Soooo…one of the last times I really engaged with cannabis was at the San Francisco Pride Parade a few years back. I bought this edible from a kind man on the street and ended the festivities asleep on a train, looking like a cracked out Lisa Frank wet dream—it…wasn’t a cute look.
I spent the next few days shaming myself for my life choices, looking for some deep rooted reason as to why I would behave this way. And then I realized, maybe I wasn’t judging myself because of the choices I made…maybe it was because I’d been taught to judge this activity… And then I remembered…
“Drugs are Satan’s toys that lure you to the depths of hell.” —some pastor—
Fuck, growing up in the United States of Texas was a real treat. Life was a poo-poo platter full of things to avoid lest you be drug to the deepest pits of hell. But don’t say drug…that’s a one-way ticket straight to Satan’s living room. Never mind the myriad pills everyone’s legally prescribed…drugs are different…they’re BAD.
In the south, the word ‘drugs’ included everything illegal—cannabis notwithstanding. Or, as so many good southern women call it, ‘the pot.’ And, to be fair, at the time, it was illegal in most states, so, as a child, I bought into the stigma.
I didn’t want to do anything ILLEGAL, and I didn’t want to be like the ‘stoners’ the media was showing me—so, I avoided it. I had been taught that smoking pot made you a lazy, unmotivated, bleary eyed loser, and after ending that pride parade looking like a messy little unicorn, I started to feel like one of them—further buying into the storyline of my upbringing and the media. How could I not?
That was the only narrative I was exposed to.
I’ve since changed my mind, but I would argue that the modern, mainstream representation of cannabis from the likes of Justin Bieber or Wiz Khalifa had little to no impact on that—in fact, they had an adverse effect on my opinion.
By playing into the stereotypical ‘weed culture’ that the media has expertly tainted and my childhood has warned me against, they’re further bolstering the platform of the resistance. This reality and culture exists, and there’s nothing innately wrong with it, but showing this as the face of cannabis won’t change minds.
Seeing smart, successful, put-together, ‘mainstream’ humans of all races engaging with the drug will.
Seeing business executives, editors, guys I dated who used cannabis to quell their anxiety or the effects of their life sustaining medication, mothers, and the founders of EstroHaze are what moved the needle for me—but my experience is anecdotal.
How do we change the conversation at large? How do these ‘mainstream’ folk become the face of cannabis? The power of the media is in our hands—it should be easier than it is. What’s standing in the way?
Our parents, or our elders, planted our first seeds of influence, shaping our thoughts and opinions on the world. It only makes sense—these were the people teaching us the lessons about right and wrong, good and bad, etc. Because most of these elders came of age in the 70s…it made me wonder…did this generation really believe pot was a scary thing that would ruin our lives? I didn’t buy it.
Why was this their messaging?
In an attempt to understand the root of their cautionary tales, I looked back at the media’s treatment of pot in the 70s…and then I realized I was looking in the wrong place. The messaging they received didn’t come from the 70s—it came from the 30s—the messaging their elders had received. What I found was interesting.
See, according to the census, between 1910 and 1930 Mexican immigration tripled from 200,000 to 600,000, though, to be honest, the number is probably much larger. During this time, the anti-immigrant sentiment was a pulsating beast, permeating the lives of Americans as they attempted to protect their homeland.
Good thing we’re not like that anymore…oh, wait…
In an effort to unify the masses, papers began messaging against immigrants in the form of political cartoons and the like, using different angles to attack specific races and cultures. To create hostility towards the Mexicans, they chose to capitalize on their recreational use of Marihuana.
The Austin Texas Statesman reported that “Marihuana is a Mexican herb…,” while the Rocky Mountain News claimed that weed was, “…used almost exclusively…by the Mexican population employed in the beet fields.” The Montana Standard described the passing of an anti-Marihuana bill through the legislature as such:
Marihuana is Mexican opium, a plant used by Mexicans and cultivated for sale by Indians. “When some beet field peon takes a few rares of this stuff,” explained Dr. Fred Fulsher of Mineral County, “he thinks he has just been elected President of Mexico so he starts out to execute all his Political enemies. I understand that…they stage imaginary bullfights in the ‘Bower of Roses’ or put on tournaments for the favor of ‘Spanish Rose’ after a couple of whiffs of marihuana….” Everybody laughed and the bill was recommended for passage.
By the end of the 30s, the media had broadened their reach from newspaper coverage to movies, with films like Reefer Madness. A 1936 cautionary tale against the dangerous pitfalls of marijuana, the film depicts teens engaging in attempted rape, manslaughter, suicide, hallucinations, and ultimately a descent into madness due to their marijuana addiction. This film spawned the release of others in the genre, which included Assassin of Youth, and Marihuana, all focusing on the similarly ‘detrimental effects’ of the drug—and their scare tactics worked.
In 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, effectively criminalizing the drug.
As time progressed, and the conversation around the drug changed, so did the media’s treatment. Marijuana became prevalent again in the 1960s, and with the fear-mongering tactics of the 30s and 40s feeling passé, a tone of judgement and moral superiority pervaded.
In 1967, LIFE magazine released an article profiling pre-teens and their relationship with marijuana. In the end, the author, Albert Rosenfeld, was left wondering about his subjects:
“It remains to be seen how socially damaged they will become by living in such outright violation of both law and cultural taboo.”
As publications continued to tout moral superiority, the legal tone of the 1970s was a progressive one and we began to see marijuana’s decriminalization. In response, the media took an interesting stance…a more pervasive angle.
This is where it starts to get interesting. Because of the meteoric rise of marijuana as a cultural zeitgeist, it was no longer fruitful for the media to stand against the drug. In fact, they ‘embraced it’ by releasing films such as Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke.
On the surface, it would appear that the media had taken a 180 degree turn, but why? Why would they shift their treatment so dramatically of something they stood in staunch opposition of over the last 70 years?
They didn’t—they just changed their approach. People were going to smoke. It was too ingrained in the culture—there’s nothing anyone could do about that. They’d been trying to control it since the turn of the century, ultimately, to fruitless results. So, instead of condoning it, they demonized it…passive aggressively.
There is nothing in Cheech and Chong’s films, or any others in the genre, Half Baked, Dazed and Confused, Scooby Doo, even Clueless or Mean Girls that paint pot smoking characters in a positive light. They may be funny, but they’re not succeeding. You may root for them to come out ahead, but the writing still co-signs the conservative sentiment. It’s genius.
They are pandering to both audiences by seemingly embracing the drug, but ensuring that the users are painted in such a light that the conservatives can still use their behavior against them.
And it’s still happening today. Explore the media’s treatment…it’s more of the same. Even the liberal minded TMZ includes salacious, click-bate headlines such as, Justin Bieber Back in the Danger Zone Smoking Weed Onstage?. Really? ‘The Danger Zone?’ This headline looks like it could be plucked from the papers of the 30s with their sentiment of “Killer Weed.”
How are we still here?
According to the Washington Post, roughly 64% of the whole population agrees with marijuana legalization, but only 51% of republicans do. The conversation shouldn’t be this hard.
I mean…this battle, to some extent, has been going on for 100 years. And the media is riding the same, tired storyline, now reverting back to tactics from the 30s. It’s time to change the conversation.
It’s time to combat the media’s messaging from NINETEEN-THIRTY and present them with a counter argument they’ve never seen—the medicinal and recreational use by upstanding ‘mainstream’ professionals of all races.
We have been brainwashed by the media when it comes to this, and it’s time to put an end to it. So, this is a call to action—it’s time to change the conversation. Talking to ourselves, about ourselves, isn’t an effective way to enact change. The mainstream has to step-up and challenge the stigma.
What role are you going to play?
Cole Grissom is a New Yorker, writer, singer, unapologetically bold fuckery expert.