In a loft across from the Electric Factory, a few dozen women sip wine, chat and nibble on crackers and mini cupcakes festooned with puffy swirls of white cream.
Diane Fornbacher invites everyone to bring their wine and settle in on a cozy maze of couches. It’s time to talk about what brought everyone here tonight: marijuana.
Tonight is the first official meeting of the Women’s Alliance of Philadelphia, a ladies-only club for those interested in drug-policy reform.
While pop culture has been connecting women and weed for a few years now—there’s Showtime’s Weeds, of course, and a smattering of articles in women’s glossies with titles like “Stiletto Stoners” and “Marijuana Moms”—the organized campaign to change drug laws has also been bringing women and weed together.
NORML spokesman Allen St. Pierre says the organization doesn’t have statistics, but that it’s “self-evident” that the group has been “far too white and far too male.”
To stoke diversity, NORML established the Women’s Alliance and a Sister to Sister mentorship program in collaboration with Students for a Sensible Drug Policy in 2009. (Alliances targeting minorities and the elderly are coming down the pipeline.)
So far, women are responding: St. Pierre says more than 14,000 women have signed up to a listserv set up just eight months ago.
“As you know, being women yourselves, you’re capable of great power,” says Fornbacher, vice chair of the national Women’s Alliance.
The 34-year-old Fornbacher is a bit of a cult hero in the movement: More than 200 people are official “Fans of Diane Fornbacher” on Facebook. A recent issue of the Canadian weed mag Skunk profiles Fornbacher in an eight-page spread that includes an interview and a full-page close-up of her face as she appears to be meditating. Floating above her face is a quote that begins: “I let my kids be the guidance.”
A core component of NORML’s new outreach strategy relies on appealing to women as caretakers. To do that, the group has repackaged its mission statement with female-friendly language that ironically could have been lifted right out of a conservative’s playbook: Women’s Alliance members believe marijuana prohibition “undermines the American family.”
“The point of us being here is that … we feel an injustice has been done to us by depriving us of our rights, arresting our children,” Fornbacher says. “Marijuana users are the most arrested drug consumers in this country.”
The strategy makes sense. Compared with men and black women, white women—who make up the majority of the room tonight—hardly get arrested for pot possession.
Locally, the gender disparity in arrests of women and men for marijuana possession is even bigger than the racial one. In the first seven months of 2011 in Philadelphia (latest data available on Pennsylvania’s Uniform Crime Reporting System), women account for less than 10 percent of all marijuana arrests. Through July, 227 women were popped for pot in Philadelphia; of those, 170 were black women and 55 were white. In the same time frame, 2,390 men were arrested. Of those, just under 20 percent were white: 390 compared with 1,984.
While the movement directly appeals to moms—the website points out that fewer kids would sell pot if it wasn’t on the black market—Fornbacher is the first to admit that for women, and moms especially, it ain’t always easy being for green.
“I am a mother of two children and my activism puts [my children] in … vulnerability,” she says. “There are some moms at PTA that won’t talk to me. I’m not going to lie, it hurts my children. They don’t understand it.”
But the group is assured that not everyone has to be on the front lines and willing to put their names out there. “Silent supporters” can make friends and family aware. And the weed movement needs cookies and veggie plates, too.
NORML’s interest in recruiting women is inspired from events from last century.
“Women ended alcohol prohibition and we’re going to end marijuana prohibition,” says Carina Cialini, NORML activist visiting from New York. “It is the females that are going to do this. We need to work together.”
Annie, Andrea and Melissa are recent graduates of Temple University who say they’ve seen marijuana prohibition backfiring right before their eyes. They’re becoming drug-policy activists because many of their friends have been casualties of the war on weed.
To many inside the criminal justice and pro-legalization arenas, the racial disparity in Philadelphia's pot arrests is nothing short of an ongoing conspiracy. And a look into the policies and practices behind marijuana prohibition reveals a scheme in which weed culture is supported by the very agencies charged with eliminating it.
NORML has long considered the widespread acceptance of medical marijuana the clearest path to its ultimate goal—across-the-board legalization of marijuana—so getting a medical marijuana law passed in Pennsylvania is a priority for the PhillyNORML crew. But there was nary a mention of one of the most persuasive arguments out there—one recently adopted by NORML—for the end of marijuana prohibition: That legalization can and should be looked at as a civil rights issue.