I moved from Arizona to a prohibition state over six years ago now. To provide a little more context while still attempting to keep myself on the down-low, I moved from Phoenix to the south. Not quite the deep south, but notably more southern than anywhere I had lived before. There was, of course, some initial culture shock and it took me some time to really feel at home here. Things that were totally bizarre to me at first seem commonplace now, but there’s one thing I’m still not used to, or rather, not completely comfortable with yet.
Cannabis became a part of my life – mostly in secret – when I was sixteen and then more openly when I turned 18. As soon as I discovered cannabis, it became one of my favorite things to talk about. I’m sure some of this had to do with my age at the time; it was super cool to me that I sometimes had access to very small amounts of pretty good weed and I wasn’t shy about just how much better it made me feel. It was exciting to be one of the kids invited to share a bowl behind the Jack-in-the-Box after school. At my highschool, being the “stoner” was an anomaly and I enjoyed that status. When my parents became involved in the medical cannabis industry in 2012, my involvement kicked up as well. I would visit the co-op with my mom, help water or trim the plants, all while learning as much as I could. Eventually, I started working at the co-op.
My whole life shifted and started to revolve almost entirely around cannabis. While working at the co-op, I got a new car – a neon green Mazda with matching green seat covers, that in my opinion, was shaped just like a bud. Wrapped around the rearview mirror was a plastic lei made of cannabis leaves and there was a skunk in a gas mask sticker on the back window. I had t-shirts and bracelets decorated with cannabis leaves; I was obvious and shameless in my love of cannabis and didn’t care who saw. There were opportunities to speak to people about cannabis when I was so brazen about it and that was what I loved most. It gave my desire to flaunt my love affair with cannabis a purpose.
Apart from my, often misplaced, confidence, I had the law on my side. I had an Arizona Medical Marijuana patient card and I operated within the laws.
Here, it’s an entirely different story.
While I was away, my mom’s involvement in the cannabis community grew and with it, my collection of swag. My mom got into the habit of sending me things from different companies that she had varying levels of involvement with or goodies from conventions she attended. Lanyards, stickers, t-shirts, sweatshirts, mouse pads, jewelry, even little, unused glass pieces, you name it, I’ve probably got one somewhere.
There’s something ominous, at least for me, about being a cannabis user and living where I live. Something that keeps me on edge and looking out for anyone who may think less of me or worse, arrest or ticket me, because of my cannabis use. I blame no one but myself, of course, because I made the decision to leave my bubble of cannabis safety for a prohibition state, but I don’t think I ever expected it to affect me in the ways that it has. We’ve covered the difficulties surrounding the acquisition of cannabis in a prohibition state before, and if you’ve been a cannabis consumer long enough or in the right environment, it’s highly likely that you’ve encountered those obstacles yourself. What I’ve experienced here is a shift in the way that I deal with my entire “image” as a cannabis user in a prohibition state.
Since I’ve been living here, I have become hyper aware of what I believe to be people’s perception of me as a “stoner”. Now, it’s important to note that these are all assumptions on my part. Based on the fact that this is a prohibition state, I assume that a majority of the people I encounter on a day to day basis are less educated about cannabis than the people I was interacting with in Arizona. My former self would have seen this as a wonderful opportunity! A whole new group of people to inform about cannabis in the hope of changing minds and, eventually, policy. However now, while I take the opportunity when it presents itself, there’s a hesitance on my part to initiate the conversation.
I feel like the stigma that I was able to shake off of me in Arizona is still alive and well here, as well as in many other parts of the country, I would imagine. On a large scale, I do believe that the general attitude and opinion of cannabis has changed, but I also believe that the consequences for being “outed” in certain communities are real and can be damaging. We live in a small town of around 1,500 people and it’s remarkably easy to make an impression on people. My partner was a delivery driver for a local pizza place and we still get waved at because people recognize our car. He hasn’t been a driver for the last 6 months. That kind of small town. While I’m able to do most of my work from home, I worry that my partner could lose job opportunities if he’s seen in town in a dispensary shirt or our Cannabis Cup sweatshirt. This type of blatant discrimination isn’t allowed, of course, but plenty of people in town have interacted with us in some capacity and could simply never follow up on an application because they recognize his name.
If I keep my keys on a dispensary lanyard with a cannabis leaf decoration, I worry that it gives our local law enforcement reason to pay special attention. Our town is policed by less than a handful of local officers, but a majority of the residents live on county, not city, land. That means the county sheriffs are often cruising around town just waiting for an opportunity to interact with you. It’s not uncommon at all to run into or see the local police or sheriff at a gas station or local fast food spot. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t aware of law enforcement in Arizona, but in Arizona, I wasn’t breaking the law. At least, not in the end. Running into law enforcement in Phoenix was something I didn’t give much thought when I lived there because they never seemed to pay much attention to me, but here they have way less of a population to police and I want to do my best to not stand out. Here, anything I do that involves THC (because hemp and CBD are legal in certain capacities) is breaking the law. Now, maybe you’re thinking, “But Kelly, there aren’t any laws against cannabis t-shirts or stickers” and you’re right, there aren’t, but there might be social repercussions. Information is a type of currency and who knows when cannabis related information may increase in value here. It’s in my best interest to keep my cannabis involvement as hush-hush as possible.
So my collection of cannabis swag is sitting unused because of this weird sense of shame and paranoia I have now. I have a group of friends and acquaintances who are all well aware of my cannabis use, but it’s an odd feeling to be hiding in plain sight the rest of the time. The shift in my behavior can’t all be credited to the move, though. I’m older now and I take less risks, I’m much more aware of how a cannabis related incident might affect my future, things like that.
When I moved here I expected that my life would change, and it did. What I didn’t expect was the drastic shift in the way I perceive myself as a cannabis user. Ultimately that’s what it all boils down to. The prohibition state I moved to wasn’t affected in the slightest by my presence and my cannabis use, but I was deeply affected by my presence in a prohibition state. I assumed that the stigma against cannabis was alive and well here and I reacted accordingly by doing my best to not be a stereotype, when I wasn’t hiding the fact that I used cannabis altogether. In hiding my cannabis use I feel like I’m perpetuating the stigma I’m so against, but I also feel trapped by the illegality of it, which makes me wonder if others feel the same way.
I’m reminded of when I was working at the co-op and the amount of people I worked with who were concerned about what might happen with their jobs or their family if anyone were to find out that they were a medical cannabis patient, and this was in a medically legal state. Here I can only imagine that those same fears are just as real, not to mention the looming legal ramifications for possessing cannabis. There’s a whole population of cannabis users that are too afraid, for justifiable reasons, to speak in favor of cannabis use and it’s become all the more apparent to me here. National attitude may be shifting, but I believe that in places like the one I live, until there is more open and outward support of cannabis policy changes by those of us who may feel too intimidated to speak up, change will be hard won.