Reframing The Narratives Of Cannabis

by Adam Pallay

When I started working in cannabis, I got a lot of questions. Some people were genuinely curious about the nature of the industry. Other people questioned its legitimacy and my decision to work in it at all. What always struck me about these questions is that they very seldom had anything to do with the facts concerning cannabis and everything to do with the narratives they were taught about cannabis.

The narratives that formed most people’s beliefs around cannabis came out of the War on Drugs. Cannabis was basically described as being Satan’s middle finger — something to be avoided at all costs. These narratives have so completely infiltrated our collective consciousness that many people still accepted them without question, even though they have consistently been proven to be wrong! Turns out, facts have nothing on a good story, and these very powerful narratives about cannabis continue to influence our reality in profound ways. 

For example, science has unequivocally proven that cannabis has medical uses. Yet, cannabis continues to be a Schedule 1 Narcotic. It’s deeply ironic that we have a “medical marijuana” industry in some states, and it is very sad that other states continue to deny people access to life-saving medicine. We also know for a fact that the war on drugs was started as a way to oppress minority groups. Yet, we continue to allow ourselves to function under laws that were designed to accomplish these sinister goals. We even know that the idea of a “gateway drug” is ridiculous. The point is, we know that the stories concerning cannabis prohibition are wrong, but, for some reason, we keep living as if they aren’t. 

You would think that living in a country that puts such a high value on freedom, a counter-narrative to the war on drugs that highlighted individual freedom would be enough to secure legalization for cannabis; however, the second half of the 20th century taught us that this would not be the case. Arguing for the right to get high was not palatable to the masses — especially a group of people influenced by the narratives of the war on drugs. A new story was needed if cannabis was going to shed the narratives that kept people locked in a war against a plant. 

Reframing the narrative from “the right to get high” to “the right to have access to medicine” was the first step toward a successful legalization movement; however, even that was not enough to get things really going. People still associated cannabis with getting high. Even if it was prescribed from a doctor, this is something that was completely unacceptable for many people. It was still marijuana, and, to them, that meant it was wrong to use. Opium, on the other hand, was successful at avoiding such stigmas because it was branded as a painkiller and given a pharmaceutical name instead of heroin. Branding goes a long way!

Anyway, things for marijuana really started changing when CBD hit the scene. For the first time, cannabis was able to be viewed without the high. All of a sudden, the language started to change. People started using “cannabis” instead of “marijuana.” We started seeing major news outlets reporting on the benefits of cannabis. Instead of getting “this is your brain on drugs,” the public was given images of happy children that, because of cannabis, were no longer suffering from debilitating seizures. The response to these new images was a curiosity that allowed people to look beyond the narratives of prohibition and see what cannabis really had to offer. I do not think it is a coincidence that every state that has legalized cannabis has started with medical cannabis before it went to recreational sales. People wanted to dip their toe in before they jumped into the waters of legalization. The narratives around medicine and CBD help them do that. I guess CBD is the real gateway drug. 

(Bud)Tending The Narrative

One of the reasons I got so many questions about my choice to work in cannabis is because of my education. The cannabis industry drew people from all walks of life. My previous walk just so happened to be that of a student who was wrapping up his doctoral work in semiotics. I took a job as a budtender after I graduated as a placeholder until I figured out something more permanent; however, the story of cannabis piqued my curiosity, and I have happily been in cannabis ever since.

In short, semiotics is the study of how we use metaphors, narratives, and symbols to create meaning. As you can imagine, cannabis is an interesting place to be for someone studying semiotics. The more I looked into the story of cannabis, the more I became fascinated with the changing narratives that are behind its public conception. It was interesting to watch as things like the cannabis fan leaf started to look less like the Devil’s lettuce and more like aloe vera. Semiotics is just one of many ways to look at cannabis, but it is one of the better lenses to use when you are budtending. 

When I was budtending, my favorite customer to help was someone who was new to cannabis. It was so fascinating to hear what brought them through the doors. Despite being indoctrinated for decades about the evils of cannabis, there they stood in front of me. Did they want to know about cannabis? Yes! Did they want to know all of the scientific information and to be walked through the different products they can buy? Not Yet! In fact, many of these customers like to preface the conversation with “I probably won’t buy something today.” What people really wanted at that moment was for someone to give them a new narrative that could take the place of the old narratives that were handed to them by the war on drugs campaign. 

So, instead of telling them about the endocannabinoid system and the differences between edibles and smokables, I liked to start things off with a question. “What have you heard about cannabis?” In other words, I wanted to know what brought them through the door. Unfortunately, for many people, a personal injury or illness is the reason that brought them to cannabis. These people were looking for relief, and cannabis finally has enough good social standing to be an acceptable option — at least respectable enough to inquire about. What they really wanted to know is if the new narratives about cannabis are true. Despite everything they’ve been taught, can it really provide for them what they needed? This is an interesting place for a retail employee. As a budtender, you are not a doctor. You cannot give medical advice — the law prohibits it thankfully; however, you can give solid guidance on the products and, most importantly, tell a good story. 

For people who were looking to cannabis for medicine, I always recommended that they consult their doctor before they consume any cannabis. After this brief disclaimer, I would talk to them about the cannabis plant. I would talk about the myths that were created to keep people away from cannabis, and I would also be sure to talk about the myths that were designed to convince people cannabis was good. Not all the information out there is true, and you do not appear honest if you do not address this reality. The last thing I did was provide examples of how it has been used to improve my health as well as the health of people I know. By giving them these stories, I am giving them exactly what they came to my shop to learn. I am giving them a story that can replace the war on drugs. Cannabis is now reframed as a wellness product, and, just like that, they become open to exploring the science behind cannabis and their product options. 

Final Thoughts

Even if you aren’t a budtender, you can still have an influence on the future of cannabis. If people are curious, take the time to walk them through the narratives and experiences that inform your understanding of cannabis. Sharing these stories is a great way to get people open to the idea of cannabis and move us closer to global legalization. This process is not going to be quick. The negative images of cannabis still hold a strong place in our culture; however, if we continue to steward the plant well and offer positive counter-narratives, I believe that we will eventually see a day when our culture and laws reflect the truth about cannabis. 

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