Cannabis is Culture

"Southern Humboldt County California, August, 1978. A volunteer sativa plant out in the meadow. For decades, families and children have lived in multiple contexts which include cannabis culture."  -- Ursi Reynolds.
“Southern Humboldt County California, August, 1978. A volunteer sativa plant out in the meadow. For decades, families and children have lived in multiple contexts which include cannabis culture.” — Ursi Reynolds.

Cannabis is Culture.  How is it Culture?  Culture is shared system of meanings that help groups of people understand the world they live in.  It is dynamic and always evolving, rather than a thing people possess.  Cannabis consumption means different things in different cultural contexts, none of them inevitable.  Cannabis consumption was made to mean “a threat to society,” beginning in the early 20th century, by associating it with socially threatening populations: Mexican migrant workers during and just after the Mexican Revolution and Black Jazz musicians.  The construction of Cannabis as a social threat galvanized popular opposition to cannabis consumption as an acceptable cultural practice, setting the stage for Cannabis prohibition.

Part I

In the 1960s, Cannabis use was associated with political, economic, and cultural rebellion.  This was especially the case on college campuses where many white children of the middle class became involved in the Civil Rights movement, in many cases from direct participation as 1961 “Freedom Riders” challenging de facto segregation in the American South.  In the wake of this particular mobilization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, the youth wing of the Black Civil Rights movement), challenged their white allies to work in their own communities to end racism.  For increasingly disaffected white youth in higher education, this ended up meaning that they sited struggles from college campuses — perhaps most famously, at the University of California Berkeley.  Students led the Free Speech movement in the early 1960s, but as the Vietnam War expanded student movements de-localized, and created solidarity with global anti-imperialist struggles that constituted the invisible Heat of the Cold War.

At the same time, radical countercultural spaces like the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco exerted gravitational pull for a wide range of disaffected youth with varying degrees of political consciousness but a determination to find a place to which they belonged.  An offshoot of the San Francisco Mime Troop, the Diggers, created a model for sustaining such a place and constituting such a community, by organizing “Free” spaces in which social needs could be addressed:  the Free Store, the Free Clinic, Free crash-pads, and Free Music.  Not all counterculture was “left,” even as the term itself evolved from a predominantly class meaning to one that incorporated diverse identity politics, and not all “left” was countercultural.  We can, however, provisionally identify “countercultural left” as a tendency that was oriented to both external and internal revolution, with that word “revolution” meaning lots of different things to lots of different people.  Perhaps the most common meaning was that many people found their political paths by changing their consciousness as they consumed particular criminalized biota and molecules — plants and synthetics.  Cannabis and LSD were the archetypal food for doing so.

As the “law and order” politician became an increasingly viable career path, U.S.-American voters began to understand cannabis as a social threat that was embodied by the countercultural left, which in truth did hate “Amerika” as a symbol of capitalist greed, imperialist impunity, patriarchal dominance, and racist structures.  Many were intensly patriotic or nationalistic and didn’t conflate “Amerika” with the United States of America, a place where people could be free to live how they wanted to.  The Weather Underground, in their 1971 first Communique [link goes here], asserted that “Guns and grass are united in the youth underground.”  Cannabis became a symbol of social upheaval and revolutionary consciousness, perhaps even the culprit for so many white middle class youth adopting a subjectivity of the oppressed.  It was an easy target for rallying increasingly political evangelical voters engaged in the reactionary “culture wars.”

Next in “Culture”:  Back to the Land and “Beyond Counterculture.”