Mr. Anslinger, the infamous father of cannabis prohibition, ignited an era of ignorance, fear-mongering, and injustice with his notorious role at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Together with future like-minded prohibitionists like Presidents Nixon and Reagan, Anslinger and his allies transformed the American psyche: provoking terror, inflaming racist tropes, and using outright deception to drive a rift between society and cannabis—a plant that has been alongside civilizations for millennia.
Fortunately, the era of “Reefer Madness” and “devil’s lettuce” is ending; citizens are clearing the mist of government-sponsored disinformation, and the political motivations behind prohibition are now more apparent than ever. Today, an overwhelming majority of Americans live in a state where cannabis is legal in some form, with 19 states having legalized cannabis for adult-use, and many more recognizing its medicinal value. There is no doubt that those who choose to remain in the Plato-esque cave of prohibition are choosing to be detached from reality.
Even with growing social acceptance of the plant in recent years, publicly associating oneself with cannabis is difficult for many and impossible for others. Despite the rapidly-accelerating legalization movement, cannabis continues to carry a lot of baggage with respect to employment, social norms, and stereotypes. Much of the nation’s workforce can still be fired and discriminated against for cannabis use—even for doctor-approved medical applications. Entrepreneurs and professionals are currently building legal cannabis business empires, but simply cross a state border and that entrepreneurial spirit quickly becomes a criminal conspiracy. Even with a supermajority of support across America, cannabis consumers are often portrayed as lazy and unintelligent. Further, an individual’s support for legalization does not preclude any stereotypes they may hold regarding cannabis use.
Aside from factual inaccuracies, negative stereotypes for cannabis disregard personal responsibility and autonomy. These stigmas simply blame a flower for any shortcomings that an individual may face—redirecting blame to avoid nuance. To help dispel some stereotypes, and normalize nature, I’d like to share my experience with Anslinger’s “monster of marijuana.” Sharing personal experiences is often uncomfortable, but necessary to move the needle forward. More on that later.
I, like many in my generation, first tried cannabis at an admittedly too-young and immature stage of life, and we had the occasional run-in throughout college. With my curious inclinations, I educated myself about cannabis at a fairly young age and long before I actually used it. I gravitated toward more esoteric aspects of cannabis than most; I developed a keen interest in the plant’s history, its use as a medicine, and its budding re-acceptance in society.
After endless hours of conducting my own research and confronting the bold-faced lies of a society gone wrong (and with a little nudge from legalization in my home state), I detached myself from the myths propagated by the War on Drugs. I soon discovered that with a healthy amount of caution and education, this flower and I got along quite well. Cannabis did not make my brain foggy—it made my thoughts clearer and more abstract. Cannabis did not make me lazy—it made me more introspective and willing to address my flaws. And much to the disappointment of some propagandists, cannabis did not bring me to the edge of psychosis—but it did make me question things. After nearly two decades in a flawed education system, growing up with endless access to technology and social media, and entering my formative young-adult years during a once-in-a-century pandemic and social turmoil, I had a difficult time thinking for myself, or truly thinking at all. Responsible cannabis use changed that—a concept understood by the legendary astronomer Carl Sagan, who viewed cannabis as a tool to “produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world”.
In this respect, cannabis came to me not as a means of detachment, but as a tool for re-engagement. I continue to find myself more self-reflective, better able to focus, and more prone to immerse myself in abstract chains of thought. I’m a lifelong introvert; cannabis has amplified this tendency where it benefits me and dampened it where it hinders me. It sings a sweet lullaby, but when used responsibly and with the right intentions, cannabis can also smack some sense into you. Oh, and all of the commonly-known benefits? Those are nice too.
So, why is any of this relevant? The most profound conclusion I’ve come to after diving into the cannabis world, especially the public policy realm, is that more stories like this need to be shared; stories of personal experience and raw truth that aren’t restrained by dogma and artificial social pressures. There will always be a place for well-mannered debate and public policy discussions—but social acceptance of cannabis, by my assessment, has reached an inflection point. To cross the rubicon, there needs to be a vocal “coming out” among cannabis users, patients, and enthusiasts.
History teaches us that in a properly functioning democracy, widespread changes in social sentiment lead to meaningful public policy reforms, but only when those social changes are transparent, resolved, and loud. Just look to the many civil rights and personal freedom movements over the last century—rooted in courageous social groups and galvanized by key individuals.
While cannabis is currently enjoying some significant attention and reform, it isn’t nearly enough. With less than 10% of Americans believing that cannabis should remain illegal, why does federal criminalization persist? Why are people arrested, fired from their jobs, shamed by friends and family, and stigmatized for something so clearly supported by the masses? Two reasons: our representatives in government have become increasingly detached from public demands and entrenched in partisan bickering and posturing, and because for many people, cannabis is still something to whisper about. To overcome stigmas and translate public opinion into public policy, more of us need to share our personal stories. By increasing awareness of what we have in common, we reject the notion of increasing polarization. Today, the continued illegality of cannabis is purely a symptom of democracy in disarray. Sharing our experiences serves a righteous purpose: to educate, and compel action. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”.
As more people openly share their experiences, society at large can be tuned-in to what some might find an uncomfortable truth—that a hell of a lot of people use this little flower. You know them: your grandparents; your mentors; your doctors; and your public servants. The social embrace of cannabis among users and abstainers alike relies on communication, especially from the former. So, I invite you to share in the moment. The path to normalizing nature lies in those of us who might feel apprehensive in sharing our truths —many of us have become captives in our own minds. The ever-flowing social conversation around cannabis can only take the next leap forward if it has vocal, unapologetic advocates. Have the audacity to share your story, even if just with one person. While it may be uncomfortable, embracing discomfort today can encourage change tomorrow.