Two Leaves Passing in the Night

Since legal marijuana sales in Colorado kicked off at the start of the new year, the media has been abuzz with often-whimsical accounts of the state’s budding pot industry.  (Get it?  “Budding” pot industry?  That’s the sort of joke you’ll see in most of these stories.)  Far beyond Colorado, a consensus seems to be building around the idea that marijuana prohibition has been a debacle.  A recent poll finds 55% of Americans agreeing that marijuana should be made legal, up from 16% in 1987.

Meanwhile, a different sort of smokeable leaf has suffered the latest in a series of legal, financial, and social defeats that stretches back decades.  Drugstore chain CVS announced that it will discontinue tobacco sales at its stores beginning in October.  The move was met with a generally positive response in the media and was given a thumbs-up from President Obama.

It would be inaccurate to suggest that tobacco smokers suddenly face greater restrictions on the use of their chosen product that do marijuana smokers.  Customers of Colorado’s new marijuana stores must still walk a rather narrow tightrope if they want to use the product within the confines of state law, and shoppers coming from out of state face the additional restraint of being allowed to buy only a quarter ounce of legal marijuana at a time.  (Colorado residents can purchase one ounce at a time.)  Moreover, the price of legal marijuana dwarfs that of tobacco cigarettes.  Nonetheless, it seems clear that the zeitgeist is growing friendlier to marijuana at the same time it grows more hostile to tobacco.

But why?  A tangle of factors is surely at work, but I suspect that much of the story lies in the signifiers we’ve come to attach to the two products and to the social and cultural circumstances that surround their production and use.  Tobacco’s legality has allowed for the growth of large multinational corporations around its production.  As in so many other cases, the existence of these entities provided for the easy construction of a social villain – the “evil corporation.”  The tobacco companies’ advertising muscle and lofty revenues gave them an aura of power and strength that made the portrayal of them as horrible bullies getting rich off of addicts’ misery seem natural.  Marijuana’s illegality prevented similar corporations form arising around its use.  While the illegal drug trade may have involved horrible violence far away, the casual American marijuana user was largely insulated from it.  As a result, the face of American marijuana distribution becomes the relatively harmless individual low-level drug dealer.  Maybe he’s not the most upstanding citizen or a person I’ll want to associate with when I’m 40 years old and trying to raise a family, but for now, he’s just a fun guy who brings the party with him.  I know him in a way and have a relationship with him in a way that I could never have a relationship with “big tobacco.”

Furthermore, marijuana, unlike tobacco, is largely free of the stigma of addiction.  Tobacco conjures up images of the pathetic addict enslaved by his habit.  With marijuana, in contrast, the hip thing to do is to laugh at the ludicrous images of “marijuana addiction” promoted by the likes of Reefer Madness.  Indeed, occasional experimental marijuana use, particularly if it’s confined to adolescence and young adulthood, fits quite nicely into a rather esteemed cultural model – that of the worldly, experienced, and open-minded cultural omnivore.  Because marijuana is non-addictive and still carries a hint of the exotic and the countercultural, an openness to it goes hand in hand with an openness to world travel, foreign cuisine, and other vaguely exotic experiences that a person might dabble in without letting them define him or her the way that an addict is defined by an addiction.  Rather than drag down a person’s social status in the way that tobacco use does, marijuana use can even enhance one’s claim to a certain type of privileged status – that of the worldly omnivore – that has become the tacit expectation for what upper-middle class professionals are expected to be.

Perhaps twenty years from now, the areas of CVS stores that once held the long-banished tobacco cigarettes will display marijuana for sale.  If so, it stands to reason that the current cultural dynamic I’ve described here may begin to change.  People might start speaking darkly of “Big Marijuana.”  Perhaps marijuana’s entry into mainstream channels of commerce will strip it of the mild exoticism that contributes so much to its current cultural allure.  (Think about it – can you buy anything at a CVS that does a whole lot to boost your cultural capital?)  For now, though, marijuana is in and tobacco is out.  DARE, you’re officially on notice.

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