creator of the National Map of Femicides in Mexico, explains.

The trafficking of girls has risen steadily since 2015, as have femicides linked to criminal violence. Women's bodies are used to send messages to other criminal groups, targeted individuals and society at large, irrespective of women’s personal involvement in criminal activities.

The drug trade also affects women negatively. According to a report by the NGO EquisJusticia, “drug-related crimes are the fifth most common reason why Indigenous people are imprisoned in Mexico” and nearly half of incarcerated women are in prison for drug crimes. Women who are in prison for the use or transportation of substances like cannabis or heroin are often single mothers, with low levels of education and minimal access to economic opportunities.

A bad rep

Soto and I met last year via Skype when a friend sent me an invite to a digital ‘Twerk and Smoke’ session hosted by Soto’s collective. We’ve spoken frequently about the intersection of feminism, cannabis and the epidemic of violence against women in Mexico.

She tells me there are many feminist collectives like hers. “Before being a marijuana user, I was a feminist and I realised that there was a connection between the two,” Soto said. 

Marijuana plant in Xalapa, Veracruz

Marijuana plant in Xalapa, Veracruz

Carli Pierson

Women healers and herbalists in Mexico have used marijuana since it was introduced to the Americas by the Spanish in the 15th century. They did so discreetly, because cannabis quickly caught the eye of the Spanish Inquisition for its hallucinogenic properties.

Stigma around the plant’s use grew over the centuries. After the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), the press in both Mexico and the US began to portray marijuana use in racist, classist and sexist terms. In Mexican and American films, marijuana was associated with prostitution and insanity. The US press put the blame squarely on its southern neighbour, describing the drug as “Mexican killer weed”.

The stigma remains today, especially for women. In Mexico’s macho culture, women who use drugs and other traditionally perceived malas costumbres (‘bad habits’) are perceived as ‘bad girls’. This has played a role in the normalisation of sexual and gender-based violence in the country. According to Soto, women who are taken into custody for marijuana possession face sexual assault or rape. Some even disappear.

The new law and women

In a nondescript, one-storey house in Xalapa, capital of Mexico’s Veracruz state, I met Dr. Paulina Mejía Correa. She runs Divinorum Boutique Herbal, a therapeutic cannabis business. Marijuana for therapeutic uses is already legal in Mexico, but remains largely taboo. Correa, who has a doctorate in tropical ecology, spoke to me in the room she uses to offer massages and other cannabis therapies.

Dr. Paulina Mejía Correa tending a marijuana plant in her clinic in Xalapa, Veracruz
Dr. Paulina Mejía Correa tending a marijuana plant in her clinic in Xalapa, Veracruz
Carli Pierson

Marijuana has been used for hundreds of years in childbirth, for menstrual pain and for postpartum depression, she told me. Cannabis “is a plant of ancestral use, especially for women”. Correa explained that women have more cannabinoid receptors – which scientists have identified as playing important roles in the body and nervous system, including regulating mood, appetite, pain and immune functions – which is why cannabis has a different effect on women compared to men.

Activists say that the new law to legalise recreational cannabis will help take control of the production and supply of marijuana away from the drug cartels, and open up space for women entrepreneurs such as Correa.

According to Soto, the new law would mean more opportunities for women in an industry that has been largely controlled by men. It could help women farmers in “remote and Indigenous communities that have been among the most affected by the war on drugs,” she added.

The proposed law tries to address some of the established inequities of the system. It says that, for the first five years, at least 40% of the new cannabis cultivation licences will be reserved for Indigenous people, ejidos (state-supported, communally farmed land) and other marginalised agrarian communities. However, there is no mention of any specific provision for women.

The new law to legalise recreational cannabis will open up space for women entrepreneurs

Zara Snapp, co-founder of the RIA Institute in Mexico City, which advocates for social justice, says that the new legislation is a step in the right direction.

However, all three of the women I interviewed pointed to ambiguities in the new law that could affect women adversely. For instance, it prohibits marijuana use in front of minors, which directly affects women because women are usually tasked with childcare duties.

Both Soto and Snapp are working to reform the proposed law from a gender-based perspective. They want possession to be decriminalised and to drop the prohibition on consuming in front of minors.

They reiterate the importance of releasing women imprisoned for low-level cannabis-related crimes, as well as giving them access to rehabilitation and economic opportunities. These could be in the newly legalised cannabis sector, since women are often involved in the cultivation, packing and transport of marijuana.

Snapp also sits on the board of ReverdeSer, an NGO that works for a socially progressive public policy on drugs. She points to a proposal that would set aside 80% of the cultivation licences for the social sector (communal, ejido or small properties and cooperative societies) and 50% of all licences for women. Likewise, “50% of those employed in the industry must be women.”

This proposal is supported by feminist collectives such as Mujeres Forjando Porros and Forjando Luchas (‘Women Forging Joints and Forging Fights’), which both Soto and Snapp belong to. From empowering women via small businesses to keeping women safe, the legalisation of marijuana is an integral part of the feminist fight, Soto explained. Legalisation “would help [women] access and use the plant and the flower without risking their safety, liberty or health, or the health of the people they are taking care of,” she said.

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