Covid-19 Is Changing The Way People Think About Cannabis
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As a rabbi who works in the cannabis industry, I’m considered safe. Neighbors, friends, even fellow clergy approach me with questions and requests: “How do I join the program?” “Does cannabis help with [fill-in-the-blank]?” “Do you have any samples?” The questions vary, but the conversations usually end the same way:
“Rabbi, please keep this between us.”
“Of course,” I respond, “Your secret is safe with me!”
But inside, I know that keeping quiet about cannabis is ultimately dangerous. Secrecy perpetuates the stigma and shame that have for too long accompanied cannabis in American culture. But in the Age of COVID-19, secrecy may no longer be necessary.
Cannabis deemed essential
In early March 2020, as the Coronavirus spread across the country and cities were plunged into quarantine, America’s reliance on cannabis became undeniable. Legal dispensaries were beset with long lines and record-breaking sales, as the public feared that stores would soon be forced to closed. Relief set in when 27 states enacted stay-at-home orders that allowed access to cannabis in some form. Twenty-three states would deem cannabis as essential as bread and milk. Almost overnight, COVID-19 made clear what industry insiders, patients, and woke medical professionals had long known: Cannabis is essential to the healthcare and self-care of millions of Americans. It was a revolutionary moment that was a long time in the making.
Opinions about cannabis have been rapidly evolving since the mid-1990s, when California became the first state to legalize the medical use and sale of cannabis. Since then, cannabis has been on a steady track toward mainstream acceptance. In 2017, the Washington Post reported that more than half of U.S. adults had tried cannabis at least once in their lives, and a 2019 Pew Research poll revealed that 91 percent support the legalization of cannabis in some form.
But paradoxes persist
Today, nearly a quarter-million Americans make their living working full-time in the cannabis industry. That’s more people than work in U.S. steel, iron and coal combined! While these numbers are astonishing, they don’t tell the whole story. Despite the value that Americans place on cannabis, not a single health insurance company provides coverage for cannabis-related medical expenses. Only a handful of medical schools educate their students in its use. Cannabis remains a Schedule 1 Drug in the eyes of the Federal Government (on the same level as heroin), with no accepted medical use. Even more humbling, in 2018, 40 percent of U.S. drug arrests were for cannabis-related offenses—mostly possession. A 2020 analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union concluded that black people were nearly four times more likely than whites to be arrested, and in some states six, eight, or almost ten times more likely to be arrested.
This is the paradox of cannabis in America.
In recent months, as state after state hosted press conferences declaring cannabis essential, users across the country rejoiced, but most did so quietly—the result of nearly a century of anti-cannabis laws and propaganda. Cannabis may enjoy widespread public acceptance in the polls, but its use remains laden with stigma and shame. For many, cannabis is something to be kept hidden, out-of-sight of judgmental neighbors, concerned family members, and narrow-minded co-workers.
With COVID-19, an opportunity arises.
However, COVID-19 presents an opportunity to address this paradox head-on. Government-issued stay-at-home orders and self-quarantining practices have forced many of us into closer proximity. Cannabis users have had to upend long-established practices for keeping cannabis use private. The smell of cannabis smoke emanating from a backyard patio or seeping out from an upstairs closet has forced many families (and neighbors) to have difficult conversations, which some have spent years avoiding. Quite a few cannabis users have reached out to me to discuss these tensions. The questions I hear the most: “If cannabis is an essential medicine, why am I vaping it in my basement bathroom? And why am I so scared to admit I use it? Is it OK to hide from my own family?”
What happens when self-care and well-being through cannabis are suddenly a conversation that we must have with our loved ones because we’re sharing the same living space? And how do we handle the guilt and shame that can accompany cannabis use? Because I'm both a Rabbi and the Director of National Outreach for a national cannabis company, people ask me these questions all the time.
Exploring guilt and shame as they relate to cannabis.
First, let’s differentiate between guilt and shame, which are too often used interchangeably. Guilt is the sense that our actions are problematic… shame is the belief that we are problematic. The impact of feeling guilt vs. shame is also distinct. While guilt can be a stimulus for human development and self-improvement, shame is more often stifling and destructive. In other words, you can be motivated by guilt and paralyzed by shame.
In many religions, guilt is a component of spiritual practice. Shame, on the other hand, is not. A 2019 study by the American Psychological Association explained that guilt “…made individuals feel remorse, tension or regret.” While shame left them feeling “…small, worthless or powerless.” Guilt is an acknowledgment that we do better. Shame stops us from even trying. The time has come to extricate shame from cannabis.
If shame thrives in secrecy and darkness, then the antidote is bringing our cannabis use into the light. Of course, not everyone is free to share their cannabis story. Many reside in states where cannabis remains illegal, and others risk losing a job if the news came out. But for those of us able to have the conversation, it is crucial that we do.
Talking about cannabis can leave us feeling vulnerable, frustrated and defensive, especially when faced with harsh judgment. Take a few deep breaths and remember that most Americans have been taught since grade school that cannabis is a dangerous, illicit drug with no redeeming qualities. Approach your conversations from a place of compassion and empathy. Remember to be as real and honest as possible.
Here are some tips that I hope you find helpful:
1. Tackle myths with facts
Myth #1: Cannabis is a crime.
Fact: Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia allow cannabis in some form. While the federal government has been slow to reclassify cannabis, Congress has passed the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment ensuring state cannabis laws are respected. Stay safe by learning about cannabis laws in your state (check out the Marijuana Policy Project at mpp.org for more info).
Myth #2: Cannabis users just want to get high.
Fact: Not every cannabis product aims to get you ‘high’. In fact, many products don’t even contain the chemical responsible for the feeling of being high (THC). The industry is moving toward micro-dosing of cannabis, where users take a small dose of THC (2.5mg or less) that does not have noticeable psychoactive effects. It is also important to recognize that the chemical responsible for the cannabis high (THC), is critical to alleviating pain and increasing appetite (important for people on chemotherapy or even, COVID-19). Want to go even deeper? Explore what makes your loved one so opposed to feeling good (or high) from cannabis. Do they feel the same way about a glass of wine?
Myth #3: Medical cannabis is just an excuse to legalize pot.
Fact: Just because medical cannabis opened the door to full legalization, does not mean it is a farce! Remember, lots of meds can be recreational and still legitimate (ex. ketamine, opioids/morphine, barbiturates, etc).
Myth #4: Cannabis is dangerous.
Fact: Despite what the DARE officer told you in school, cannabis does not kill brain cells. Recent studies point to cannabis having neuroprotective properties. Consider that the federal government owns one of the only patents on cannabis, Patent #US6630507B1: Cannabis as a Neuroprotectant (meaning it works to protect brain cells from harm).
2. Watch Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s powerful documentary, Weed.
Dr. Gupta covers his evolution regarding the therapeutic use of cannabis. Afterward, share your thoughts and experiences on how using cannabis has helped you and your loved ones.
3. Set an intention of love and care.
This isn’t about winning a debate. Frame your conversation by stating that you don’t want to hide from the ones you love the most and that you hope this conversation brings you closer. Keep this in mind before you get into a fight about statistics or over something your mom heard from a friend. Return to this loving intention if you become frustrated or emotionally triggered.
A final thought
In her writing about National Geographic Magazine’s racist past, award-winning journalist Michele Norris, commented: “It’s hard for an individual—or a country—to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones.” COVID-19 has laid bare the absurd paradox of cannabis in 2020 America and has given us the time needed to turn our kitchen tables into places of dialogue. If cannabis is essential to our health and wellness, it’s time we share our stories. Let us no longer be shamed into silence. Today more than ever, our voices are needed. Together, we can accomplish so much.