Doctor Melanie Dreher
- Reefer Researcher - NOV/DEC 98 - CANNABIS CULTURE 55
Melanie Dreher - Reefer
political pressure to have it otherwise, Dr. Dreher's research reveals
that pot-smoking moms can have smart, healthy babies.
Dr. Melanie Dreher is one of a handful of scientists who have researched
marijuana objectively and intelligently in the last three decades.
Dr. Dreher is Dean of the
University of Iowa's College of Nursing, and also holds the post of
Associate Director for the University's Department of Nursing and Patient
Services. She's a perpetual overachiever who earned honours degrees
in nursing, anthropology and philosophy before being awarded a PhD in
anthropology from prestigious Columbia University in 1977.
Although Dreher is a multi-faceted
researcher and teacher whose expertise ranges from culture to child
development to public health, she began early on to specialize in medical
anthropology. After distinguishing herself as a field researcher
in graduate school, Dreher was hand-picked by her professors to conduct
a major study of marijuana use in Jamaica. Her doctoral dissertation
was published as a book titled "Working Men and Ganja," which
stands as one of the premier cross-cultural studies of chronic marijuana
Along with being a widely-published
researcher, writer, and college administrator, Dreher is a professor
or lecturer at several institutions, including the University of the
West Indies. She recently served as president of the 120,000 member
Sigma Theta Tau International Nursing Honour Society, has been an expert
witness in a religious freedom case involving ganja use by the Ethiopian
Zion Coptic Church, and is one of the most well-respected academicians
in the world.
Governmental and private
organizations, including the US State Department, have funded Dreher's
many research projects, some of which focused on ganja's role in Jamaican
culture, and the effects of ganja and cocaine on Jamaican women and
Dreher has impeccable credentials
and a wealth of proprietary information on ganja use, but when she released
solidly-researched reports showing that children of ganja-using mothers
were better adjusted than children born to mothers who did not use ganja,
she encountered political and professional turbulence. Some observers
accuse the government and anti-pot groups of working to suppress her
findings, but Dreher continues to speak openly about her research.
When Dreher spoke to Cannabis
Culture from her office at the University of Iowa, she was affable and
intriguing, pleasantly but firmly defending her right to study ganja
use and to publish valid scientific findings regardless of political
DR. MELANIE DREHER
@: How did you first become involved in studying ganja in Jamaica?
Dr. Dreher: I had already spent one summer in Jamaica studying obeah,
a kind of black magic, and my professor, Dr. Lambros Comitas, felt that
if I could study an illegal and underground practice like obeah then
I could probably get information on ganja use.
This was in the 70's, when
American pundits were saying that marijuana caused people to be lazy
and dysfunctional. We were especially interested in testing the
notion that ganja caused an amotivational syndrome. My dissertation
research studied various kinds of men's work, primarily agricultural
work, and how ganja interacted with that.
Jamaica was a great place
to study because these men used ganja every day for eight to ten years,
unencumbered by cocaine or other drugs, and just a little bit of tobacco
or alcohol, so you could really measure how ganja affected them.
After nearly two years of study in Jamaica, I'd found ganja was used
to stimulate work. The amotivational syndrome, whatever it was,
certainly didn't manifest itself in the people I studied.
@: So you just walked up to Jamaican villagers and started asking
them about ganja? Weren't you afraid they'd think you were a police
It was an interesting experience! I had never smoked anything,
not even a cigarette. I'm a white woman, a former cheerleader,
about as 'American' as you could get. I didn't have an intermediary
or liaison. I went into villages and politely introduced myself
as an American student. I established trust by going to church
and schools and living with these people, telling them I was there to
study certain aspects of their culture, especially herbs and particularly
marijuana, and people began to trust me. They gave me a few social
tests to see if they could really trust me, and after I passed those
tests pretty soon I was going into their fields and seeing where ganja
was grown, dried, stored, processed and sold.
There is a cultural division
between men and women in this culture, but even though I was a woman,
as a white American researcher I had more privilege and access to men's
rituals than a Jamaican woman. I got to sit with the men surrounded
by these big clouds of smoke, and as they smoked their chillums I asked
questions about ganja use and took notes.
@: So ganja ue had its own cultural identity and rules?
Yes. Ganja use is governed by customs, beliefs, and social rules.
Ganja arrived in Jamaica through the Indian indentured labour; Indians
brought with them this whole tradition of preparation of teas, tonics,
hash, cooking ganja in food.
The Jamaican ganja-users,
except for the Rastas who tend to use more ganja than the people we
studied, had strict cultural contexts in which to use marijuana.
It isn't like in the US where people indiscriminately light up and walk
around all day stoned. The Jamaicans prescribed certain situations
and ways to use ganja.
There were people prohibited
from using it. When you smoked you had to act a certain way -
serious, intelligent, reasonable. A man who used ganja and got
silly or got the munchies or laughed too much or acted like a fool -
the other men stopped smoking with him because they felt the ganja was
a spiritual thing. It's to be taken seriously in a mature arid responsible
A whole set of cultural rules
guided use and made sure it was positive. The set and setting
and cultural traditions in Jamaica made ganja use a positive thing.
It's useful to study ganja in a place where its use is not just a recreational
activity - its use is sacramental, medicinal and social, but it is designed
to be a thoughtful activity - not like you stop at the store and get
a six pack of beer to get drunk.
@: Did ganja culture affect how men and women used ganja?
It did. The men believed that ganja inhaled went to the brain
and had a psychoactive effect, but that ganja consumed as tea or tonic
went into the blood and had a health effect rather than intoxication.
They only allowed men to smoke ganja because they didn't believe women
had the right kind of brain for it.
Now there are physiological
differences between men and women, and it's also true that ganja eaten
or ingested as tea follows a different route in the body than ganja
smoked, but I am not expert enough in this to comment on whether the
cultural tradition is supported by science.
Women were allowed to control
the medicinal use of ganja. I spent lots of time with rural women,
who taught me how to make ganja tonics and teas. They were the
administrators of ganja, often the producers and sellers of ganja.
It gave them some power and income, like a cottage industry.
They gave ganja to men and children as teas, and they knew how to titrate
the strength of marijuana teas so a new baby would get just a leaf's
worth but men and boys got more, so they could go and work in the fields
with enough strength to survive the hard days.
@: So women never got to smoke ganja?
When I first started research in Jamaica in 1970, women were the ganja
medicine specialists but there was a social rule that women should not
smoke. The only time women were allowed to smoke was in a pre-sexual
context. Everybody believed ganja was an aphrodisiac, they said
it made both sexes more powerful, makes you like sex more, makes you
concentrate on lovemaking more.
It was not used as a clandestine
seduction tool like alcohol. That's not to say that like at a
dance if young men were smoking, a young woman wouldn't say "Give
me a draw," but it was very innocent, I never saw an attempt to
use marijuana as seduction or date rape.
Back then, women were smoking
secretly. If a man didn't finish the whole spliff then after
he went to work the women might smoke a little. Women said it
helped them do their housework and be good to their children.
So the women had to sneak around to smoke it but they were expected
to openly administer its medicinal use.
The real focus of the women
was to have marijuana to prepare for tea for their children to make
them healthier and smarter and help them have better school performance
and help them concentrate.
@: Has your subsequent research found changes in the use of ganja
by Jamaican women?
Yes, as the role of women has changed economically and socially, some
women have been able to smoke ganja openly with the men. They're
called "roots daughters", which is a term of respect meaning
that they can smoke as hard as a man and maintain a dignity of conversation
and behavior. They can smoke ganja and reason with men, have
debates about serious topics like politics and religion. They
are considered to be principled women who are astute and trustworthy.
Another characteristic of
these women is they tend to be economically independent and resourceful.
They don't expect that men will have the sole burden of supporting households.
Many of these women are working for themselves, and a significant number
of them are involved in ganja sales, along with work such as farming
and other commercial enterprises. They build their own houses
and become less dependent on men, or on one man, for their livelihood.
Part of this change came
from Rastafarianism, because Rasta women do smoke ganja chronically
as part of their religious rituals. Older women have built up
their roles as ganja administrators, while older men may have to decrease
their ganja use once their days in the fields are over. The society
is changing, experience with ganja is changing, and women smokers are
becoming more visible then before.
@: Give us a general overview of the studies you've done on ganja
When I noticed that increasing numbers of women were smoking marijuana,
I decided to study prenatal marijuana exposure and its effects on children.
Most of the studies done in North America had serious confounds and
results which just did not hold up under scrutiny.
We did ethnographic studies
which examined the lifestyles of mothers who used ganja and mothers
who didn't use ganja, and compared behavioral characteristics of neonates
from both groups in the first month of life. We later went back
and looked at the children with a five-year follow-up study.
@: How did your studies differ from other studies?
Up to that point, most studies which examined marijuana use during pregnancy
were flawed by serious methodological problems. They couldn't
control for so many variables, and the negative effects they blamed
on marijuana could well have been caused by other things.
My studies are among the
few which actually measured how much ganja a woman has consumed.
I wasn't sitting in a clinic somewhere divorced from women's lives asking
them how much marijuana they'd used - my research team is in a community
and in the field where we can observe these women and check out their
reports. We know how much ganja, and what type and potency, they
are consuming. We had ways of verifying the amount of ganja they
consume; neighbors would come and tell us what was going on, so we could
compare that to what we had been told by the mother.
We had a setting in which
we knew that the women were only exposed to marijuana. In most
North American studies the women were using all kinds of drugs like
alcohol, tobacco, speed and cocaine during prenatal studies, and there
was no way for the researchers to know what or how much. We knew
what our test subjects were doing and this gave extra credibility to
A lot of media publicity
had been given to US studies which purported to show that marijuana
caused birth defects or serious developmental problems, but most of
this research involved participants who were multi-drug users who had
a terrible social support network that probably caused the problems.
Instead, these problems were blamed on marijuana.
@: Is it possible that American women didn't know how to use marijuana
intelligently? Did you find that Jamaican women had more ganja
American drug use often takes place without cultural rules and in an
unsupervised context. The Jamaican women we studied had been educated
in a cultural tradition of using marijuana as a medicine. They
prepared it with teas, milk and spices, and thought of it as a preventive
and curative substance. Smoking it during pregnancy was a way
of relieving nausea, increasing appetites, combating fatigue and depression,
providing rest and relaxation. Some of these women were in dire
socioeconomic straits, and they found that smoking ganja helped allay
feelings of worry and depression about their financial situation.
Our testing showed that the
children of women who used ganja had better alertness, stability and
adjustment than children of women who didn't use ganja. This was
measured at the age of one month. We measured children again at
four years and at five years of age, and found that there were no apparent
deficits in the children of marijuana-using mothers. In fact,
in many ways, they were better off than children of non-smoking mothers.
The ganja-using mothers also seemed better off than non-users.
@: Since these results contradicted the hysteria of drug war assertions,
did you find it hard to get your studies published?
I insisted on publishing in a medical journal - I wanted the academic
community to understand that the jury was still out on marijuana and
that's why we do cross-cultural studies to determine how drugs really
affect people. It isn't logical to look just at one culture's
problems with a drug and conclude that that's a universal situation.
The medical community needed
to see that these results, which came from very solid research methods,
were far different than what they are usually exposed to. They
needed to see that women who smoked marijuana are not bad mothers.
I am so damned sick of picking up a woman's journal or a tabloid and
seeing some article saying that if you smoke even one marijuana cigarette
during pregnancy you are a bad mother and you're doing permanent damage
to your baby. There's no evidence to back up these warnings, and
in my studies the evidence points in the other direction.
@: It sounds like you're frustrated about the influence of politics
and inaccuracy in the reporting of marijuana research findings.
I just want researchers to use good research methods and to tell women
the truth. I think these hyperbolic warnings about marijuana and
pregnancy have made women absolutely nuts.
I got a call from a woman
who was in tears because she and her husband had waited several years
to adopt a baby and finally she had found a baby to adopt, but somebody
told the couple they couldn't adopt the baby because the baby had tested
positive for marijuana. "Oh for god's sake," I said,
"Go adopt your baby. Love your baby. Your baby is going
to be just fine."
Now they're talking about
charging women with child abuse if they test positive for drugs during
pregnancy. It's a slippery slope. Where's it going to stop?
Are we going to arrest women for sitting on the couch eating junk food
watching television during pregnancy? We are on the way to the
So one of my goals with this
research was to get the message to physicians: so women smoke a little
marijuana - big deal. Let women enjoy their pregnancies.
If there's something seriously wrong with their baby it would have occurred
no matter what - marijuana or not. Things have gotten so strange
in regard to babies. We have to have the perfect baby and if not,
well somebody or something has to be blamed. It must have been
a whiff of paint she smelled, or a glass of wine, or a cigarette, or
a draw of marijuana... It's ridiculous.
@: Can you comment on the issue of crack babies?
I have tended to be vary skeptical of crack baby findings. I have
studied cocaine use in Jamaica, and have studied children exposed to
crack pre-natally who are doing fine.
I think the problem with
crack is what happens after birth. The babies are often abused
by mothers or others in the home; cocaine is just part of a terrible
environment. Ironically, Rastas are the only group who refuse
to participate in the cocaine trade. They think it's poison.
Women use ganja to kick cocaine withdrawal; they use ganja during cessation
to get enough of a comfortable anti-depressant feeling so that they
don't have to use crack.
Some start using what they
call a seasoned spliff, which is a marijuana cigarette seasoned with
crack. Having the pot in there seems to relieve the precipitous
drop from the crack high to a paranoia which would otherwise force them
to smoke crack immediately again. They are high enough on the
pot and the crack drop doesn't make them crazy like it would if they
were using crack by itself.
The American government's
approach to cocaine and ganja in Jamaica has been very counterproductive.
The DEA finds it easy to see and go after ganja fields, but almost nothing
is being done to stop cocaine, which is ravaging the country.
Its very sad.
@: I heard that political pressure influenced your subsequent
research grants and the academic journal that you were going to publish
your findings in.
It did take us a while to get published. We had to do revisions
that I thought were unnecessary. It would be hard to classify
the request for us to do revisions as politically motivated. I
just thought that these people who wanted the changes made haven't got
a clue about Jamaica or ethnographic research. They went on vacation
once to Jamaica and drew some incomplete conclusions.
I felt that the revisions
suggested were often based on ignorance of Jamaican culture and prejudice
against ganja. The same problems were evident in letters that
the journal received after publication. The letters contained
unfounded criticisms, and I had to explain that I was doing anthropological
research that nobody else was doing. I wasn't measuring physiology
with test tubes. I was measuring behavior, reporting how these
women and their children acted.
These babies are doing great.
It wasn't necessarily due to marijuana, but pot-smoking mothers were
apparently good mothers and the marijuana didn't appear to be hurting
the babies. I have said repeatedly that I am not recommending
that you smoke pot to have a healthy baby, but I am saying let's not
castigate women who use a mild substance during pregnancy.
After doing research in Jamaica
funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) from 1988 to 1991,
I submitted two follow-up proposals in 1993 and 1994 and got news that
never ever do they want to see those proposals again. They had
done one of the worst reviews of a proposal that I had ever seen.
I thought I should call NIDA
and tell them this shows a lack of understanding of any type of unbiased
research on the issues involved and what we're trying to do. It
was a damning review, misguided and misinformed. I have to think
that this was due to a political consideration, not an honest review
of my work.
I'm 55, in my 15th year as
dean, I testified in a trial and the prosecution brought out that I
was once on the board of NORML, and involved with a group called POT
(Patients Out of Time) and wrote an article for a medical marijuana
book. So what? I am a good researcher. Nobody knows
more about marijuana use in Jamaica than I do, and I am prepared to
speak about that and don't care what people try to do against me because
of it. I felt that this last denial at NIDA was motivated by anti-pot
ideology, but since that time I was funded by the National Institute
@: Has your career suffered because you've objectively researched
marijuana? Do you feel you've been persecuted because of your
There may well be persecution, but if there is, I don't obsess over
it. I'm a very good dean and highly regarded in the nursing and
academic communities. Somebody asked rne if I was worried about
DARE coming after me, and I thought: Isn't that the organization that
gets children to report on their parents?
I am going to continue doing
good research and disseminating the results. Am I worried about
persecution? Well, I have a secure academic position and could
be a nurse again if I had to, but some of these researchers haven't
got something to fall back on so they have to please NIDA and find what
they're supposed to find. To a large degree, the politicization
of such research has corrupted the research process. I'm never
going to be a part of that.