By definition, a social stigma is the disapproval of or discrimination against someone or something due to characteristic grounds that are perceived to distinguish it/them from other parts of society. Stigmas are often related to mental illness, physical disabilities, gender identity, race, religion, drug/alcohol addiction or usage, health, education and criminality. Studies have shown that by age 10, most children have an awareness of different cultural stereotypes stemming from different societal groups and those who belong to stigmatized groups are aware at an even younger age.
These stigmas so commonly woven into our society are often fixed or slow to change, which in turn influence trends, media, behavior, expectations and even the mental/emotional health of the stigmatized group. When discussing the social stigma that cannabis users have to navigate in a society where such usage has arguably not yet been universally normalized, it is important to examine where the stigma stemmed from in the first place. In the United States, many credit the most famous piece of anti-cannabis propaganda, the 1936 film Reefer Madness, for setting a precedent regarding how cannabis (particularly through the utilization of its street name marijuana) was perceived in the mainstream media. The film paints THC-dominant cannabis plants in an extreme, negative light, depicting those under the influence of the plant as going mad, acting violently and "living in sin."
Over time, this stereotype surrounding cannabis users—especially as portrayed in Hollywood and media—became increasingly associated with people who are dubbed lazy, unreliable and unable to contribute positively to society. With the cannabis user either being considered a hippie or a criminal by society at large, the fact that the drug is still federally illegal certainly doesn't help the case for widespread acceptance.
When presenting a case calling for the reclassification of how society perceives cannabis, many look to how it is helping those with drastic health ailments such as epilepsy (especially in children) and how much of a difference the introduction of plant-based medicine can make. As more research surfaces exploring the positive health and therapeutic benefits the plant can yield, the stigma surrounding it will at least begin to be further questioned and eventually reconsidered by the masses.
A study conducted in Norway in 2012 posed the question of whether cannabis use is normalized, celebrated or neutralized, finding the cultural discourse to be complex, interconnected and split between all three categories. The study's author noted that overall, because cannabis is illegal, users feel the need to justify or defend their perspective, further speaking to the global stigmatization of the plant.
Another part of the stigma surrounding cannabis stems from the “high” itself. The psychoactive effect, caused by the abundance of the cannabinoid THC, impacts people in different ways and is dependent on several factors. How a person reacts to cannabis is depends on the makeup of one's individual endocannabinoid system, the type of strain, amount consumed, potency, method, frequency and sensitivity.
When THC enters the bloodstream, the body begins to break it down, resulting in the possibility of there being different stages of experiencing euphoria. While the sensations are a bit different depending on the aforementioned factors and the individual, many describe the effects of THC as relaxed, amused, creative, an enhanced sensory processing and hungry. On the flip side, the effects can also skew on the negative side, with users citing unpleasant reactions such as anxiety, delusion, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, nausea, paranoia and psychosis. The duration of the high, and its range of intensities, is also dependent on several factors as well. The less-than-favorable side effects can be a result of inexperienced usage, overconsumption or mis-dosage, which is why plant education and understanding one’s body are important.
On the flip side, the effects can also skew on the negative side, with users citing unpleasant reactions such as anxiety, delusion, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, nausea, paranoia and psychosis.
As the cannabis industry continues to evolve, its advocates continue to become more educated, sophisticated, responsible and overall better informed regarding their specific, personalized intentions behind consuming cannabis. As plant-based medicine makes its societal and legal transition from being consumed in an underground, private manner to a more socially accepted, public manner, social norms will begin to gradually shift in tandem.