By Phyllis Pollack
Two-time Grammy winning, multi-platinum selling recording artist Melissa Etheridge has long been fearless when it comes to living her truths. In an interview with The 420 Times, the iconic singer-songwriter candidly discusses her use of medical marijuana, and how it has affected her life in very positive ways.
To say that her accomplishments are innumerable is an understatement. She has been nominated for Grammy Awards 13 separate years, winning twice. As a contributor to the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, Etheridge penned the composition “I Need To Wake Up,” which won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2006.
Honored with a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame in September, she has accomplished things on a personal level that are arguably even far greater than her musical achievements.
Just after the release of her 2004 album, ironically entitled “Lucky,” Etheridge was diagnosed with breast cancer. All promotion for the album was stopped, so that she could focus on surviving her cancer battle. In the midst of going through grueling chemotherapy, she was nominated for a 2005 Grammy Award for her performance of the song “Breathe.”
In response, Etheridge shocked the world, and showed her relentless strength by appearing on the Grammy stage entirely bald, delivering a surprise performance with Joss Stone, in a hard rock tribute to Janis Joplin. Etheridge played guitar and sang an electrifying version of “Piece of My Heart.” Arguably, that appearance resulted in what would become the most emotional moments to ever be witnessed during the 54 years that the Grammy Awards have ensued.
Thankfully, she survived cancer.
She has always been centered on her own personal truth, rather than image, which nowadays, is an increasingly rare quality for recording artists.
The “Come To My Window” singer came out, announcing her status as a lesbian in January 1993 at the Triangle Ball, a gay celebration of President Clinton’s initial inauguration. An outspoken gay rights activist, Etheridge, has long been at the forefront of many other issues.
In addition to achieving hits with songs like “I’m The Only One” and “Bring Me Some Water,” she is also a parent.
In the midst of preparing for her upcoming Fearless Love tour, when discussing 420 issues, Etheridge not only discussed her own use of medical marijuana with The 420 Times, but also used the interview as an opportunity to encourage others to stop hiding behind their own truths.
Etheridge alludes to the fact she has dropped a few hints, indicating how she feels about ganja laws. On her current album, Fearless Love, released in 2010, lyrics from her song “Miss California” can easily apply to cannabis: “Don’t you know what’s good for me can be good for you?”
Is it difficult for some recording artists to let it out that they use marijuana? Giving it some thought for a moment, Etheridge recalls her own predicament when she first came out about her use of marijuana. She says, “You know, I imagine it is. But it’s a tough one. I remember when I first came out about it. This is what I did. When I went through my chemotherapy, which was hideous, I got the release of medicinal cannabis. Then Stone Phillips came to my house. He was the one who I gave my only interview to.”
She remembers, “We did the interview after I sang on the Grammys, and I was bald, and just finishing chemo, and I pulled him aside, and I said, ‘I don’t want to do it right now, but I’m brave, and I want to talk about medicinal marijuana. I want to talk about the relief. I want to bring that up.’ So we did a follow-up about six months later, and I had forgotten all about it, and he brought it up to me, right on camera. Bang!” She laughs as she looks back on it. “So there it was!”
She recalls the moment in front of the camera. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what are my children…all those fears. But you just have to walk through it. And it’s how you hold it. That is what other people are going to see.”
Publicists in the entertainment business often control what artists are asked, and instruct them (and often the press) what to say and what not to say. The result of this has brought fears to many artists, especially when they get diagnosed with an illness. If they tell their record label, there is the very real possibility of not only promotion being ceased on their impending album release, fear of having an album release date pushed back, fear of future touring not slated, and a barrage of other concerns.
In Etheridge’s case, more than once, her own management told her to keep things secret from her fans. “You know, it seems to me that stigmas just find me,” she reflects, with a chuckle, again revealing her blatantly upbeat attitude. “I remember being told, ‘You can’t come out, you can’t come out about your sexuality. You’ll lose everything.’ Then I don’t have anything if I’m going to lose it over the truth. So I came out about that.”
Ehteridge followed that same logic when she was diagnosed. She discloses, “And as I walked that path, when cancer came, my manager, he said, ‘Do you really want to tell people what this is?’ And I said, ‘Of course, I do. I’m going through this, as an artist.”
She hopes to encourage others to follow her in that same courageous path. “You can live in fear. You can say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this, because I’m afraid,’ and that’s your life. You’re hiding and you’re bringing that shame upon yourself. Stand in your truth.”
There should be no shame in illness, as she notes, “There are so many people that are touched by cancer. Half of us. I’m willing to bet that half of us are dealing with something like that, and illness, forget it. We’re all out of whack about what our health is, with what we’re eating, and all that stuff. So it’s a health issue.” She asserts, “At this point, I just feel like truth is not worth living if it is not completely truthful.”
The people working in the “business” end of the music industry, at least publicly, act more conservatively than the recording artists do. “The business runs a lot on fear,” Etheridge explains of the gatekeepers. “They’re afraid that people are going to turn against their product. I don’t know if the artists are really so afraid, that’s not the nature of it.”
As far as her own decision to make her marijuana use public, she says she told her publicist, “I said, ‘I’m a big girl. I can handle anything. Don’t censor me.”
Despite her cancer being in remission, she continues to use it for acid reflux and stress, resulting from the intense demands of being an A-list performer. While many people get a pass for using cannabis for cancer, Etheridge was not concerned whether or not she would be judged negatively for continuing to smoke after her health battle was over.
She acknowledges, “You know, I’m a rock star, and so I really get a free pass.” She considers herself lucky in that way, and adds that because of her rock star status, her celebrity allows her more freedom. She reflects, “Yeah. For so many things I get a free pass. Like the gay thing. But because I was a rock star, I could say it, I could get up and do it. Even the cancer stuff.”
She adds, “And now this,” referring to her coming out about her use of medical marijuana. “That’s one of the reasons I decided to say, ‘You know what? I think people suffering in the dark about this, and being so afraid of it is detrimental to our health and our society. So can say this is good on so many levels, and don’t be afraid of it.”
Etheridge confirms that she has heard from other artists that they feel they should stay in the closet when it comes to their use of it, because so many people in the general public confuse the use of medical marijuana with drug abuse. “Oh, yeah,” she says emphatically, with a knowing laugh. “Oh, goodness. Most artists understand the power of cannabis, the power of empowering yourself, your creative mind, your health, your balance. It’s really clear.”
Etheridge sees that “Reefer Madness” is still very real to people. She concedes, “We also understand that society has just been fed this just fearful line for a hundred years, and worked up this monster of a machine against it.”
She says the way to fight the fear of standing up to peoples’ fears and opposition is that “One has to just hold it.” Etheridge explains, “I just try to walk through and say things, a little. Like, ‘I love that the California law protects me with my medicinal cannabis.’ And then I let people go into the conversation of what arrives to where they say, “You’re just saying that because you just want to smoke it.”
She emphasizes, “Because what is health?” She then points to her problem with acid reflux, for which cannabis gives her relief. Etheridge explains, “If something keeps you in health, and is preventative in health,” then it only makes sense to use it.
She offers an example of a situation that often plagues her, and it is one that could drastically affect her career as a singer. Acid reflux irritates her throat, which is not only unhealthy, but it can also cause vocal problems. Etheridge reveals, “I’m in a stressful situation, and I’m having dinner. I’m eating a little richer food than I normally would have, and I’m stressed, because I know that’s going to wreck my stomach, and I’m going to have acid reflux, which is then going to wreck my throat, and I can’t sing if that happens.”
Not only can acid reflux inflict pain on the esophagus, but also none of us would want Etheridge’s beautiful voice wrecked, or to see the prolific songstress be forced to cancel tour dates because of throat problems.
She then points out, “So what is wrong with a preventative thing, which is not addictive, and that is not going to give me constipation like opiates? The argument (against cannabis) just does not hold up.”
Clearly, there are a wide number of medical conditions that can affect the throat, and cause vocal problems that can end or delay a recording artist’s career. The health of one’s throat and is so crucial to a recording artist’s career that many A-list recording artists have chosen to take doctors on the road with them on their tours, in case problems arise.
Choosing to use medical cannabis left Etheridge with yet another important decision to make, considering that she needs to keep her critically acclaimed voice in mind. Would she opt to use edibles, or a vaporizer? She responds, “I use a water pipe. I don’t burn the stuff, because that’s when you get into trouble. It’s when you burn it all the way down. I am fortunate enough to not worry about how much I have, and the money that it costs. I make sure it’s green and good, and not burnt. Because that’s when you’re dealing with bad smoke, the tar and the stuff.”
Marijuana may be legal in California, yet in many other places, it is still prohibited. The laws change from state to state. For Etheridge, she is grateful it is lawful in California. However, isn’t it a hassle for her? How does she deal with being on the road, and forced to give up her medicine?
Etheridge confirms, “There are places I just don’t have that relief. And that’s fine. Cannabis is not addictive, so I’m fine.” Knowing that stress can accelerate negative physiological reactions, ranging from headaches to cancer, Etheridge has reached the conclusion, “It’s not worth it to be all worried, and all stressful. Worrying, ‘God, am I going to be able to headline?’ And the stress of worrying about it on the road.”
The critically acclaimed singer momentarily sounds as if she is in nirvana when she offers, “But in Europe like in the Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to go to a coffeehouse after the show, and sit with my friends, it’s delightful.”
She also feels cannabis affects her creative process as a recording artist. Etheridge enthuses, “That’s a whole another effect of the medicinal. It expands your consciousness that leads to health and creativity.”
Being a cancer survivor, maintaining her health is a priority. As an artist, she expounds, “Creativity is health. So it’s all hand in hand.”
Ehteridge is so serious about medical marijuana, that she says she wants to testify in Congress as to it its benefits. “Yes, ma’am. Whenever the time comes, I’m ready. Oh, sure. Yeah, and it will happen.” She even keeps a journal of talking points she wants to make.
While there are women’s groups supporting reform of cannabis laws, Etheridge says she does not see the use of cannabis as a women’s issue, but instead, she says, “I really feel it is a civil rights issue. It completely is. We have a right to our own health and relieving of pain. That’s a right, but also to explore consciousness, if I so wish.”
Aside from her self-acknowledged “rock star” status, Etheridge makes a point of getting people to understand, just as she did when coming out as being a lesbian, that people overcome their fears best when seeing good examples. She feels that an additional reason why she was not judged negatively for being a pot smoker is, “I think I superseded it. I came out very truthfully, and said, ‘This is what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. And my children are a good example, because I am a good, attentive mother. They are very well taken care of, and that speaks for itself.”
She advises medical marijuana users to “speak truthfully about it.” She articulates, “It’s the same, I see it as the gay rights thing. As long as people see gay as this weird sort of thing, as long as they don’t know their neighbors, people around them, are everywhere, that we are functional, contributing citizens, most of us. We are smokers, we are good people, we raise our children, we have a wonderful outlook on life, and choose to be very non-violent, and that the best thing we can do is just be a good example and come out as fearless about it. And say, ‘I’m not addicted. This is not addictive.”
“I see a lot of things coming very soon. The curtains are going to be pulled back on a lot of old myths and fears. And we’re all going to move ahead to a very exciting place, and we’re not afraid of so many boogey men in the closet any more,” she contends.
Meanwhile, Etheridge has a pretty busy schedule she maintains, noting, “I’m going out on tour next week, and I’m working on a new album I’m going to record in April.” When she realizes that April is 420 month, you can feel her glow as she says, “I love it!”