With national poll numbers in support of marijuana legalization now showing majority support in the U.S., you’d think it would be easy for cannabis consumers to be open about their use of this popular herb. There are an estimated 14 million regular users and 25 million who have reported using it in the U.S. in the past year according to government reports. Yet, most users are still timid about sharing that fact with others and are still hiding their use from family, friends, and co-workers — afraid that they will be judged or discriminated against for even smoking a joint in the privacy of their homes.
Unfortunately, discrimination against cannabis consumers is still a reality. Despite the fact that 23 states, Washington, D.C. and Guam now have legal protections for medical use and four states and D.C. have legalized adult use, a majority of consumers looking for work are still vulnerable to negative consequences that come with drug testing — both random or pre-employment — that can result in loss of employment and benefits even after years of exemplary service. This has nothing to do with job performance, workplace safety, or impairment as drug tests simply detect inert metabolites that show up in urine for up to a month or so for regular and a few weeks for occasional users. Furthermore, these tests do not even determine whether you are under the influence at the time of the test or not. But they are good for making billions of dollars in profits for the drug testing industry.
Stigma against cannabis consumers can also result in loss of friendships and relationships, custody of children, housing, benefits, religious freedom, and other rights and privileges enjoyed by their fellow Americans. Laws on the books leave consumers vulnerable to arrest and incarceration. Reefer madness is still alive and well, based on unfounded fears that cannabis will make the user a “loser” or “couch potato” or an outcast or criminal. As long as marijuana prohibition is still in force at the federal or state level, consumers will still be treated as second class citizens in their own country compared to alcohol drinkers, even though cannabis is demonstrably less harmful.
That’s why it’s so important for people to come out of the cannabis closet. Coming out will challenge the negative myths and stereotypes and lose the excuses that have perpetuated prohibition, discrimination, and stigmatization in society.
Look at the gay rights movement. As long as gay people were hiding in the closet, their image was defined by others and based on fear or unfounded beliefs that they were somehow a threat to others in their communities and an embarrassment to their families. They lost jobs, housing, rights, etc. When they started coming out, everyone knew a beloved gay person who was either close to them or was a respected, contributing member of society. The image began to change and with it momentum towards changing attitudes and gaining equality. Inconceivable just a few years ago, now a large majority of states allow same-sex marriage.
The first openly gay elected official, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, stated the importance of coming out in the 1970s: “Every gay person must come out. As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends if indeed they are your friends. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in. Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and all. And once you do, you will feel so much better.”
The influence of the media has helped to propel the change for gay rights. With comedienne Ellen Degeneres’ public coming out, along with the popular TV show Will and Grace that was watched by millions, Americans found themselves laughing with and relating to the stories of gay characters who spent time with us in our living rooms. The threat lessened. As more and more celebrities and role models from politicians like Congressman Barney Frank to Apple’s CEO Tim Cook have come out of the closet, it has become apparent that respectable and successful people whom we can trust — who are rather “normal” — also happen to be gay and deserve the same rights as everyone else.
The media has been a mixed bag when it comes to portraying cannabis consumers. It’s often hard to be taken seriously while the image of pot smokers has been dominated for so many years by Cheech and Chong, a couple of hippy characters who made very funny movies in the 1970s and 1980s.
Late night TV hosts still joke about the stereotype that all pot smokers want to do is sit around getting high, eating Doritos, playing video games, forgetting to vote or study or to take their responsibilities seriously. While we laugh, it’s easy to forget that lives are still being destroyed by the harsh consequences of prohibition.
Fortunately, more and more mainstream television and movie portrayals of cannabis consumers are also normalizing use. Characters in HBO’s Six Feet Under and NBC’s Parenthood have depicted adult family members bonding over shared joints, and USA Network’s Satisfaction portrayed an architect finding inspiration for an upcoming job in cannabis. It’s exciting and helpful to see a growing number of shows that portray non-medical adult cannabis use to be no big deal, a regular part of many people’s lives, much like having a glass of wine at the end of the workday. Bill Maher regularly talks about his use on his show, Real Time with Bill Maher and advocates for legalization.
Likewise, celebrities who come out of the closet are helping to show that many of our beloved and respected icons and role models also believe that cannabis is helpful to their lives. One of the most successful musicians of all time, Paul McCartney, admitted that the Beatles’ album, Sargent Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, was inspired by cannabis. Renowned physicist Carl Sagan attributed some of theories to his use. It’s well known that President Obama was quite the pot smoker in his youth, and it certainly didn’t stop him from achieving success. Virgin CEO Richard Branson is out about his use, and the list goes on. Contrary to the loser image, the truth is that many cannabis consumers are doers and achievers, and some of the most successful, intelligent, and creative people you know. To see more examples, one only needs to visit the web sites CannabisConsumers.org, VeryImportantPotheads.com, Celebstoner.com, and MarijuanaMajority.com.
Fortunately, the Cheech and Chong image is being challenged every day as more and more people tell their own stories of how cannabis has been beneficial to their health and well-being. Firsthand testimony before city councils and state legislatures, network news stories and documentaries on CNN, National Geographic and Discovery Channels, print media and the Internet have helped many non-users understand the importance of cannabis to people suffering from pain, cancer, epilepsy, MS, arthritis, depression, insomnia, glaucoma, and a host of other common ailments. After being penalized for failing drug tests, professional football and basketball players are coming out to testify how cannabis is a much better treatment for their pain, injuries, and concussions than prescription drugs and a healthier alternative to alcohol to relax with after a game. As a result, sports organizations are starting to reassess their policies.
The importance of the personal story, spoken from first-person experience has been essential to opening many minds and bringing more acceptance and compassion to the table, translating into more legal protections for patients. As more and more jurisdictions have come on board for medical marijuana, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know a patient whose life has benefited by the use of cannabis.
With the promise of more marijuana legalization initiatives to be voted on in several states in 2016, there is a real opportunity for cannabis consumers to gain more rights and protections with the ultimate goal of being treated as equals in society. Coming out of the cannabis closet is something the average person can do to support the effort, and it is an extremely important part of the campaign. It will illustrate the waste in tax revenues and resources fighting this unwinnable and unnecessary war, and demonstrate that cannabis consumers come from all walks of life and are some of the nicest, honest, decent, fun, hard-working, productive, award-winning and compassionate people that you know. Why spend money criminalizing good people when society can benefit from legalizing, taxing and regulating cannabis freeing up money and resources for the common good of our communities? Your friends and family will support you at the ballot box, as they will see that you are doing just fine, that you use cannabis in a responsible manner, and that it plays a positive part of your life without any problems.
While it may not be possible for some consumers to “come out” as their livelihoods may be at too great a risk, it certainly is possible for enough of us to do so without any negative consequences, making it safer for others to come out in the future. Granted, there is still too much residual shame and guilt that comes with having to hide your marijuana use for so many years and the tired perception that you are doing something wrong or harmful, but as Harvey Milk said, “…once you do, you will feel so much better.” Cannabis consumers owe it to themselves to come out and take this stand for their personal liberty and equal rights.
This article was first published in BudMagazine.net.
Mikki Norris is director of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign, coordinator of the Human Rights and the Drug War exhibit project and co-author of Shattered Lives: Portraits from America’s Drug War. Since 1989, Norris and her husband, Chris Conrad, have been major activists and leaders in the modern hemp movement. They curated the Hash Marijuana and Hemp Museum in Amsterdam in 1993. They were statewide grassroots coordinators of the Prop. 215 petition drive, making medical marijuana legal in California in 1996. In 2006, Norris was a political consultant to the lowest law enforcement priority initiatives and ordinances that passed in five California cities. She was Managing Editor and Publisher of the West Coast Leaf newspaper from 2008 to 2013. This newspaper has gone digital and can now be found at TheLeafOnline.com. She has been recognized for her leadership and received many awards for her activism.