On Defeating The Cannabis Stigma
Consumers from all different backgrounds are helping change the perception of the plant.
In a recent CBS Mornings News segment, the program’s co-host Tony Dokoupli conducted a few on-the-street interviews in the studio’s New York base, where personal cannabis use has been legalized for months. The clip, however, focused on the disconnect between the laws and the reticence of those interviewed to talk about their cannabis use in a public forum. And this is in a state where employers are expressly forbidden from taking action against employees who choose to partake in the activity. Even at the end of the segment, Dokoupli hesitated to discuss whether he consumed or not himself — and that’s with him recounting earlier his own father’s cannabis bust in the ‘80s during the height of America’s War on Drugs. So clearly, the stigma they confronted isn’t merely a concern of interview subjects, but also of the hosts and most likely, many people who would have to answer the question with all America watching.
While laws can change relatively quickly, the larger culture still has a way to go before the stigma built up around cannabis finally dissipates. Studies have shown that even those who consume cannabis have internalized many of these stigmas about their own use and it prevents honest dialogue from taking place or healthy social customs from forming. The stigma is especially damaging for those who stand to benefit from cannabis’s medical utility as well. Good work, however, is being done not only to understand how stigma works to uphold outdated ideas about cannabis, but how to dismantle it. While it’s time-consuming labor, it’s already starting to bear positive results.
THE SHAME GAME
Anyone growing up in DARE-era America has seen the public service announcements, heard the jokes, or otherwise heard from various authority figures, from teachers to politicians to their own parents, of the “dangers” of cannabis. We all know what they are, precisely because so much money, time and resources have been spent drilling the messages home, while contradicting history regarding the plant’s medical efficacy and relative safety were suppressed for decades. As one study that interviewed 92 cannabis users in pre-legalization Canada found, even those who have consumed the plant for years are not immune from their influence.
For instance, take the “gateway theory,” which posits that cannabis leads to harder drugs. Among the people polled for this study, use of any other substances was reportede by less than 10% of those polled. Moreover, the only crime those interviewed had committed was related to buying cannabis on the unregulated market. Yet these consumers, in their interviews, felt the need to distance themselves from the stereotypical “undesirable user.” One user, a 49-year-old nuclear power plant operator, worried “I feel fear and guilt from my family and the general social structure. Society tells me that I’ll go on to be a heroin addict, or that I’m very off to the side. They also took pains to assert that their use was moderate and under control, if only to counteract the perception the “dope fiend” stereotype occasionally associated with non-medical users.
In particular, some of these users expressed squeamishness about using cannabis among co-workers, even if their own bosses used cannabis themselves. If you’ve heard in the past that “pot makes you lazy,” you may find yourself defaulting to this negative association even though you know better. The biggest internal conflicts emerged among parents and how their own cannabis use could be squared with the decisions they want their own children to make. One daycare operator shared with the researchers: “I don’t tell my son how much I smoke. I think he’ll get the wrong message . . . If you have respect, it can be beneficial. But I think my son would jump to conclusions if he knew I smoked every night . . . He would do it more if he knew about me . . . I don’t want my son to think that his mom is a druggie.”
Understand that these interviews were conducted in 2004, fourteen years before Canada fully legalized, and long before cannabis merged with the wellness industry. And while state legalization apparently has not defeated lingering stigmas, little by little, developments around the margins are beginning to take root.
RACING TOWARDS NORMALIZATION
Just two days before 420, the Boston Marathon brought some of the world’s fastest runners together to race over 26 miles. The insurance company John Hancock sponsored a team, and as it turns out, the cannabis company Momenta supplied “Survivor” star Ethan Zohn with products from its line. As a cancer survivor, Zohn has firsthand experience not only with his own initial squeamishness about using a plant he was taught to see as dangerous, but also with the difficulties in trying to procure the plant back in 2009 once he learned of its efficacy. “I was literally going to the streets of New York City, bald with chemo, mask on and gloves, talking to a drug dealer,” Zohn told MetroWest Daily News. “And this was to help me get, like, medicine to help me feel better with cancer.” A Momenta representative said his brand ambassadorship stands as “a testament to cannabis becoming more normalized.’
Perhaps even more telling is Hawkeye Consulting, a “Christian cannabis consulting service” in Oklahoma, run by the Rev. Kent Hawkins and his wife Jennifer. The couple found their conversion through Jennifer’s utilization of the plant for multiple autoimmune disorders. Since then, they’ve steered canna-curious consumers towards “Hawkeye hotspots,” and stress the therapeutic benefits of the plant, tying it in with Biblical passages which stress stewardship of God’s creation.
According to Daniel Okrent’s alcohol prohibition history Last Call, it took thirty-seven years for per capita consumption of alcohol in America to rise to its pre-prohibition levels. So stigmatization takes time to erode, for sure, and it will take many forms. So stick a pin on the people who hesitated to talk about their cannabis use. In forty years, their kids will probably tell you a different story.