Lucas Mascatello and Michelle Lhooq explore the ramifications of the legalization and corporatization of the marijuana industry in a series of case studies on TV lobbyism, stoner porn, weed-obsessed celebrities and CBD luxury pleasures.
FROM PROHIBITION TO TV LOBBYISM
In 1930, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created by President Herbert Hoover to push for the criminalization of drugs, namely cannabis. Propaganda films like 1936’s Reefer Madness were screened across the US, sensationalizing the perils of pot smoking through tales of sex and violence. A year later, The Marijuana Tax Act was passed, setting in motion nearly a century of prohibition. Sustained through countercultures like jazz, cannabis continued to grow in popularity despite the mandatory minimum sentencing laws enacted in the 1950s that would put first-time offenders away for two to ten years for possession. As it was pushed deeper into criminality, cannabis began to bleed into the mainstream through the psychedelic movement. Yellow Submarine and Sgt. Pepper’s showed a new, stoned side of The Beatles, while Easy Rider romanticized an outlaw life that had infinite appeal to middle-class youth nationwide. By the ‘70s, the scales were tipping and allusions to drug culture were blunter than ever. In 1973, the American Drug Enforcement Agency was created, and in 1974, High Times magazine launched its first issue. American soldiers smoked weed in Vietnam during the war, and Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party and the Pop Art movement took pot into a highbrow context, just as Reaganism began to emerge in the ‘80s. The culture war raged on with The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which raised federal penalties for cannabis. John Hughes movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, about wealthy suburban white kids, not only made cannabis more mainstream, they also took the edge off and made it relatable, safe. This trend continued through the MTV generation, with Beavis and Butthead and stoner metal seamlessly dovetailing into mall punk. The Emmy-winning show Weeds documented the life of a suburban mom forced to sell weed to make ends meet, while Pineapple Express turned the heartthrob James Franco into Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. As Americans fell in love with fictitious pot dealers, eight states legalized medical cannabis. In 2014, California made it entirely legal. The 2018 US farm bill legalized CBD products nationwide, and since that time Viceland has made three shows where you can watch Action Bronson eat food while stoned (Fuck That’s Delicious!), watch tv while stoned (Action Bronson and Friends Watch Ancient Aliens), or just be stoned (The Untitled Action Bronson Show).
STONER PORN: WHO IS IT FOR?
Instagram is filled with erotic videos of girls smoking weed, while Pornhub is filled with videos of stoned women having sex. For the latter, I think that it has something to do with spit, or drool—like aheago or bukake or deepthroat, but more than just the sex part. These videos of teenage girls smoking weed alone, or together, are a kind of performance. Not narratively driven or geared toward any finite end, the clips play in fast-forward, giving you an accelerated view of someone smoking, skipping ahead to their intoxication. In truth, these videos are not representative of how people get high, but rather of how people get fucked up. Distinct from their pornographic counterparts, the videos of girls on Instagram are suggestive, targeting the lonely stoner and popularizing the myth of a hot young woman with values accessible to teenage boys. Hashtags like #420Girls and #girlswhosmoke lead to millions of these videos, filled with young women with handles like @kushkitten4.20, @gigiganja and @the.high.hippy. This is a tomboy on drugs. This is a woman you can be comfortable with. The pornography, meanwhile, is divided into many fetishes: one for smoking, where cigarettes, cigars and weed are all essentially stand-ins for one another, often with women blowing smoke onto someone’s erect cock or something like that; another for stoner sex, where the environment sets a mood and the air is perfumed. The latter are more erotic, treading in the very broad iconography of orientalist hippiedom. Having sex with someone like that, a freak, is its own kink for many. Beyond the inherently predatory overtones of fucking someone whose varyingly incapacitated is a curiosity about what life could be like, an edge involving contact with someone in an altered state rather than getting high yourself. Elsewhere, there are men who like to feed women, fatten them up and have sex with them. There are women who like to get their kids sick, keep them dependent and care for them. Stoner porn is content for people who like to get their partners fucked up, though I’m not sure to what end. Maybe it’s a kind of mukbang thing, something about extremes, hyperbole, the desire for viscera, the need for things to feel real. Maybe it’s about dulling the senses of an overstimulated population, perpetually stressed out and searching for flaws in the people around them. Just as there are always sober people at the party who get off on watching other people drink, there will always be people living vicariously through each other, imagining that it’s them with their mouth on the receiving end of some artisanal glass pipe.
THE BLISSFUL PANACEA
Wellness and the weed industry are bedfellows in the gentrified weed market, which is now populated with products that yo-yo between medicine and recreation, relief and euphoria. While the weed industry is led by people looking to get as high as possible, the growth market is in edging, offering experiences that promote psychological betterment while avoiding the potential pitfalls that come with true intoxication. Brands like dosist and KannaSwiss offer discrete use cases for eager patients in and around the real thing—cannabis-like products designed to produce safe results.
As a developer of single-use vaporizer pens and tablets, dosist promises a “precise and predictable experience,” one that isolates only the functional benefits of pot. Named one of Time Magazine’s “best inventions” in 2016, the dosist pen is their flagship product, a capsule-shaped piece of plastic that vibrates when the user takes a hit. This bit of haptic feedback is the essence of the product, softly buzzing with approval each time you suck on it. Labeled and color-coded with names like “bliss” and “passion,” each dosist pen is formulated with a different THC-to-CBD balance, and in this pseudoscience, they together propose a standard for how weed is consumed.
Brands like dosist exist not only to alleviate people's fear of getting too high, but also to divide appropriate use from indulgence. KannaSwiss, on the other hand, is a stylish European CBD company, collaborating on makeup with the Berlin-based fashion brand Ottolinger while producing tinctures and cures for whatever ailment might fall upon you. Making no promise of intoxication, the Swiss company has built its reputation on a kind of Western mysticism, hawking what they call “extraordinary wellness.” KannaSwiss positions its pot farming as “advanced cultivation,” employing a “team of like-minded experts” to create a panacea capable of alleviating any symptoms it can’t cure. Weed creates space for the esoteric, a perfect breeding ground for all that’s ineffable between the naval-gazing fashion and wellness industries. On KannaSwiss’ site, the word “extraordinary” appears at the foot of the page along with a trademark symbol, underscoring the phenomenal nature of the brand—one capable not only of creating magical cures, but of owning the extraordinary.
CELEBRITY WEED: REDEMPTION, EGO DEATH AND SELF-IMPROVEMENT
Celebrities love drugs, especially in America. Heroes of the ‘60s advocated for a psychedelic revolution, traveling the nation with barrels of free acid and sex. In the ‘80s, stars were blitzed on cocaine, while the ‘90s were filled with heroin, and so on. Persistent across these distinct cultural movements is pot smoking, the evergreen baseline. In the early aughts, when pot became legal medicine, its enthusiasts became activists, advocates for its mainstreaming who rode the tide of acceptance and had their own images rehabbed in turn. These celebrities’ stories are not just about drug use—they're about pot’s transformational power: stories of redemption, ego death, and self-improvement piggybacking on a subculture as it fades into the mainstream.
A convicted rapist, Mike Tyson spent about three years in jail for attacking women in-between highlights of a career attacking men. After several failed attempts at redemption, including an animated series (Mike Tyson Mysteries, in which Tyson solved mysteries in the style of Scooby-Doo), an acting role in The Hangover and a one-man show directed by Spike Lee, the former boxer was finally able to revamp his image by becoming a pot entrepreneur, one who doubles as a model for self-improvement as he vents about his feelings, traumas and personal history. Today, his podcast “Hotboxin’ with Mike Tyson” regularly racks up millions of views on YouTube, and Tyson Ranch, his four-hundred-acre “cannabis resort,” is currently being built as an elite wellness destination.
On the other end of the spectrum, Seth Rogen spends his time in-between films making ceramic ashtrays and other pottery that he posts on his Instagram page. His slow Hollywood transition from an aggressive teenage slob to humble craftsman is the kind of thing that makes you wonder what might have happened if Chris Farley hadn’t overdosed on a speedball in his Chicago apartment: maybe he too would be tweeting about Memphis design, living up the experimental art school phase of his career through miscellaneous creative tangents. It's tempting to resist Rogen’s new cultural position—his new cannabis venture Houseplant included—but there is something unshakably genuine about the way in which his rough edges have been smoothed, like a river stone slowly eroded by pot smoke into the shape of a peace sign.
But weed isn’t just for pussies and slackers; it’s also about optimization, and opening the third eye. Comedian, martial artist, UFC commentator and podcaster Joe Rogan has become a home for lost souls of the Reddit era, an unlikely conduit between the fuckable elite and the incel community. He’s the world's first true alpha male stoner, paving a sticky new road to masculinity that’s tied up in all sorts of opposing cultural movements, inspiring in an era of tribalism and partisan politics. Through his extremely popular podcast, Rogan has popularized a new kind of optimized man—one who does yoga, drinks cordyceps tea, swings kettlebells and smokes DMT—enlarging the very tiny piece of shared real estate between physical performance and contemporary spirituality.
As weed continues to saturate the mainstream, it takes a growing cast of characters to prop up its weight—and despite the burden, this big cloud of pot smoke does favors for its supporters. In myriad ways, the stoner influence has slowly opened career opportunities and created new lives for its advocates. Its ability to massage harsh features into a blurry mush is twofold, rounding the sharp corners of difficult personalities while soft-focusing the banal into something mysterious and uncanny. Weed makes edgy things safe and boring things interesting: if you’re high enough, you might forget Mike Tyson’s decade-long campaign of violence; if you get stoned and stare at Seth Rogen long enough, he’ll start to look like an artist.
THE STONER AESTHETICS GIFT SHOP
The stoner aesthetic is as blurry as you’d imagine: one can only see it in its fractal form, watery red-eyed staring into the black box of the cosmos. A healthy mix of styles that range from spiritual to technical, slacker to professional, its perseverance across generations and cultures has created a rich lexicon filled with patterns, textures and forms unmistakably inspired by low-level psychedelia. Tie-dye is an obvious and persistent image: a technique with mythic origins, the practice is said to have been popularized by the ‘60s countercultural hero and novelist Ken Kesey. Borrowing heavily from techniques originated in Asia and Africa, tie-dye creates vague patterns that conjure altered states without any pretense of meaning. In this way, stoner fashion raises more questions than it answers. Brands like Online Ceramics and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop each borrow in equal measure from the bottomless pit of stoner iconography, adopting children’s illustrations, gem stones and alignment charts to produce a secondary market for wholistic spirituality. Buy this trippy John Mayer t-shirt covered in Grateful Dead Bears! Buy this jade Gua Sha stone made in the style of Chinese healers by a white woman in California! An anything-goes panoply, the open-mindedness of hippie culture makes it a magnet for loose signifiers, gathering them under a banner of generic enlightenment and priming them for an upstream market. Pot smoking has a way of giving bullshit a toehold, while also putting a soft focus on things that are truly meaningful; it is a culture moored in anachronism and variety, an arena for generalists unleashing their curiosity through their purchasing power. What should I buy when I’m stoned? In the same way that artists lay the groundwork for gentrification, stoner culture sets the stage for appropriation. I don’t believe that cultural appropriation is an ethical issue, or even worth discussing in an ethical space, as it is simply the natural means though which goods find larger audiences, supply and demand. Yet, the naïve and wide-eyed curiosity of stoners softens the initial blow, making an innocuous first pass to scout the land for viable products. Death metal, ripped jeans, bell-bottoms, long hair and designer jeans are all available assets in the library. It’s a complex value play in which “high” and “low” are ping-ponged, with each element first made “low” by the stoner before eventually being reimagined as a luxury item. (See: Marni bell-bottoms, Dries Van Noten’s tie-dye and bohemianism, Comme Des Garçons’ entire worldview.) The mind-blowing return of disparate youthful symbols as luxury is an anthropological victory, with the kind of finger-painting championed by Demna Gvasalia, Gosha Rubchinskiy, or even Philip Plein gesturing toward an anti-climatic summation of stoner culture. Rather than venture into true Alex Grey “third eye” enlightenment, the stoner aesthetic lays the groundwork, paves the road, and creates lateral space where brands are free to traverse. If culture is a museum, then stoner aesthetics are the gift shop, memorabilia from more potent times, recapitulations of once-vital ideas and iconography flattened into postcards on a carousel.
VR CBD WTF: It’s a Wild World
How did weed go from seedy subcultural staple to Sephora’s top-shelf? By rebranding as luxury CBD, the new snake oil for the upwardly mobile. This is cannabis, neutered—stripped of its cerebral risks of paranoia and psychosis, sterilized into a soothing balm, and sold as the perfect panacea for the generalized anxiety of this 21st century hellscape. You don’t even have to smoke it. Luxury CBD is best enjoyed as a lavish treat—like a bath bomb, a skin cream, or a tincture dropped daintily into your chai tea. (Or, if you’re less fussy, how about CBD toilet paper and condoms?)
First, let’s get some facts straight. CBD, or cannabidiol, is a non-psychoactive cannabis compound with legitimate medicinal properties. Thanks to its ability to calm the body’s immune system and protect neurons from oxidative stress, CBD is a promising breakthrough treatment for neurological disorders like epilepsy and schizophrenia, as well as opioid addiction and PTSD.
Here’s the problem: if you want to feel the effects of CBD medicinally, you need to take shitloads of it. Medical patients require around 300mg to treat conditions like anxiety, so that 5mg bead of CBD oil that a barista drops into your latte for an extra $10? That’s pure placebo, baby. Still, this inconvenient truth hasn’t curtailed luxury CBD’s global takeover—particularly in the wellness space, where CBD is as essential to daily existence as sound baths, group meditation, and yoga.
Some would say that luxury CBD peaked in the spring of 2019, at Kim Kardashian’s CBD-themed baby shower. I beg to differ. Kardashian’s party might have alerted millions of housewives to this miraculous new perma-chill pill, but luxury CBD didn’t truly reach its bizarre zenith until the winter of 2020, when I walked into a high-end spa in Los Angeles to try their latest self-care offering: a CBD and VR-enhanced massage.
Maybe CBD and VR would pair well. I’ve always found the out-of-body hinterlands of VR simulations extremely soothing; maybe hanging out in the metaverse would be even more relaxing if someone was rubbing my neck at the same time? The massage spot, called Lifehood, was in the corner of an upscale, open-air mall and outfitted with distressed denim carpets, plywood walls, and massage chairs that weren’t massage chairs at all, but rather deconstructed redwood cubes designed by the LA modernist architect R.M. Schindler. A CBD gummy, plump and twinkling with sugar crystals, was offered to me on a gold platter. I recognized the brand, Lord Jones, which was sold in the lobby of the Standard hotel, and rose to fame after celebrities gushed about its CBD foot cream helped them walk the red carpet.
I eat the gummy, slip on the Oculus Rift, and immediately realize there’s a logistical problem: as I crane my neck to gaze around a virtual California landscape, the masseuse is forced to constantly adjust her techniques. Eventually, a bigger disjunct became apparent: a CBD massage is best enjoyed by complete immersion in physical sensations, while the spectral joys of VR come from disembodiment from the body. By hacking your brain’s visual cortex and unmooring your consciousness from material reality, VR allows you to completely escape your corporeality, but the CBD only enhanced awareness of my tingling meatsack.
My friend mentions this contradiction to the masseuse. “Maybe I could have a ghost hand in the VR?” she chuckles. “Or would that be weirder? It didn’t really matter. I realize that VR and CBD are not so dissimilar after all, as commodities riding cresting waves of turbo media hype as trendy reprieves from our anxious reality. But ultimately, nothing is more soothing than a simple human touch. We leave the massage spot to a chilled-out chorus of mall muzak: Take it easy baby, it’s a wild world…