Men and women are inching closer to true equality, but there remain some crucial differences in how men and women experience the world around them — particularly when it comes to weed. Surprising to some, there are both biological and sociological reasons that men and women get high differently and thus have differing experiences of marijuana.
Biological Sex and Cannabinoid Action
To understand how sex can impact the effects of cannabinoids, one must first understand how cannabinoids interact with the human body and mind. Most cannabinoids are absorbed into the bloodstream and bind to the endocannabinoid system, or ECS, which is an incredibly important system for maintaining internal balance. No system within the human body operates as an island, and the ECS is particularly well-connected to other systems, to include the immune system, the digestive system, the nervous system and more. When cannabinoids bind to ECS receptors, they cause changes to connected systems, resulting in the marijuana high and other recognizable effects.
More recently, researchers have discovered that the ECS is closely associated with the female reproductive system through the hypothalamic, pituitary and gonadal glands, which are often referred to as the HPG axis. The HPG axis is responsible for releasing certain hormones and steroids associated with the female reproductive cycle. Yet, when the HPG axis changes, it affects the function of the ECS — and vice versa.
Researchers understand that there is a complex relationship specifically between estrogens and THC, the primary cannabinoid responsible for getting users high. However, researchers aren’t yet sure exactly of the results of that complex relationship. Some experts believe that marijuana causes an increase in female libido but a decrease in fertility. There is some indication that the higher quantities of estrogen present in female bodies makes women less tolerant of THC, resulting in the need to partake of less weed to get high and increasing in a woman’s risk for THC overdose.
Men, also, seem to have some interplay between hormones and cannabinoids. Researchers have discovered that men who regularly use marijuana seem to develop higher levels of testosterone, which is moderated by the same HPG axis in the male body. This is somewhat odd considering that THC slows down the HPG axis, resulting in lower testosterone development while high. Yet, regardless of THC’s effect on testosterone, the male experience of marijuana is much better understood, thanks to the preference for male subjects in scientific study.
Gender Differences in Cannabis Use
Biology isn’t the only factor affecting cannabis use in men and women. Gender consists of the socially constructed roles differentiating men and women within a culture, to include norms, behaviors, expressions and characteristics typically ascribed to either sex. For example, a person who is gendered female is often expected to have longer hair, wear makeup and more intricate clothing, be more in touch with their emotions and have a compassionate, nurturing nature. Though not all people who identify as women do these things, these are typical (Western) cultural elements of a feminine person.
Various expectations of gender affect how men and women use marijuana. Drug use in general is perceived to be more acceptable in men, particularly young men, who are socially permitted to be more reckless and less responsible. In contrast, women, even young women, are expected to remain in control of their faculties at all time, to preserve their physical appearance, their health and their financial stability for the future. One can perceive this cultural discrepancy by considering the lack of female representation in stoner media and within the marijuana industry as a whole.
The cultural feeling that weed use is inappropriate for women often results in women using marijuana secretly, which can lead to substance abuse problems. In truth, women do use marijuana less frequently than men do, but research indicates that women are much more likely to develop marijuana use disorder after just one cannabis experience, indicating that they are more susceptible to the drug’s addictive effects. Unfortunately, women who do fall into marijuana abuse are likely to suffer from panic attacks and anxiety disorders, which are only exacerbated by the drug.
The differences between how women and men experience cannabis are small but important, and it is vital that the cannabis community bring awareness to these differences and strive to eliminate them as much as possible. A good first step is increasing the number of female subjects in cannabis studies, which will provide more insight into how cannabinoids affect female bodies in the short and long term. Next, cannabis communities need to work to improve representation for women within marijuana media, from depicting women visiting cannabis conferences to producing films by and about lady stoners. Finally, states need to take a stand in integrating female entrepreneurs into their burgeoning marijuana industries. In states like Arkansas, female-run dispensaries might benefit from lower fees, funding programs and other benefits.
There is no erasing the biological differences between men and women, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore women’s experiences entirely. By shining a light on how men and women get high, we can make the cannabis space more welcoming (and more profitable) to all.