New York has decriminalized cannabis, but has culture and society?
As states legalize recreational cannabis use, friends, neighbors, and coworkers might begin looking at each other differently. Some people feel okay talking about their cannabis use, while others aren’t too sure yet. The stigma around using cannabis may be waning, but it isn’t gone yet.
To better understand the stigma in the United States, it’s essential to look at the history of the flower first.
Before the 1930s, cannabis was legal, and it was even incentivized in some areas. In 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed federally and placed a tax on the sale of cannabis, hemp, or marijuana. Although the law did not criminalize cannabis, it did impose hefty fines and jail time on those who did not pay taxes.
In 1970, the War on Drugs began. The initiative aimed to stop illegal drug use, distribution, and trade by dramatically increasing prison sentences for both drug dealers and users. With the Controlled Substances Act, marijuana, LSD, heroin, and ecstasy were classified as class one drugs and the Drug Enforcement Administration was created. These measures allowed for jail time for possessing more significant amounts as well as a path for the 1980s Anti-Drug Abuse Act and its mandatory sentences for possession and dealing. This act was the first to base the penalties on the amount of the drug involved.
The media and lobbyists soon pushed the idea that marijuana was a hard drug that should be penalized as harshly as addictive, more dangerous drugs. According to a 1994 interview published in Harper magazine with President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, he explained that the campaign knew that to disrupt Black communities and the anti-war left, they could get “the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin.” This allowed them to arrest leaders and break up meetings.
As these narratives were pushed, stereotypes began to form, portraying those who used cannabis as lazy, dirty, and irresponsible. This type of narrative has persisted and allowed for continued social inequalities today. One Colorado study even showed that when the media used criminal or stoner stereotypes, they were more likely to cast racial minorities than white people.
In the 1980s and 90s, society began to accept marijuana more openly, but many people were still being arrested for possession and held in jail regularly. The unlawful drug use created a stigma in workplaces and certain social circles. Studies have proven that as laws relax around the drug, the stigma lessens. In one study, researchers compared seven European countries with different levels of cannabis criminalization and showed that the stigma was the most intense in the places where cannabis laws were the most disciplinary.
While these studies have shown that the less punitive the measures for cannabis use, the more society accepts cannabis, we are not presently living in a world without cannabis stigma. Often, cannabis users feel isolated and feel it is unsafe to share their use unless they have a higher economic or social status. Some users noted that they feel they must work harder to prove themselves if others know they use cannabis.
So, how long will it be before we can casually mention lighting up after work the same way we talk about having a glass of wine? And how do we help society get there?
The increasing knowledge and research around cannabis are starting to tear down the stereotype with information that directly negates it. The use of medical marijuana has been more widely accepted, and now cannabis has been shown to benefit those who use it for both pain relief and to alleviate mental health issues. Research has found that a substantial number of people manage symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, trauma, and chronic pain with cannabis.
Individually, you can help tear down the stereotype by investing in your community, educating yourself on the facts about marijuana, and donating to social equity platforms to ensure that the cannabis business allows minority owners access to capital.