cannabis stigma

Essay: Let’s Talk Public Health and the Cannabis Stigma

I am a public health nerd and a cannabis advocate. I’d much rather relax and socialize with marijuana than with an alcoholic beverage. I’d much rather use cannabis to help me sleep than a sleeping pill that leaves me with a hangover. I’d much rather use cannabis for pain relief than a pain pill that leaves my digestive track a mess and my head foggy.

Marijuana has been in my life for 20+ years, I understand it. But with the end of prohibition in California, where are the public service announcements for new cannabis consumers?

Although cannabis has been in my life for a long time, I am new to the industry. As I begin to maneuver in the space, I notice a disconnect between city, community and the cannabis space/industry. There are a multitude of educational outlets for those seeking to start a cannabis business and those seeking medical use, but nothing on recreational. Even the medical use information solicits credibility. Unless you have a cannabis business, finding information in the cannabis community can be harsh. With the end of marijuana prohibition in California, non-consumers are curious!

More and more of my non-consuming friends and family are contacting me about legalities and first-time use. I send them to their state/city’s website concerning marijuana and give them tips for first-time use. They complain that a web search is overwhelming, they’re not sure what to trust, and city information is often buried and inaccessible. Unless you have a college degree in research, web searches question credibility.


Legislation often comes before public health. As this happens, public health departments have little time to “catch up.” Stigma also plays a huge role. A city wants to keep their public safe, but also has to please the whole community, including cannabis opponents. Stigma surrounding marijuana is so strong that it delays public safety campaigns.

Stigma can be read in tone. For example, the CDC reports on deaths nationwide. Their morbidity and mortality reports are calculated weekly. They calculate all death statistics; yet even though the CDC reports that no deaths occur from cannabis, but occur daily from alcohol (and tobacco), the stigma surpasses fact.

Take a look at the language and tone of the CDC pages on the topics of alcohol  and marijuana, notice the difference in social acceptance. Even though alcohol directly kills, on average, six people a day and cannabis still has zero direct deaths, alcohol consumption is socially acceptable and marijuana is not. Not to mention that the CDC’s information on cannabis is sadly outdated.

My city, Long Beach, is super hip with breweries and, soon to come, a whiskey distillery. There was even a “have-a-beer-with-the-mayor” event. Every time my friends meet up, someone (if not everyone) is drinking. It is such a huge part of American culture. It is how America socializes. We have public service announcements for alcohol-related DUIs, fetal alcohol syndrome, underage drinking, etc., but nothing for marijuana use.

California was the first to pass medical marijuana consumption in 1996 (21 years ago!), you would think they would also be the first on board with cannabis public safety announcements. 

Public health mostly has to do with awareness and behavior change. The idea behind public service announcements is to keep the public aware and safe. The end of marijuana prohibition is a huge adjustment to society—in a society that does not take change well; and where behavior is the most difficult to alter.

Image by: @cannaclusive

California public health departments should have prepared and rolled out campaigns in summer 2017. The California State Public Health Department just released (November 2017) a web page called, “Let’s Talk Cannabis,”. It’s actually informative, but who knows its there besides nerds like me that seek this information out. 

My city needs six more months before their campaign is introduced, that will put us in summer 2018. By that time, some people in my community will have had an ER visit because they had a difficult experience with first-time use, or they left their cannabis products in a place where children and pets could access it, or they incurred a fine or arrest for DUI or consumed in public.

The public, at large, does not seek out laws, but they do read billboards and sides of buses, watch commercials and listen to radio ads. Public health and cannabis storefronts need to step up, collaborate, break stigmas, and educate their communities.

Don’t let communities fail—help this social and cultural adjustment with education and PSAs. In the meantime, I will do my part to educate as much of my community as possible and help put that stigma to rest.

Find more about author Pam Chotiswatdi, MPH on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *