Two days ahead of the stoner holiday 4/20, the City Council of San Bernardino voted unanimously to harsh everyone’s buzz. The High Times Cannabis Cup, a weed competition, convention, and open-air marketplace with live music that the stoner magazine has successfully organized for decades, was scheduled to begin on that holiest of days and run through the weekend, with some 20,000 pot connoisseurs and professionals expected to attend. But officials denied the application for a permit to hold the event as described, pointing out that in California, since the beginning of the year, marijuana is entirely legal — and therefore subject to a web of municipal regulations.
Most likely, the Cup will proceed with the stage acts and ticket holders permitted to bring their own supply of the good stuff, but vendors expecting to boost their brand or make a few bucks in the increasingly crowded business space don’t seem to have much recourse. And while a crackdown on pot sales in the post-prohibition era may sound strange, it’s really just a metaphor that speaks to the cultural shift following legislative victories for recreational weed — which, I should say, isn’t weed at all anymore. It is medicine, or a product, or an opportunity. It is cannabis, lab-tested and highly certified.
As we keep on crowing about the green rush (the taxable $10 billion that cannabis customers forked over in 2017, for example), it becomes easier to see what we’re leaving behind in the corporatization of Mary Jane — the gentrification, some have called it. The rise of slick franchise dispensaries like MedMen, which has the sterile glow of an Apple store, comes as we fail to compensate the users and dealers, mostly people of color, locked up during the disastrous War on Drugs. For every reparation program like Oakland’s, designed to make room for these formerly underground entrepreneurs in the nascent industry, there’s a headline about some ghoul like John fucking Boehner saying he joined the board of a cannabis investment vehicle because his thinking on legalization has “evolved.” We’re handing control of the best drug on earth to the bourgeois aliens from They Live, and the effect ripples down through the pipeline.
The possession or selling of weed was a crime; Its use was said to make you slow, soft, dimwitted, unambitious — everything capitalism condemns. Now its purchase stimulates your state economy, and its benefits are innumerable: it dulls anxiety and pain, helps you sleep, and can be microdosed for “productivity.” It slots neatly into a gig economy that celebrates working yourself to death, aided by the right substances, of course. There are no more hours to waste hanging around waiting for your black-market dealer, someone like the cyclist hero of HBO’s High Maintenance, which already has the tinge of nostalgia about it, or sitting in the squalid apartment of a connection who has a cat named Carl Sagan and wants to talk to you about the psychedelic art of Alex Grey before asking that you pack their bowl with one of the buds you just bought off them.
It’s not that any of these things were so great in themselves; picking seeds out of schwag and trying to make a water pipe with a plastic bottle and shred of tin foil posed considerable annoyance. But the secrecy of weed, the logistical problems of acquiring it, the fact that college security didn’t want you to have it and would put you in a sort of remedial D.A.R.E. class if they found some in your room — these threats and obstacles bonded us in a beautiful narrative that runs through weed comedies from Cheech and Chong’s day to Half-Baked: the never-ending knight-errant quest to get high. You did what you had to, you smoked what you got, and you rejoiced in the accomplishment. Then you could laugh for hours about literally anything. When I went to a High Times party the week before last year’s Northern California Cannabis Cup, I didn’t hear anyone discuss a topic besides cannabis, and what I remember most is a woman asking, “You know how when you do a lot of dabs, you can’t feel the top of your mouth?”
That’s another issue gone unexamined: Weed isn’t weed anymore because we have decided to strip the cannabinoids we want from it, the THC and CBD, for vapable oils and dabbable concentrates and topical skin creams and sexual lubricants. You can sample 75 percent of a pot shop’s menu and not see anything resembling a leaf, while the ultra-potent flower they sell is giving life to the old stoner joke of paying $40 (i.e., way too much) for a gram. God knows why a supposedly low-dose can of THC soda includes 45 milligrams of the psychoactive chemical when the average user gets plenty buzzed off just 10 or 15. We may have dreamed of enjoying weed publicly, without interference from law enforcement, but did we envision reading warning labels? Dissociated from itself, marijuana becomes an unknown, even dangerous leisure.
If you doubt that cannabis has lost its cachet to startups and private equity funds, remember that teens in legal states are smoking it less. When weed is wellness, when your parents rely on it to get through the day like a McDonald’s cook surviving their shift, when you see ads declaring that cops, too, like a toke now and then — it can’t be cool, and it’s no longer a novelty. We’re saturated with it. The push for ending prohibition and the new retail operations always agreed on this point: cannabis should be normalized, because pretty much everyone likes it, no matter their background or present circumstances. Turning cannabis into a snobbish adult pleasure like wine or craft beer eradicates the youthful dream of getting baked, once the only alternative to sobriety. Either you abstained or you took a rip off the gravity bong and went to outer space.
Is it for the best that kids wait till they’re older to try cannabis? Undoubtedly. Will an emphasis on safety, quality, and responsible practices in pot have a positive outcome on American health? There’s no question. Again, you have every reason not to mourn the loss of what we found so grungy, inequitable, awkward, and alienating about the production, procurement and partaking of marijuana in the past, but we have to acknowledge the cognitive whiplash of transforming this vice to a virtue. The death of weed is also the death of its moral panic, the demise of “reefer madness,” “the devil’s lettuce” and the couch potato rolling another blunt as the Saved by the Bell marathon blares on. It’s the end of socks on your smoke detector and mom tossing your stash and finding out that sketchy guy in the park handed you a Ziploc of dried oregano. No more subversion, no counterculture, no resistance to or stepping back from the world of the “straights.” We’re finally free, it’s true — free to play by a new set of rules.