Cannabis, Culture, Medicine

Photo by Steve Hyde
Photo by Steve Hyde

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

It’s Friday, so I’m going to approach this meta-social issue a little differently. Not with an organized essay, in other words, because the intersection of those three words — cannabis, culture, and medicine — is hyperdimensional and divergent. There are many wildly different ways to map their intersections, maybe because the words themselves are overflowing with meanings and interpretations. Let’s locate a few combinations and go from there.

  1. Cannabis is a plant, first, and therefore its cultivation by humans is agriculture. An argument can be made that it’s manufacturing, but if so that’s the direct result of how cannabis came to be policed in the U.S., or prohibition. The artificial production of a controlled environment for growing under lights is directly connected to the artificial production of a controlled society under the police function. Every effort to tightly control cannabis production that doesn’t treat cannabis like any other plant by prohibiting its growth to selected social actors so they can make a profit is unnatural, on the one hand, and the continuation of prohibition’s basic logic, which for now we’ll call “prohibition culture.” Which has never been about prohibiting a plant, but punishing and making examples of certain segments of the population (see Michelle Alexander’s ubiquitous “The New Jim Crow” for a basic explanation).
  2. Culture is a system of shared meaning based upon the reproduction (and evolution) of Value in society. Oof. This one’s going to be tough. Cultures are dynamic, open, evolving, alive, contradictory, messy, disciplined, and most of all political. What counts as Valuable in society depends upon who is speaking to whom, where and when. Cultural violence happens when one system of shared meanings not only declares itself the Right One but disciplines and punishes people who deviate from the reproduction of those meanings. Cultural violence is the byproduct of Monoculture, a simplified set of standardizing values that are supposed to mean the same thing, over and over, everywhere and any time. Prohibition monoculture attempted to kill the diversity of value and values associated with a plant, and replace it with one Meaning, “threat to society.” Thus meaning was codified differently over time, but the 1971 Controlled Substances Act is the one that declared the plant a Threat to Public Health by classifying it as one of the most dangerous substances known to humanity. The modern War on Drugs is a perversion of Public Health, in that it has promoted violence as a way of promoting health.
  3. Medicine is the food we consume to make us well. “Wellness” is a pretty broad, polydiverse signifier, and therefore so is medicine. What makes one person well can very well kill the next person, depending on each person’s physical and environmental makeup. This is true for food in general: peanut butter is deadly to many, many people. We don’t prohibit peanut butter, we educate consumers not to kill themselves by ingesting delicious peanut products. Our culture therefore allows for widely divergent understandings of the peanut as both dangerous and delicious.
  4. Foods are composed of lots of different molecules, some of which have multiple medicinal benefits depending on how they are arranged and broken down in the body. When isolated and concentrated, many molecules become powerful agents of biophysical change. In Western/pharmaceutical/industrial medicine, those molecules are evaluated as “dangerous” or “medical” depending on who’s approved their use or not. Unless they are on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, through which they are declared simply dangerous. And even then, Schedule I drugs are legally accessible to pharmaceutical elites who ask the appropriate State representatives the appropriate way.  Foods that are molecularly simplified, standardized, and sold as State-sanctioned promoters of health are called “pharmaceutical drugs.” They are the monoculture of Modern Medicine.
  5. Modernity is a mixed bag, and the fact that this statement might be controversial tells us something about the monoculture of Modernity. The monoculture of Modernity is that on balance, things are getting better, usually in contrast with a prior period of history that is now over. This year compared to last year, this decade before the last, this century before the one before. Modernity is a moving target to which we have arrived, again. Bruno Latour wrote a book that elaborates on this. But Francis Fukuyama wrote a book against this. I’m with Bruno: declaring that we have evolved into the best society we can make is the hubris par excellence of every historical moment there has ever been. The world is round, and every revolution introduces variation that can only sometimes be described as progress.
  6. In the last forty years or so, we have returned to the notion that single molecule medicine, the medical monoculture of modernity, is maybe not all there is and on top of that often extremely flawed, as evidenced by the history of FDA recalls and the evidence of physical disfigurement and death associated with recalled or abandoned miracle drugs.
  7. In the U.S., “alternative and complementary” medicine has returned traditional medicine, herbal products, and a host of other ways to get and be well to the repertoire of Modernity. These heretics used to be burned at the stake, along with the women that knew about them. The cannabis plant has been a vital component of that repertoire for millenia, and the return of cannabis-based approaches to wellness is part of that process. Thanks, hippies.
  8. The monocultures of Modernity have been under serious re-evaluation, and the point above is just one example. Tolerance of diversity, defined as “not killing people, physically or symbolically, structurally or directly, for being different or having different values” is a relatively recent development in the United States. But see point number 5! Tolerations of difference aren’t exactly a recent development in human history, and still aren’t all that prevalent in this society.
  9. Tolerations of difference usually turn on questions of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, language and sexuality in this country. The public debate about diversity is pretty much never about neurological diversity or consciousness, except through the Monocultural lens of  pharmaceutical medicine. Thinking differently is evidence of disease. Thinking that cannabis is a plant that people have played with in search of wellness throughout history is evidence that one is a heretic, a heretic of modernity. Acting on that thought can get you burned at the stake, a phenomenon that started in this culture hundreds of years go.
  10. Being a heretic of modernity means one won’t be taken seriously by Modern, normal people like many politicians, lobbyists, doctors, university administrators, law enforcement officers and so forth. For these folks prohibition may have been a failure, but it was the product of a few bad actors or good actors making bad decisions rather than the structural violence of prohibition culture. Let’s stop incarcerating people who consume acceptable amounts of the plant, but let’s still stigmatize and punish the heck out of people who grow it or distribute it without authorization from the State. Because Public Health! Which Modernity has such a great track record on promoting through punishment, assumably.

I hope to continue this sort of exploration in future posts. It may or may not be included in some form in the forthcoming book, but if nothing else contributes quite a bit to the transparency of the assumptions held by its author(s).

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