• Abigail Sampson

Cannabis and Sexual Assault and Sexual Violence

From the movie Reefer Madness to more recent anti-marijuana campaigns, cannabis has often been depicted as a driver of sexual assault and sexual violence (SA/SV). While the reasons for this vary, in North America, this is often traced back to Harry Anslinger’s prohibitionist decree that “marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.”

While cannabis has been found to be the second most reported drug in cases of SA/SV (the first being alcohol), cannabis is often used in conjunction with alcohol. To date, there is no current evidence showing cannabis by itself is used as a ‘date rape’ drug. In fact, there is a growing body of evidence pointing to how survivors of sexual assault utilize cannabis for medical issues due to SA/SV.

To help unpack this relationship, NICHE Canada sits down with researcher, cannabis industry executive and advocate for survivors of sexual assault, Susan Chapelle, to discuss current research on cannabis and SA/SV, as well as how survivors use cannabis in their healing.

Is cannabis often utilized in cases of drug-facilitated sexual assault?

Cannabis is almost never reported as a substance of interest in DFSA cases. Peer reviewed literature shows that most women who are sexually assaulted with substances are alcohol related, and those that were incapacitated due to alcohol or drug facilitated rape were only a small percentage. Even though sexual assaults involve substance use by the victim, it in no way implies that a victim is responsible for their assault.

Cannabis has not been studied on its own but has been implicated in some literature. It is difficult to ascertain the regular user from someone that is impaired and is sexually abused while utilizing other drugs or mixing cannabis with alcohol.

Is there any research to suggest or confirm that cannabis products higher in potency leads to more instances of sexual assault/violence?

The use of substances and sexual assault is well established. Cannabis use has not directly been linked to an increase in sexual assault or violence. College women have been frequently studied in relation to alcohol and drugs. Many women report having used cannabis, but causation of impairment becomes difficult when multiple substances are involved.

Some survivors report to use cannabis to alleviate medical issues due to sexual assault (ie. PTSD, anxiety, depression, insomnia) is there any evidence that cannabis can be used to help these conditions?

Unlike many health claims surrounding cannabis use, PTSD and stress relief are well documented, most recently in the Veteran population who are advocating for its availability. Sexual assault is still something that is not spoken about, and the number of women that report is still very low compared with the incidences of assault. Cannabis has been used successfully to treat PTSD in Veterans, and there is a growing number of studies that link cannabis with decreased pain, anxiety and insomnia.

As a survivor of rape that involved being drugged, I can say that cannabis has never put me in a position where I felt unable to advocate for myself or cause me to feel unsafe. I have used cannabis to treat PTSD, as I have had to speak to sexual assault and the lack of access to forensic nursing. Having to tell the story so many times in public, cannabis helped me deal with the stress and anxiety. Having spoken to survivors and women who have experienced abuse, I (anecdotally) observed how cannabis use has helped so many women deal with difficult feelings around sexual trauma. As we venture further down the road of understanding the effect that this plant has on our psyche through research, I am hoping that these questions can be a part of the women’s health research agenda.

What policies/guidelines should employers have in place to ensure their employees are protected from sexual assault/violence, both in and out of the office?

Every workplace is required to have policies to protect workers from harassment and violence. Bill C-65 in Canada comes into force in 2020 to protect Federally employed persons. We are still fighting for policy to ensure workers are protected, that people can take time off when they experience sexualized violence, have access to services and are not penalized at work. This is a human right, and employers are responsible to ensure that the workplace is safe. I am still amazed that we have been fighting since the 1960s for a policy that ensures safety, and we still don’t have access to services to report rape or have access to mental health services for trauma caused by sexual assault across Canada. A large failure of our systems. Cannabis seems like a safe and reasonable plant to use in a system that still lacks funding and resources to help survivors.