Today, cannabis is more mainstream than ever before. As of our last election, a total of 19 states have legalized recreational marijuana, and even more have implemented medical marijuana programs. People who never dreamed they would become regular cannabis consumers have found themselves drawn to the plant’s therapeutic potential through non-intoxicating cannabinoids like CBD. Even the federal government has started to come around on cannabis, ending its nearly century-long hemp ban in 2018.
It’s exciting to watch conventional society finally discover the merits of cannabis, but things haven't always been like this. Historically, the plant’s been inextricably linked to counterculture movements in the United States—its users and champions relegated to the fringe of society.
What Is Counterculture?
Where there are social norms, unspoken rules, and conformity, there have always been those who move against the grain. Those ungovernable free spirits who march to the beat of their own drum and won’t let tradition dictate the way they live their lives. When these individuals get together, they can form their own customs, reinvent art, and subvert typical hierarchies.
They create their own culture, one that runs congruent with the mainstream but exists outside of it—a counterculture that serves as an alternative to the everyday and challenges the status quo.
Throughout the decades, certain areas have been hotspots for these kinds of movements. Some counterculture examples include New York City’s Greenwich Village in the ‘50s or the subsequent punk movement that would take place in the Lower East Side during the ‘80s.
However, none quite compare to the enormity of the anti-establishment culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Spurred on by the Civil Rights Movement and America’s military intervention in Vietnam, a whole generation challenged the system and flipped things on its head.
There’s one thread that weaves all these different generations of iconoclasts together—cannabis.
What’s Weed Got To Do With It?
As far back as the Jazz Era, American counterculture figures have used cannabis. The Beats, imitating the African-American musicians they idolized, took to marijuana like moths to a flame, and the hippies who would come some decades later would embrace the plant’s inherent spirituality even further. Eventually, cannabis itself came to be a symbol of counterculture.
So what about cannabis lends itself to these kinds of social movements? For one, its historic illegality by nature makes it so that only those with little regard for the establishment and its norms would try it in the first place. Even in such a trivial way, breaking the law requires a certain devil-may-care attitude that perfectly lends itself to counterculture ideals.
Plus, the psychedelic qualities of THC can fuel creativity and be quite consciousness-expanding. In this way, cannabis can often help offer users a different perspective on even the most quotidian aspects of daily life. With this new perspective comes a new way of thinking that doesn’t necessarily fit inside the neat box presented by traditional society.
Cannabis As Counterculture
Much like the way the punk aesthetic inspires its own music, clothing, and attitudes, cannabis itself functions as its own subculture. It perpetuates its own insider lingo, iconography, and even customs. There’s a ritual aspect to showing up to a smoke session, and there are the same kind of unwritten rules found in mainstream society (don’t bogart the joint, hang out long enough at the dealer's house, the whole concept of “matching” etc.)
When examined this way, it becomes clear that cannabis isn’t just another aspect of other countercultures—it’s a counterculture in its own right, complete with its own festivals and acolytes the likes of Doug Benson or Willie Nelson.
Today, it seems cannabis is going the way of so many of the countercultures before. Cannabis is being assimilated into the mainstream, like how jazz, once a symbol of unbridled freedom from tradition, now mainly exists in the dulcet tones of elevator muzak.
While jarring for some, this change brings with it myriad benefits for the cannabis community as a whole. A world without prohibition is a world where there aren’t human beings languishing in prison cells for simply enjoying a plant. A world with more CBD options is a world where everyone who wants to can access the medicinal benefits of cannabis.
We don’t know what the future holds for the cannabis plant, but we can’t wait to see it unfold!