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Breaking Through the Cannabis Stigma

by Dan Ketchum


Cannabis has been used as a natural therapeutic by Americans since the 1600s, and while many of its most basic health-related applications were established early on, the plant’s place in the zeitgeist — including a persistent cannabis stigma — has been nothing if not turbulent. We’re fortunate to live in times when that stigma is largely waning, but there’s still plenty of work to do in that regard, and it’s work well worth doing, too. 

A History of Cannabis Stigma

According to PBS and Ohio State University, the production of hemp (cannabis that contains only a small amount of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the plant’s key psychoactive ingredient) was actively encouraged by the American government in the 17th century — in fact, the 1619 Virginia Assembly required that every farmer grow hemp, and the plant was even used as legal tender in some states. By the late 1800s, marijuana became a common ingredient in off-the-shelf medicinal products.

Shifting Attitudes

The shift toward the cannabis stigma is complex, but it can be traced to a few key events, revealing that its foundation largely lies in racism and classism. Following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexican immigrants widely introduced recreational marijuana use to the States, entangling cannabis with the fear and prejudice expressed toward said immigrants, and leading to the first widespread anti-cannabis campaigns. These attitudes, as well as the xenophobic views that motivated them, continued to escalate through the Great Depression of the 1930s. This saw the rise of policies, such as the Uniform State Narcotic Act, as well as numerous fear-mongering studies and anti-cannabis propaganda, like the infamous film, Reefer Madness.  

Federal laws first set mandatory sentences for marijuana-related offenses in the 1950s, but by the 1960s, the ascent of American counterculture began to soften views on cannabis once again, and more up-to-date research disproved much of the propaganda of the ’30s. However, conservative government policy did not necessarily reflect cultural attitudes, as legislation under presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush, assisted by action from conservative parent groups, eventually culminated in the “War on Drugs” of the 1980s and 1990s. 

Changing the Narrative

Yet another sea change began in 1996, when the state of California’s Proposition 215 legalized the sale of and medical use of cannabis for the treatment of numerous diseases, a shift that triggered the chain of events eventually leading to the legalization of recreational marijauna in the state — and the many states following its lead — in 2016. 

Despite legalization, the cannabis stigma didn’t disappear overnight; while the industry continues to grow rapidly, there is still decades, if not centuries, worth of moral panic to overcome. In their systemic review “Waiting to Inhale: Reducing Stigma in the Cannabis Industry,” written for Administrative Science Quarterly, Kisha Lashley and Timothy G. Pollock offer some essential methods for breaking through cannabis stigma: Reset the moral agenda based on broadly acceptable values, disidentify with current stigmatized stereotypes and infuse new moral values among the cannabis-using audience through new languages and practices. In the case of cannabis, this process includes disidentifying with the illegal black market, purely recreational use, and the stereotypical “stoner” culture popularized across the media.

Change from the Inside

Much of leaving the cannabis stigma behind falls to the cannabis industry itself. Research cited in the ASQ piece finds that the collective actions of professionalization, political activism, and certification by respected actors can serve to ease existing stigmas. At KOR Medical, for instance, we contribute to changing the old narrative by manufacturing all of our products in GMP-compliant facilities that are registered with the FDA, and by testing each one in third-party labs with an accredited Certificate of Analysis.

Writing for Psychology Today, Rob Whitley, Ph.D., also stresses the importance of education in the dissemination of toxic views on cannabis: “Ultimately, we hope that this grassroots process of […] dissemination will help destigmatize cannabis use for mental and bodily health reasons, thus bringing this misunderstood issue out of the shadows. This can help create a climate of acceptance and inclusion for the growing number of people who use cannabis therapeutically.”

Why It Matters

Lashley and Pollock write, “When a new industry category is predicated on a product or activity subject to ‘core’ stigma — meaning its very nature is stigmatized — the actors trying to establish it may struggle to gain the resources they need to survive and grow.” Changing that narrative in the cannabis industry is particularly important, because in so many cases, individual health is at stake. As we forge through the ’20s, the focus must lie on healthy conversation for healthful outcomes.

When we identify cannabis with healing — and as Johson & Wales University notes, the research-backed benefits of cannabinoids, including CBD, we create a cognitive and emotional link that welcomes others into the cannabis community, encouraging them to see their own values in its application. The good news is, as a study from the journal Health, Risk & Society points out, the narrative is naturally shifting toward the positive as cannabis use grows in prevalence, more data about its therapeutic benefits enters the mainstream, and more people are informed of the low risk of use. Essentially, this cycle of healthy usage begets a positive image, which leaves more room for cannabis to do what we believe it does best: enrich lives.   

Dan Ketchum is an LA-based freelance lifestyle, fashion, health and food writer with more than a decade of experience. He’s been fortunate enough to collaborate and publish with companies such as FOCL, Vitagenne, Livestrong, Reign Together, Out East Rosé, SFGate, The Seattle Times and more.