Danielle “Dan” Guercio, a New York-based cannabis writer and creative, felt that cannabis news stories had to focus on “a brand, celeb, political or science angle” to get featured.
“The only culture stuff we get is from the same five dudes and their friends,” she said via LinkedIn comments.
“There’s a little bit of an echo chamber happening in the professional space right now—too-similar circles circulating too-similar information,” she told me in a follow-up chat.
The suggestion was certainly interesting. Were we running into an echo chamber where only a few similar voices speak for millions? I wasn’t sure about the number of representatives. But I certainly agreed when it came to the stories. With commenters telling me they wanted more success stories and relatable topics, is the news playing gatekeeper, or is the public short-sighting the current offering?
When I pitched the topic to my editor, he told me I could pursue it “only if you go into it realizing you are one of those dudes.” I agreed to the condition despite not fully agreeing with the opinion. Sure, my work appeared regularly on a few outlets. Still, I could name several voices on this publication and numerous others that cover all things pot. And even if only five of us dudes are covering the scene, I can name at least two that probably wouldn’t consider me a colleague they’d want to associate with.
I get it, if that’s the case. Those prominent writers certainly walk the walk more than I ever could. Maybe it’s the imposter syndrome talking, but I never thought a 30-something who can barely roll a J, hasn’t grown a plant and hasn’t been busted for anything really represents what many in the Western world consider authentic weed culture. Or, maybe it isn’t the imposter syndrome but rather the reality of the current situation.
Before tackling if it is adequately covered in the media, I needed to unpack what cannabis culture is in the first place. To do so, I asked roughly 100 pot personalities, from underground operators to MSO execs to casual consumers.
What is Cannabis Culture?
Cannabis Culture is a Canadian weed publication once run by this guy who did some questionable things…
Wait, wrong cannabis culture. That’s a story for another day. The cannabis culture we’re looking to nail down is a bit more ambiguous—just like it’s been for decades.
Defining culture can be challenging at times. Taking pot out of the equation doesn’t help much, either. Culture’s definition varies depending on the source. Most would summarize it as our shared or collective knowledge, experiences, beliefs, patterns, behaviors, attitudes, religions and other components we’ve encountered as humans over many generations. We shape the world around us through our collective experiences. As time progresses, our culture evolves with it. Our worldviews grow while some once dominant traits or subcultures fade into the background as others gain prominence.
That sums up cannabis culture throughout the ages, particularly today. While many may have clearly defined views of the culture, others contest that it has always been wide-reaching.
“It is a multifaceted phenomenon encompassing a wide range of social and behavioral aspects surrounding the consumption of cannabis,” said Kimberly Shaw, a 10-year cannabis grower and plant enthusiast.
Thanks to legalization and expanding access, millions of newcomers are now part of the discussion. Does this make them part of the culture? It depends on who you ask. While many casual consumers are welcomed by most, fear over particular types runs high.
“Excluding the overlap with mainstream pop culture–movies, music, celebs, etc.—the cannabis culture as it was once known has evolved into “industry” culture,’” said Benjamin Owens, a cannabis event organizer and author of psilocybin recipe book Mr. Boomer’s Magic Kitchen.
“The culture has many faces and many independent desires,” said Alex Redmond via Twitter.
“From MSOs to ancillary businesses—it doesn’t feel like we’re attracting the best and the brightest,” he added.
Whether we like it or not, these individuals are part of the cannabis community, a now bloated but still technically accurate term for pot consumers. While some may not like the inclusion of casuals and atypical consumers or operators, there’s no denying these folks represent the evolution of the modern community and its culture.
“Cannabis culture today is evolving and being remixed across geographic boundaries, legal and legacy sectors, and consumer communities,” said Michael Kauffman, executive director of the Clio Music & Clio Cannabis awards.
Until recently, cannabis culture helped describe the few prevailing cannabis subcultures, including medical users, advocates, trappers and the hip hop community. But, some argue that view excludes today’s and past era’s cannabis consumers.
“I always say the cannabis culture is a subculture of all other cultures,” said Ngaio Bealum, a prominent cannabis writer and comedian, among many other talents. He added, “Whatever it is that people do, there’s a subset of people that like to get high and do it.”
Similarly, Morgan Fox, political director for NORML, told me the cannabis community has always represented more than just its most vocal pot proponents.
“I think it’s kinda difficult to answer because cannabis culture has always been ubiquitous,” he said. Since prohibition has been in place, there’s been a kinship between weed consumers from various walks of life.
“Even people that were super undercover about their cannabis use…part of the culture of cannabis use was that when they would find somebody else that they know also consumed cannabis, there’d be sort of like an instant rapport and understanding,” said Fox.
The silent consumers throughout the ages certainly help contribute to the culture. But if you were to ask the general public during those times what they considered cannabis culture, few, if any, would say the silent majority. Instead, they’d likely mention the loudest communities and subcultures. Does that eliminate those not in those groups? It shouldn’t, but the truth is that many in the community, be it media, business or sometimes more sophisticated consumers, practice this approach.
My hunch is that, like anything people hold dear, they feel responsible for protecting the cannabis community and culture they grew up in. As the world around them changes, they become protective of what they see as the proper culture. Without conflating cannabis into another massive societal issue, it feels like cannabis’ old guard is protective of its remaining culture as cannabis gentrifiers enter the community. While justified and correct in many ways, I do wonder if certain members of cannabis are shutting out passionate cannabis folks because they don’t fall into the standard personalities or perspectives we’ve established as “authentic.” If they don’t look a certain way, don’t know enough about the plant, or haven’t been arrested for it, are they still considered members of the culture?
The Pillars of Cannabis Culture?
The cannabis community has always been wide-reaching, even if consumers often stayed low-key. In recent eras, that quiet consuming approach helped minimize particular consumers as different subcultures became dominant voices. While true that culture varies by country, state, city and neighborhood, a few prevalent subcultures continue to shape much of the conversation.
Few, if anyone, will deny that the medical community started it all off. While some could have puffed on the plant for fun in the early days, documented history shows that groups stretching across various continents and centuries turned to cannabis for its healing properties. One of the most heavily cited examples is the plant’s inclusion in ancient Chinese pharmacopeia.
“I think cannabis transcends almost everything because it’s biology,” said “Hawaii” Mike Salman about the body’s endocannabinoid system.
Salman, the co-founder of New York-based infused dining events Chef for Higher, grew up in the Bay Area and Hawaii cannabis communities. There, he began developing an appreciation for how the plant fit into daily life and wellness. His professional career saw cannabis converge with one of the most influential cultures of the past 40 or so years, hip hop. Like other genres of music before it, hip hop has continued to help shape cannabis while the plant has done the same to it. Listen to any track from today’s artists, and you’ll soon run into some bars about pot. Those odds increase when the track features names like Snoop Dogg, Wiz Khalifa, Kid Cudi or [insert your favorite pot-loving hip hop artist here]. The trend is nothing new, with artists ranging from Rick James to Louis Armstrong shouting out the plant over the years, but hip hop has run with it like nobody else.
As road manager for acts like Mobb Deep and editor for The Source Magazine, Salman was front and center as hip hop and cannabis furthered their bond. He credited hip hop’s influence in promoting both communities’ cultures.
“[Hip hop] is the broadest cultural expression that we have,” said Salman, saying the culture can be identified through music, fashion, vernacular and many other facets of life—cannabis included.
Until hip hop’s emergence, the counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s was the best example of music and cannabis coming together, at least since the Jazz Era. Some may still argue that the counterculture movement is the most potent example due to drug culture and music helping advance societal perspective shifts. Simultaneously, the counterculture and civil rights movements, particularly for Black Americans, were the two groups targeted in the Nixon-era War on Drugs in an attempt to stop both growing influences in America.
Whether it’s jazz, classic rock, hip hop or otherwise, the cannabis connection is forged thanks to another crucial subculture: the underground.
Call them OGs, trappers, legacy operators, your guy or whatever you want. We wouldn’t have cannabis culture without the ones supplying the pipeline. The OGs kept the medical market thriving despite prohibition and draconian criminal punishments for often non-violent offenses. Until legalization, if you saw weed, you knew it came from the underground. They supplied pot to the musicians and club attendees throughout the decades, just as they did for you and I in these modern times. It’s been the same for ages because of the underground, no other way to say it.
Without their contributions and sacrifices, cannabis culture wouldn’t have flourished. And we for damn sure wouldn’t have the legal market that often turns a cold shoulder to the OGs when setting up licensed businesses.
These large groups of people help shape cannabis culture in the US and most other nations. Hip hop can play more or less of a role, depending on the country. However, the medical and underground movements are linked to the culture no matter in America, India, South Africa and even more restrictive parts of the world. Still, as legalization and access grows, so does the cannabis community.
Therein lies the conflict: Are newcomers part of the culture or just the community? And are either of their stories getting told properly?
Much More To Consider
The above groups have every right to claim a significant stake in the foundation of cannabis culture. However, many participants, new and old, could argue that their communities deserve a place in the culture conversation.
Advocates and other plant-passionate individuals make up a huge portion of the community. It indeed can be argued that they are pillars just as much as the above groups. With the subcultures having their fair share of overlap, separating advocates from the medical, underground and hip hop communities and calling them their own pillar felt redundant. But others would do so and are correct in that approach.
The term advocate has become a freely used descriptor as legalization efforts gained steam in recent years. Jimi Devine recently highlighted the concern around under- or uninformed folks calling themselves advocates or framing themselves as experts when they’re far from one. Still, the true advocates, the ones passionate about education, reform and eroding stigmas, are a community that deserve their recognition as cornerstones of the culture in the past century or so.
Then there are the casuals. These folks like their pot quite a lot–sometimes consuming every day, sometimes less frequently. No matter how often they partake, when they do, they enjoy it. While they may love it, you won’t confuse this group for OGs.
Some in the group pursue plant knowledge to become more informed consumers, advocates or otherwise. Parents and working professionals are becoming two of the more prominent voices in the casual consumer community.
“Cannabis offers a safer and healthier alternative to alcohol, which is often the go-to choice for working parents,” said Tara Furiani, CEO at Not the HR Lady.
Other casuals aren’t that concerned about the plant other than how high they’ll feel. For some, all they want to know about is THC percentage or the difference between indicas, sativas and hybrids. Some don’t even care about that. I remember the most significant takeaways I got from the 2021 MJBizCon came from Vegas cabbies, who exclusively discussed price and THC percentages. Whether people like it or not, a lot of casuals just want the basic info or even less.
While this group’s lack of knowledge and/or zero desire to learn more can frustrate some pot-passionate individuals, we can’t disregard the casuals from the conversation. If we do, the education gap will only grow. But, if we provide them with this type of basic information, they may become more interested, and thus informed than they ever intended. That is where I like to write most of my articles. I feel much of cannabis media has skipped over this group, instead focusing on the experts and passionates or the business community. Plus, everybody knows my ass isn’t OG.
While casuals aren’t entirely representative of the culture, this group’s massive numbers shape cannabis society. Even if they aren’t impacting OG mindsets, they are the symptom of legalization, helping divide the consuming community into informed, passionate consumers and everyday folks who are helping erode stigmas whether they are aware or not. Should the casuals be leading the conversation on cannabis ethics, cultivation or other important topics? Certainly not. But their experiences and voices are shaping the cannabis community–one that many experts and insiders may not recognize if they stay within their echo chambers.
This leads to the last question…
While many differed on what cannabis culture is, most agreed that mainstream media failed to adequately showcase it .
Respondents often told me they consider mainstream media to be traditional TV and print outlets, not including more niche cannabis publications in the grouping. Many felt that depictions in the news and in fiction-based media continued to rely on stereotypes rather than actual consumers.
“There’s definitely still a lot of caricatures and stereotypes that are popular,” said Nadir Pearson, VP of business development for cannabis brand WISECO.
While you can find cannabis use normalized in select news and fiction projects, recent examples like Netflix’s now-canceled Disjointed series highlight the ongoing lack of quality cannabis representation in media. Others, like Hawaii Mike, highlighted concerns around the digital news model.
“It’s skewed because we’re in clickbait culture still,” said Salman, saying that demonization pieces continue to generate clicks.
Like traditional news, digital media thrives on the “if it bleeds, it leads” model. Meaning, sensational stories win out more often than not. Those that disagree should see traffic numbers for positive articles versus negative or sensational pieces. The model is also rampant on social media, with scores of influencers looking to cash in on “shocking” or informative content “no one will believe,” despite being easily sourced on Google or Wikipedia.
Salman’s argument is valid. When publications like the New York Times run stories about dogs eating edibles instead of more pressing cannabis topics, one has to wonder what’s getting passed over. However, it could be argued that these pieces target the casual consumer crowd, not those in the previously mentioned pillar or advocacy subcultures. While most of us reading this aren’t dumb enough to leave an edible around our dog, tons of NYT readers probably aren’t aware of the effects of pot on their animals–much less the impact of sugar, chocolate and other ingredients in those edibles. Those readers need this sort of information, but without less doom and gloom, ideally.
On the other hand, most news outlets beyond mainstream TV and digital publications may not cover culture for different reasons. Some respondents felt the media is covering what the public is already consuming.
“People are really focused on news and business,” said Pearson, adding, “Those types of things versus the actual culture.” Pearson’s point can be supported by the vast array of cannabis business publications while many culture-based outlets have shuttered in recent years.
News coverage also boils down to budgets, bandwidth and public importance. With minimal budgets to hire full-time writers or commission freelancers, media outlets, especially nascent pot publications, may be unable to cover all the stories they want. In that case, editors often go with their gut and/or performance metrics to determine what stories get picked up. In that case, you either need to pique an editor’s interest or prove that this kind of story will generate clicks, shares and comments. If publications don’t follow this model, they risk losing ad revenue and likely commission less work. It’s an ugly cycle that nobody other than Google and social media ad platforms seem to enjoy.
That’s why I propose cannabis news seekers evolve alongside the culture. Don’t abandon your traditional news. Pot-focused outlets are still producing helpful and often must-know information. But, you may need to bounce around to various outlets to find comprehensive coverage spanning current events, business, politics and culture. I’ve got an Excel spreadsheet if you wanna look it over. Hit me up.
Simultaneously, expand your sources of information. Social media can prove beneficial, like Reddit’s r/trees community, as well as in some groups and conversations found on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Just like traditional news, some of these sources can also produce lackluster results. A certain level of critical thinking and analysis is required. At the same time, Oldheads like myself must also keep up with the times. Branching out to YouTube, Discord and TikTok can all open up avenues to insights from different cannabis community members and content creators.
Let’s not entirely discount independent journalists, either. While it’s a good rule of thumb to disregard the opinions of nameless, faceless accounts, some are providing excellent news, often on regional levels. Critical analysis is even more important when sourcing news here, but there are trusted names you can connect with and follow for more insights.
Meanwhile, more cannabis-specific apps and platforms are helping reduce noise while focusing on the culture. Pearson’s Hybrid app cultivates a dedicated following based on a calendar highlighting drops, community events and other authentic experiences. Hybrid is currently available for Apple users.
And as always in life, it’s good to step out of the digital sphere occasionally. Don’t forget how important it is to show up. I’m not one to talk, with my introversion, disabled dog and pandemic really ramping up my desire to never leave the living room this past year or so. But let me tell you from experience, showing up is the best way to understand the pulse of the community on a local, national and international level. If you can, go to info sessions, meetups, rallies, public forums and anywhere else where pot is in the discussion. I stay in the loop on all things New York State cannabis thanks to Mannada’s Kristin Jordan and The Maze Calendar newsletter.
At the same time, try to save up the cash to attend events like Spannabis, the High Times Cups and various other national and international gatherings. Find the ones that cater to what you want to learn about and dive in.
Do these options fix the media’s lack of cannabis coverage? Absolutely not. But I would argue that cannabis culture is covered more often by more people than credit is given. But with the task of covering an already large and evolving culture, some critical stories won’t reach the masses. Be it a hesitation from major media or other limitations facing many smaller brands, it isn’t easy to adequately tell the legacy and ongoing news in cannabis culture or its surrounding, growing community.
But, if you continue to evolve with the times, you can discover a world of cultural content out there–and most of it isn’t coming from me and four other dudes. At the same time, folks like myself need to keep an open mind and hear out the voices that sometimes aren’t being heard. We don’t need to pitch every suggestion we receive, but there are more voices to consider than the ones we rely on.
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