Cannabis is moving into the mainstream, with fashion, films, TV and politicians acknowledging it's here to stay
In June, an estimated 25,000 people attended the inaugural THC Expo hemp and art show in downtown Los Angeles, an event that pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy -- including a $22,400 payment directly to the city of Los Angeles for use of its convention center.
Barneys New York in Beverly Hills is celebrating the Woodstock spirit by selling $78 "Hashish" candles in Jonathan Adler pots with bas-relief marijuana leaves; Hickey offers $75 linen pocket squares or $120 custom polo shirts bearing the five-part leaf; and French designer Lucien Pellat-Finet is serving up white-gold and diamond custom pot-leaf-emblazoned wristwatches for $49,000 and belt buckles for $56,000.
Earlier this year, Season 5 of Showtime's "Weeds" kicked off with promotional materials plastered on bus shelters, buses and billboards throughout the city. Last year, just across from the tourist-packed Farmers Market at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue, a "Pineapple Express" billboard belched faux pot smoke into the air. Even the '70s slacker-stoner comedy duo Cheech and Chong are back. After recently concluding an international tour, they say they are working on another movie, voicing an animated version of themselves and even batting around the idea of staging a Cheech and Chong Broadway musical.
After decades of bubbling up around the edges of so-called civilized society, marijuana seems to be marching mainstream at a fairly rapid pace. At least in urban areas such as Los Angeles, cannabis culture is coming out of the closet.
At fashion-insider parties, joints are passed nearly as freely as hors d'oeuvres. Traces of the acrid smoke waft from restaurant patios, car windows and passing pedestrians on the city streets -- in broad daylight. Even the art of name-dropping in casual conversation -- once limited to celebrity sightings and designer shoe purchases -- now includes the occasional boast of recently discovered weed strains such as "Strawberry Cough" and "Purple Kush."
Public sentiment is more than anecdotal; earlier this year, a California Field Poll found that 56% of California voters supported legalizing and taxing marijuana. Last month, voters in Oakland overwhelmingly approved a tax increase on medical marijuana sales, the first of its kind in the country, and Los Angeles Councilwoman Janice Hahn has proposed something similar for the City of Angels. "In this current economic crisis, we need to get creative about how we raise funds," Hahn said in a statement.
Smoking pot used to be the kind of personal conduct that could sink a U.S. Supreme Court nomination (Douglas H. Ginsburg in 1987) and embarrass a presidential candidate (Bill Clinton in 1992). Today, it seems to be a non-issue for the current inhabitant of the Oval Office; Barack Obama issued his marijuana mea culpa in a 1995 memoir.
Drug references in popular music have multiplied like, well, weeds in the last three decades. Marijuana's presence on TV and in the movies has moved from the harbinger of bad things including murderous rage ("Reefer Madness" in 1936) to full-scale hauntings ("Poltergeist" in 1982) and burger runs gone awry ("Harold & Kumar go to White Castle" in 2001) to being just another fixture in the pop-culture firmament. Cannabis crops up on shows such as "Entourage," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "True Blood" and "Desperate Housewives," and even on animated shows such as "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy."
To date, none is as pot-centric as Showtime's "Weeds," which follows the adventures of widowed soccer mom turned pot dealer Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), though the show's creator, Jenji Kohan, says there are TV shows in development that are set against the backdrop of medical marijuana clinics.
Richard Laermer, a media and pop culture trend watcher and author of several books, including "2011: Trendspotting for the Next Decade," points to Bill Maher as a bellwether of change. "Ten years ago, he would have been taken off the air." ("Real Time With Bill Maher" airs on HBO.) Now, he's "a totally mainstream comic who consistently talks about how much pot he smokes."
Marijuana's role on TV and in the movies is no surprise, says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at the University of Syracuse S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. "The people who are making movies and television shows, from the scriptwriters to the director and the producers -- a very large chunk of those are probably people who grew up not only much more comfortable with marijuana's presence in society, but probably as consumers themselves of it.
"As a result," Thompson said, "it's almost switched with alcohol. Think back to Dean Martin and Foster Brooks -- their whole comedy act was the fact that they were in the bag -- that now is seen a lot less often. The stoner is the new drunk."
There's one hitch
General marijuana use is, of course, illegal. Under federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance (in the same category as LSD, heroin and peyote) and possession of it is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. According to the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report, in 2007 there were 872,721 arrests in the U.S. for marijuana violations. For Californians who are not otherwise covered under the state's medical marijuana law (which continues to engender controversy among those who believe it's abused by recreational users), possession of 28.5 grams or less is a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine. What's more, passing a drug-free urine test is still a prerequisite for many jobs across the country.
Nonetheless, some indulge. Marijuana reform groups say it's a $35.8-billion domestic cash crop. And today's cannabis consumers -- the state chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws estimates the number of Californians who have smoked at least once in the last year is 3 million -- open their wallets for pot-themed movies, handbooks, calendars, fancy glass storage jars, energy drinks, hemp clothing and ganja-themed bus tours, all part of the ever-widening marijuana-adjacent economy.
How much do we spend?
"It's hard to say," says Brian Roberts, co-founder of the THC Expo. "Do you count 'Pineapple Express' that did $100 million at the box office? Do you add in Dr. Dre's '[The] Chronic' and '2001' albums that [together] sold over 10 million copies? What I can tell you is that [the expo] pumped over $400,000 into the local economy," he added, citing expenditures for security guards and other temporary staffers, banners, decorations, printing and advertising, and renting the South Hall of the L.A. Convention Center.
Roberts, who launched and later sold a now-dormant, pot-themed apparel line called THC Clothing before getting into the expo business, has seen pot culture consumers' buying power firsthand. "I used to own a smoke shop [2000 BC] over on Melrose and people would spend up to $400 for a piece of glass to use as a water pipe -- you're talking about an adult with extra money. That's like buying a power tool."
Did something happen between 2003, when Tommy Chong started a nine-month stint in federal prison for selling a mail-order water pipe, and the June THC Expo, when he stood signing autographs and shaking hands, barely a roach clip's throw from row upon row of swirling glass pipes, smoking devices with octopus-like tentacles, whirring motors and price tags as high as $800?
Some people point to the Obama administration as the biggest game-changer. "It was when [former President George W. Bush] and his boys were run out of office, that made the biggest difference," Chong said by phone near the end of the "Light Up America and Canada Tour" that reunited him with Cheech Marin.
Roberts cited the election as the tipping point as well. "The whole show teetered on who won the election," he said. "If McCain had won, I'd have never have put up my money. But Americans are no longer living in fear."
In addition, trend watcher Laermer points to a more subtle shift: aging baby boomers -- a generation famous for tuning in, turning on and dropping out -- who are keeping their party habits going into their golden years.
"It's hard to fathom that the fifty- and sixtysomethings would be against pot after all the pot they smoked," Laermer said, "Their kids would laugh them out of the room if they started telling them not to smoke pot."
The so-called marijuana movement has attracted some surprising names. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has spoken out about decreasing penalties for possession and protecting medical marijuana users. Earlier this year, Glenn Beck of Fox News announced on the air: "Look, I'm a libertarian. You want to legalize marijuana; you want to legalize drugs -- that's fine."
David Bienenstock, senior editor of New York-based marijuana magazine High Times and author of "The Official High Times Pot Smoker's Handbook," said: "Whether you're with the press or a politician, it's no longer a third rail. In the past it could have cost you your job. Now people are at least able to have those conversations."
Roberts, for one, is ready. He's already booked 50,000 square feet at the Los Angeles Convention Center for next year's THC Expo. It's going to happen April 23-25 -- right after the April 20 date that's become a kind of pot smokers' national holiday.
"They're happy to have us back," Roberts said. "They told me the food concessions sold $38,000 worth of food on the first day alone -- and that's more than they do in a whole week at the California Gift Show."
By Adam Tschorn
August 30, 2009