By Louise Stanger Ed.D, LCSW, CDWF, CIP & Roger Porter

When there is a new shop that opens in West Hollywood, I make a point of paying a visit – a way of sizing up the new neighbors. For this visit, I strolled past Gelsons, heading east down Santa Monica Blvd., crossed the street and came to a boutique store with minimalist design and features.

After a doorman checked my ID, I stepped into a clean, white room. The walls were lined with shelves of neatly packaged products. In the center of the room were long tables where you could click on touch pads and thumb through digital mock-ups of the products one could buy. And in the back was a bar with 3-4 finely dressed associates completing transactions with guests eager to rush home, tear off the elaborate packaging and spend hours with the latest gizmo.

From its perch on Santa Monica Blvd – and finely tailored minimalist design and layout – a casual shopper would pin such a place as an Apple Store, a tech nerd’s haven for all things iPhones and iPads. But you would be wrong to make that assumption.

The shelves and long tables and storage in the back aren’t stocked with the latest tech gadgets – no, they’re marijuana products. From vape pens and edibles, to pre-rolled joints and every strand of marijuana leaf California can grow, this boutique shop is MedMen, a new kind of dispensary for pot enthusiasts.

To accompany MedMen’s 14 high-end boutique stores spread across 4 states is a $2 million advertising campaign with a two-pronged approach: to get the word out on legalization and to recast the image of the modern smoker. Billboards for the campaign – which can be found scattered around the greater Los Angeles area – features the word ‘Stoner’ crossed out with a person’s status or identity written above it. They look similar to the endorsement ads long made popular by the alcohol industry, though instead of an individual they list professions such as “nurse, coach, police officer, entrepreneur, designer, etc.” Other ads say “Shop” or “Heal” with photos of older adults, people of color, etc. followed by two simple words – ‘It’s legal.’

“What you’ve seen on billboards, and, more recently, the internet is an effort by MedMen Enterprises of Culver City to remind you that marijuana users come from all walks of life,” writes Gary Robbins in his Sept. 17, 2018 piece “Crafting Marijuana’s New Image” for The San Diego Union-Tribune. “They can be cops, nurses, teachers, scientists, construction foremen and grandmothers.”

Daniel Yi, senior vice president of communications at MedMen, says that the word “stoner” is a word that “can be used to negatively stereotype people.” As such, the ad campaign isn’t about rebranding marijuana’s image in the eyes of society, one could argue the messaging is about fashioning a lifestyle. “We want to take that stigma away. We want to make marijuana mainstream.”

In my professional practice as a social work clinician and interventionist, working with families and loved ones experiencing substance abuse, mental health, process disorders and chronic pain, I’ve closely watched the evolution of legalization since it started in my home state of California, voted in by an overwhelming majority in November 2016.

Proponents of marijuana legalization sold it as a benign substance that would be a tax windfall for the state. Since then, California has reaped an untold fortune for its coffers and big business. The flip side of this economic boon is not only the myriad public health issues, but also the ethical boundaries being reformulated for a society drinking the proverbial marijuana kool aid.

Now that marijuana is climbing its way into the upscale echelon, my latest quandary is how this will impact the ethics of the behavioral health industry. In my professional work, I’ve consulted with numerous treatment centers where skilled professionals commit to a life of sobriety as role models for the clients and friends and family who are seeking treatment and recovery from the prying hands of addiction.

If marijuana – being rebranded as a hip, urban lifestyle product – finds its way into the hallways of treatment centers, hospitals, clinics and private practices across the country, is it okay for healthcare professionals to, as we quipped in my days, puff the magic dragon? The law is on their side. But where do ethics come into play? The question becomes: do you hire someone who is a marijuana smoker to work in your treatment center?

As healthcare professionals, what is your stand on abstinence? Are you creating a center which advocates abstinence or are you going for progressive abstinence – one that sees harm reduction as an end to itself?

Perhaps it comes down to the individual treatment center or facility, charged with creating a culture that is committed to their values, ethics and responsibilities as an organization. These principles can be enshrined in a mission statement or company policy, signed by all professionals to ensure everyone on board agrees about the environment the organization wants to practice in day-to-day operations.

My musings on marijuana legalization go beyond my concerns for the behavioral health industry. I have previously written about the 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? It looks like MedMen is well on its way to doing so. 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?

And what about our children? Will they think the gummy bears, chocolate candies, cookies and water – all infused with THC (the ingredient in marijuana that creates the “high”) – are theirs for the taking? Will our grocery stores be lined with game day paraphernalia and setting off a rocky mountain candy high of fun?

Now that we are two years into legalization in California, some of these questions I’ve pondered in blog posts and articles have come to light. However, new ones keep bubbling up. If MedMen is cornering the upscale market with the look and feel of an Apple campaign, how will other big business companies penetrate different segments of the market? How will the behavioral health care industry, beleagued with a raging opioid epidemic and onslaught of aging Americans, be impacted by a substance as common to American life as apple pie?

I welcome your questions and comments. The ethical implications are untold. If MedMen continues as it does, perhaps we will see advertising campaigns follow in the footsteps of alcohol and tobacco campaigns of yore. In the 50s, we had the Marlboro man, then in the 80s we saw alcohol ads transition from men with women on their arms to women partying alone, and now in 2018 we have alcohol ads that ensure we will be happier, have more fun and be sexy in every cultural genre. The marijuana industry, likewise, features ads suggesting grandmothers have more fun with marijuana.

I will probably fill a dozen more blog posts with my questions. We will see how the dominoes continue to fall. One thing we can depend on in these tumultuous times is the freedom to choose and the freedom to create ad campaigns. We have to consider the ethical conundrums our choices bring to light. As such, 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.


You can read this other articles published on Thrive Global here.