We are at a tipping point in this country regarding the legalization of marijuana, and it is exhilarating to experience the ending of prohibition and the start of legalization. Even as the changes in marijuana policy evolve, however, I find it disturbing that many Americans and most elected officials are still not comfortable with the idea of adults smoking marijuana.
I have always been honest about my marijuana smoking, something relatively easy for me because for much of my adult life I have lived in a protective NORML bubble. We sometimes joke that at NORML we drug test employees, and if they don’t fail, they do not get hired!
In my world, people are not judged by their choice of intoxicants and whether or not they smoke themselves as marijuana smoking is simply no big deal. I realize that my world is atypical. Many Americans, perhaps most, are now willing to permit adults to smoke marijuana, but they would like for us to stay in the closet and keep our marijuana smoking to ourselves. It continues to carry a negative social stigma.
As we approach 4/20, the unofficial national holiday for marijuana smokers, I was asked how the public acceptance of marijuana smoking had changed since I first began smoking 50 years ago.
Enormous Gains in Acceptance
The easy answer, of course, is that we have seen enormous positive gains in the way the general public perceives marijuana smokers and marijuana smoking. The reality is actually more nuanced, and there are issues surrounding the use of marijuana that remain problematic and contribute to the prejudice we continue to experience.
The 1930s, 40s and 50s were the Dark Ages of marijuana prohibition, when marijuana was seen as a serious threat to the public health and safety, presumed to be evil, dangerous and capable of turning ordinary people into violent killers and rapists as well as ultimately leading to insanity. Marijuana smoking was seen as deviant behavior that reflected poorly on one’s character and morality.
Most Americans at the time had never smoked marijuana, knew almost nothing about it and had formed their opinions largely on the exaggerated anti-marijuana propaganda advanced by the government and reflected in major newspapers. While a few “reefer maniacs” remain, the country has moved beyond this ignorant phase of our drug policy history.
By the 1960s, marijuana smoking began to be popular among those on the cutting edge of the cultural revolution then taking place. Use was closely identified with those referred to as “long-haired hippies,” who were seen as lazy, rebellious and undisciplined, often involved in the growing anti-Vietnam War movement and therefore un-American.
The dominant culture feared the changes they were seeing among America’s youth and sometimes blamed marijuana as the cause. Young people were challenging traditional values and lifestyles, experimenting with “free sex” and communal living, trying hallucinogens (encouraged by Tim Leary’s call to “turn-on, tune-in and drop-out”), learning about eastern religions and generally seeking a “higher consciousness.” Marijuana was seen as a symbol for those who were challenging authority.
I first smoked marijuana in 1965 when I was a first year law student at Georgetown Law School in Washington, DC, and I can attest to the necessary fear and paranoia we all felt when we did get together with friends to smoke some weed. People were still being sent to jail for several years for the possession or use of even a little marijuana in many states, and those who took the risk to sell us marijuana were especially vulnerable to long prison sentences.
Naturally, everyone tried to be careful when deciding with whom and where they felt comfortable smoking. At that time, there was no public acceptance of marijuana smoking, and it was considered by most to be the first step towards a heroin habit, There was little tolerance for those who ignored the rules.
When we founded NORML in late 1970, only 12% of the public supported the legalization of marijuana. To most of the other 88%, marijuana smoking was seen as something that would disqualify one from being taken seriously by the mainstream culture. No employer would hire someone who acknowledged their marijuana use, assuming they would be an unfit employee. Most would call the police if they somehow discovered a neighbor was a marijuana smoker, fearing they might present a threat to the neighborhood if left to their own devices.
I recall vividly the reaction from many of my friends and associates when, having graduated from a prestigious law school, I began to be publicly identified with NORML and with marijuana smoking. Most reflected disappointment that I would “waste my time” on such a frivolous issue and some presumed I had lost my moral compass and was advancing an agenda that was misguided and bound to fail. Why would someone who had the good fortune to achieve a good education throw it all away in an effort to legalize marijuana?
Compared to those years, we have indeed come a long distance, and the world today seems relatively more enlightened towards marijuana smoking. Even today the President of the United States can joke about his earlier marijuana use without the slightest harm to his standing or credibility. In fact, to some degree it adds to his cachet and makes him more relevant than he might otherwise seem to younger Americans.
Roughly 60% of the country today support full legalization, regardless of why one smokes. While that obviously reflects a higher level of acceptance of marijuana smoking, it does not mean the prejudice against marijuana smokers has ended.
When one digs deeper into the survey data, we find that many of the non-smokers who now support full marijuana legalization do so because they see prohibition as a failed public policy and not because they approve of marijuana smoking. Although they oppose prohibition and favor regulation and control, 64% of those non-smokers have an unfavorable opinion of those of us who smoke. To them, the fact that we choose to smoke marijuana does not justify treating us as criminals but nonetheless causes them to think poorly of us.
The Fight for Social Clubs
We see the continued bias against marijuana smoking as even the first states to legalize marijuana for all adults have made no provisions to permit smoking outside the home. I don’t mean public smoking but rather clubs or venues where marijuana smokers can gather to socialize with other marijuana smokers and share their marijuana with friends.
Led by Denver NORML, efforts are currently underway to pass an initiative that would authorize licenses for marijuana social clubs and special events (think 4/20 and Cannabis Cups), because the city council has balked at efforts to pass similar legislation. Remember, most elected officials in Colorado opposed Amendment 64 when it was on the ballot.
Even in a state that has now largely embraced legal marijuana, that has a thriving legal marijuana industry providing more than $100 million in tax revenue annually to the state, and that encourages marijuana tourism, elected officials are still reticent to do anything that might officially acknowledge that marijuana smoking is acceptable conduct. We are begrudgingly allowed to smoke marijuana, so long as we stay in our homes and out of sight. Permitting us to smoke in a social setting apparently threatens the established social order.
We clearly have more work ahead and need to consider why this anti-marijuana prejudice still exists and what we can do to move beyond it.
We will win this battle for totally fair treatment only when we improve the public perception of marijuana smokers. We have to overcome the “Cheech and Chong” stoner image of a pot smoker who sits on the sofa all day eating junk food.
Because marijuana remains illegal in most states and under federal law, most smokers who hold good jobs in business or industry or the professions simply cannot stand up and be counted, because they would lose their jobs and their ability to support their families. As a result, the majority of middle class smokers are largely invisible to the non-smoking public.
We have to find ways to let America know that marijuana smokers are just ordinary Americans who work hard, raise families, pay taxes and contribute in a positive way to our communities. We need to do a better job of letting our non-smoking friends and neighbors know that those of us who smoke are otherwise just like them, with varied interests and hobbies. Marijuana smoking is not the dominant facet of our lives. We are not slackers in any way, nor do we pose any threat to those in society who choose not to smoke.
For those smokers who are self-employed or who are otherwise not subject to drug testing, it is crucial that you come out of the closet and let your community and your professional colleagues see that you are good neighbors as well as responsible marijuana smokers. There should be no social stigma attached to the responsible use of marijuana.
I am confident that within a few years, marijuana smoking will be seen by most Americans as the equivalent of drinking alcohol but safer, and I look forward to that day.
We are not there yet.
This column was first published on Marijuana.com.