Medical marijuana
Close up of medical marijuana buds spilling out of prescription bottle with label / Photo by TeriVirbickis (Depositphotos)

How I Became a Cannabis Convert

How I Became a Cannabis Convert

Commentary by Joe Butler

In early 2012, my dad learned that the cancer he had been diagnosed with the previous fall wasn’t going to go away. His soul’s journey in this world ended on Star Wars Day 2013 (“May the 4th be with you” – get it?)

During his illness, he tried pot for the first time when a friend offered him samples that he secretly grew to help his chronic back pain instead of pharmaceuticals. Friends and family also came forward with similar contributions, including an uncle who surprisingly was successful in smuggling a batch of homemade brownies on a cross-country flight.

My dad was never necessarily anti-drug, but cannabis really wasn’t a part of his life. But at age 70, he discovered that marijuana may have merit.

To this day, I credit this plant for helping his pain and his appetite, which improved his quality of life, and gave him more time with us. I also still appreciate the kind people who came forward with homegrown contributions, especially since they were all clearly breaking at least some state and federal laws. I’d even say it helped bring everyone closer: some family seemed to feel almost liberated to be able to help and share their own positive experiences with pot.

Three years later, I was declared editor of a new cannabis section created by The Spokesman-Review as a way to help newly-legal pot businesses get the word out. My normal procedure for a new product launch is to learn everything about a topic to appear knowledgeable and credible. Ask me about golf, sustainable living, wedding planning, super couponing and all sorts of other niche publications we’ve brought to life over the years!

Like my dad, drugs, including pot, really weren’t part of my world. One thing I learned right away was that the anti-drug messaging I grew up hearing in the 70s and 80s was far from comprehensive. As someone who studied communication and history and has made his living chronicling and promoting our community’s moment in time, I realized the accepted story of American cannabis didn’t add up, or at least was incomplete.

We’ve been taught pretty consistently over the last few generations that pot is a drug and drugs are bad and only bad people do drugs. Marijuana is a gateway drug. The reefer causes madness. Only dopes do dope. Pot users are either made out to be silly stoners or sinister deviants. 

With a consistent “just say no” message coming from health officials, law enforcement, churches, and media, it’s easy to not give equal weight to any counter-narrative that says, “sometimes you can say yes.” Any hippie who offers an opposing view is at best uninformed, at worst, a subversive freedom-hater.

This prevailing anti-drug narrative snowballed through many significant American cultural movements in the last century, including America’s Revival movement in the late 1800s that affirmed a return to good morality and clean living; the popularity of and reaction against narcotic “tonics” used and abused around the turn of the 20th century; and the national crusade against alcohol, smoking and other vices in the 1910s teetotaler movement.

There was concern about Mexican immigrants bringing marijuana with them, and Black jazz musicians with their funny cigarettes. Newspaper owners also promoted the paper industry while discouraging commercial hemp growing.

reefer madness
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (U.S.-1974), Bob Price, artist. / Library of Congress

Much of this came to a head in the early 1930s, when alcohol Prohibition faded away, leading the law enforcement apparatus to focus on cannabis. An entire morality campaign was created detailing the fear of cannabis and linking the plant to poor moral values and sinful living. That’s when movies like “Reefer Madness” emerged that showed how drugs easily corrupt the youth.

Fun fact: as of 2015, my son’s middle school health teacher was still showing this film — as a teaching aid, not as a joke.

This certainly only skims the surface of what I’ve learned about the cannabis story, and I’m deliberately skipping entire decades. (The 1970s may even merit their own essay!)

In future columns, I hope to show how these values have changed, and also go back in time and outside of America, since other current and historic cultures celebrate cannabis rather than condemn it.

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