Crisis of a Cannabis identity

By Kip Jarvis

The democratic process is churning forward in this country in favor of Cannabis legalization. This can be seen through recent polling numbers, ballot initiative results, and independent votes by state legislators nationwide. Obstacles still remain in America’s socio-political sphere that stands in the way of full legalization. International law, long-standing social stigmas, and pro-prohibition government agencies all do their part in hampering the path towards liberalized Cannabis policies.

However, a notable obstacle in this struggle, and one that is rarely discussed, is image. To succeed, the Cannabis movement in the United States needs to win a sizable majority of the population’s hearts and minds. Most polls point to us having a majority in favor of full legalization, but only slightly. If public support reached into the 80–95 percent range, then leaping the other imminent hurdles would be substantially easier. Image remains a prominent impasse for the Cannabis community in garnering this broader support.

Ghosts of a bygone era

For many non-Cannabis-using Americans, we remain a joke — a caricature that is perhaps tolerable; a harmless buffoon with short-term memory and glassy-eyes, but one that is not quite worthy of respect. The image that collectively represents ‘the stoner’ is one of minimal esteem, doing little to evoke the benefits of human dignity. This is because the Cannabis user in America suffers from a crisis of identity which is partly the fault of pop culture, lingering memories of the hippies, the free love, and the inner freedom that their kind embodied. For the baby-boomer generation that gave birth to this cultural phenomenon, the image carries with it both nostalgia and disdain. With this generation firmly grasping the reins of power and policy-making, the image is more controversial than the younger generations can fully appreciate. Perception is forever in the eyes of the beholder.

We share equally in the blame of this perception. We’ve carried on and perpetuated this image without fully realizing its implications. How is the rest of the nation to take our plight seriously if every bit of news coverage on the movement is headlined with a photograph of some white kid with dreadlocks, wearing flip-flops and a knit Rasta cap, holding a giant paper mache joint? This image holds us back and tells our opponents that we don’t plan on going anywhere, save for a life of unrealistic freedom from responsibilities. With that in mind, how could they possibly want to use their vote to aid our cause? These perceptions may not be accurate, but just because you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, doesn’t mean that people haven’t done so for as long as there have been book covers.

If you’re going to a rally or protest, take a look in the mirror before you depart. If you look like one of these stoner caricatures, you’re not doing the cause any favors. Try dressing like you’re going to a job interview, not to a time machine taking you to Woodstock in ‘69. Khakis and a dress shirt or polo could do wonders. If you’re organizing said rally or protest, wear a suit, if possible. If sporting Cannabis-themed aesthetics is a must, less is more. Try a tasteful metal pin of a Cannabis leaf instead of a five-foot bong to sheath your crudely-written sign. Image is our most persistent opponent at this stage in the game, and one that needs to be addressed seriously.

Coming out of the Closet

The new freedoms brought about in Washington and Colorado can help remedy the image problem. Cannabis users can feel open to “coming out of the closet.” When a coworker asks your Friday night plans, an honest answer of “getting high and watching Netflix” can be declared as casually as “getting drunk and watching Netflix.” The former can be said without fear of the dreaded ‘random’ drug test, and the resulting loss of employment. Those of our kind that work and live in these states can now discuss their personal lives without censure when congregating around the water-coolers. This may help convert the stoner image from a dopey, red-eyed caricature to the more accurate portrayal represented by about 25 percent of any given workplace.

One may also consider coming out to the family. I’ve known plenty of Cannabis users throughout the years that keep their Cannabis use a guarded secret from their family; at times leading to unnecessary guilt or dishonesty. Perhaps it’s time to liberate yourself from the chains of subterfuge and the shackles of persistent white lies. The gay community has honed this tactic to an art form in recent decades that can readily be applied to the Cannabis community. Many websites exist to aid a Cannabis lover in approaching their family on the topic. Here’s a comprehensive list of situational strategies by Ramon Johnson for starters: http://gaylife.about.com/od/comingout/u/howtocomeout.htm. Make sure to amend your narrative accordingly.

When Americans can imagine a Cannabis user not as ‘the stoner’, but as their co-worker, friend, or family, then prohibition doesn’t stand a chance. We know the real image of Cannabis, one that transcends the limits of stereotype. The American lover of Cannabis covers all shapes, colors, sizes, and personalities; impossible to pin down to one archetype. Our problem as a movement is that the rest of the nation has trouble seeing this fact. People who enjoy a drink (or eight) every so often are not generally considered ‘drunks’. That term is reserved for those that drink heavily daily. We all share in the responsibility of rectifying this inaccurate terminology of Cannabis and our image will play a critical role in this change.

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