By Charlena Berry, Cannabis Business Growth
The following is adapted from Breaking the Stigma.
The vast majority of U.S. adults support the legalization of cannabis, with 60 percent supporting legalization for medical and adult use, and 31 percent supporting medical use only. Only 8 percent say it should not be legal for use by adults in any scenario. These numbers are promising for those of us in the industry, but behind the numbers, many stigmas still exist.
Breaking the stigma against cannabis is the responsibility of each and every individual currently working in the cannabis industry. In particular, for those of us working in retail, we are on the front lines of changing the criminal and negative perceptions associated with cannabis.
As front-line workers, it is important to understand how the stigma against cannabis came about and how it has harmed not just the cannabis industry and cannabis users, but our entire country. We’ve all been lied to. These Big Lies have shaped our beliefs about race, cannabis, and addiction, and it’s time to unmask these Big Lies for what they are: lies.
#1: Black Men Are Dangerous
The lie that Black men are inherently dangerous extends far, far back into our country’s history, but we’re going to start in the 1930s, with a man named Harry J. Anslinger. Anslinger became the commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930.
Anslinger initially spent most of his time chasing down bootleggers. When Prohibition ended in 1933, he suddenly found himself out of a job. For the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to continue to have purpose — and receive the funding that paid his salary — Anslinger had to find a new bogeyman to prosecute.
He chose marijuana, a term that itself has racist roots and was a way to otherize cannabis as a “Mexican drug.” At this time, cannabis was not regulated in any way in the United States, so he first had to make it illegal. In order to do that, he needed people to fear it. He figured, why not link it to something people already fear: Black people — particularly Black men.
And so, the propaganda began. Anslinger sparked a national anti-cannabis movement by tying cannabis usage to the Black community and other marginalized groups.
Obviously, Anslinger didn’t invent racism, but his propaganda propagated and amplified it. In short, Anslinger used the lie that Black men are dangerous to help make cannabis illegal, and then he weaponized cannabis against minority communities.
To this day, people of color are disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. In fact, though Black and white people use cannabis at similar rates, a Black person is 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for possession. And, as industry professionals, we need to understand the racist roots behind the stigma of cannabis and do our part to elevate those groups disproportionately and unfairly impacted by the war on drugs.
#2: Cannabis Is Dangerous
Using fear of Black men, Anslinger convinced people that cannabis was dangerous. The idea that cannabis makes people dangerous is ludicrous to me. I grew up during the war on drugs, and I bought into many of the lies. I truly believed cannabis was bad, but never once did I think of cannabis users as dangerous.
As a child, I spent time around both alcoholics and cannabis users, and the difference was clear to me. Drunk people were violent, abusive, and dangerous. High people were safe, normal, and most importantly not violent.
However, in the drug education I received, I learned that all drugs are fundamentally bad, with no differentiation. Cannabis, meth, heroin, LSD, cocaine — they were all grouped together. And even when people acknowledged that cannabis was less harmful and addictive than harder drugs, they emphasized that it was still incredibly dangerous because it was a “gateway drug.”
Today, despite all the evidence that cannabis is safe for most people, the lie persists. Cannabis is classified as a Schedule I drug, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Other Schedule I drugs include heroin and meth.
As a country, it’s long past time that we focused our attention on true dangers. As a cannabis retailer, it’s important to recognize that even though you know cannabis is not dangerous, your customers might not.
#3: Opioids Are Safe
Because of the lie that cannabis is dangerous, it was not normalized (or legal) as a method of pain management. There was a need for pain management, though, and so in 1996, Purdue Pharma, under the direction of the Sackler family, developed and patented OxyContin.
It was hailed as a miracle drug that took all the pain away, as if by magic. Magic often comes at a cost, though, and in this case, the cost was hundreds of thousands of American lives — more than five hundred thousand, to be specific.
Within a few years, evidence emerged that the drug was addictive and led to overdose deaths. While we were all being told that cannabis was the gateway drug, Purdue Pharma was flooding our country with the real gateway drug—opioids. They funded research studies that supported the use of OxyContin, and Richard Sackler put intense pressure on sales managers to sell more.
This Big Lie has harmed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Opioids destroy lives, and the ripples extend beyond the addict alone. An entire generation of children will be shaped by addiction and the absence of their parents.
You may not be personally connected to the Opioid Endemic, but as a cannabis retailer, you are in the business of pain management. By understanding this Big Lie and providing people with an alternative to addictive opioids, you could literally save lives.
#4: Addiction Is the Addict’s Fault
I understand the impulse to blame addiction on the addict. An addict’s struggles with addiction can be enough to tear their loved ones apart inside. You want to scream, “Why can’t you just quit?” But blaming addiction on the addict makes as much sense as blaming someone for having cancer, asthma, or migraines.
Who is responsible for addiction, then? The people who caused the Opioid Endemic, people like the Sackler family. As Patrick Radden Keefe puts it in Empire of Pain, “Prior to the introduction of OxyContin, America did not have an opioid crisis. After the introduction of OxyContin, it did.”
So, if you want to blame someone for addiction, blame the Sacklers. Blame Big Pharma. Blame the people who knew this drug was addictive but lied to us, told us it was safe, and pumped it into our communities.
Every single person I know who got addicted received their first pill or hit from a trusted source. This is how the Opioid Epidemic started. It didn’t start with irresponsible drug dealers on the street. It started between patients and doctors. Opioids moved through our world via trusted sources.
Cannabis and opioids are very different drugs. Cannabis is far safer than many people realize. Due to the nature of cannabis, I do not believe cannabis retailers will be creating addicts the way Purdue Pharma did, but it’s still important to understand this Big Lie because some of your customers may have struggled with addiction and need compassion from you.
The Consequences of These Lies
These Big Lies are all connected. Without racism, cannabis wouldn’t have been stigmatized. Without the stigma against cannabis, we would have had a nonaddictive alternative to opioids. Without the lies that opioids are safe and that addicts are to blame for addiction, hundreds of thousands more people would still be alive today.
When it comes to breaking the stigma, you are on the front lines. In knowing the truth about where the stigma came from and why it’s so harmful, you can begin to change it.
One customer at a time, you can begin to undo the Big Lies and share the reality of cannabis.
For more advice on how to undo the Big Lies and share the Big Truths of cannabis, you can find Breaking the Stigma on Amazon.
Charlena Berry is the author of Breaking the Stigma: Racism, Lies, the Opioid Endemic, and Inviting Grandma to the Dispensary. In this book, she exposes lies that created the stigmas associated with cannabis, and how these stigmas must be addressed to see continued growth in the marketplace. She then outlines a framework that provides key strategies for retailers to implement to improve the customer experience and increase profitability.
Writing from her experiences in the industry, Charlena is a global cannabis business executive and the founder of Cannabis Business Growth, a premier cannabis business consulting firm. Prior to that, she spent more than a decade in Supply Chain and Retail Operations for Fortune 500 companies like Whirlpool and Office Depot/Office Max. She also serves as the Chief Operating Officer for The Cake House, a chain of dispensaries in Southern California.