Cannabis has been mired in a miasma of stigma for the past 100 years. In the US, the stigma was created by the government and then embraced and perpetuated by the media beginning in the 1920s. In the 1930s, people who consumed our favorite plant were depicted as depraved, wild and barely in control. Or Jazz musicians.

In the 1960s and 1970s, consumers of weed were depicted as unwashed hippies who had dirty feet, dirty minds, long unwashed hair and were depraved. Or Jazz musicians. In the 1980s or 1990s, cannabis consumers were still considered dirty hippies (the depiction stuck!) or depraved black and Hispanic gang-bangers who wanted to rape your (white) daughters. Or Jazz musicians.

The Rise of Media Sanity

By the 1990s, the media began to wise up to the Federal government propaganda along with the different State governments’ propaganda about drugs in general and cannabis in particular. Media outlets were previously happy to parrot the government’s insistence that marijuana was a ‘gateway’ drug even with a boatload of evidence to the contrary. By the mid-1990s. the media and society as a whole began to realize the real and demonstrated medical benefits that cannabis delivers.

Legal Weed Sales Hampered by Cannabis Stigma

Legal medical marijuana sales began in California and slowly spread to other states, not by legislation, but by popular vote to amend state constitutions. Medical cannabis is now available in all but 9 states and adult use sales to anyone over the age of 21 is legal in 14 states. With new legalization laws passed in two more states; New Mexico and New York, more than half the population of the U.S. has or will have legal access to cannabis, either by medical programs or adult use.

As medical marijuana access grew, there needed to be places to purchase the plant, in whatever form it came in. The places to purchase cannabis were called dispensaries, pot shops, weed stores; but were in reality, whatever they’re called, are retail operations. There are only 8 states where cannabis is still totally illegal. Cannabis is still illegal at the Federal level. This article is not about the stupidity of the Federal government, but rather how state regulators continue to create cannabis stigma.

How Regulators Mandate the Retail Environment

Every single state with a cannabis program has some sort of a regulatory organization. The analog is alcohol where every state has an ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Commission) or a LCB (Liquor Control Board) or some other acronym. These regulatory agencies are charged with controlling cannabis in much the same way as the ABCs of America control alcohol. Except they don’t.

Cannabis is treated as a quasi legal drug; “It’s legal, but we don’t want it.” Or something like that. And the fact is, cannabis is in a
“quasi-legal” state. There’s the Federal thing again. The regulators in the various states, whether medical only or adult use added in, all talk to each other. All the shops in all the states I’ve visited have all the same procedures for entry and purchase. Two states would be a coincidence. Three states? Four states? To be sure, there are some variations, but the similarities hugely outweigh the differences.

Some state laws that the voters passed read “Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol” or close to that. Are the regulators following the popular mandate? No, they are not. Could they? Of course. But their hands are tied. Since cannabis is not legal Federally, they have to skirt many Federal statutes pertaining to cannabis. And there are plenty. While it would be nice to place all the blame on those regulators and wrap things up all in a neat little bow, the Federal laws hamstring them as much as their own possible biases.

Cannabis Stigma: Buying a Bottle of Wine vs. any Buying Weed

In a world without cannabis stigma and Federal legalization, buying an eighth of an ounce of cannabis wouldn’t or shouldn’t be any different than buying a bottle of wine. But it is. State liquor regulations vs. state cannabis regulations are convoluted. That’s just the way it is…for now. Alcohol is legal at the Federal level and the states regulate it while cannabis is still illegal at the Federal level. So what do these ‘differences’ look like? Here is the two procedures for purchasing a bottle of wine or an eighth of cannabis:

Buying a Bottle of Wine

  1.  Walk into a wine store.
  2. Peruse the bottles and select the one you want, either on your own or in consultation with a (hopefully) knowledgeable wine person.
  3. Take your purchase to register.
  4. Pay for it…maybe you’ll get carded, maybe not. If you’re over 40, chances are you won’t be asked to prove your age or identity.
  5. Oh, and there is no limit on how much wine you can buy. If you want to buy every bottle in a store, there are generally no laws to stop you.

Four steps to purchase. Easy peasy. Now try to purchase an eighth of an ounce of cannabis. Here’s how that works.

Buying an Eighth of an Ounce of Cannabis

  1. Walk into a cannabis store.
  2. Before you can even enter the store, you’re immediately stopped at a counter where your bona fides are scrutinized by showing your drivers license and/or medical marijuana card. All this evidence is copied, sometimes sent to the state and if you pass, you’re eligible to purchase cannabis.
  3. After your identity is vetted, you may have to wait for a budtender to be available. Once a budtender is available, you’re allowed to walk into the store.
  4. The budtender will (hopefully) walk you through all the different strains. Each store is different, but the same. All stores seem to have Silver, Gold and Platinum levels of cannabis for purchase. In some stores, the precious metal levels correspond to the percentage of THC in the strain. In other stores, the levels are indicative of quality. We don’t price and sell wine by alcoholic strength, but frequently weed is priced by the percentage of THC.
  5. Once you decide on the strain of weed, you want. The budtender either pulls out the package or weighs up your flower.
  6. The budtender totals up your purchase and you pay them…in cash. Cannabis stores can’t take credit cards…yet. Has to do with Federal banking laws.
  7. The cannabis products are then put into a bag and the bag is stapled shut.
  8. With cannabis, you’re limited as to how much you can buy at any one time. In some states it’s an ounce. In others, 2 ounces. And the list goes on.

This procedure occurs in a majority, if not all of the cannabis legal states. Does it sound more onerous than purchasing a bottle of wine? Absolutely. In all the cannabis legal states, it’s more difficult to buy weed than it is to buy wine. This is a major contributor to the ongoing stigma of cannabis.

Anti-Stigma: How Does Normalization Happen?

Cannabis normalization needs to come from the various regulatory agencies in the states. Once they realize cannabis can be treated like any other controlled, and legal, substance, like wine, then cannabis will begin to become normalized. How does this happen? Regulators need to take the rules by the reins and rewrite those rules. The rules need to reflect exactly what they’re like for alcohol.

Normalization simply means cannabis will be a part of our society. Not good. Not bad. Just a normative part of our society like alcohol or aspirin. Just there. Regulated, but there. Since we’re not going to get rid of alcoholic beverage regulation, we’re not going to get rid of cannabis regulation. But it should be regulated like alcohol. If I want to walk into a cannabis store and buy the entire inventory, I should be able to do just that. Or anything else that is an analog to the way I purchase alcohol.

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