Redefining the cannabis user
Banishing the burnout: Redefining the cannabis consumer
Words— Odessa Paloma Parker
With Canada’s legalization of marijuana coming into effect this month, we thought we’d explore the issue in a four-part series on Canadian cannabis. We've explored the history, examined modern weed tech, and now this week, Odessa Paloma Parker looks at how the cannabis user is being redefined in this new legal world.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the dark comedy The Big Lebowski, a film with an endearing, weed-smoking protagonist who, in a case of mistaken identity, becomes embroiled in a high-stakes kidnapping plot. Part of the magic of the movie is how hapless Jeff Lebowski – the Dude, if you will – is, puffing his way through the mayhem while leaving many an f-bomb in his trail. He wears his housecoat to the grocery store, drinks milk from the carton, and has a penchant for Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes. He is DGAF personified, hardly even an anti-hero given his inclination to just let it all slide.
At one point in the film, the other Jeff Lebowski, a millionaire, takes his namesake to task and slams him for his très laissez-faire lifestyle. Implying that The Dude’s ways leave much to be desired in the aspiration department, the business tycoon’s insults are pointed references to the burned out weed smoker stereotype. “Are you employed, mister Lebowski?” he asks. Of course not – people who like pot aren’t respectable members of society. The Dude also doesn’t know what day of the week it is. Because people who smoke weed have bad memories – get it? Subtlety certainly isn’t lacking when it comes to El Duderino’s many shortcomings, primarily cannabis-centric in origin. And while I love this film to bits, part of me wonders when I’ll see a portrayal of a pothead like me – functional, full of life and also a daily cannabis consumer.
Sure, we’ve all enjoyed laughing at the goofball antics of The Dude and his ilk – mostly men, although Abbi and Ilana of Broad City are helping to at least put a lens on female pot use, however non-inspirational for the sake of comedy. But now that weed is recreationally legal in Canada (and will most likely become so in more places around the world in the coming years), it’s time to say goodbye to the stoner. Or rather, to give cannabis consumers an entirely new spectrum of identities. We’ve already given the drug itself a new name; well, not new, but did you actually call it cannabis before 2016? Probably not – you probably said pot. Or weed. Or ganja. Or marijuana, a term that now, through more discourse about the history of the plant, has revealed its racialized provenance.
To help with this endeavour, cannabis brands are going to astronomical lengths to promote their product as something for wellness. It’s a word that conjures a picture of health and happiness, not of someone stuck on the couch wiling their life away. It’s now time to openly acknowledge in social circles, in the media, and definitely in pop culture, that people who consume – for whatever reasons and however often – are plentiful and different. For it’s clear that despite his odd charm, nobody wants to be The Dude. (And not many people are).
Plenty of people would want to be like Miranda Bryden, though. The entrepreneurial mother, who hails from British Columbia, opened a popular boutique in Toronto’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood four years ago and after parting with it earlier this year, started working for Canopy Growth Co., the biggest cannabis company in the world. She describes herself as being in excellent physical health – she runs 20k a week; Bryden is also a regular cannabis consumer, grows her own plants, and is open about her use to her children. “I grew up on Vancouver Island,” she says. “There’s less of a stigma and a stereotype in B.C., and on the West Coast I think.”
Upon moving to Toronto and opening her shop, Bryden had many eye-opening experiences with the people in her new community. “I noticed immediately that there was a very different attitude here. I started having some pretty frank conversations with my customers.” Highlighting the varied socio-economic makeup of the Roncesvalles neighbourhood (and most areas of the Toronto core, really), Bryden started to see “where people’s ideas about cannabis came from, and what their fears were.” And she also realized that “the people who pushed back or got upset…typically they were parents of teenage boys. Actually, pretty consistently they were.” When asked why she thought that was, Bryden highlights notions of ‘failure to launch’ and mental health issues. “I have two boys of my own, so I can imagine why people would be scared and nervous,” she notes. “But I also know that a lot of people kind of had it wrong, or believed the myths, or didn’t have the information or didn’t know anything about it.”
Since cannabis had been under prohibition for almost 100 years in Canada, the amount of scientific information – either positive, cautionary or negative – about its effects are presently very scarce. And in terms of warnings that it can trigger psychosis, for example, the same could be said for the consumption of any drugs or even alcohol. But we don’t hear much about that because opioids and alcohol have become integrated into society in such a way that their abuse is practically normalized, even the subject of jokes. Conceptions about cannabis use have alternatively been reinforced by campaigns we grew up with like ‘This is your brain on drugs’, and portrayals of the dumb pothead that permeate pop culture. Fundamentally the issue has stemmed from the fact that we’ve allowed this idea to become fact: Anyone can enjoy (or self-medicate) with wine, be it a CEO, mommy or someone from the creative class, yet cannabis consumers to date have been given one type – the stoner – characterized by laziness, ineptitude and general untrustworthiness.
Barinder Rasode, a former Surrey, B.C. City Councillor and the current president and CEO of NICHE (the National Institute for Cannabis Health and Education), spends her days speaking about cannabis policy and reform. She also advocates for the transformation of the typical perception of a pot consumer into a more suitably contemporary – and true – take. At 49, she says that when she was younger, the issue was very cut-and-dry. “There were people who smoked cannabis and those who didn’t, and there was a very clear line,” she says. “I’d never heard of people using it medicinally, or even responsibly.” Rasode came to see cannabis’ benefits after being exposed to it by family members, and now through her work with NICHE, produces BotaniQ – a cannabis-focused publication distributed to officials which paints a much different picture of cannabis use than we’ve seen to-date in pop culture and the media. “With time, [the perception] has shifted because the way cannabis is consumed and the reasons it’s consumed has shifted. And the kind of people who are open about using it has shifted.”
While certainly the ideal advocate for an emerging era of cannabis positivity, Bryden isn’t an anomaly when it comes to most (significantly undiscussed) cannabis consumers. According to Global News, Alberta alone had first-day cannabis sales of $730,000, meaning a whole lot of closeted consumers crept out of hiding last week. And if you think about it, you probably don’t wonder if the person next to you on the subway, serving you your coffee or delivering a PowerPoint presentation at work likes to get high during their downtime. It doesn’t cross your mind. Why? Because they’re out there living their life, and we’ve been trained to think that cannabis consumers embody the opposite approach. Although for undoubtedly non-nefarious reasons, the Cohen brothers penned a character that fit right in with the Reagan-era portrait of a pothead – someone to deride for their lack of intelligence, willpower and ambition. However, we’re slowly starting to learn that a typical cannabis consumer is someone who takes a few puffs to help them sleep or enjoy a social night out; not to mention the myriad consumers who use it medicinally. The IRL image is changing, so fictional consumers must change as well. Sorry, Dude.
Odessa Paloma Parker is a Toronto-based writer, stylist and contributing editor to the Globe and Mail. You can also find her on Instagram.