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The Cult of Marijuana

The “cult of marijuana” is a term I’ve often seen used to refer to people that advocate for progressive cannabis policy changes as a way to cast us in a bad light. Cults have a reputation for being, well, not great, and referring to cannabis advocates or advocacy groups, or even people that just enjoy cannabis and talking about it, as a cult is a tool that can be used to sway the uninformed. The idea that advocating for or enjoying cannabis brainwashes you into the “cult of cannabis” is something that those who use the phrase unironically seem to take seriously, so I decided to take it seriously as well.

Cults are something that I have been interested in for a while, so what I decided to do is compare what I know about cannabis advocacy – the people, the culture, etc. – to what is called the BITE model. When I say cannabis advocacy, I am heavily generalising to include those of us who believe in progressive policy changes, responsible adult use, ending stigmas and educating nonusers. Those that would call us a cult are convinced cannabis is inherently dangerous and that those of us in favor of doing those things are brainwashed into it. It’s only a part of their argument, but it helps to perpetuate the stigma that cannabis and it’s friends have faced since the 1930s.

Based on research into brainwashing, Steven Hassan developed the BITE model as a tool to identify the recruitment and control methods used by cuts. It breaks down the brainwashing methods used by cults into four parts; behavior, information, thought and emotional control. Keep in mind that while cults have a dark history, we are not trying to say “we are good and they are evil”, we’re trying to be objective and stay well informed. Saying that cannabis is a cult implies that we are malevolently brainwashed and have the intent to brainwash others into something potentially dangerous. Using the BITE model, we can analyze cannabis culture against the standards used to identify cults.

Once again, I have to make a disclaimer. I am not formally educated about cults, nor do I spend a great amount of time with active cannabis advocates. Most of my observations in this article are just that, observations, using my experiences within the cannabis culture combined with what I know about cults. There is also a chance that within the greater cannabis community, there are those who use destructive brainwashing in conjunction with cannabis, but that does not reflect on the cannabis community or cannabis advocacy as a whole.

Cults generally have a hierarchy, with a leader at the top, who may have a close group of confidants, and then the general population, loosely. No one in particular comes to mind as the “King of Cannabis” – unless you count Willie Nelson.

Behavior Control

In Hassan’s BITE model, the first method of control is behavioral. Behavior control refers to things like controlling clothing or hairstyle, sleep deprivation, promoting dependence and obedience, restricting and controlling sexuality and financial exploitation.

We’ll start with an easy one, clothing and hairstyle. As with most subcultures, there’s a stereotype that accompanies cannabis users and with that stereotype comes a dress code, of sorts. Stoners are typically portrayed as sloppy or uncaring, or have often been lumped in with your stereotypical hippie, long hair and tie-dye included. Now, when I used cannabis for the first time, no one sent me a welcome package with my starter Birkenstocks or a tie-dye kit. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been exposed to cannabis users from all walks of life, to the point where I’ve always found the “You don’t look like a stoner” comments kind of funny. As often as I’ve gotten that comment, not once has it been followed by “So you can’t be a stoner with us”. You could even argue that the “dress code” is detrimental to cannabis advocacy as it too perpetuates stigma.

Cults often dictate where and with whom you live as a method of control. I can’t say that being a cannabis advocate requires living in a certain place or with a certain person, but I will say that your choice to use cannabis may actually affect where and with whom you live. Perhaps you left a prohibition state to to gain access to legal, regulated medical cannabis or you’re considering moving in with someone who doesn’t like cannabis use in their home. While these decisions will directly affect where and with whom you live based on your choices, it’s just that, based on your choices. A friend of mine lives with their parents who don’t allow cannabis use in their home, so they find other times and ways. Using cannabis will influence some people in their living situation and not others, but cannabis advocacy in and of itself isn’t a controlling factor. 

There are also situations where I will refrain from talking about or openly using cannabis because it’s not the right place or time, but cannabis advocacy has no direct control over my behavior. While cannabis may play a part in my decision making regarding finances or my living situation, it’s not the deciding factor and I know that I can confidently make decisions about these things without cannabis playing a role at all. 

Information Control

Information control can be very powerful. I find this part of the model particularly interesting in regards to cannabis because of how prevalent information control was in the original offensive against cannabis use. Cults control information by discouraging access to non-cult information, forbidding communication with ex-members or critics, generating and using propaganda, deliberately withholding and distorting information, just to name a few. 

Most of the cannabis users that I know are huge proponents for research and trial and error. We know that the cannabis industry is constantly evolving and shifting and that cannabis itself has changed with the times. It’s a point of pride, at least in some of the circles I’ve been a part of, to be educated about cannabis, it’s history and it’s evolving future and sharing those resources with like minded people.

There are, of course, shady business practices in the cannabis world, and these pockets of malfeasance might lie or distort information as a means to sell a product, like the recent rash of illicit vape cartridges, but neither does this reflect the cannabis community as a whole. Shady business practices can be found in any industry. 

I believe that being transparent and sharing information has been a great benefit to the cannabis community. Being open about cannabis, it’s benefits, uses, research, etc. and being able to say “we enjoy it, but it may not be for everyone” makes the community accessible and makes advocacy easier when we not only flaunt our progress but acknowledge and address our mistakes. If anything, I’d say the cannabis community is about sharing information, not controlling it.

Thought Control

Thought control and brainwashing may seem like one and the same, but it’s yet another tool in the cult’s repertoire to separate members from non-member. A mental line in the sand. Your identity or name could be changed, they use loaded language and cliches to prohibit complex thought, instill ‘Us vs. Them’ and ‘Good vs. Evil’ thought patterns. They may even teach thought-stopping techniques to prevent you from thinking critically. 

I will admit that I sometimes have a hard time not thinking of people who disagree with me in regards to cannabis in an Us vs. Them mentality. “They” are the ones in our way of progress. “They” are the ones who stigmatize and fearmonger. “We” are only trying to help. Although I may feel like this sometimes, I also don’t believe that those actively demonizing and perpetuating misinformation about cannabis are a reflection on the entire anti-cannabis community or even just nonusers. I don’t let my cannabis use directly influence how I interact with or think of people that don’t explicitly agree with me. There’s also no big daddy weed guru forcing me to chant as a thought blocking technique or convincing me to reject critical thinking and doubts. Unless I just haven’t been invited to the meetings. 

Emotional Control

Instilling irrational fears of questioning or leaving the group, teaching emotion-stopping techniques to prevent homesickness, shunning or promoting guilt, shame or unworthiness, or even showering you in praise and attention are all powerful tools of emotional control. This is where I see the least amount of relevance to the cannabis community. Cults will teach members that there is no peace or happiness outside of the group, they may threaten your friends and family to cut ties, isolating you from the outside world and fostering that isolation by promoting the cult as the only means of joy.

While I have heard some loudly sarcastic claims that “no one is happier than a stoner” I’ve also never been told that I would be shunned by my friends for quitting. If I were to make the choice to stop using cannabis, I can confidently say that I wouldn’t lose my friend group. This may be because I have a very small number of friends, but my friendship isn’t contingent on whether or not we all use cannabis. It has definitely played a factor – it’s nice to have things in common – but it in no way changes my opinion about them as people. No one has ever told me how miserable and incomplete my life would be without cannabis, nor have they threatened my non cannabis using family or friends.

Cannabis controls my emotions to the extent that sometimes I feel like crap, I use cannabis and then I feel less crappy.

Calling cannabis advocates a cult not only devalues the work done by advocates, but it also diminishes the truly harmful effects destructive brainwashing can have on people. Cults are a very real thing that exist today with real people who have escaped or in some cases, survived. Describing the cannabis community as a cult isn’t just a bad comparison, it’s insensitive and incorrect.


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