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July/Aug 2017 Cover Story: Weed Warrior

Nothing gets between Melissa Etheridge and the fight for equality and freedom…

By Nelson Branco

There’s no such thing as a day off for a human rights activist—especially considering the several hot messes running government these days and the myriad debates surrounding security/privacy, non-traditional gender and sexual discourse, and the impact of technology/social media on our ever-changing culture.

Which why Melissa Etheridge isn’t resting on her laurels.

The Leavenworth, Kansas, native not only became a breakout superstar (thanks to her blues-rock sound, smoky/raspy voice and groundbreaking lyrics she made a signature of on her first titular album Melissa Etheridge in 1988), but she also became an LGBTQ icon when she publicly came out of the closet as a lesbian in January 1993 at a gay event honouring Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Ah, those were the days.

Today, Etheridge has a different fight on her hands: the legalization of marijuana in North America.

In Toronto, and elsewhere, pot dispensaries are being raided and shut down. Employees and owners are being arrested despite the fact that Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has promised legalization before July 1, 2018.

Much like the infamous 1981 Bathhouse Raids in Toronto, lives are being ruined due to passive-aggressive, hypocritical and counterproductive bureaucracy and politicking—but that’s nothing new for fearless game changers like Etheridge. Or any gay person who fought for liberation in the past four decades. (Ironically, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders launched the Project Claudia pot raids last spring, a month before he apologized for Operation Soap, the police name for the Bathhouse Raids. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 30 years for the cops’ next mea culpa.)

In an interview with IN, the 57-year-old Gemini says, “I’ve heard about Toronto’s pot raids. Listen, there is always a big pushback right before the giant leap forward. Fortunately, our freedom fighters in Canada—and we have them in California too—are strong, loud, organized, and not giving up. You can’t blame the law enforcement because they are confused: they need retraining and re-education.”

The marijuana fight is a personal one for Etheridge. In October 2004, the Hollywood Walk of Fame inductee was diagnosed with breast cancer. Through the ravages of chemotherapy and the relentless torture the disease unleashes, a little green herb managed to improve her mood, increase her appetite and propel her back into a more functional life.

One of Etheridge’s most powerful and compelling performances to date occurred when the then-bald crooner returned to the Grammy Awards stage in 2005 after chemo and surgery, and wowed the audience by singing “Piece of my Heart,” which was a tribute to one of her heroes, Janis Joplin.

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Now cancer-free, Etheridge is still using medical cannabis for “acid reflux or anxiety and stress.”

Just add this passion to her dedication to the cause of environmental awareness and issues: Etheridge scored an Academy Award in 2007 for her song “I Need to Wake Up” in Al Gore’s doc An Inconvenient Truth (that award was in addition to her two Grammys.) Etheridge sees many parallels between the pot revolution and the fight for gay liberation/marriage equality.

She says it’s all about visibility and being proud: “It really comes down to people coming out to friends, family and co-workers as a smoker and proclaiming proudly, ‘I’m a good person, I have a job and I’m not into hard drugs. Like opening up about your sexuality, one by one, we can change people’s hearts and minds.”

She’s such a fan of medical—and recreational—marijuana that she is also a producer of newly legalized cannabis products in California from her eponymous Etheridge Farms. Her most buzzed-about product? Cannabis-infused wine. Yep, you read that correctly.

While many warn that marijuana should not be mixed with alcohol, Etheridge appears to have created a hybrid elixir that is the best of both worlds. She relays, “It’s been around since biblical times. My brand, No Label, infuses cannabis into the wine. Unlike edibles, we don’t heat the cannabis so the THC isn’t released. This way, you only get all the positive elements from the plant. It’s a full-body high without too much of the euphoria. One glass of cannabis wine will give you the effect of three glasses, so you drink less but you feel relaxed and it doesn’t have the psychotropic effects.”

Despite a few hurdles, she’s confident the marijuana community will win this fight too.

All you have to do is open a history book.

Playing #ThrowbackThursday, Etheridge recalls, “In 1989, I was in Germany when the Berlin wall came down. It was a huge eye-opener for me because I witnessed, in that moment, how people can change the world. That’s when I knew we could win the fight for LGBT rights. So I’m not surprised how much change has happened in the world—even in the past 10 years. I’ve seen much change in my lifetime and I hope it continues.”

Etheridge learned a lot during her coming out at a time when there wasn’t a rule book for celebrities—and many feared the decision to be personally transparent was career suicide (even though it rarely is).

“It was scary,” she admits. “I had to tell myself not to worry about the ramifications and to be myself every day. I’m proud of myself, for sure, and I would say to myself back then: ‘Well done!’ It was an interesting journey of just talking about being gay for two years, which is weird! But, at the end of the day, there was no downside to me coming out.”

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With gay marriage legal federally in America but with a certain madman in the White House, Etheridge hasn’t sounded the alarm over concerns about LGBTQ rights being overturned or threatened…yet.

Etheridge sighs, “We need our leaders to be vigilant more than ever, especially these days because we have seen a backlash. Here in America, we have states that are still trying to outlaw same-sex marriage. And don’t get me started on the trans bathroom issue! I mean, come on! You really want to waste your time, energy and money to drag us back?”

LGBTQ rights will always have to be maintained and we cannot take them for granted, she says: “We have to always be on guard because there are people out there who will vilify us because of the fear they were raised on. Listen, I’m sure there are some people out there who write off me or my music because I like women. I think my music would never have resonated as much had I stayed in the closet. But that’s fine with me because the majority of people just see me being a lesbian as just one part of myself.”

In honour of Gay Pride season, IN asks her whether or not it is time for our community to reinvent the celebrations and bring it back to its smaller, more thoughtful roots instead of being the commercial and marketing extravaganza it has become in recent years.

“Pride is important, but absolutely the most important thing to be is out,” she stresses. “And Pride does help with that process. Sometimes the first public event an LGBTQ person attends and feels safe at is Pride, so I don’t want it going anywhere.”

And what does she think of the big social and cultural mysteries of the day? Will the millennial community help save the world or will it just become complacent and self-involved thanks to our increasingly narcissistic culture?

As a Gen Xer, Etheridge answers, “I love them! My oldest, my daughter Bailey [Jean Cypher], is a full on millennial! The key to them is that they wield a group mentality. They understand the tribe is stronger together versus individuals. I think the issues of the world and the opposition to evolution will be a dusty path one day thanks to them. My daughter goes to Columbia University and I hear what her generation is talking about—and it’s very impressive. I think our generation did a great job teaching them to judge someone on the content of their character—and that’s a great message to share with the world.”

As for her professional future, Etheridge reveals she’s making new music. She says, “The plan is to start writing a new album at the end of the year. There’s so much material out there to write and sing about! It’ll be a new project, but I’m still trying to figure it out. I’m thinking I’ll be touring at the end of the year. I get inspired by cannabis and music, which go hand in hand. Cannabis enhances music and deepens it into our soul and emotional life. I want a Melissa Etheridge dispensary where you can smoke, write and listen to music at the same time.”

Sign us up!

NELSON BRANCO is the editor of 24 Hours Toronto newspaper. As a contributing editor, he’s penned pieces for magazines like Hello Canada, People, TV Guide and online sites like Huffington Post. He’s also worked as a TV producer for Breakfast TV, The Marilyn Denis Show, CTV News and Sun News Network. You can follow him at @nelliebranco.

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