More than 80 years of marijuana prohibition has caused an untold amount of misery. It has sent tens of millions of people to jail and saddled even more with criminal records. It has ripped apart families and created a criminal black market that has brought decades of violence to our inner cities, aiding in their destruction.
To prop up such a destructive policy, authorities in the U.S. had to create an entire set of myths around the cannabis plant to justify to the public why is must be kept illegal. You probably heard many of those myths growing up, before the explosion of the Internet: smoking marijuana causes cancer, it kills your brain cells, smoking one joint does as much damage to your health as smoking an entire pack of cigarettes, it leads you down a path of destruction and despair to harder drugs as you attempt to chase even bigger highs, and so on. Decades of this propaganda has created a stigma so large around cannabis that it will take many years to undo and this stigma has stymied the advancement of marijuana law reform. Destroying this stigma is imperative if legalization is ever going to spread across the country.
And in the battle to destroy it, one weapon has proven to be more potent than all others.
It is not a stretch to say that without the Internet, marijuana legalization wouldn’t be a thing. The truth about cannabis would still be unknown to the vast majority of Americans who would continue to vote against legalization and not sign the petitions to even get it on the ballot. There would be no floods of calls (and emails and social media messages) to lawmakers urging them to consider an end to marijuana prohibition. At best there would be a small movement of activists fighting against a massive tide of lies and misinformation and decades of little progress to look forward to.
The Internet changed all of that. Now information can reach millions in minutes and billions in a matter of days, and the information is easily accessible on the computers and tablets in our homes and on the phones in our pockets. But when it comes to nationwide legalization, the Internet is only a means to an end. It can get people to see the stigma of cannabis differently and it can open the door to legalization, but it’s up to people to push through the doorway and bring cannabis into the real world.
In most places in the United States someone buying a 12-pack of beer barely gets any notice. If you visit someone’s house and they are drinking a beer, you probably wouldn’t give it a second thought. That’s the level of “normal” cannabis needs to achieve if we ever hope to see nationwide legalization.
Spreading the truth about cannabis is only one part of that process. The next step is building a visible industry that shows society how beneficial legal cannabis is and how well legalization will work in the real world.
Going back to the comparison with alcohol; how many liquor stores are in this country? How many places can you buy beer? According to data from the Census Bureau and the IRS, there are about 43,000 liquor stores in this US alone; and that doesn’t count all the grocery stores, drug stores, gas stations, bars and retail outlets where alcohol is available for purchase. In other words, adults being able to buy alcoholic beverages with ease is considered normal by most of society.
For now, the equivalent of all those places in the marijuana industry is the medical marijuana dispensary and the marijuana retail store. Those are the places consumers and the public will see the most when being exposed to the legal marijuana industry. And many companies are making sure they put their best foot forward when creating the atmosphere that people will experience.
“If you look at what traditionally people think of when they think of a pot shop, they’re thinking of a place with Bob Marley posters in it. There’s nothing mainstream about that. That’s not how you sell anything, but for some reason, that’s how people think you sell pot. That’s got to evolve,” said Adam Bierman, CEO and co-creator of MedMen, a California-based marijuana management firm.
He’s right. Cannabis has to evolve past what it was when it was underground, and it can do so successfully. After all, those who want to buy cannabis will do so no matter what the store ambience is, but those who are on the fence or who are new to marijuana may be turned off by the overwhelming odor of incense and walls covered in black light posters. They want to see someplace clean, well-lit with a pleasant smell and professional atmosphere.
The same obviously goes for medical marijuana dispensaries. Not only are they in more states – for now – but they also have to cater to the widest demographic possible: people with health ailments.
“The idea is to make patients feel comfortable, to make a mother with a sick child or a sick parent – or herself, who is dealing with an ailment – make her feel comfortable to bring her child in with her or bring her elderly parent in here and not feel like she is doing something wrong,” said Monica Russell, a spokeswoman for Surterra Wellness Center, a medical marijuana dispensary in Florida. “We’re not going to hide what we’re doing.”
Marijuana is a legitimate product that has many uses. Getting people to see it that way is the main goal when it comes to erasing the stigma that surrounds it. Not only do individual businesses contribute to this, but so do companies that list on some sort of stock market. The fact that people are willing to invest in marijuana companies adds another layer of legitimacy to the industry.
Marijuana advertisements – what little bit is allowed outside the Internet – can also add to the legitimacy of the industry. As time goes on it will be important to get ad restrictions reduced when it comes to cannabis products. After all, the restrictions themselves add to the stigma that cannabis is somehow a dangerous product that needs to be kept out of view of polite society.
Only when most people see marijuana as a normal product and see marijuana users as normal people will the final shackles of cannabis prohibition be thrown off. It is up to us, the consumers and activists, to show others that marijuana users come from all walks of life. It is up to those who invest in and build the legal cannabis industry to show others that marijuana is a perfectly safe product and there is great benefit to selling it in a retail environment. Not only are there great benefits, but legal marijuana will not lead to a bunch of stoned zombie hippies roaming the streets and killing people on the roadways.
As Accepted as Alcohol
One day marijuana will be as commonplace, mainstream, normal – whatever word you want to use – as alcohol. Its sale and use will elicit little comment and be considered by most to be a non-event.
Accomplishing this will take a lot of effort from all segments of the cannabis community. It will be a long, hard road to gain back the respect that marijuana never deserved to lose in the first place. And that’s just to get it on par with alcohol, a substance it is safer than in every way.
There is a lot of ground to make up, but the good news is that the process of mainstreaming marijuana is well under way.