Legal on paper, but not yet in practice.
By Jaden Jarmel-Schneider
The weed truck has arrived in Morningside Heights. Sometimes it’s on 116th, but mostly it lingers on the corner of 109th. Flanked by Covid testing vans, this one has green Goosebumps-style lettering and advertises solutions of a different type: CBD and THC marijuana products, just about one year legal in New York. A middle-aged man in dark monochrome athleisure stands outside the truck, beckoning at passersby. Through the glass of the concession window, a cadre of younger men engages in the kind of effortless hang you might expect at a smoke sesh. I never get the impression that they are high—no smoky haze, no smell, no red eyes—but I can’t help but wonder if they have been planted there to give off precisely that impression. Buy our pot; then you can be chill, just like us.
Several times now, I’ve seen the athleisurely man in friendly dialogue with older residents of the neighborhood. Their genial tones belie the tension between them as the older, mostly white, neighbors launch questions about legality and permits. What is it our neighbors are afraid of? Perhaps the truck represents the encroachment of a youthful drug on their Manhattan enclave. Perhaps they continue to, as America has, feel a racialized unease around weed. Perhaps the truck, in its unabashed existence, flaunts the degeneracy of marijuana, the image of a criminal drug in a white neighborhood.
In March 2021, New York became the 19th state to fully legalize weed when it passed the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act. The law authorizes marijuana possession, processing, and distribution with multi-tiered regulation and licensing programming, and the corresponding shift in enforcement was swift. According to the NYPD’s public data, when comparing the three months leading up to legalization and the three months following, there was a 95% decrease in the number of marijuana-related arrests.
Nearly a year later, on Jan. 5, 2022, after his swear-in as Manhattan’s first Black district attorney, Alvin Bragg sent a memo to his new staff. It was a fresh start for an office that has historically been tough on low-level marijuana offenses. He wrote about growing up in Harlem in the 1980s with loved ones in jail and shootings in front of his home. He wrote about justice and fairness, harm and safety. After outlining his prosecutorial philosophy, he introduced a series of Day One initiatives. Under “Policy & Procedures,” Bragg declared that “the Office will not prosecute … Marijuana misdemeanors.”
Even with marijuana legalized, a cultural discrepancy remains. Weed is all the rage—studies back it up (13,000 since the beginning of last year, Google estimates) and economists have favorably analyzed its tax revenue benefits. In the past decade, marijuana has been touted as the cure for everything from Multiple Sclerosis to public debt. Even celebrities have decided that publicizing their smoking habits would be good optics. In a famous 92nd Street Y interview with Andy Cohen, Martha Stewart told the crowd matter-of-factly, “Of course I know how to roll a joint.” Jane Fonda, who became a CBD brand ambassador last year, cited marijuana as her go-to pain med. But as marijuana continues to go mainstream, the undercurrent of a century-long campaign to smear its name leaves weed in a confused cultural space.
On the surface, legalizing weed ushered the drug into cultural normality. A carousel of pro-legalization narratives emerged: Everyone smokes, anyways; the state could be pulling in billions on weed sales currently siphoned by the black market; it’s not that unhealthy, it’s not even addictive. But focusing on legalization’s promises elides what being weed-friendly actually looks like on the ground. This is an aesthetic question, a question of what happens when the hidden becomes visible: Food trucks dispensing hashish to college students on a busy corner of Broadway while the NYPD continued to arrest people for possession and criminal sale in the year after legalization, 82% of whom were Black or Hispanic.
Close to campus is a small smoke shop, adorned from floor to ceiling with every piece of weed paraphernalia in the books: Lauryn Hill grinders, imitation Murano glass animal pipes, RAW Supernatural 12-inch rolling papers. When I entered—strictly for an interview—the owner showed enthusiasm at first, but forbade me to record our conversation. He took me to the corner where he kept his two display cases of pre-rolled joints. He told me about his father, who opened the store, and his brother, who mans the counter at night. But when I began to question him lightly on weed legalization, licensing, and policing, his demeanor turned. “I thought you’d be asking about other stuff,” he said abruptly. “Let’s end it here.” I left the store confused. Weed is legal now, right?
There is no doubt that in the American symbolic order, legalization and cultural branding are distinct but often run in parallel. When alcohol was banned in 1920, legislators and anti-alcohol activists alike cited “health concerns” as their primary justification for temperance. In reality, there was no research to suggest that alcohol was a particularly dangerous substance, or that criminalizing it would bring about more overall health. It didn’t matter—prohibition was never about health or safety; it was about the puritan conservatism and anti-immigrant sentiment these illusory precepts could conceal. Prohibition didn’t achieve its stated goal (alcohol continued to circulate at an almost pre-legal frequency). Its success was the marketing of alcohol: attaching a cultural value to the act of drinking, making it illegal, criminal, degenerate.
The culture of substance restriction is a distinctly American phenomenon, and the story of the cultural branding of weed follows similarly. When weed first became popular in the early 1900s, it was associated with racist Great Depression-era ire toward the Mexican immigrants who introduced it to American culture. As it percolated through American life, this anger was sublimated into a narrative about the hysteria-inducing effects of marijuana, the so-called “marijuana menace”—a racialized term used widely to associate marijuana with Blackness and mania—and the mythical Mexican “locoweed.” As is often the case, the law swiftly succeeded cultural anger. By 1931, over half of the states had outlawed marijuana. Since then, it has consistently shapeshifted within the American consciousness: the subject of Nixon’s unscientific drug scheduling, the degeneracy of the 1980s hippie transplant in California, the criminality of communities that served time and time again as targets of various misguided and disingenuous drug wars.
A year ago, drug deals took place in alleyways; now, interested buyers peruse shelves of hybrid, fruity pre-rolls at the window of a dispensary on Columbus. What can we make of this confusion, of this discrepancy between legality on paper and legality in practice? Some cultural force is attempting to free marijuana from the image of the washed-up dropout, from fear of crime and disgust at alternativeness. Yet heavy cultural baggage continues to weigh on the drug. Of the Columbia students I interviewed, each wanted to remain anonymous. One told me that she knows weed is technically legal, but she thinks it will take years for it to feel legal—that is, to consume without shame.
In the past decade, certain demographics have been able to adapt weed into their identity without shame—think weed coming to be associated with spiritual elevation and white hipness. At some point, perhaps when the wealthy and powerful decided they no longer wanted to buy from the guy on the corner, or when the state grew desperate enough to cash in on the drug trade, the alliance of individual and state produced a new narrative to corporatize cannabis. Joe Rogan viewers watched Elon Musk smoke a joint before explaining his project to merge AI with the human brain. Smokers can use their phones to customize their weed vape settings if they buy devices from Pax, a company now valued at $1.7 billion. We are witnesses to the era of the tech bro in his company tent at Burning Man, inhaling New Age shamanism. This is the narrative of weed as technology and innovation, pushed by America’s most cherished religion: science.
Like every god, science is most powerful for its symbolism. It signifies American achievement: the meritocracy of discovery, the rational power of our exceptionalism. It comes as no surprise that even the Prohibitionists excepted medicinal whiskey. A select few physicians obtained licenses to prescribe and distribute whiskey, so long as they had made a diagnosis first. It is equally unsurprising that the first steps in weed legalization came in 1996, when California passed a law legalizing marijuana when used for medicinal purposes. A medical stamp of approval made these substances acceptable to the American public.
Today, weed is everywhere festooned with the aesthetic trappings of rationality. Exact percentages of THC on weed labels produce the effect of scientific precision. Leafly, the weed review, education, and news site with 100 million annual visitors, meticulously describes the particulars of every high with nigh-academic detail. The cultural value of science confers the safety of state-sponsored institutional support, of empirical studies and data. It is a brilliant marketing ploy, one that undoubtedly cost millions upon millions of dollars of lobbying and marketing pitches, of consumer surveys and focus groups. It is a cultural narrative that is palatable to a significant swath of Americans, to the aging moms and dads whose kids fled the suburbs to join the urban counterculture, the Reaganite religious conservatives, the middle-aged retirees, the young technocrats.
Weed has always been marketed intentionally, but its increasing—and now legal—ubiquity paired with a century of shaming produced a cultural discrepancy requiring reconciliation. Even with legalization, it remains marked by criminality, degeneracy, blackness. The shift to market weed as scientific represents an effort to remove weed’s residual shame so that it may flourish in the cultural and economic mainstream.
This marketing shift ignores the other side of this reality. The reality is that, for the past century, the criminalization of weed has led to the formation of an entire economy—one that, even before legalization, contributed billions of dollars to the actual gross domestic product, and which entire communities and marketplaces are reliant upon. What does this economy do now? The unspoken reality of legalization is that it creates a cost of entry that is entirely unfeasible for non-corporate entities: the money for lawyers to acquire dispensary permits, the high taxes. One study found that this cost was so insurmountable that even after two years of legalization in California, illegal weed dealers still outnumbered legal ones three to one.
In an indelibly American way, we forced the development of below-ground economies through the criminalization of a practice we dogmatically cast outside the realm of social acceptability. Forbes estimates that even in 2020, almost 75% of the weed market existed underground. Yet when the desires of the wealthy lead us to bring that economy out of the dark and into refurbished food trucks on the streets of the Upper West Side, there is no means of recourse for those underground economies. The city government’s answer so far has been to reserve 100 of the first dispensary retail licenses to New Yorkers with marijuana-related convictions. On the surface, the city’s plan is a nod to the racial injustice of the historical policing of marijuana misdemeanors. But this decision, which overlooks the projections that legalization will not come close to eliminating the weed black market, can’t be considered much more than optic strategy.
The cultural appetite of America’s elite is myopic—it takes no issue brushing aside the thousands of people still imprisoned for marijuana offenses in favor of a progressive, hip outlook on drugs, the mobilization of a convenient aesthetic. And it does not bat an eye at the fact that the industry now making them billions continues to incarcerate people of color at alarming rates, that the very people who voted as pro-drug war conservatives now—with the realization that marketing weed as lucrative and scientific, even healthy, can line their pockets—are the ones championing decriminalization. It is an obscene cultural U-turn, one that without a more concerted focus on the existing underground economy threatens to rupture entire communities so tech-bros can light up on podcasts and cut ribbons at bell-ringing ceremonies, so they may smoke weed without shame.
One has to wonder what the future holds. Might we see a kind of nostalgia that the centennial of alcohol prohibition has occasioned, of nights out in pseudo-speakeasies? Does the future hold destigmatization as it did for alcohol, or has the image of weed been irreversibly tainted? Might it allow for the mass release of prisoners who committed acts from which the state now profits? These are questions emblematic of the tensions between prohibition and normalization, between hiding and publicizing, questions that will remain open until American culture decides how it wants to treat marijuana.
The weed truck is still trying to find its footing in the neighborhood. Every couple of days, it is parked in a new place—catty-cornered to its first perch, or sometimes a few spaces up the block. When another car claims its spot, the truck has to double park for the day. It’s out in the open, but not quite a dispensary. It’s visible but transient, hesitant or perhaps unable to establish itself as a permanent fixture.