Editor’s Note: We’re delighted to welcome Ingrid Walker, an Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Washington-Tacoma, and a past guest contributor to Points. In today’s post, Walker makes several cultural observations about marijuana as it joins beer, coffee, and wine to become the newest psychoactive substance legally produced and consumed for fun in Washington.
The much-anticipated first months of marijuana legalization in Washington have been consumed with building a regulatory system and marketplace from the ground up. Users ready to enjoy their substance of choice endured a 19-month waiting period between the passage of I-502 in November 2012 and the moment the first retail shops opened for business in July 2014. The Liquor Control Board quietly established the infrastructure for the regulation and licensed both growers and retail businesses. In the meantime, we have been left to anticipate how the new “recreational” market would affect life in Washington.
So far, the development of a recreational marijuana industry has come with a set of issues that typify the legacy of drug prohibition in the United States. The cultural reverberations of marijuana legalization reflect the attempt to normalize the use of a substance in a state and country that has no public language for that recreational practice. The law’s implementation has evoked questions about how a newly legal substance’s use-practice sits alongside the use of other psychoactive substances that we take for granted (alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco). In particular, there are many stereotypical expectations that suggest unfamiliarity with marijuana and its users.
That knowledge deficit is somewhat understandable; the paradigm shifts about marijuana use have required Americans in some states to radically reconceive the drug—first from a completely illegal substance to a medically approved substance, now to a fully legal one. In a country that has long-standing propaganda and stereotypes about marijuana use and users, perceptions are slow to change. I titled this post “Drugs and Rec” to echo Parks and Rec, the television comedy that touches on the often absurd aspects of public policy, local campaigns and government, as well as the concept of providing services for public “recreation.” While marijuana has always been “recreational,” the term distinguishes it from “medical marijuana”—the first toehold in the path to full legalization. Ultimately, should marijuana become legalized across the country, that descriptor will fall away as marijuana use becomes as normalized as alcohol use is.
As the state has taken steps to establish a reputable new industry, the question about the industry’s clientele has been challenging. The cultural imaginary of marijuana users varies across the industry. The hapless stoner is well represented: early days of marijuana business branding and reportage reproduced the “hilarity” of recreational pot use, seemingly aiming at the middle ground between veteran users and a well-worn stereotype. New businesses play on the pun-ny aspect of marijuana in public discourse—it’s the drug we love to laugh at. (Or with, but mostly at.) At the same time, some businesses have moved toward professionalizing the industry, creating the impression of the user as a savvy, self-educating consumer. Because a limited number of growers and retail stores were licensed, these collateral businesses that support the use of recreational marijuana make up a wide-open market. Apps, support services, and websites like Weedmaps or Leafly, which offer information about various shops as well as ratings created by customer reviews, are prevalent.
One of the key aspects of the law is its limitation on use in public. Unfortunately for responsible users wishing to enjoy marijuana away from the confines of home, the state Utilities and Transportation Commission has come down on the Weed Bus Club with a threat to revoke its operating permit. The service drives users from shop to shop and/or to other events so they can purchase and smoke without the risk of driving under the influence or being in view of the general public. The Commission found that the practice violates laws at both the state and federal level. The web identity for the Weed Bus Club suggests a well-heeled traveler who can enjoy airport pick up and drop off and private business class tours. The bright red party bus offered by the same company, however, serves sno-cones and other food en route to various marijuana shops and other Seattle sites.
Even The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative-lifestyle paper, has published articles entitled “Stoner Sports are More than Bong Lifts and Cheetos Crunches” and “Do Stoners Dream of Electric Joints?” along with advice about getting food delivered or eating out while high, going to the movies high, and how to roll a joint. Its Northwest Marijuana Guide ended with the admonishment “not to smoke” the guide. On the one hand, the “pot smoking hippies” on staff clearly are being tongue-in-cheek about the irony of covering this new industry whose users are primarily well acquainted with marijuana. On the other hand, their coverage doesn’t discuss this subject. Instead, it gleefully replicates stoner stereotypes.
The question of legal marijuana’s clientele also resonates nationally. Much as Colorado’s opening of pot shops drew national attention on New Year’s Day, Washington’s big day did not go unnoticed. Time magazine published a “everything you need to know about buying legal weed” piece about Washington’s opening day in July, accompanied by this compelling photo of the legal marijuana scene:
The moment captured, like the whole day, was rather unsensational—and not just because of the state-wide lack of marijuana. (The Washington Liquor Control Board had miscalculated the maturation time required to go from clone to product when it licensed growers.) The moment was unremarkable because the state was not unleashing reefer madness upon its citizens, although the giddy anticipation of national news outlets appeared to expect something less quotidian. Many of the people in line at shops were experienced users (of either medical or black market marijuana). They knew what they were getting. The businesses knew what they were selling. Even for the uninitiated, it was a transactional experience. Like the college student whose parents urged him to buy some pot because he should “go make history,” most customers wanted to mark the cultural turning point in the war on drugs.
After the state’s initial misstep of having almost no regulated product available in the opening weeks, retail businesses have rebounded and now carry various popular strains of Indica and Sativa, including Northern Lights, Orange Jilly Bean, Monster Kush, God Bud, Grape Ape, MK-Ultra, and Dream Queen. In addition to the usual buds, bongs, pipes, and papers, users have embraced “vaping” with marijuana oils and edible marijuana products. Two months later, not much has changed. Life in Washington goes on, high or not. In that sense, the most noticeable absence so far in Washington’s public discourse is an acknowledgment that this new right to use marijuana is really about pleasure. For 22 million or more Americans, marijuana use is a part of life. For a considerable subset, its use is as unremarkable as the use of other substances like alcohol or caffeine.
Perhaps this is why the national angst over marijuana legalization seems somewhat ridiculous from the ground view in Washington. Commentaries like David Brooks’ recent New York Times editorial miss the point, completely. Brooks imagines his own teenage excess as a standard, contending that mature, responsible people give up “lesser pleasures” like marijuana for higher pleasures (seriously, no editor caught that?) like “enjoying art or being in nature.” One has to wonder if he feels the same way about the other substances he and millions of Americans use for pleasure, such as alcohol. Our own psychoactive use-practices are often invisible to us—especially when they are culturally accepted and normalized. Somehow, the increased accessibility of alcohol in most public places hasn’t led most Americans to spend their days belting down whiskey shots instead of working or pursing other “higher pleasures.” Interestingly, most Americans don’t age out of drinking.
Like any other substance, marijuana can be misused, abused, normalized, used occasionally, or rejected altogether. Most users can and do learn to use marijuana in a controlled or moderate fashion, and marijuana use has remained consistent over decades (despite a law enforcement focus on eradicating it). So, like our comfort with the use of alcohol in public places, we will probably become more accustomed to legal marijuana use, although it may take a while for it to become less cartoonish. For many in Washington, Colorado or beyond, the legalization of marijuana changes little in terms of their use practice except that it no longer requires a medical card or black market transaction and has probably become more expensive.
However, the normalization of marijuana use will require basic education. Users new to marijuana can expect to have a learning curve similar to that of learning how to drink alcohol, as they figure out what they prefer and how various products affect them. The anxiety about people “overdosing” on edible marijuana can be alleviated by a simple set of instructions for legal of-age users. One store in Colorado speaks to the knowledge gap with an instruction card whose elementary instructions suggest how simple acculturation to marijuana use really is. Start with one serving. Wait up to 2 hours or longer. Don’t mix with other substances. Keep it out of reach of children and animals.
Aside from the question of who is using– and a cultural comfort with the transition from a controlled and mostly illegal substance to just another high– the most significant aspects of marijuana legalization in Washington have to do with several secondary issues:
Law Enforcement and Public Use: I-502 clearly prohibits using in “view of the general public.” The question is: what is public? This gray area has a lot to do with concerns about public order and criminal activity. In the six-month review, beat bicycle cops in the Seattle Police Department wrote 82 citations, all of which were for using in public. Those ticketed ranged from 18-77 years in age. (1 DUI citation was issued.) Interestingly, a single SPD officer wrote 66 of the 82 tickets in one region of the city. Almost half of them went to people who were likely homeless, thus raising the question of what kinds of provisions will be made for those who do not have access to a private space.
Other Legal Issues: At least one Washington city, Fife, is fighting to opt out of the legal marijuana industry. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has intervened in a lawsuit over whether local governments can ban marijuana businesses as a couple of would-be entrepreneurs sued the city to overturn that prohibition. All of this, of course, takes place with an eye on the federal government. The specter of potential prosecution of federal laws that criminalize marijuana remains
The Cost of the High: It remains to be seen whether heavy taxation on marijuana will limit sales. With 25% at the producer level, 25% of the wholesale price, and 25% of the retail price, taxes are considerable. Those funds are specifically earmarked for marijuana use-related education, research, and treatment. In the first month of legal marijuana sales, Washington saw $3.8 million in sales and $1.0 million in tax revenue—with a significant shortage of product. However, Colorado tax revenue for the year was far lower than projected ($12 million vs. the $100 million) due to users buying medical marijuana.
Dominic Corva, Director of the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy in Seattle, points out that the market estimates are hard to gauge because the black market is giving birth to the white market, “providing a path for the legitimization for black market actors.” He argues that legal consumers represent a different percentage of the population than those who use illegally. They vary by income level and choice and welcome a legal market, whether they are tourists or other people who are politically motivated to support legalization. Corva adds that new consumers will come to the industry—people who didn’t want to deal with the black market but might be motivated to use occasionally, say in an entertainment context.
Medical Marijuana as the Gray Market: A big part of the debate over I-502 was what would happen to the unregulated medical marijuana market. Washington will have to come to terms with that issue without letting it have a deleterious effect on patients with needs that differ significantly from those of recreational users.
We have a long way to go as a country that struggles to dismantle the drug war. Yet even Attorney General Eric Holder admitted that he tried marijuana in college when discussing the possibility of legalization spreading to other states. Taking drug use out of the closet is the gateway to normalizing recreational drug use. While the country watches Colorado, Washington, and other states who are gearing up for a vote on legalizing marijuana, some of us in the Evergreen state hope that artisanal marijuana will add to an already healthy tourism industry build around craft breweries, excellent coffee, micro region wines, the amazing landscape of two major mountain ranges, and the waterways of Puget Sound. “Come as you are….take your time, hurry up, the choice is yours.”