More and more women are swapping their post-work pinot for something a little stronger. Stylist investigates…
Imagine the anticipation as you lick the paper closed. You remove the excess tobacco from the end and flick the lighter. There’s that familiar crackle as the paper catches and you suck in deeply, drawing back a lungful of smoke that slightly burns your throat. As you exhale, sending a long, straight, off-white plume into the air, you can immediately feel the tensions of the day start to lift. By your fourth toke, your shoulders have eased, your mind is moving at a more sedate pace and that complicated budget issue that needs to be resolved tomorrow suddenly takes on a more manageable perspective.
This is the after-work ritual for a growing number of successful, professional women who are turning to weed as their preferred way to unwind after a punishing day in the office. Mel*, a 33-year-old IT trainer, is one such woman: “It’s like a switch goes off in my head,” she says of her evening smoke. “The stress is just gone.” And as concern about alcohol intake among 30-something women hits fever pitch (a July survey showed a rise in alcohol-related deaths for women born in the Seventies) for an increasing number of women – a growing band of ‘high flyers’ – cannabis offers a valid alternative to winding down.
This new ‘acceptable’ face of cannabis has been bolstered by a spate of celebrities speaking out in favour of the drug. Jennifer Aniston has admitted to smoking dope “once in a while”, saying she sees “nothing wrong” with it. Lady Gaga smoked it on stage last year, and has declared: “I want you to know it has totally changed my life and I’ve really cut down on drinking.” Rihanna, a well-known advocate of cannabis, regularly tweets the hashtag #legalizeit, and wears clothes and accessories emblazoned with marijuana leaves. Her friend Katy Perry teased her in a recent magazine interview, saying: “We all know how much pot you smoke.”
Current figures estimate that there are two million cannabis users in the UK and according to the most recent Home Office survey, it accounts for 78% of all drug use among 16 to 59 year olds. But a new breed of cannabis smoker is emerging: professional women who are using the drug regularly – not so much to get high, but more as a much-needed way to relax after work.
Natalie* is no stranger to stress. As the director of a gallery and multimedia arts centre, her day includes anything from working with groups of young offenders to giving a talk at high profile fundraising events.
“I have to wear a lot of different ‘hats’, there’s constant pressure and work bleeds into my home life, too. That’s where the stress comes from,” she explains. “Everyone has different ways of dealing with it. For me, that’s exercise, dancing… and smoking a bit of weed.
“I’ll go home, roll a joint for myself and relax straight away. Then I get on with making a stir fry for dinner, watching an episode of Breaking Bad on my iPad, or just sitting in the garden with a cup of tea.”
It is as sedate as it sounds. These women are not on a mission to revisit the smokepacked rooms of student bedsits. Helen*, a 33-year-old marketing manager at a London media agency, first smoked weed as a teenager: “I had it at parties, but went over the top and smoked myself into a paranoid state, where I couldn’t talk to anyone.” She gave up when she was 21 but then found herself turning to it again five years ago, aged 28, after a stressful time at work.
“Over the past few years I’ve only ever smoked in the evenings, mainly to wind down from hectic days in the office,” she says. “I know my limits now – one joint is enough for me, so I don’t get those paranoid feelings anymore.”
"I'll go home, roll a joint and relax. Then I get on with making a stir fry"
While there may be other issues to consider when using illegal drugs, particularly when it comes to sourcing, Helen feels she has that area covered. “I spend about £35 a week on weed – about what I’d spend going to a bar,” she explains. She buys her weekly supply from a dealer she met years ago through a friend. “I know that it’s grown locally – a cottage industry, you might say, with no-one higher up in the chain. I wouldn’t buy it from just anyone in the street.”
But for her, cannabis has one overriding benefit over the large glass of pinot others turn to after a stressful day. “Smoking moderately doesn’t leave me with a hangover, not in the way wine might. I zonk out, but I have no problem waking up and getting to work for 8.30am. My job is very performance driven and involves lots of face-to-face meetings. I can’t afford to look or sound in the least bit ropey.
“If I didn’t have something to smoke after work I’d probably open a bottle of wine instead, which I think is more harmful. I can have one joint and feel relaxed enough to switch off. By comparison, once the cork’s out of the wine bottle it doesn’t go back in. And though drinking can make me feel better, I wouldn’t exactly say it relaxes me.”
Natalie agrees. “I think smoking a joint is healthier than drinking half a bottle of wine,” she says. “For me, it’s an effective way of unwinding after a tough day. But, just like drinking, it’s strictly for after 6pm. I set my own boundaries and stick to them. I’m quite self-disciplined. I never smoke more than one joint in an evening.”
Aside from smoking weed, both Natalie and Helen drink in moderation, eat healthily, exercise – and have no interest in other drugs. “I tried Ecstasy when I was a student, but I was never really into it,” says Helen. “I’ve never tried cocaine and I’m not tempted to. I don’t want to get off my face – for me getting stoned is about winding down. My boyfriend sometimes joins me, but for him it’s more a social thing – he doesn’t use it to de-stress like I do.”
While A-listers might be happy to flaunt their fondness for the drug, without any apparent harm to their image, most people have to be more careful, especially as the drug is illegal here in the UK. The former Labour government downgraded cannabis from a Class B to Class C drug in 2004, meaning possession no longer resulted in prosecution – but that only lasted until 2008, when it was restored to Class B. Now, anyone caught in possession of cannabis faces penalties ranging from a police caution for a first offence, an unlimited fine or up to five years in prison, along with a criminal record.
So while most of us will happily talk about our drinking exploits, smoking dope remains a more covert habit. “My close friends know and if they disapprove they’ve never mentioned it,” says Helen. “I’d never tell my parents or brother, though – they’re pretty conservative and would be quite shocked and worried. They’re proud of what I’ve achieved and my professional status means a lot to them.”
Scared of it affecting her career prospects, Helen goes to extra lengths to disguise her habit from work. “I wash my hair every morning so that I don’t go to work smelling of weed. And everything to do with smoking – weed, papers, tobacco – stays safely at home.”
Likewise, Natalie’s afterwork habit isn’t exactly water cooler conversation. “It isn’t something I’d discuss at work, unless it was with a colleague I knew well,” she says. “Among friends, I judge by the individual whether or not I’ll smoke in their presence. And if my GP asked about drugs I wouldn’t say anything about my smoking – it’s private, and I don’t believe it harms my health.”
But Dr Clare Gerada, a GP and specialist in substance abuse, believes that women like Helen and Natalie should think more carefully about their drug use. “I would worry about a woman coming home and smoking a joint in the same way that I’d worry about her drinking a gin and tonic. I’m not saying it’s going to kill them, but equally I will say don’t kid yourself if you think it’s not going to do you any harm.
“[When weed] is mixed with tobacco and smoked, the if the first thing you do after work has become a habit, then by definition, you’re running into problems.” Natalie brushes off these concerns. “If I ever had to give up smoking weed – say for health or work reasons, I’d be fine with that. But for now, as a way of coping with stress, it works just fine for me.” *All names have been changed long-term consequences are the same as smoking cigarettes, but worse, because it exacerbates the effects of tobacco [tar inhaled and the level of carbon monoxide absorbed by marijuana smokers is three to five times greater than among tobacco smokers], so you’re likely to get lung cancer and throat cancer, at a young age,” explains Dr Gerada. “Smoking five joints a day is like smoking 20 cigarettes, but even smoking two or three joints a day is increasing your risk of cancer.”
There is debate over the effects of cannabis on mental health, too. The number of hospital admissions for mental or behavioural issues due to cannabis rose from 651 in 2008/09 to 1,003 in 2011/12 – but this has been put down to an increasing prevalence of super-strength skunk, which now accounts for about 80% of the UK’s cannabis market and contains a much higher percentage of THC – the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis which makes you ‘high’. Scientists found people who had a psychotic episode were three times more likely to have used weed daily and 18 times more likely to use skunk.
Light users such as Helen and Natalie know to avoid skunk. “It’s chemically manufactured and incredibly strong,” says Natalie. “I know from my work with young people that it can have a detrimental effect and they can end up suffering from paranoia or psychosis. But as someone who is a light smoker of natural, non-powerful weed, I’ve had no ill effects.” There is also little hard evidence from health professionals to say cannabis is a “gateway” drug for stronger substances.
Some users argue that stress is more dangerous than smoking weed, but doctors say stress is not measurable against drug and alcohol misuse in terms of a health risk. The general consensus is that stress is mainly a danger because, if we let it, it can lead us to rely on substances.
And, says Dr Gerada, that’s where cannabis use can become a concern. “What women who think they’re stressed need to address is why they feel they have to use a chemical substance to alleviate worries. Whether its drugs or alcohol, if the first thing you do after work has become a habit, then by definition, you’re running into problems.”
Natalie brushes off these concerns. “If I ever had to give up smoking weed – say for health or work reasons, I’d be fine with that. But for now, as a way of coping with stress, it works just fine for me.”
*All names have been changed