This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.
In the 1936 movie Reefer Madness, the lives of several teens at a local high school are forever changed from smoking marijuana. The movie was intended to be a cautionary tale about the consequences of teens using drugs – particularly marijuana – and the impact it will have on the rest of their lives.
The story was timely subject matter as an overwhelming majority of Americans in 1936 were adamantly against the pungent drug. Flash forward to 2005 and Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical, a satirical comedy that riffs on the “ridiculous” claims made in the original movie, debuts to a more receptive American public.
The two movies serve as bookends of a century of America’s cultural dance with marijuana. From a drug that was once “treated as ruinously dangerous, a public health menace, an addictive and illegal scourge” and through the years has evolved into what some believe to be a benign substance, a healer of sorts.
Through the Looking Glass: Weed Comes to America
Much has changed in the one hundred years that marijuana has been as common to American life as Coca-Cola. Let us look back to help understand how we got here. We need look no further than our neighbors to the south.
In the early part of the 20th century, Mexico was rife with political upheaval at the hands of Pancho Villa. A revolutionary, Villa sparked a Mexican Revolution that sent thousands of refugees across the border into Texas towns such as Laredo and El Paso, writes Time Magazine’s Special Investigation into marijuana in America. And with the Mexican cultural footprint came an influx of the plant that when rolled, lit and inhaled, made its debut in the annals of American history.
It quickly spread through the American West, passed around labor camps and bunkhouses. Caribbean sailors even “spread the practice through port towns like New Orleans.” Marijuana developed a bad reputation and El Paso became one of the first American cities to ban the substance. Before long, states ranging from California, New Mexico to Utah put a ban on the plant, claiming “all sorts of low characters could be seen consuming the drug… prostitutes, pimps.”
But marijuana’s reputation devolved further from used by loathsome characters to “unleashing a beast within ordinary men, spurring them to commit heinous crimes.” in the 1930s, marijuana’s reputation as a major crime driver came at a time when New Orleans was facing a wave of felony activity.
To put the kibosh on rising crime, then district attorney Eugene Stanley, reports Time, found a scapegoat in the pervasive presence of marijuana. And like the Music Man selling a town on local pool halls for poisoning the youth well spring, marijuana was branded a deadly drug in the eyes of the American public. By the end of the decade, public campaigns, government taxes and movies like Reefer Madness sealed the coffin shut.
Times Are a-Changin’: From Public Enemy to Polling Higher Than Apple Pie
Certainly marijuana in America has seen its peaks and valleys. In the 1960s, weed played an integral part in the cultural revolutions and hippie movements of the times. It was a thread in the social fabric of protests, marches and a middle finger to government power and abuse. Then marijuana returned to its associations with criminal activity with the “Just Say No” anti-drug crackdowns and a war on drugs waged by the federal government.
As we came into the 21st century, the inflection point for Americans’ favorable disposition toward marijuana came with medical cannabis. Medical marijuana refers to its use as a physician-recommended form of medicine or herbal therapy – covering a litany of ailments such as glaucoma, epilepsy and cancer.
The idea of employing marijuana as a remedy or medicine spread through “word of mouth… neighbor to neighbor… friend to friend.” Countless stories about the ways medical marijuana alleviated pain and improved lives cropped up. Just recently Andrew Sullivan wrote a piece for New York Magazine titled “Yes, I’m Dependent on Weed” in which he discusses using marijuana as a remedy for health issues related to HIV.
As such, medical marijuana became a boon to the face and image of marijuana in the eyes of Americans. In fact, John Davis, a marijuana dispensary owner in Seattle says “medical marijuana polls slightly higher than apple pie.”
Popular culture played a hand in rebranding marijuana. In 2005, Weeds, a television series on Showtime, about a suburban house mom who turns to dealing pot to maintain her privileged suburban lifestyle in the wake of her husband’s death, helped viewers reconsider their notions of what a dangerous drug looks like. In fact, the show’s greatest villain wasn’t found in marijuana, but in suburbia, a prisonscape for the lead character. American audiences took notice.
With the cultural shift came legalization. According to Gallup polls, in the early 2000s, one third of Americans favored legalization. A slow climb through the years brought us to a standing majority – 60% of Americans favored legalization in 2016. As of now, 29 states and the District of Columbia have gone medically legal.
Standing at a Crossroads: New Conversations for the American Experiment
Despite marijuana’s storied past, as a behavioral health expert and clinician, I wonder what the road ahead looks like. Certainly there is evidence to support the claim that marijuana is as benign for you as a cup of coffee. Colorado is posting record profits for its pot industry, Nevada is pushing it like a sold out Vegas show, and California is positioning itself to be the largest manufacturer and distributor of cannabis in the country. Big business is always looking for its next billion dollar baby.
There are always two sides to every story and plenty of research points to dangerous ills stemming from marijuana usage. I wrote earlier in the year about research-backed findings that marijuana negatively impacts human development in young age, synthetic cannabinoids can cause health emergencies, the effects on drugged driving and complications for lawmakers and policy experts, as well as the synergistic effects of marijuana, alcohol and other drugs.
The same way big tobacco sold the American public on the sex appeal and cool factor of smoking cigarettes, so too big marijuana may position itself in the American conversation. Then came an avalanche of damning evidence that tobacco posed major health risks and the big companies pushed back to save their bottom lines. Will big marijuana follow suit?
Already there’s pushback from city officials. There was a recent story in the Los Angeles times about an Angeleno couple who are struggling to get an operating license to keep their Dr. Norms Cookie Co., which sells marijuana-infused food products, from shuddering. The couple sees short-term closure as government red tape impeding on their business in a state that voters made marijuana legal in last November.
Despite this couple’s concerns, we do not seem to be having the discussion of should marijuana-infused products follow in the footsteps of big tobacco. Before big tobacco came under fire, companies sold candy cigarettes and Big Chew bubble gum (replicating dip) that was marketed to kids. Likewise, the alcohol industry packaged some drinks to look like soda pop and other children’s drinks. Why are we not having a policy debate about how to regulate a substance that has been illegal for a century? If we approve now and deny later – what are the consequences?
Beyond the current research and debate on marijuana’s impact on public health, there are a host of questions related to culture and mores we as Americans will wrestle with. Will major marijuana manufacturers launch national ad campaigns the way Bud Light or Jack Daniels play during prime time? Will there be clever campaign taglines? What about mascots like the Budweiser Clydesdales? Will Americans light up a joint at an outdoor barbecue the way they crack a cold one? Will they pass the magic brownies along with the chips and guacamole on Super Bowl Sunday?
I am also concerned about edibles, or food products infused with THC, the chemical compound that gives the “high” effect found in marijuana leaves. Will there be grocery store shelves filled with marijuana-infused products the same way toothpaste and bottled water takes up whole aisles? How will the Food & Drug Administration regulate and label these products? What constitutes a serving size? And how will this complicate synthetic marijuana substances, which have already been reported to cause serious health risks?
Recently, I wrote about the rise of energy drinks in America through unethical guerrilla marketing tactics targeted at teens and young adults. I fear that if marijuana takes off and is sold at convenience stores on every street corner, teens will get caught in the advertising crosshairs. Marketers love to hook consumers on products at a young age to carry their attachment well beyond adulthood. And if marijuana is already seen as a “gateway drug” to other illicit substances, how will this impact today’s youth and tomorrow’s future? These kinds of ethical questions must not be tossed aside because the economy wants to grow its GDP.
I could fill a dozen more blog posts with my questions. We will see how the dominoes fall. One thing we can depend on in the tumultuous times we call the American experiment is the freedom to choose. We’ve got to stand up and use our voices – on both sides of the marijuana debate – to fight for the country we want our children to experience.