Cannabis users have borne stigma’s shame in the United States for over a hundred years. But today, more than half the country has legal cannabis, and our society teeters on the brink of a radical shift in perception about weed. But why is it still stigmatized when the weight of evidence proves the stigma false? And how do we reach the tipping point, where the old cannabis propaganda transforms into an honest dialogue about the actual benefits and risks of cannabis use? In this article, we’ll explore the stigma’s roots, how it’s perpetuated by the culture, and how we can continue destigmatizing cannabis for good.
Just what is a stigma? A stigma is a social badge that conveys some negative trait or affiliation. In the case of cannabis, the stigma is that cannabis consumers are lazy, stupid, and dangerous. This stigma has been propagated for over a hundred years through government propaganda and reefer madness-style movies that depict cannabis users as violence-prone criminals.
Did you know that weed used to be legal in the United States? Americans have known about marijuana’s medicinal benefits since the 1830s, thanks to Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy.
O’Shaughnessy observed that cannabis extracts eased cholera symptoms like stomach pain and vomiting. By the late 19th century, Americans could buy extracts in pharmacies and doctors’ offices for stomach aches, migraines, inflammation, insomnia, and other ailments.
But in 1920, when the Mexican Revolution ended, that all changed. Mexican immigrants looking for a better life flooded the borders, and the use of cannabis was a big part of their culture.
For the white ruling class already entrenched in their fear of black culture, this wave of Mexican immigration posed an intolerable fear of a nation turned black and brown. But cannabis propaganda provided a means to stigmatize, criminalize, and control black and Mexican culture.
At the time, William Randolph Hearst controlled a media empire that would dwarf today’s contenders. The Hearst media machine’s sensationalized yellow journalism linked “marihuana” use with insanity and murder. He also popularized the Spanish term for cannabis, marihuana, to tie the drug to anti-Mexican prejudice.
Harry Anslinger fanned the flames of Hurst’s stigmatization as the first director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger was brazen in his prejudice, overtly linking minorities and cannabis to violence and what he viewed as amoral interracial sexuality.
The propaganda worked. The stigmas stuck. By the 1930s, 29 states had banned our favorite plant.
The film Reefer Madness was released in 1936. The plot centered on some hapless teenagers seduced by evil drug dealers to try marihuana. Thus begins their descent into addiction, insanity, and murder. Interestingly, a church group initially produced this propaganda film to warn parents of the dangers of marijuana use. Then the indie film producer Dwain Esper bought the rights and promoted it as an exploitation film, tapping into the public fears about the plant.
Film is a powerful medium. But unfortunately, people tend to believe what they see. Today, Reefer Madness is a cult classic in cannabis culture. It’s a dark comedy and a prime example of something so bad, ridiculous, and absurd…that it’s almost good. But it’s important to remember that many modern films carry this legacy of stigmatization forward by portraying users as lazy, foolish, or worse.
One year after the release of Reefer Madness, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 (“MTA”) was passed, and the propaganda of Hurst and Anslinger became the law of the land. The law didn’t outlaw cannabis but instead implemented a tax burden so onerous it worked as a de facto ban. In 1969 the MTA was found to be unconstitutional in a famous case involving Timothy Leary, the Harvard professor turned counterculture icon and advocate for LSD.
To paint marijuana negatively, the Nixon administration created the Shafer Commission. However, this was no unbiased study — it was a way for Nixon to target groups he disliked. However, Committee Chairman Ray Shafer was not on board with Nixon. His commission concluded that cannabis posed no serious threat to public health and safety and recommended decriminalization. Unfortunately, Ray Shafer and his committee were ignored.
In 1970, stigma became federal law when President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act. Cannabis was placed on Schedule I, reserved for only those drugs considered dangerous or unsafe, with a high potential for abuse, and have no currently accepted medical use. As a result, consumers were now stigmatized as drug addicts and abusers by federal law and the culture that supported it.
Arrests and incarceration for non-violent cannabis offenders skyrocketed in the wake of this new law. Mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes rules compounded the gross injustice. But the most appalling aspect of this new war on drugs was how these laws were disproportionately enforced and how this impacted minority communities.
During this time, African American men in the U.S. were incarcerated at four times the rate of black men in South Africa under apartheid. Moreover, the laws failed. There was no reduction in drug use, but countless lives were ruined, costing taxpayers billions.
The liberal Center for American Progress and the conservative Cato Foundation both characterize the war on drugs as 50 years of a federal policy based on a false premise and denial of evidence-based research.
Despite the proven failure of the war on drugs, it continues today. The Trump administration took a hard-line stance against cannabis and other drugs. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called for a return to “just say no” and mandatory minimums. The policy of mass incarceration continues, with people of color still bearing the brunt of the punishment.
The way through is to understand this history. We must acknowledge that our federal drug policy, state-sponsored propaganda, and the resulting stigmatization of cannabis users are not evidence-based. They result from racial and political agendas that are way more than flat-out wrong. They’re offensive. If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.
Even though wine is seen as a part of dinner and Weekend drinking at family events is normalized, alcohol is still an addictive substance that causes cancer. Uncle Bob passing out from too much drink might be funny, but an overdose will kill you. Though it may seem unlawful, alcohol is completely legal. Meanwhile, cannabis is non-toxic, not addictive, and has never been linked to a single death from overdose. It’s also illegal in most places. The cognitive dissonance is palpable.
The stigma is perpetuated by ignorance and misinformation. The best way to avoid being misled is to educate yourself and others. The first step is acknowledging the stigma and educating yourself on the various misperceptions out there.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders characterizes difficulty stopping use as Marijuana Use Disorder. The severity of the disorder depends on an individual’s situation. While it’s true that some people struggle to stop using, labeling weed addictive and stigmatizing users by putting it in the same box as heroin or booze is the same as putting it on Schedule I. Pure nonsense.
The Facts: You may get a bit uncomfortable quitting weed, but does that mean you have an addiction? Addiction is a word that attempts to characterize a person’s physical and biological dependency on something and the challenge they face to stop the behavior. So by that definition, you could say that weed may be addictive. But you could say the same thing about working out.
It sure seems like Hollywood wants you to think so. Unfortunately, the lazy stoner stereotype is so prevalent it’s cliche. Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, The Dude in The Big Lebowski, and Argyle in Stranger Things are all portrayed as lazy in film and television.
Is the stigma accurate?
A recent study looked at 274 adolescent and adult users and found them more capable of enjoying themselves and no less motivated than the non-user group. Moreover, the research also found no correlation between apathy and the frequency of use.
Beyond the science, what about this group of high achievers who get high:
Yes, Bill Gates. What do you think he’d say about the stigma? Probably something brilliant which would really help us break through on this next stigma!
While you might think it’s why you can’t remember what you had for breakfast, weed is not your problem.
In 2020, Scientific American published “Marijuana May Not Lower Your IQ.” That piece cited two studies that concluded there was no evidence that its use lowers IQ. But what’s really cool is the recent research that suggests cannabis may have neuroprotective qualities.
Ahhh, yes, the old gateway stigma. Cannabis use leads people to use other drugs. But the evidence shows that alcohol is the gateway drug
Interestingly, cannabis has shown to be a helpful harm-reduction strategy for those struggling with opioid addiction and alcoholism. It can be a healthier alternative to addictive narcotics or alcohol and has helped many people manage those addictions.
This one gets it so wrong. The exact opposite is true. A study published by the Cato Institute in 1999 titled “Drug Legalization, Criminalization, and Harm Reduction” found that criminalizing drugs causes violent crime, and the proceeds from illicit drug sales fund organized crime. Even our own FBI debunked this myth in their Uniform Crime Report, which stated that legal weed drops crime rates.
But if legalizing really drops crime, why do politicians, police unions, prosecutors, and private prisons all lobby against it? Systemic racism as a means of social control is one reason. Another is that arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating non-violent cannabis users is big business. We’ve built a massive prison industrial complex around criminalizing weed. Perpetuating the criminality stigma is about getting paid.
According to Gallup, public opinion on cannabis has evolved. 68% of Americans support cannabis legalization today. That’s more than at any point in the past 50 years. In 1969, just 12% favored legalization. We’ve come a long way. But how did we get here?
It’s been a siege, and the people on the front lines are the advocates for legalization.
Presently, 19 states have legalized recreational use, and medical use is legalized in 39 states. This is democracy as it’s intended. Grassroots activism changed the public opinion on cannabis for a majority of voters in more than half the country. They did that by telling the truth about this healing plant. That truth has spoken and changed the laws.
We love progress, but thousands of people are still in jail for cannabis. Therefore, we are only just beginning.
One word comes to mind. Activism. What is activism? It means taking action to improve humanity. Sadly, today the term activist invokes as much ridicule and condescension as it does admiration. Terms like “Social Justice Warrior “(SJW) are now used as a derogatory slur.
Moreover, activism itself has become stigmatized. Why is that? Most likely because activists are seen as threats to the status quo. See any parallels there?
So, where do you start?
The first step is always going to be to educate yourself. Read as much as you can about cannabis, its history, the science behind it, and the benefits and risks of use. Knowing what you’re talking about is essential before you open your mouth. No one wants to listen to someone who sounds like they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Once you understand the subject well, start sharing that information with others. This can be done in many ways. Have discussions with friends and family, write articles or blog posts, make videos or podcasts or even start your own organization. The important thing is to get the information out there.
If you’re not a user yourself, that’s OK. You can still be an ally. Allies are people who use their privilege to help marginalized groups. As a non-user, you can help by destigmatizing cannabis consumption and speaking up for users’ rights.
If you enjoy consuming cannabis, you can help by advocating. An advocate is someone who speaks up in support of something. As a part of the community, you can help destigmatize cannabis use simply by talking about your experience with it. Share your story. Let people know that you’re a functional, productive member of society who just happens to enjoy using cannabis.
Look for local organizations you can join that support rational, evidence-based policy. NORML is a great place to start.
Call your local representative and let them know cannabis is an important issue and what your views are. Then, at the state level, call your congressman to request that they participate in the congressional cannabis caucus.
The most important thing you can do to destigmatize weed is to talk about it with people who don’t share your views. Have a calm, rational discussion. Share your experiences and listen to theirs. Avoid getting defensive or attacking them. At the end of the day, you might not convert anyone, but you will have planted a seed, and that’s how social change happens.
If you’re not registered to vote, handle it! Publicly support candidates that support cannabis and make yourself heard at the ballot box.
It doesn’t matter if it’s time or money; the pro-cannabis movement always needs help. Unfortunately, that prison industrial complex is highly motivated to keep cannabis illegal, not to mention big pharma, spending a lot of money to protect their financial interests.
If you’re looking for worthy organizations, check out the Marijuana Policy Project.
Rallies and marches have always been powerful political tools to focus public attention on a cause. Today, there are tons of local cannabis rallies to support the cause. For example, the Global Marijuana March, AKA the Million Marijuana March, has been active since 1999. Over 800 cities in 72 nations around the world participate.
Whatever you do, don’t give up. The fight for cannabis legalization is a long one, but it’s a fight that can be won. Every day, more and more people are coming around to the idea that cannabis should be legal. We’re making progress, but there’s still a lot of work to be done!
Body and Mind stands as a beacon for cannabis destigmatization at our locations. Our name says it all. We believe that cannabis is beneficial for the body and mind.
At Body and Mind, we promise to always work tirelessly to share the truth about cannabis, whether in-store or through our commitment to online education at Body and Mind. So stop by one of our locations and learn more about what we’re doing to break the stigma around cannabis.
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