You see stories about it in your Facebook feed. You read about it in TechCrunch, the Huffington Post, and even the Wall Street Journal. You might even retweet celebrity comments about it once in a while. You hear potential market size estimates ranging from the tens to hundreds of billions of dollars. Legalized cannabis is everywhere, and it's exciting. But there's also something surreal--and vaguely uncomfortable--about the idea that in your lifetime you might see marijuana become as mainstream as alcohol. And so you ponder it quietly, lower your voice when you mention it, and smirk sanctimoniously at those who don't seem to share your shame in embracing the controversial plant. Like many, you're worried what people will think if you admit your support openly. And you're not alone.
"Awesome," my well-known Venture Capitalist friend responded when I told him I'd co-founded Gateway, an accelerator for cannabis-related startups. He emphasized his willingness to help, and help he has. But like many others, even with him there was a catch: "but I'm about to raise another fund," he told me over the phone on my drive home. "And you know how conservative <one of his LPs> is. Just don't put my name anywhere on it publicly; I don't want <the LP> to find out."
A few weeks later I had a call with a 48-year-old investment banker who was downright evangelical about the cannabis industry, citing endless medical uses of cannabis, potential market opportunities, and moral justifications for legalization. He was a wellspring of information and again offered to help Gateway. But even he admitted that he hadn't "come out" to his family about his support of cannabis yet, and he wasn't sure that he ever would. The "coming out" analogy may be a bit overdramatic when talking about a plant, but nevertheless it accurately reflected his apprehension.
There's a real stigma against supporting the legalization of marijuana and its derivatives, and those of us in the industry often try to overcome that stigma by citing facts. Some of us argue that marijuana is safer than alcohol. We share memes bragging that there were zero marijuana overdoses last year, and the year before, and so on. We write articles on Salon.com titled, "7 facts that prove alcohol is way more dangerous than marijuana." And we're right.
Others cite the myriad medical benefits of cannabis, particularly the two most promising cannabinoids, THC and CBD. We make impressively long lists like, "50 unexpected benefits of cannabis," in which we talk about mitigating epilepsy, CINV (chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting), diabetes and Alzheimer's. Then there's the emerging research into the medicinal value of a host of other cannabis-derived terpenes. We explain why, given these benefits, it makes absolutely no sense for the federal government to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug with "no currently accepted medical treatment use." And we're right.
Sometimes we make economic arguments. We point out the additional $53M in tax revenue enjoyed by the state of Colorado as a direct result of recreational legalization. Or we simply tally up the over $1 Trillion spent through the years by the federal government in its failed "War on Drugs" and hope that people notice the obvious waste. While we're talking about the War on Drugs, some of us point out the devastation this failed program has had on our inner cities. "The drug war does not attack drugs, but it attacks the nation's most vulnerable neighborhoods and the people who live in them," concludes Cornell professor Dr. William W. Goldsmith in the Oxford Handbook of Urban Economics and Planning. Others simply note that our police forces have, thanks mostly to the drug war, gradually come to resemble those ominous "jackboots" we remember reading about in our high school history classes. As a result, the US has the highest per-capita prison population of any other country in the world, save the East African island of Seychelles. Something, we say, is very wrong here. And about this, we're right.
Many of us think that the key to advocacy lies in undermining the stereotype perpetuated by prohibitionists. We all know it: the unmotivated, unproductive, irresponsible, stupid hippie holed-up in his mom's basement, shrouded in a perpetual cloud of smoke and dropping Cheetos in between the sofa cushions. And so many of us go out of our way to name all of the productive, intelligent, ambitious, and successful people who use or have used cannabis. People from the tech world like me talk about all of our successful founder friends who regularly partake (but we respectfully leave their names out of articles like this one). Other advocates make unconvincing lists of famous pot smokers and trumpet them around the Internet like this: "The top 50 most influential marijuana consumers." And when it comes to the negative stereotype, we're right to discredit it.
The trouble is, all these facts don't seem to help very much, because resistance to openly supporting the cannabis industry doesn't stem from a lack of facts. It stems from social pressure, and social pressure can be extremely powerful. And so to relieve that pressure, we sometimes resort to ad populum: "According to Gallup, over 58% of Americans now support marijuana legalization." True enough, and maybe knowing that does relieve a bit of social pressure. But when your spouse, parent, friend, or boss is part of the other 42%, the fact that you're in the majority may offer little consolation.
The truth is that the only thing that really kills stigmas is courage; the enduring, quiet, determined courage to stand up for what is right in this world, social pressure be damned. Nothing I write and nothing I say can give you that courage if you don't already have it deep inside you. But to muster it, ask yourself: should the federal government be empowered to kick open doors, arrest people, shoot people, jail people, confiscate people's property, ruin families, and do whatever else is required to prevent individuals from voluntarily ingesting a non-lethal plant? Should people who fight this immorality be mocked, or supported?
Are you worried, as I am, about being a positive role model for your children? The solution isn't to shy away from uncomfortable conversations or conflict, thereby teaching them that a little unpleasantness is enough to completely undermine Mom or Dad's own moral compass. The solution is to show them that heroes stand up against ignorance and intrusive government oppression, regardless of how many awkward conversations result, and regardless of what sort of stereotypes mire the oppressed. I'm not saying it will be easy, but you already have all the ammunition you need, and I do think that history will prove you right. Until then, don't worry if people around you laugh or mock. Take advantage of their cowardly trepidation and seize opportunities that they're afraid to look at seriously. Get in on the ground floor of an industry poised to erupt, and when (as they say) the smoke clears, it is you who will have the last laugh.