The Legacy of the 420 Nurse
Weed culture is fascinated with feminine eroticism. After California legalized recreational marijuana use in 2016, sexy weed ladies sprang up everywhere. Painted on dispensary murals, the trope continues to trend. Inspiring headlines such as Stoner Girls Are the Coolest Girls on the Planet and 5 Reasons You Should Marry Your Stoner Chick, the herbal nurse has blazed quite a trail.
Owner and founder of the 420 Nurses, Chacha VaVoom coined the term 420 nurse in Halloween of 2009: “ I remember we dressed in sexy nurse costumes with a touch of marijuana accessories, 420 + Nurses. We were approached by everyone and asked who we were. ‘We represent ourselves as promotional models,’ we answered. From then on we had promoters always invite us back as 420 nurses to host promotional LIVE events dressed as ‘the 420 Nurses.”
The popularity of this aesthetic comes as no surprise. Sex sells and often goes hand in hand with drugs. However, the stereotypes attached to this aesthetic have harmed many women who work in the marijuana industry.
“I’ve seen [inappropriate behavior] at a lot of dispensaries,” a stoner friend told me. “Aggressive flirting at best and straight-up aggression at worst… I don’t know if I’ve seen a male or queer budtender to be honest.”
Many dispensaries exclusively hire female budtenders, and management creates the gender hierarchies we see in the industry. To increase sales, female budtenders are also encouraged to double as living pin-up girls.
“I go for the cute budtenders,” a San Francisco customer confesses in a weedmaps review, adding that the weed could have been “a lot better for the price.” It seems that some people don’t mind getting ripped off by a cute face. While customers and management seem comfortable with these dynamics, it bothers some budtenders.
“I worked at a half smoke-shop and people would wild out,” an ex-female budtender told me. “There were definitely a lot of creepy dudes.”
Though dealing with creepy customers is a widely recognized disadvantage among staff, the problem goes unmentioned by most dispensary job descriptions. A quick survey of Linkedin, ZipRecruiter and Indeed reveals that many dispensaries require staff to act in a professional manner when greeting customers, be able to stand on their feet for long periods of time, have extensive knowledge of cannabis products, and more. However, there are no disclaimers warning future staff about hazards like unwanted contact and other forms of sexual harassment. Weed shops may not want to deter women from continuing to apply to these positions but even Hooters has clarified the restaurant’s mission statement, stating that they exist to represent All American sex appeal. If dispensaries choose to misrepresent sexualized workplaces, then female budtenders shouldn’t be told ‘you know what you signed up for’ when they experience unwanted sexual attention.
“Dress to Impress!” orders Mecca Mid City’s job description, demonstrating the focus that the industry places on appearances. This pressure might seem harmless but the expectation that one ought to exude sex, especially when it’s not part of one’s job description, is problematic at best. Cannabis manufacturer Alysia Sofios shared her personal experience with Weedmaps: “I remember when we asked some prominent men in the industry for advice, and they told us we should dress sexy when we showed up at events to promote our brand…So many women were walking around in pasties and barely-there shorts, acting as models, while the men were doing the business deals.”
It’s no secret that sexual harassment happens in such work environments. New Frontier Data/ Women Grow surveyed 1741 volunteer respondents about their experiences with sexual harrassment in the cannabis industry and found that 27% had witnessed the problem. 18% of respondents reported a personal experience of sexual harassment, while 33% reported that someone they know has personally been subjected to it. About the marijuana farm where she worked in Humboldt, a tree-trimmer friend told me, “It wasn’t a safe environment.” In this vast and unprotected space, her boss wanted a moment alone with her during a trim break. “He pulled out his penis…and I thought oh my god, this man owes me money.” Deciding that her safety was worth more than the income she had yet to receive, the trimmer bailed on the marijuana farm. Because this harassment happened pre-legalization, she had no legal recourse.
Circumstances may change as customers, budtenders, and management takes part in dismantling these shitty circumstances. Intuitive leader and cannabis chef Liv Vasquez courageously sued her dispensary and won. Having been sexually assaulted by a dispensary coworker, she took matters into her own hands when her workplace failed to have her back. “Vasquez has since sent her case out to multiple women in the midst of lawsuits of their own, and after the trial concluded, even one of the jurors reached out to let her know she gave her the strength to speak up about the harassment she was experiencing,” writes Lauren Yoshiko. “It turns out that although the industry let Vasquez down, by standing up, she helped make the local industry a little safer and more welcoming for women.”
Budtenders continue to face sexual harassment and assault at work which is why this ongoing conversation, along with the calling out of bad behavior, is necessary. Whistleblowers will continue to push for transparency and try to hold the management of these companies accountable. The 420 Nurse will likely remain a staple of popular culture, but assault and harassment need to become relics of the past.
Mariah Mickens is a creative writer and independent filmmaker from Los Angeles California. As a recent University undergrad, Mickens is excited to continue her journey through artistic discovery, further crafting her audience, aesthetic and artistic purpose. Mickens uploads her short films to Vimeo and makes/sells art through Instagram. At the moment, she is working freelance and writing a feature film.