The phrase “pipe dream” is today used without any reference to its opium based origins but is by no means the only historic reminder of our county’s narcotic past in language and culture. Hemel Hempstead, or Hemel’s Hemp Farm as it should more accurately be known is the parliamentary seat of prohibition’s finest, Mark Penning MP.
Yet all across the media are subtle tells as to how even the right wing sees different types of drug use, how distinctions and allowances are sub consciously made even when supposedly condemning all drug use.
Take the terms “pusher” and “dealer”, if you hear about an arrest for cannabis there may be a mention of a dealer, but almost never a pusher. Pushers are referred to entirely within the context of hard drugs like heroin. This is not so much a commentary on the individuals arrested for dealing or the incidents themselves but a judgement on the product specifically.
If you have ever worked in retail you will be familiar with the notion of your manager instructing you to push sales, sell bundle deals, and to generally encourage, bully and berate your customers into taking a product they don’t want or do not want at that price and/or quantity.
“Dealer” is definitely a metonym for “bad guy” within the “prohibitionist press” (itself a metonym for “Daily Mail”) but the narrative linked to that of “Cannabis Dealer” is one of paranoid (the irony!) middle class parents needing to stop their children from going to buy drugs with their pocket money; not that of an aggressive outlaw salesman forcibly conducting a transaction outside a school gate.
This nuance is, I believe, an indication that on some level even the Daily Mail understands that cannabis is a good product that people want to indulge in for recreational and/or medicinal reasons. Ultimately it must be conceded that beyond each year’s Snoop Dogg album there is no overt advertising for cannabis. If a product can be rife despite a legal control order, an aggressive media campaign against it with no effective advertising or furious promotion in its favour but still results in, if anything, a growing market share, then the truth must be that this really is a good product.
The fairy tale of Skunk, at its core, is one of trading standards and changelings, of innocents being mislead. Rather than purchasing something benign, users are supposedly purchasing something dangerous, thus duped into taking a sweet poison that transforms them into unrecognisable doped up zombies. This myth is rooted in fears of the outside and foreign, as "dealer" is used interchangeably with "criminal" and "villain", "cannabis" too becomes inextricably linked by the media and government to “Vietnamese”, “gang-related”, “electricity-bypass” and “schizophrenia”. This imagery is absolutely at odds with the traditional cannabis imagery of friendly hippies passing joints around a lava lamp or that of Ricketty Bob and Milk Eye Jim quietly smoking for their arthritis and glaucoma. It is designed to distance a reader from their previous accurate understanding of cannabis as quickly as possible. Essentially: “It’s not the nice cannabis you remember. It is bad cannabis from foreign parts with absolutely no redeeming features or explanation as to why anyone would ever smoke it.”
I recall, as gay rights began to become more credible and accepted (possibly after the announcement about gay marriage), and LGBT people began to become more accepted both in the media and in day to day life; I read an article from one gay club owner, now an old man, torn between joy at the increased acceptance of his community and sadness at the fading he imagined soon to take place of gay culture. Specifically that gay clubs would be less busy, less popular, less the only refuge available to gay young people and less and less the home of gay culture and social tradition due to mainstream acceptance and compatibility. All signs point to this fading not having taken place, rather now there is more and more chance for gay culture to be celebrated just more openly than ever before.
It is hard to see how cannabis users could be further from mainstream society in terms of their representation within it despite their numerical prevalence and ubiquity. Whether it is a wizened and bearded old man in a tie dye shirt or a willowy woman with hair to her waist walking bare foot proclaiming her name to be “Starbreeze”, even the kinder depictions of cannabis users are unusual; while the more obviously negative depictions of tracksuit wearing teens smoking their lives and minds away also sit in opposition to images of “acceptable” mainstream society.
“I know! Drugs are bad, because if you do drugs, you're a hippie! And hippies suck!”– Eric Cartman.
“Stoner culture” is something we celebrate all the time, sometimes literally with 4:20pm and other little remembrances. Like clockwork an article will appear in every newspaper on the 19th of April explaining how many young people will no doubt be inhaling funny smelling smoke tomorrow and not to worry too much about this cult tradition. Each and every part of our stoner culture keeps us in opposition and marked out as different from normal society. I think being different is good but, in terms of how stoner culture is represented in even the left wing and liberal parts of the media, you would never believe that it is actually huge swathes of normal society that smoke/vape/whatever for both fun and health reasons and it is not a tiny minority of imaginary students faking crippling arthritis. Addressing this and assimilating stoner culture and lifestlye into mainstream culture will be the key stop on the road to change. For example if you see a stoner on current TV or in a mainstream film it will be as a villain or as a clown figure to laugh at. They will never ever be depicted casually as a successful or even everyday person. There won’t be a leading female character who has a smoke occasionally to relax in the evening even if Jennifer Aniston does off screen:
“Jennifer Aniston has told how she enjoys smoking marijuana and sees 'nothing wrong' in it. The Friends star, who is married to Brad Pitt, made the potentially damaging confession when she was asked during an interview about rumours of drug taking. 'I enjoy it once in a while,' she told Rolling Stone magazine. 'There is nothing wrong with that. Everything in moderation. I wouldn't call myself a pot-head.'”
Hard bitten detective characters still have to unwind by pounding shots of whiskey late at night after chasing thugs through bad neighbourhoods, even if Morgan Freeman is actually packing bongs back in his trailer. It all seems pretty unrealistic when so much of the population either smokes occasionally or more regularly either as a patient or recreationally.
Likewise, if you openly admit that you smoke, you have to negotiate the term pot-head or more likely here in the UK “stoner”. There is nothing wrong with the term "stoner" in of itself and how it is used amongst stoners as a self-identifying label and indicator of a shared interest. Outside of the sub-culture though “stoner” translates as something closer to alcoholic or chronic user. There is not presently a short hand way of saying “I am a medical patient who finds relief through cannabis” or “I prefer to relax by watching DVDs with a couple of spliffs once or twice a week.” Instead, you are a “user” or possibly a “consumer”, labelled again by terms suggesting that you are entirely defined by your relationship with cannabis or that you blankly and blindly consume cannabis without thinking. Any culture with a similar level of history, detail and community would see its proponents referred to as “enthusiasts”. We need as a movement to change the language around cannabis and become cannabis enthusiasts, sharing community space, legitimacy and agency with real ale enthusiasts, vintage car enthusiasts, craft enthusiasts and every other legitimate hobby or interest.
It is this problem over language which makes reform so difficult. The language around cannabis use forces campaigners to try to apologise for the perceived images and stereotypes of "stoners" first before making any other point such as highlighting the unfairness of present legislation. It is this which partly feeds into my next point about campaigning in the UK.
At the moment within UK cannabis activism there is an incredible amount of dissent and bitterness. There is the CLEAR vs. NORML argument, the UKCSC vs. Feed The Birds argument, the normalisation vs. decriminalisation/legalisation argument. Before that there were a great number of dead groups that have mingled, influenced, reformed and ressurected into one or more of the current UK groups.
Some of this hostility and antagonism comes from a difference of opinion over whether direct action such as smoke outs are a good idea vs. careful lobbying and letter writing. Other fights come from claims of cliques, takeovers and other much more dubious behaviour. Whatever the truth or legitimacy of each disagreement, grudge and rivalry in the UK cannabis activism scene it is painfully obvious that the general state of infighting and the forming of separate camps rather than the sharpening of allied prongs helps no one.
It is often said that the Right looks for converts and the Left for traitors, certainly the activist scene looks for traitors. While some might see suit wearing cannabis activists as a contradiction in terms and therefore a blatant deception or that the recreational campaign taints the medicinal one, it seems to me that a stronger campaign is one that is united and perceives those engaged in the same struggle as its allies and as a force multiplier. The most effective campaigns in history have campaigned through both legal lobbying and direct action. It allows a pressurised incumbent government to make “reasonable” concessions without appearing to capitulate to the most extreme parts of movement. The idea that one small campaign is going to achieve anything without the support of many others running alongside it is ridiculous. All it actually does is excite petty egos and entrench establishment attitudes due to the lack of an effective challenge –and that’s before the embarrassment and damage that infighting causes.
If the government and/or media successfully controls the language around the debate meaning that anyone talking about cannabis has to wade through a metaphorical swamp of "skunk dependency" and marching columns of deranged teenager statistics; then the language has to be challenged and redefined from the ground up.
The very first thing we can do as casual or more hardcore activists –but definitely as cannabis enthusiasts (not users or consumers) is to take ourselves and the cause seriously. We do that by welcoming everyone who shares our goal and working out how we can support one another. When we are out and about and find ourselves challenging people criticising “stoners” lets ask them what they mean by that word, lets ask them if they were a stoner when they tried smoking weed at college or when they sneakily have a sly puff at a party now, and if the word always means the same thing. Lets get coherently offended online and in person when we are referred to as “lazy” or “druggies”, or any time any inaccurate stereotype is applied to us.
Much more importantly, lets make our discontent clear first of all and then drop support for activists and groups that are more interested in fighting other activists than they are in challenging prohibition. Lets not get involved in facebook shit storms and name calling and instead focus our comments and energy on the people who are making a difference.
If prohibition is a brand, marketed, with millions of pounds, spin doctors and advertising tricks to back it up world wide; then there needs to be a rebrand of both weed and its activists. All the prohibitionists are all shooting in the same direction and they are shooting at the MS patient, the dreaded hippy, the rasta, the suit wearing professional, the online activist, the student, and the social smoker alike.