Singer-songwriter. Guitarist. Activist. Iconoclast. Cannabis advocate. Melissa Etheridge is a woman of innumerable talents. A two-time Grammy Award winner (with 17 nominations over the course of her career), Etheridge added an Academy Award for Best Original Song to her collection in 2007 for “I Need to Wake Up,” written for the climate-change documentary An Inconvenient Truth. In June, the legendary rocker headlined the High Times Medical Cannabis Cup in Clio, Michigan, where she sparked up a joint onstage for the first time and proudly declared her love for the herb. We sat down with Etheridge before her show for a public Q&A in the seminar tent on a warm summer evening to ask about her activism, music, and thoughts on parenting, holistic wellness and manifesting one’s own destiny.
This is your first time at a Cannabis Cup.
This is a dream of mine. Twelve years ago, when I was going through breast cancer, I was medicating to get through the chemotherapy, which is one of the worst things that we humans do medically. To actually medicate through that, and then realize what an amazing medicine [cannabis] is … my next thought was, “I can’t wait to perform onstage for a whole bunch of medicated people,” you know? This herb, this plant, was made for music.
How did medical marijuana become a part of your recovery?
It was a pretty clear choice. I was a social smoker—I wasn’t a regular smoker at all. When I got breast cancer, a good friend of mine, David Crosby, called me up, and he goes, “Honey, you have to use medical marijuana. There’s just … you can’t get on that roller coaster.” And it made sense to me. When I left after my first chemo treatment, the doctor said, “Here’s the steroid, and here’s the pain reliever, and then you’ll have to take this because you’ll get constipated from the pain reliever, and then you’ll have to take this for the depression.” He’s handing me six pills, and I was like, “I don’t think so. Thank you, no—I’m going to go home, I’m going to smoke one gorgeous plant that comes from the earth that takes care of every single one of those, and that’s the way I want it.”
How old were you when you first smoked marijuana?
My first experience was in high school, of course, when I had my first girlfriend. I was a senior, and my girlfriend said, “Let’s find some pot.” And I said, “Okay … how do you find pot?” There was a gal I knew, and I knew she’d know where to find pot: She was the girl who kind of hung out in the parking lot with the smokers, with those really interesting people that I liked very much. So I asked her if she could, and she said yes. She brought me a nug, and I said, “Thank you … now what do I do?” You know, come on—you’ve been 17 and trying to figure it out, and you eventually lit it on fire and nothing happened. So I don’t really call that my first time smoking, because it was absolutely just ridiculous.
First time was in Boston. I’m in college; it’s 1979. I’m walking home with somebody else. It was really romantic in a really beautiful way. We stop on a stoop and sit. It’s midnight, and she pulls out a little roach, and we smoked it—and that was the first time. I’m sitting there under the beautiful Boston sky, and my mind’s going “Whoa,” you know? For the first time.
Do you see a connection between the fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ community and the fight to legalize marijuana?
Make no mistake: The legalization of cannabis is a human right; it is a civil right. This is medicine. Beyond that, to explore our consciousness is a civil right: No government should ever take away the right to go into our own consciousness and try to find the answers inside as well as outside. That is a civil right, and that’s really the ultimate thing that we’re doing here—so, yes indeed.
All the other equal-rights movements that I’ve been personally involved with, I see the same thing: It takes people coming out. It takes people saying, “I am a cannabis smoker. I’m a citizen. I’m a good person. I love my kids. I love my family. I have a job. I don’t fit any stereotype.” It takes those people coming out as your neighbor, as your family, as the person at your work. When you start knowing those people, then the fear goes away, and that’s how we move forward and change hearts and minds.
You’ve said that you believe middle-age women are leading the cannabis revolution.
If you study it, you’ll find that in 80 percent of households, the woman is in charge of the money. It’s the point of purchase, and so you know how it is. I just think women are the ones who are going to start saying a little earlier: “Oh my God—drinking all this alcohol every night is not good for my skin. It’s not good for my figure. It’s not good for my personality. I’m waking up cranky. Yet I like to have a little release every night. I like to come down from this problem-solving consciousness that I’ve been involved in all day long.” So that woman is going to go looking for an alternative—something that helps, something that heals. And she’s going to find cannabis. And she’s going to really enjoy that she can wake up in the morning and feel better. And her sex life is going to be better. Her attitude is going to be better. And it’s going to be very, very clear that this is a right that women want—that they don’t just want the choice of alcohol in the evening anymore.
And women, we get loud. We organize. We bring it on. [Audience cheers] And I mean no disrespect, because you men—you’re the ones that have been going to jail. You’re the guys that have been really putting your necks out and really having a hard time with it. And women, it’s time for us to stand up and change the laws and really do the work. So I think it’s all of us together.
What do you think the greatest obstacles are to ending the War on Drugs?
Mostly education. When you see the top politicians saying, “Well, marijuana just makes people stupid,” you go, “Wow, there is so little education out there!” So it’s about, again, coming out. It’s about saying, “Did you tell your family where you were going today? You’re going to the Cannabis Cup.” It’s about being that person; it’s about taking that responsibility.
You guys, we’re at the forefront of this! We’re going to look back in 10 years and go, “Well, you don’t know how hard it was 10 years ago. You think it’s all easy—you now can smoke a joint on the street. But it wasn’t so easy 10 years ago.” And that’s what it’s going to take: It’s these people right here that are doing it.
I watched an interview in which you talked about manifesting your own destiny.
Well, let me tell you a little bit about my experience. Twelve years ago—well, it’s always hard to know where to start the story, because it keeps going back … but after becoming successful, after winning the awards and being number one and all that stuff—what one would call all my dreams come true—well, then there’s the next day. And I mean, I now can look and see: Well, that’s the way life goes. It’s the journey—it’s not necessarily the destination.
But I had kind of a crisis sort of thing. My relationship fell apart. Everything started kind of crumbling, and I literally looked up to the sky: “What do you want from me?” And I was actually getting a little more interested in cannabis. My wife at the time was more interested medicinally. I asked her if she’d ever had an edible, and she said no. I said, “Well, let’s make cookies.” She’s a very good baker, and she made really good cookies—so, long story short, I did a massive, heroic dose of cannabis, okay? And you’ve all been there; you’ve done it. If you haven’t, you should do it once, because it took me way out there where some of us have been … some of us are still there. You get that perspective, and you go, “Holy shit. Life is about so much more than I thought it was about.” And then I came back, and I was different. I didn’t fear death—and it was about a week later that I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
So I go through this experience, and I’m like, “Wait a minute—I’m a completely different person.” So I start looking for the spiritual stuff. I start reading about quantum physics, and my brain just, you know, exploded, and I started putting all this stuff together and realized that cannabis is just the start of the whole plant-medicine movement. There’s so much more. I studied astrology too, so—so … oh, I’m a stoner, so I’ve forgotten your question. [Laughter] What was the question? Because there’s an ending here—I just need to know where to go.
We were talking about manifesting your own destiny.
Yes, absolutely. So when I was dealing with cancer, I realized that so much of it is what we manifest in our thoughts. I mean, every religion has this in it. Every spiritual practice understands this. And it’s just us getting back to that—and cannabis helps us. I could talk for days on that.
I think we all want you to talk for days about that.
I’m going to play music and talk about it. That’s the best way to really let it get in.
Are you going to play “Ain’t That Bad” tonight?
Oh my gosh … now I am, yeah.
Because of the lyrics?
My whole thing that I say about myself is: Speak the truth. I used to say that about being gay, but it applies to everything. When I came out and was able to talk about being gay and be the one to answer those questions, I realized how powerful that was. Ten years ago, I said: “I’m going to come out as a cannabis smoker, and I’m going to answer the questions.” So that’s how I have walked.
“Ain’t That Bad” came about because I was recording with this rapper named Rockstar, and I said, “Here, try … I have a ‘sunny stick,’ which is a honey stick. It’s amazing.” We shared it, and he said, “What is that?” I said, “This is a Sunny Day Honey Stick.” And he kept saying, “What is that? That’s a sugar-pie honeycomb?” So the first lyric of the song is “I’ve got a sugar-pie honeycomb / I’ve got a Sunny Day Honey Stick.” You’ve got to walk the walk, and you’ve got to tell the world what you’re doing.
Tell us about your cannabis-infused wine.
In California, we are doing some crazy things. One of the things is infusing cannabis into wine. It’s something that they’ve been doing since biblical days. They found clay pots with cannabis and wine all together. They weren’t afraid of it like we are now.
So this is something that’s been underground for quite a long time, and I thought, “This needs to be brought to the surface.” I’ve got some really great people who are working behind it and working step by step through the legal system, through the political system.
Right now, it’s a medicine. It’s medicinal in California because it’s a wine tincture—you can make a medicine with alcohol. It’s just a really expensive alcohol that we’re making the tincture out of. But it’s fabulous. It’s not like an edible, in that the cannabinoids aren’t—the THC is not released by heat, so you don’t have THC. You only have more CBD; you have more THCA. It’s much more of a body thing, and there’s even things that they don’t have tests yet for, I believe, that happen when the grapes and the cannabis ferment together. It’s a lovely taste. I can’t wait until it comes to the world.
Have you ever grown your own weed?
It is not easy at all. Growers, oh, love, respect to you. [Cheers] You give such love, and when you partake of that strain, you can feel the love and the attention put into all those plants. But I’m not growing this year. I’m not there to grow. You have to be there every day. They’re like children.
Do you prefer indica or sativa?
It depends. I’m indica at night. A little indica and it’s nighty-night, Melissa, you know? I’m sativa when I’m doing something. When I’m performing, it’s sativa; when I’m writing, it’s sativa. But if I have to deal with my family, not sativa, because that’s like too much coffee. I like a hybrid during the day.
What’s your favorite time to blaze?
You know, my favorite time is when the kids are asleep, and you don’t have to worry about their lives anymore. They’re asleep. There’s my wife. There’s a bath. There’s some good music. Yeah, it’s about 8:20 every night—not 4:20, but almost 9.
How do you talk to your kids about marijuana?
I’m very open about it. I have teenagers, 19 and 17, and I have two 9-year-old twins. Now the teenagers were about 8, 9, 10 when I was coming into the advocacy of this, when I really started saying, “Look, this is what I do, and I don’t want to be thought of as a criminal.” So I sat them down and I said, “Your mama smokes pot.” And it was kind of young for them for me to do that, but I was afraid someone else was going to talk to them.
My daughter, she’s going to Columbia University. She’s very studious and probably smokes, you know, socially when she can. My son is a card carrier. He uses it medicinally.
I believe that it can help so many young people if we really, really open up and stop being so afraid of it, of what it’s going to do to them, because it actually can help them so that they don’t turn to other drugs, and so we can get them off of Ritalin and these horrible speed things that we put them on.
Now my 9-year-olds, they have known “Mama’s medicine” from day one. They know that that plant and that smoke and that glass pipe and all of that is Mama’s medicine, and it’s as much medicine as their friend’s OxyContin, and it’s not for them to touch. It’s a grown-up thing, and it’s medicine. I have always called it “medicine.”
Do you feel we’re progressing in regard to getting non-consumers involved in advocating for marijuana?
All over the nation, you can see states having a real discussion about it. I mean, there’s still some of the ridiculous stuff: “It really makes you stupid,” that sort of thing. Yet there are more and more people stepping up and saying, “This is medicine.” This is a medicinal discussion that we’re having.
So much of it has to do with our minds and all the things that are connected with plants and the earth and just a different way to think about it. So we, as a people, we are driving this change. It just takes people with patience and a sort of belief. I don’t know how many years it’s going to take, but I’ve always believed that if we just all start this, we’ve got to get there. And we have. I look back two years: Two years ago, it wasn’t this comfortable. I think we’re doing amazing things. What it’s going to take are people who don’t necessarily want to smoke, but really want to see a healthier family and a healthier country. We can do it.
For tour dates and more information, go to melissaetheridge.com.