How social attitudes toward cannabis are changing across the world
In the past century, smoking weed has become a symbol of the 1960s counterculture movement, been public enemy number one in America, and conjured colorful images of morally-corrupt delinquents. But the times they are a-changin’. Shifting public opinion has led to a growing legalization movement, myth-busting, and new social norms.
“These high school boys and girls are having a hop at the local soda pop. Innocently they dance. Innocent of a new and deadly menace lurking in closed doors. Marijuana: the burning weed with its roots in hell.”
That’s how the trailer for the 1936 American film Reefer Madness opens, spoken in a menacing, reverberant voice as preppy teens jive and twirl. The film goes on to depict what happens when you smoke marijuana: hallucinations, murder, suicide, insanity.
Originally financed by a church group as a morality tale about the dangers of marijuana, Reefer Madness stands as a classic symbol of anti-cannabis propaganda. Over the decades, those fears calcified as a deeply embedded social stigma.
Around eight decades later, the perception of cannabis has dramatically changed. Since the early 2000s, an increasing number of countries in North America, South America, and Europe are decriminalizing the plant, which means that simple possession is no longer considered a criminal offense.
Harkening back to its use as a pharmaceutical throughout the 19th-century medical cannabis is now legal in over 40 countries. Touted for its medicinal superpowers, one of the plant’s main active ingredients, cannabidiol (CBD), is popping up in bath bombs, dog treats, smoothies, and seemingly everything in-between. It is so prevalent that CBD-infused products can be found in your average department store—or even the medicine cabinet of your grandparents.
Pop culture’s portrayal of cannabis has also changed. While the unscrupulous tokers and pushers of Reefer Madness were viewed as morally deranged criminals, the stoners of films like Pineapple Express and Kevin Smith’s Clerks, or the HBO show Broad City, are seen as harmless and lovable.
Coinciding with the rise of medical cannabis and decriminalization is a general shift in public opinion. A 2019 study in Social Science Research found that in 1988, only 24% of Americans supported recreational legalization, by 2018 the approval rating had jumped to 66%. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, 59% of the British public support legalization.
As cannabis becomes more socially acceptable, we are in the process of understanding the plant more than ever before—how to talk about it and how to ensure it positively impacts the world as it continues to enter the mainstream.
While myths surrounding cannabis as a mania-inducing, murderous grass from hell have dissipated since the days of Reefer Madness, some stubborn misconceptions persist. For cannabis companies and pro-legalization groups, a major part of the new cannabis discourse is dispelling these common myths and educating the public.
Think back to middle school health classes, when D.A.R.E. programs and Just Say No campaigns warned that cannabis was a gateway drug. Teachers cautioned that smoking weed even once would lead to a downward spiral of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other hard drugs. But since the term “gateway drug” was popularized in the 1980s during the “war on drugs,” researchers have largely dismissed the gateway theory. In 1999, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences declared, “there is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”
Perpetuated by conservative politicians, another myth linking legalization and a spike in violence has also been debunked. A 2014 study published in the scientific journal PLOS One found that rates of crime did not increase after medical marijuana was legalized. The study determined that “robbery and burglary rates were unaffected by medicinal marijuana legislation, which runs counter to claims that dispensaries and grow houses lead to an increase in victimization.”
What’s in a Name?
There’s no more obvious way to see the mainstreaming of cannabis than how the vernacular has evolved over the last decade. Slang terms like kush, Mary Jane, chronic, ganja, grass, devil’s lettuce, herb, and jazz cigarettes have mostly fallen by the wayside. In contrast, technical terms like cannabinoid, hybrid, and terpene have become common in cannabis marketing and advertising. Even just a few years ago, telling friends that a strain was “high CBD” would be met with blank stares; now understanding the differences between THC, CBD, and hybrids is common knowledge for regular cannabis users.
The word “marijuana” is almost nonexistent in post-legalization circles. Likely derived from Spanish-Mexican slang, “marijuana” entered the popular lexicon in the US in the early 20th-century via powerful prohibitionist movements that used the word to pander to anti-Mexican sentiments. These factions suggested that marijuana or “locoweed” incited violence among the Mexicans who smoked it (the mainstream media was especially guilty of spreading hysteria. Case in point, this 1925 headline from the New York Times: “Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife”).
Marred by these racist connotations, pro-legalization politicos, lobbyists, and weed brands almost exclusively use the more neutral term “cannabis.” Yet interestingly, an October 2019 study published in PLOS One found that in the United States, there’s no evidence that the public distinguishes between the terms “marijuana” and “cannabis” when considering legalization, moral acceptance of its use, tolerance of related activities, perceptions of the drug’s harms, or user stereotypes.
The Changing Etiquette of Cannabis
As the language, legal status, and culture around cannabis changes, so does the etiquette. Up until very recently, weed etiquette has been shrouded in a puff of social codes. Some are innocuous and common knowledge, like when sharing a joint, whether with close friends or strangers huddled outside a house party, always passing to the left. Or that it’s good manners to never “bogart” a joint, i.e. hold it for too long, a reference to the way Humphrey Bogart would let a cigarette dangle from his mouth without actually smoking it.
As for cannabis in the public sphere, sometimes the law ends up shaping social norms. For example, in Canada, where cannabis is legalized federally, smoking and vaping are prohibited inside restaurants, cafés, bars, and in any other public building. But outside, tokers are far more conspicuous. Even before legalization, in major cities, it was not unusual to catch a whiff of the pungent, skunky smell while walking down the street, at outdoor music festivals, or in large parks.
When it comes to weed in the workplace, most employers will not approve of an employee showing up to work high and giggly, just as they wouldn’t condone someone arriving at the office drunk. But other rules are less black and white, and often depend on individual workplaces. If ordering a glass of wine or a pint of beer at a work lunch is all right, is taking a hit from a legal THC vape pen any different? And if you have a public-facing job, can your employer prohibit you from posting weed-related photos on social media? In countries with legal recreational and medicinal cannabis, more companies are now including sections about cannabis use in their employee handbooks.
The Future of Cannabis in Society
As cannabis becomes more ingrained in society, our understanding of the plant will continue to mature. Part of that evolution is how we talk to kids about cannabis—not as a life-ruining bogeyman, but as a plant that can be used as a medicine, or for relaxation and fun. Undoing stigmatization involves showcasing the vast diversity of cannabis users: athletes who use CBD to alleviate pain, parents who nibble on edibles at dinner parties, seniors who take CBD capsules to help them sleep, or millennials obsessed with infused lotions and tinctures. Despite the scare tactics of Reefer Madness and D.A.R.E. programs, a new era demonstrates how cannabis can be used as a catalyst for positive change.
Delve into the monumental cultural shift behind cannabis and explore the beaming new businesses and creatives arising from its legalization through High on Design.