Can a subculture’s identity survive once it is embraced by the mainstream?
This is the dilemma facing cannabis users today. Once a symbol of edgy rebels and artists, it has become – gradually at first but now more rapidly – stunningly, boringly mainstream.
In the 1990s, Chris Robinson, the lead singer of the rock band The Black Crowes, could still seem mildly rebellious when he wore pants decorated with pot leaves to the MTV Music Awards. Today, one of pot’s loudest boosters in pop culture, Snoop Dogg, owns a marijuana lifestyle brand and cohosts a cooking show with Martha Stewart called “Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party.” When asked last year by the Hollywood Reporter for her thoughts on Snoop’s pot use on set, his septuagenarian co-host shrugged. “So someone smokes marijuana? Big deal!”
We’ve come a long way from people passing around issues of High Times (and bongs) like samizdat. Even High Times, flagship publication of the old counterculture, which used to feature articles about “Secret Hash-Making in Mexico,” has entered middle age and embraced a healthier lifestyle. A story from a recent issue offered advice on “Classing Up Cannabis: Designing a Dispensary for an Ideal Customer Experience,” which noted the benefits of “design and flow,” “great lighting,” and “open floor plans,” to pot sellers. What’s next, a line of High Times motivational Successories posters for your cannabis-friendly co-working space?
Or consider musicians’ long creative relationship with weed, which used to add to their glamour and mystique. Louis Armstrong, a daily user of pot, which he called “muggles,” once spent more than a week in jail after being busted for marijuana possession. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Beatles laced many of their songs with pot references (“I Get by With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “I Am the Walrus”), but at a time when pot was still decidedly countercultural, the references they chose were deliberately vague. Contemporary artists perform songs such as “Pack the Pipe” (The Pharcyde), “Mary Jane” (Scarface), and “Hits From the Bong” (Cypress Hill). The references might be blunt (sorry) but the mystery is gone.
That’s because cannabis culture isn’t about edgy outsiders and artists anymore. It’s brimming with wellness gurus and marijuana lifestyle entrepreneurs and cheeky websites like MerryJane. As Forbes reported in 2018, Washington state alone boasts “1,083 cannabis brands producing 45,000 unique products.” No longer defined by aging hippies reliving their favorite Grateful Dead concert or reggae festival, weed is now legal in a growing number of states like Colorado, where “ganjapreneurs” have opened sleek dispensaries staffed by tattooed hipsters who legally sell a range of oils, edibles, and carefully curated kinds of cannabis.
And then there are the celebrities, whose presence usually signals that a counterculture has been officially coopted. Goop founder and actress Gwyneth Paltrow recently teamed up with Med Men, a “premium” marijuana dispensary, to sell marijuana products. Whoopi Goldberg has her own line of cannabis products under the brand name Whoopi & Maya Synergy. Mike Tyson owns a large pot farm in the Mojave Desert, and Law & Order creator Dick Wolf is an investor in a marijuana lab.
But no one embodies the transformation of pop culture’s relationship to pot more than Miley Cyrus. Once an adorable tween singer and star of the Disney Channel show Hannah Montana, Cyrus has grown into an adult celebrity unafraid to twerk or toke. After publicly renouncing her heavy pot use a few years ago because she wanted to be “super clear and sharp,” Cyrus recently told USA Today that she’s getting high again. Why? “My mom got me back on it.” The Cyrus matriarch, who is also Miley’s manager, “smokes a lot of weed,” according to her daughter.
And so, again, does Miley. A recent Instagram post featured a picture of Cyrus smoking a joint with the caption, “Weed makes you happy.” Who could ask for a better brand ambassador? Not that long ago, publicly proclaiming your love affair with cannabis would have been a career-ender for a beloved Disney child star. Today, it’s a savvy professional move, one that Nancy “Just Say No” Reagan and the anti-drug crusaders of old would have found unthinkable.
Although pro-pot activists have fought drug laws for decades, it was the 2005 Showtime television show Weeds that signaled a major shift in pop culture’s depiction of pot users and dealers. The sympathetic main character, a widowed mother played brilliantly by Mary-Louise Parker, managed to tell an old-fashioned story of Horatio Alger-like grit while peddling pot in 21st-century suburban America. By the end of the show, her narrative arc matched society’s changing norms. She was no longer a shady drug dealer, but a legalized pot tycoon. Weeds opened the door for many other shows (like Broad City and High Maintenance) that featured pot not as a countercultural outlier but as a part of everyday life for regular people.
That ho-hum attitude now extends even to not-so-regular people: professional politicians. In the 1990s, presidential candidate Bill Clinton engaged in a feat of verbal gymnastics trying to explain his youthful marijuana use (he claimed to have tried it but not to have inhaled). Today, nearly ever Democratic primary presidential candidate supports pot legalization (and some have sponsored legislation to that effect). Asked during a radio interview if she had ever smoked marijuana, Sen. Kamala Harris said, “Half my family is from Jamaica; are you kidding me? And I did inhale.” Sounding like a High Times Marie Kondo, she added, “It gives a lot of people joy.” Gallup polls have found that 66% of Americans support pot legalization (up from 25% in the 1990s).
These days, getting high is about as transgressive as popping a multivitamin.
And yet, widespread acceptance of pot use has left some stoners forced to acknowledge an unhappy truth: Cannabis is no longer the ritual of an exclusive, edgy few, but merely one option among many in the wellness and lifestyle marketplace. These days, getting high is about as transgressive as popping a multivitamin.
This might explain the intense nostalgia dedicated stoners feel for the iconic movies and figures popular in pre-mainstream days. Those cultural symbols provide a reassuring sense of identity. As the authors of Pot Culture: The A-Z Guide to Stoner Language & Life note, “Stoners are naturally drawn to other stoners. And when they find themselves in an unfamiliar environment, they seek each other out. Those with experience learn a fail-safe mating dance, where common reference points and a unique language decide who does – and doesn’t – partake. It’s sociology in action.”
Sociologists might agree. A small study published in Criminology & Criminal Justice remarked on the peculiar nature of stoner culture. The researchers argued that given the unique “collection of rituals, stories and symbols” prevalent in cannabis culture, widespread use and legalization has not had the same normalizing effect as it had with other drugs. “Although many use cannabis, it still signals opposition and cultural difference,” they conclude.
Whether or not that signaling can survive the onslaught of commerce remains to be seen. In the 1990s the editors of The Baffler chose “Commodify Your Dissent” as the title for a collection of essays. They meant to show the many ways 20th-century radicalism had, through clever marketing, been deftly turned into profit – a change they loudly lamented. By contrast, today’s ganjapreneurs and pot partakers seem more comfortable in their new role as business owners and product developers on the one hand, and as consumers of various forms of self-care via cannabis on the other. Pop culture rewards them by flattering that self-image. Today’s cannabis customers might be getting blazed rather than baked, but either way, there are plenty of people – and plenty of pop culture creators – ready and willing to commodify their high.
Christine Rosen is Senior Writer at Commentary magazine.