Women and weed: the gender differences in cannabis use and abuse

Research shows men account for most of Australia’s 1.9 million cannabis users, but female smokers are now more likely to use every day. Photo: Rohan ThomsonNaomi* smokes a couple of bongs in the morning after her two-year-old son has been fed and clothed. Once he is asleep at night, she smokes about 20 more.

The 29-year-old says she wakes up feeling fresh the next day. She pays her bills, sticks to a routine and never smokes in front of her son.

With cannabis, “everything is that little bit more pleasant,” Naomi says. But without it, her body begins to shake and anxiety takes over. “I couldn’t ever imagine anything worse than going without marijuana,” she says.

Naomi belongs to a growing number of women who smoke weed every day, according to the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey.

The research shows that of the 1.9 million Australians over 14 years old who have used cannabis in the past year, 1.2 million are men. But female smokers are now more likely to use every day. Fourteen per cent of women users smoke daily, compared with 12 per cent of men.

Women also tend to become addicted more quickly, suffer worse withdrawal symptoms and are less likely to seek help, international research suggests.

“Women have a higher tolerance so they need to use at higher levels,” says Jan Copeland, head of the National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre.

“They are more at risk of negative effects including paranoia and other kinds of anxiety-type feelings, but also to addiction.”

Large studies from Yale University in 2011 and Columbia University in 2012 found women were more likely to “telescope” in their use, moving quickly from first joint to dependency.

Lighting up is also a better predictor of poor mental health in women than it is in men, researchers from King’s College London and Utrecht University reported in 2014.

“Men tend to use for positive reasons,” Ms Copeland says. “They are having fun, their friends are using, cannabis is available: they just go with the flow.”

Women, on the other hand, are more likely to smoke “to relieve an internal distress situation”.

Emma*, 31, calls herself a “high-functioning drug addict”. She is a single mother to a seven-year-old, employed part-time and about to embark on a masters degree in law.

Having tried cannabis for the first time when she was about 16, Emma has spent the past eight years smoking “full time”: a cone every 45 minutes or so. It helps her sleep at night, switch off and avoid drama, she says.

“If someone passes on, you can just numb it off with a couple of bongs. You don’t have to sit there and grieve in that emotion.”

Heavy users of either gender risk well-documented harms such as mental illness, insomnia and attention problems, the Australian Medical Association warns.

More mysterious are the brain changes that may explain why men and women use – and even appear to experience – the drug differently.

Monash University neuroscientist Valentina Lorenzetti​ says sex hormones such as estrogen may play a role as they shape development in the teenage years.

“The sex differences in the brain include subtly different anatomy and a different distribution and function of brain cannabinoid receptors,” Lorenzetti says.

Ironically, the hormones that may explain women’s increased sensitivity have led to their exclusion from many studies. Clinicians seeking to eliminate variables generally prefer the hormonal stability of men.

NSW Health, which provides six cannabis rehabilitation clinics, does not offer treatment along gender lines.

“Research into specific reactions for women and cannabis is new, and is not supported by a strong evidence base at this time,” a spokeswoman says.

*Names have been changed at interviewees’ request to protect their privacy.

Cannabis Helpline 1800 30 40 50

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