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The Changing Face of the Cannabis Consumer

Politicians routinely affirm their prior or recent cannabis use, medical marijuana is legal in 23 states, CBD is used to treat seizures in children, and hemp farms have taken root in the U.S.A. Today’s image of a cultivated cannabis consumer — a responsible, contributing adult member of society who uses marijuana for assorted medical or personal reasons — has required decades to redefine itself after generations of misinformation and prejudice. The journey, however, has not been altogether smooth.

For most of history, cannabis was simply a valuable agricultural crop. Hemp was grown by our nation’s founders, including Washington and Jefferson (who dubbed it a “necessity”) and subsidized by its government to promote commerce. Few westerners had ever smoked its fragrant female flowers. A typical 19th century consumer might be a bhang-drinking Sadhu holy man in India, a hookah-smoking Ottoman official or a tincture-sipping member of Britain’s royal family. Its exotic nature was sensationalized in fiction, conflated with opium and dreamscapes. Nobody thought much about the fact that cannabis was used safely in popular cough remedies, tonics to soothe infants and everyday medicines sold in pharmacies.

In the early 20th century the term “marihuana” was adopted in the yellow journalism press to mask the plant’s identity.-Chris Conrad

In the early 20th century the term “marihuana” was adopted in the yellow journalism press to mask the plant’s identity. Using Mexican slang invoked an image of carnage and drunken banditos shooting up border towns. Federal Bureau of Narcotics director Harry Anslinger fabricated a racist “gore file” of since discredited claims of madness and mayhem while decrying racial intermingling as a consequence. He rammed the Marihuana Tax Act (MTA) through Congress against the wishes of the American Medical Association, Department of Agriculture and an array of farmers and businesses. Simply to grow, sell or use a plant had become a criminal act.

New York’s LaGuardia Commission refuted Anslinger, but once cannabis was a crime, consumers went underground and their image well into the 1960s was defined by “Reefer Madness” portrayals in pulp fiction — lurid orgies and mindless violence. Actual cannabis use was largely confined to jazz musicians and artists. Movie star Robert Mitchum got arrested for marijuana and the scandal nearly destroyed his career.

Cannabis got a big makeover in August 1964 when folk singer Bob Dylan shared a smoke with The Beatles. Soon marijuana became the domain of hippies, flower children, peace, love and rock-n-roll. A baby boomer “counter-culture” emerged with university students seeking to transform society and the establishment through music, protest and pot. After the Supreme Court ruled the MTA unconstitutional, President Nixon got the Controlled Substances Act passed, declared a “War on Drugs” targeting racial minorities and political “enemies,” and increased enforcement spending by more than 1000 percent.

Cannabis got a big makeover in August 1964 when folk singer Bob Dylan shared a smoke with The Beatles.-Chris Conrad

Nonetheless, marijuana became acculturated into blue-collar and white-collar societies. Back yards sprouted sinsemilla. President Carter raised a decriminalization platform but failed to deliver. Cheech and Chong fashioned a comedic image as quirky stoners who smoked weed and got goofy. Real smokers like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Bill Wozniak started businesses like Microsoft and Apple. Public tolerance grew.

Ronald Reagan took office, revived the Drug War and added Draconian drug penalties and a massive ad campaign, labeling consumers “dopes” and “losers” who deserved “zero tolerance.” The schools and media dutifully parroted his propaganda. Drug testing began to push smokers out of the labor force and into the closet or garage, where some developed hydroponic gardens and potent genetics. Others took to politics, the legal system, the media – any job that didn’t discriminate. Next, George Bush senior launched his highly militarized Drug War that exploded in a quagmire.

Candidate Bill Clinton “tried marijuana but did not inhale,” won the presidency and spent even more tax money to lock up even more people. When California legalized medical marijuana, the stigma of criminality diminished. Clinton targeted physicians and providers but the courts upheld freedom of speech between doctor and patient. By 2000, the Drug War’s image was a gun-wielding cop rounding up desperate wheelchair patients over a healing herb. Scientists were demonstrating marijuana’s medical utility. People who did not use the drug were wearing imported hemp clothing, eating hempseed foods and cleansing with hemp soaps and shampoos. U.S. farmers and businesses demanded to compete with foreign suppliers. Into this shifting landscape, the Supreme Court installed another George Bush as president. Medical marijuana supply and demand utilized his laissez faire states’ rights attitude to launch a cannabis “Green Rush.”

By 2000, the Drug War’s image was a gun-wielding cop rounding up desperate wheelchair patients over a healing herb.-Chris Conrad

When a hip, African-American self-confirmed former consumer was elected president in 2008, the image of a marijuana smoker got upgraded to “winner.” Three U.S. presidents in a row had smoked. Cannabis was stronger than ever, and even more potent extracts became available. Vaporizers mingled with joints. Scientists discovered a previously unknown human anatomic system, the endocannabinoid system that interacts with plant cannabinoids. President Obama initially promised compassion and science, then threw the full force of federal fury against cannabis in 2010. The escalation backfired, and public support for legalization grew quickly. Colorado and Washington state voters legalized marijuana in 2012 for adult use and licensed sales. The world did not come to an end.

So, who uses marijuana? It could be anyone. Cannabis consumers come from all walks of life and are increasingly nuanced. Senior citizen use is up. Teen use is down and leveled off. Our highways remain safe. The seeds of change are growing. Dr. Sanjay Gupta endorsed medical marijuana in 2013 and apologized for having believed DEA lies. His face of cannabis was that of a little girl at play, relieved of crippling seizures by CBD oil. Conservatives and liberals alike back reform, in part because young voters are more likely to support legalizers. Congress passed a bipartisan 2014 Farm Bill allowing domestic cultivation of hemp for research and the House threatened to reduce DEA funding.

Recent cultural phenomena such as juicing fresh marijuana plants and “dabbing” highly concentrated oils may represent short-lived fads or the enduring future. That remains to be seen.

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What we do know is that cannabis is here to stay.

Photo Source: istock