The Growing Acceptance of Marijuana Smoking in Society

C1_8734_r_xWe 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?

Attitudes Today

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.

Moving Forward

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

26 thoughts

  1. I have rarely been honest about smoking weed. As Keith has pointed out, most of us do not have the luxury of being forthright. I would lose my job. The worm turned for me in a bunker in Vietnam.
    What I would like to offer for dissection is my belief that the drug culture in this country is not driven by what is commonly referred to as the counter-culture but rather by Big Pharma. We have 5% of the world’s population yet we consume 60% of all prescription drugs (somebody Fact Check). Heroin usage is directly related to prescription opioid use and I think that is becoming more accepted as fact. While Big Pharma has led the way in providing us with many life-saving and quality of life drugs, they are also responsible to a great extent for the drugged society we have today.
    Until the 1880s, most drugs were plant based. After that, chemical based drugs became the norm. We are the lab rats of Big Pharma. If you really want to know what a true Gateway drug is, look no farther than the prescription vile in mom’s purse, or on the kitchen counter, or the myriad of prescription medications in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. These are the real Gateway drugs. Big Pharma owns that and has scapegoated cannabis, with the complicity of the Federal government since 1937.
    The definition of counter-culture today is defined by those of us who have come to realize who the real drug pushers in this country are, Big Pharma.

    1. Excellent ~ this “gateway” label has been used for decades to demonize marijuana, the irony of this coming back to point at big pharma is so timely as weed is getting liberated from this collective capitalist con and deception, as our collective consciousness unveils this curtain of ignorance, deceit and manipulation.

    2. Big Pharma has been inheriting lucrative customers from Big 2WackGo which trains its customers to suck hot burning overdose monoxide $igarettes (true cause of illness and death, not just the tobacco). If doctors (latin for “teachers”)were doing what the Hippocratic oath implies, maintain health through preventing illness, they would PREVENT youngsters from getting hooked on the deadly sledgehammer 700-mg-per-lightup $igarettes format.

      Cannabis legalization will disrupt the century-old bizness-as-usual $igarette trade, because the more advanced, more adventurous, more inquisitive cannabis users are leading the way (a) from $moke to vape, (b) (where needed) from tobacco to cannabis, alfalfa, basil, marjoram etc., see “Smoking Cessation: Herbal Alternatives”, (c) from 500-mg joint to 25-mg single toke utensil– and from that example children will draw instruction, addiction rates will plummet, Keith and the other NORML leaders will get their Knowitwell Prize $1.5 mil.

    3. I find that this controversy regarding the legalization to be almost a waste of time. NOT at all that it shouldn’t be done, as I am a strong supporter! Those who have never tried it believe the stereotypes or as is depicted in film. I was in two near-fatal MVA’s and have been on every pain reliever on the (legal) market, currently taking 75mg of morphine, just to start my day. Having smoked medicinal, I felt as though I could have ran around the block. I didn’t and couldn’t but felt that good! What difference is it between taking daily doses of morphine vs. medicinal cannabis? I believe the latter will keep at least my liver fair healthier than the former. I will do some research an find out why smoking it will not be an option; however, the other options are bound to be a beautiful thing, for all of those in dire need of any relief!

      1. I’m an old hippie.I am 72. I would like to be able to be able to get stoned before I die.I don’t because I can’t afford the fines. Wonder if those who are so adamant against smoking marajuana have ever tried it because they don’t seem to know what it’s about. It’s almost like a superstition. All it is is a sensory stimulant. Those who have smoked it will know what I mean. It is not addictive and unlike alcohol which is legal.
        I am especially put off by the way the Sioux Indians who have been trying for ten years to make money for their tribe by growing hemp to sell. Hemp has little T.H.C. and so cannot give you a buzz but hemp has many uses you could make a lot of money growing it but because it is in the marijuana family, the police make them pull up their plants. Yours, Royall Callaway.

    1. Fascinating post at Linkedin Charles. We are in the forefront of debating the very nature of patenting everything from the basic molecules of life to the technology we consume.
      At what point are we patenting less technology and more of ourselves and life as we know it?
      The current development of cannabis patenting is testing these limits, and none so much as US patent 6630507, which should be made open source immediately, as pharmaceutical companies fight over who can create a single-molecular patent for profit model out of cannabinoids and destroy the syngergistic, medicinal entourage effect of whole plant medicine.

  2. Keith, I salute you sir and am very thankful for your efforts to end the stupidity of Americas’ anti-marijuana laws. Prohibition has done tremendous harm to our country and others around the world.

    It is sad that so many people in positions of power are either blind to the injustice or are paid off by some organization. They get my middle finger salute.

  3. I love reading Keith’s weekly essays.

    When I first went to Amsterdam, I felt that something peculiar was missing from the cannabis. I smoked more and more until I finally figured out what it was, on the third day there: no paranoia! I’d been taught that cannabis caused paranoia, and had always found that to be consistently so.

    Of course, NORML figured out the same thing, referenced in the “you wonder why we’re paranoid” psa.

    It was like an epiphany, to me, in Amsterdam: I suddenly realized a sense of mass persecution and oppression, like never before. People want open cannabis, and only a draconian drugwar can keep a lid on such normal and healthy social behavior.

  4. What’s missing from the table are open and honest conversations between our communities and our local law enforcement and social workers. With all the collusion between county prosecutors, asset forfeitures without due process, and threats from the Department of Health and Human services to take custody of children whose parents even admit to consume marijuana after hours (Even though the same Department owns the patent on cannabinoids #6630507)… It’s kinda hard to educate local law enforcement on the relevant details of legalization.

    I was delighted to read off the list of law enforcement and attorneys generals that will be attending the UNGASS meeting this week. Groups like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition are so undercelebrated for their work behind the badge to break the violence, the silence and the stigmas surrounding marijuana.

    But what I’m getting at is we tend to avoid discussing the most obvious and destructive aspect of marijuana prohibition, and that is our LOCAL law enforcement, which includes governors, attorneys generals and District Attorneys, are not part of the community conversation about marijuana, at least not in an open, positive way. This disconnect makes it easier for corrupt officials to prey upon members of their own jurisdictions by desensitizing the humanity and payrolling off the people they were sworn to protect. The CSAct has set a terrible precedent for local governments for the last several decades, leaving city councils like Ferguson so parasitically evolved to payroll off of small possessions of marijuana they scarcely possess the imagination to discover a new revenue stream.
    So here’s a solution; Fairly taxed marijuana revenue to pay for government certification, an extra officer in every cop car so they can positively engage the community and NORML chapters across America will personally guarantee each police station will receive its own margarita machine!? I call it the “NORML Marijuana Slush Fund!”

  5. Keith’s blogs are informed, thoughtful, and insightful. I agree with everything here.

    Except, I really hate to pick on Cheech and Chong! Ceech and Chong got me through some lonely times as a largely isolated stoner in a straight world — they were a beacon which a stoner could see, no matter how deep in enemy territory you were in the 70’s and 80’s and 90’s… It seems a shame to turn on them now, the duo that didn’t have to “come out” because they never fronted in the first place! You gotta respect that.

    Remember, it was just comedy! In reality, and in general, the hippies weren’t bad people! They were framed by the mainstream as dirty, lazy, anti-americans, and marijuana was the evidence that proved it. But in fact, the hippies were largely about health food, natural living, sexual and racial equality, environmentalism, community, love, peace… all positive social traits.

    But perhaps it’s a moot point; I wonder if today’s stereo-typical stoner already has a better social image, simply because times have changed, and we’ve come as far as we have. Maybe the hippie is not the primary cultural antagonist anymore!

    Yes, I totally agree we need to change that negative public perception, absolutely. But I’m not sure it’s hippies people are afraid of anymore these days. I’m not sure what it is, exactly, maybe the term “druggie” is closer to the concept. Not entirely sure here. Their fears aren’t rational.

    But marijuana is a safe and effective medicine, that’s a straight fact. And I think the more people realize this fact, the less fear, and more acceptance, there will be.

  6. You know, it still amazes me how ignorant people are about marijuana, educated people that you would not think could be that naive or stupid. Like Senator Jeff Sessions and his comment that “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” I sent him a note telling him I was offended by that remark, because I am a very good person. I attend church and try to be a productive citizen. Other than smoking pot I am a law abiding citizen and a morally upright person. I also sent him a list of “34 Celebrities Who Love Pot and Don’t Care Who Knows It”, all of whom seem like very good people to me.
    His response; he only responds to residents of Alabama. Sometimes I get so tired of the discrimination and disrespect I receive for being an open activist about my marijuana use. Some people make me feel like a pariah. I have not been considered for promotions, denied financial assistance, and continually laughed at, insulted, and disrespected. One day when I was talking to a group of people about marijuana a man threatened to punch me in the face. I told him if he wanted to go to jail go ahead and hit me. I guess I struck a nerve. These things are a high price to pay for being an activist, a price I am willing to pay. I think about all the people in prison and others having their children taken away from them, and realize the price I pay is minimal compared to them. One day we marijuana activists will have the last laugh, when the truth is finally undeniable. I hope that day comes soon.

    1. Yeah we share many of the same issues because I’m 71 next month.

      “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee”…Haggard

      Merle (a smoker) wrote the song as a timely (1969) satire to show how hypocritical our own generation was towards cannabis usage. Well he said the song made him a lot of money simply because the prohibitionists (Nixon)comprehended truth by mistake. However, bigotry never seems to quit.

      I’m with Keith, attitudes towards cannabis smokers is improving away from wrong to acceptable. Time is the element of change. The haters can’t remember why they hate stoners and medical users, they just close their eyes and blindly follow the leader.

  7. People don´t change after 40, so its pretty hopeless. But maybe you find some old people using medical and make a video from it?

    1. People change when it meets their need to and so your statement is fallacious. It is far more use to remember needs unite while belief often divides. How you define issues is a construct that allows the relevancy of people’s needs being met. One must remain relevant to one’s self especially as a collaboration of shared values with political aims.

  8. Regardless of how I feel about the articles, I generally enjoy the eloquence of them. However, I’m a little weary of this anxious image management argument that comes from established organizations like norml.
    The cannabis using “community” never will be a singularly unified, centralized group, much like any other “community”, despite being accused of otherwise. (I.e “this individual instance of a negative story makes look bad!”).
    Aside from it being unfair, inaccurate and simply impossible to encourage everyone to put their best foot forward so they aren’t persecuted for a harmless act, it’ doesn’t work on a logical persuasion level. No matter what there will ALWAYS be someone who eats too many brownies while they left their oven on or such ill begotten incident that Involved weed. There will ALWAYS be a biased journalist who will write a smear piece implying “see?? People can’t handle legalization!”
    If someone drinks an entire big bottle of vodka in one go, rarely is alcohol prohibition suggested or the individuals family to sue, because many people would pin the responsibility on the individual. Not even the gun industry is held responsible for the numerous misuse or illegal use of guns.
    This is a false stereotype that denies the variety of individuality that spans the so called community of smokers, and that should be the place we combat this steretype from, not giving in to the erronous premise by saying people need to clean up their act before we aren’t being hounded.
    It also doesn’t make sense morally that only when we put forward the best cleancut yuppy image will people be allowed to get the medicine they need. Regardless of how irresponsible or poor one is, people should still be able access to cannabis. The community of smokers are not condemned because of the behavior of smokers, they are condemned because it was politically and financially lucrative. Cut at the root of the hydra, not the head.

  9. We are in the war against Marijuana. We activist are the soldiers of this war. Soldiers are required to wear a uniform to show our enemy we are serious, responsible, and to show our solidarity. The stereotypical image of a stoner has been used predominately by our enemy to make us look foolish, irresponsible, and morally offensive. Let’s face it, when people meet you for the first time they usually judge you by the way you look. Speaking for myself, back in the 70’s, I was looked upon as a “hippie”. I wore the “hippie’ attire, lived the “hippie’ lifestyle. I was a cook in a health food restaurant which was considered at that time a “hippie” type job. I experienced the negative judgemental attitude of anti marijuana conformists. I realized that in order to be taken serious as a soldier of this war, I had to change my image. So that is what I did I put on the uniform that society as a whole would respect and not dismiss me as a flaky, pot smoking, airhead. This modification did not change who I was inside and it worked. People stopped looking and judging me like they use to. From then on when I start talking to people about marijuana they often do a double take. They think she doesn’t look like the stereotypical pothead. I look like an ordinary 63 year old grandma. So if changing my image is what it takes, so be it. I will gladly wear the uniform that commands societies respectability. Make no mistake about it, like in all wars there are lives at stake. If you think of the many people who died in drug raids, who were sentenced to unfair long prison sentences, people who had their children taken away , as well as those who had their possessions forfeited; it doesn’t seem a lot to ask to put on that uniform. What do you think?

  10. What do you think of this article? Does it look biased to you? Who dresses like the people in the picture? Is this the image of the stereotypical marijuana smoker? Is our enemy creating and promoting this negative image in their media vehicles?

    published by “Lancasgter Online ” by Paul Elias – 04/21/2016

    LNP Media Group owns and publishes LNP, its renamed daily newspaper, and LancasterOnline, its online affiliate.

  11. Attitudes are changing and we all can help through education.I asked my physician two years ago about the medical use of cannabis.He stated that medical school did not cover the subject and his experience was limited to a friend that he witnessed self destruct from poly drug use.I sent him printed studies of the facts anonymously.Today he has come 180* and now recommends its use.The power we have to influence the key individuals in this debate is huge.Doctors(teachers)do talk to each other about positive treatments of patients even if its controversial.A doctor that has seen positive results spreads the word making the use of cannabis more acceptable in everyday society.When this seed returns to grandmas garden because her trusted doctor says it will ease her pain the stigma of the pot head will disappear.

    1. Truer words have not been spoken.
      One doctor in particular whose words are like magic to me is Dr. Sue Sisley; 30 years of treating veterans for PTSD caused her to listen to her patients when they claimed positive results with marijuana (or as nurse practitioner Heather Manus calls it, “PTSGrowth.”)
      And guess what? After all the FDA and insane hurdles Dr Sisley has gone through she somehow convinced the DEA today to permit whole plant smoked cannabis studies on veterans with PTSD!

      This woman absolutely amazes me. She should be canonized for performing miracles.

      Thought you’d like to know. 🙂

  12. To the WV government, you are elected to help the people. Help to make Marijuana legal for At least medical, be on the ballot for November. 250 dollars a week to get help getting off Heroin, someone on drugs can’t afford that, most can’t afford, so help the drug addicted get unaddicted help wv….You may not be drug addicted, you may not have major medical problems, you may not have cancer, but some do. So help make medical Marijuana legal.

  13. Here in PALM BEACH COUNTY WE HAVE SHERIFF RICK BRADSHAW WHO WANTS TO KEEP ARRESTING PEOPLE FOR POT DESPITE A LOCAL ORDINANCE TO DECRIMINALIZE UNDER 20 GRAMS. He claims he will arrest them and this is good because they will get into an addiction program. This Sheriff has private rehab for profit centers owned by political supporters. Violators must pay for these personal corrections!! A CROOKED RACKET THAT MAKES BIG PROFITS for its investors. This sheriff would rehabilitate all the people in COLORADO FOR BIG BUCKS IF HE WERE THERE. If your in PALM BEACH COUNTY ,THIS SHERIFF COMES UP FOR RELECTION this year2016. VOTE THIS OUT DATED DINOSAUR OUT OF OFFICE!!!

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