The Women of Color Out to Reclaim Marijuana Culture

As marijuana gains some measure of mainstream acceptance as a medical and recreational drug, its industry is becoming more commercialized. And many users, especially in communities of color, want to reclaim its counter-culture significance.

The group Women.Weed.Wifi. has started a movement to do just that. The women-led Seattle-based art collective celebrates the stories, lives, and creative endeavors of women of color, using cannabis as a mechanism to explore identity, community, and healing.

One in eight American adults say they smoke marijuana.

One in eight American adults say they smoke marijuana, according to a 2016 Gallup poll, and as one of the fastest growing markets in the country, the industry is projected to be worth over $21 billion by 2021. Washington and Colorado were the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012. Growing commercialization has caused resentment among cannabis advocates, and urban Black communities who have long suffered from the impact of the War on Drugs because of low-level drug offenses and cannabis possession. Since 2014, Washington has made more than $1.9 billion in legal sales.

Legalization for Seattle in particular has spawned a wave of recreational cannabis dispensaries that are mostly owned by wealthy white men. Seattle Times reported that Black Washingtonians who make up 3.6% of the state’s adult population only have a 2.7% stake in the state’s cannabis retailers, and the the numbers for Latinos are just as bad, at 9.5% of the population, they account for 3.6% of ownership interest. According to Bill Piper, Senior Director of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, the nationwide figure hovers around 1%. The disparity underscores the disconnect between the new beneficiaries of the industry, and the Black and Brown men and women jailed for low-level cannabis possession—most of whom will never reap any profits.

Women.Weed.Wifi. is building a counter-narrative to the white, mainstream marijuana culture.

While Janice Ibarra, Amanya Maloba, and Vanity Thomas, co-founders of Women.Weed.Wifi. want to see more people of color profiting from the drug, they prioritize all their creative endeavors and use weed as a tool to achieve that. Janice works in public relations and as a DJ and yoga teacher; Vanity is a full-time student and visual merchandiser; and Amanya is a budtender and freelance creative director. Through their Smoke + Stretch yoga sessions, guided meditations, Swisher Sessions podcast, zines, poetry, music, merchandise, and collaborative events, Women.Weed.Wifi. is building a counter-narrative to the white, mainstream marijuana culture in a generally “progressive” but increasingly gentrified Seattle.

Fichter: Societal attitudes on marijuana continue to progress, yet cannabis is still somewhat taboo. How do you destigmatize it?

Amanya: We’re all examples of how weed can benefit you. So it’s not that we’re saying you can be successful while still doing this thing, it’s more like, we’re actually successful, and it’s in part because of this thing. Whether it helps us go to sleep or be creative, that is beneficial to our progress.

Fichter: Do you acknowledge that marijuana can be abused?

Janice : There’s no arbitrary measurement with marijuana. It’s your own will power. It’s exactly the same thing as not taking care of yourself. It’s inextricably tied with your mentality, too. This is why we use cannabis to heal ourselves because it aligns with everything we do. It makes us very durable as humans. So someone who abuses cannabis is not using it with good intention and is paving an ill path.

Fichter: Appropriation is a recurring theme in all art mediums. How do you handle this in your space as creative women of color?

Amanya : We have to be super protective of ourselves, our community, and our energies. It’s not to be exclusionary, but protective of what is there. Appropriating is just in the history of whiteness and colonialism. It’s grabbing and making it theirs. That happens so many different ways, every day, all the time, you just naturally become protective because you know what’s going on. It’s not even personal, it’s historical. It’s fact. We definitely still get support from white women even though we don’t focus on them. As long as there’s respect and a good energy, we can vibe with everyone.

Janice: Our goal is to highlight and inspire other women of color. We’re tastemakers of society. You don’t have to go into a gallery anymore. We’re on every corner. We’re here, making our mark, making an imprint, making the blueprint.

Fichter: While you all have different reasons for smoking, Amanya and Janice, you emphasize how systematic oppression, racism, and microaggressions have weighed on you. That’s where, you say, marijuana does a lot of its healing, allowing you to do “the work.” What is the work?

Janice: Like everything else, you do it with intention. My destiny was to always be at peace, calm, and forgiving. Life is complex, and it strips away the pleasures, so the work is healing each other and dissolving ego-driven work. We’re experimenting with our gifts and simultaneously checking in with ourselves and one another.

I also think “putting in the work” is often misconstrued as “progress.” But it’s also tied in with your energy. We’re all about hands-on work because that’s a part of our DNA. We’re carving this path because we’re often ridiculed about our adequacy and being pragmatic about this lifestyle.

Fichter: What do you want to reclaim about marijuana culture?

Janice: We just don’t want it to be so commercialized, but we can also be on the same playing field. Collective, business. We do make it a point to use our communities for these resources [cannabis] and integrate it into our lives in way that we don’t have to exchange relationships with the culture vultures.

Amanya: “We [people of color] need to be getting paid too. We’ve been getting paid off of this.”

Fichter: Last year you all raised funds to support those at Standing Rock. This was especially significant for you, Vanity, as half Nisqually Indian. For you, cannabis, spirituality, and culture are inextricably linked, although you say that Native elders are concerned about the loss of culture, tradition, and drug abuse in your community right now, especially as your tribe is contemplating embracing cannabis sales [Native Americans can already sell tobacco and alcohol tax-free]. You even hid your smoker status for almost three years before revealing it to your mother and the rest of your Nisqually family. How do you reconcile older cultural attitudes and your relationship with cannabis?

Vanity: There’s a deep sense of spirituality when I’m smoking. I can’t help but stay in touch with my ancestors—the people who walked on the same land as I do… when I’m on the reservation, in the woods, the tidelands. The elders are not seeing it as a spiritual connection, just a way to use and abuse. But our ancestors used these things as stimulants to connect with spirit. So how do we implement education? How can it be used for other things aside from “fun?” Working in the medical industry, I took pride in being educated on this. Whether they’re 502 [medical marijuana patients], recreational smokers, whatever, we all want everyone to be informed about the substance they’re ingesting.

It’s a long journey, we’ll just have to see how fast we can do it. We’re running on Indian time. But we’ll get there.

You can learn more about Women.Weed.Wifi at their upcoming International Girl Gang Expo at The Neptune Theater in Seattle on July 27.

Angela Fichter wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Angela is a San Francisco native, creative, and writer covering all things culture.