Legalizing cannabis in Canada will soon lead to normalizing it as non-users change stereotypical views of users, says a UAlberta sociologist.
Time was, if you were asked to describe the typical marijuana smoker it would likely bring to mind a zoned-out stoner—a lazy, unproductive young male glued to the couch listening to Bob Marley or Pink Floyd.
Popular culture has only reinforced the stereotype. From Cheech and Chong to Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to more recent depictions in films like Pineapple Express, those who smoke pot regularly are shown as hopelessly divorced from reality, using their few remaining brain cells to try and remember where they left the bong.
Sociologist Geraint Osborne said even in his own field, cannabis research has long been “couched in a subculture of deviance framework,” with little attention to how the drug is used more responsibly. Observing the war on drugs while an undergraduate during the 1980s—with all of its “just say no” hysteria—made Osborne want to look more deeply into marijuana consumption, especially whether there was any such thing as “normal” use.
Identifying the typical user
When he arrived at the U of A, Osborne began looking for characteristics of the average consumer. He found there was no such thing.
"There isn't a typical user,” he said. “People are using in a wide range of social contexts for different reasons. Some are tuning in, some zoning out. Some are using to enhance creativity or their sex lives, some for relaxation and to help them sleep. Some like how it enhances their experience of nature, and some use it after sporting events as a way to recover.
“It's really fascinating how people have found what works for them and in what circumstances. It's certainly a trend among artistic people. They find it allows them to attain a different perspective on that art."
One thing that struck Osborne was how widely cannabis is used by middle-class professionals. In a 2008 qualitative study published in the journal Substance Use and Misuse, he looked at subjects ranging in age from 21 to 61 who used the drug anywhere from daily to once or twice a year. Participants worked in the retail and service industries, in communications, as white-collar employees or as health-care and social workers. Sixty eight per cent of them held post-secondary degrees.
The study showed participants considered themselves responsible users of the drug, partaking moderately in an appropriate social setting and not allowing it to cause harm to others.
“Where they feel most guilty is buying from seedy characters or funding organized crime,” said Osborne. “So they say they'd like to buy from friends or someone they know who is growing it, whenever possible."
What’s more, these are anything but social outcasts who have failed to emerge from their smoke-filled basements to engage with reality, said Osborne. Perhaps that shouldn’t really come as a surprise when you consider some of the icons of productivity and success who have enjoyed weed without calcifying into the couch—Steve Jobs, Ted Turner, Sir Richard Branson, bestselling authors Stephen King and Carl Sagan, and right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, to name only a few.
Today’s pot consumer is no longer of high-school or college age either. The average toker is now closer to 40.
"They've gone through a trial-and-error period where they’re at a point in their lives where they know just how much they should smoke to make the experience pleasurable, whereas younger people are still trying to figure it out,” said Osborne. “Your older, middle-class recreational users have for the most part incorporated it into their lives."
Some even admit a few tokes can help with parenting.
“There are those who might have issues with that, but is it really any different than sipping a glass of wine?” asked Osborne. “Obviously these parents aren’t getting totally stoned out of their minds. One of the parents said it allowed her to better interact with her child and be more patient, more in the moment.”
The tell of social change: how non-users view users
The true gauge of normalcy, however, is how marijuana consumption is viewed by non-users, he said. Osborne recently surveyed three social science university classes at the U of A’s Augustana campus, the University of Toronto and the University of Guelph and found that, although attitudes of non-users still reflect “long-standing cultural assumptions about drug use as deviant behaviour,” the needle is moving. Many were accepting of cannabis consumption as long as users exercised caution and discretion, and were respectful of the choices of non-users not to use.
"Once non-users start saying, ‘We don't have a problem with this,’ then boom, the shift happens. And I think people recognize prohibition is just not working, that harm reduction is probably the better route."
Osborne said he would apply the same standard of responsible use to cannabis as we now do to alcohol.
"Don't drive while intoxicated, don't operate heavy machinery, don't let it interfere with your job, finances, your kids or other relationships, use in moderation. Know what kind of product you’re using, which is a wonderful thing with legalization because consumers can know the strain, the THC concentration and the effects. That will help with responsible use."
When legalization of cannabis does arrive, probably sometime before Canada Day 2018, acceptance of the drug will likely increase rapidly, said Osborne, especially once people realize the change is not likely to turn Canada into a nation of potheads.
"Some people are worried there will be a dramatic upswing in use, but generally what we're seeing in other jurisdictions is that doesn't happen. There might be an initial bump in the numbers out of curiosity, but the drug is pretty accessible now.
“People who use are going to keep using, and people who aren't have their reasons, and it’s not because they don't have access. They've just already decided it's not the drug of choice for them."