The dogmata of a plant

20 06 2008

Anyone who enjoys even a casual relationship with our favourite plant must be aware of the vast gulf between the official portrayal of cannabis and their own real-world understanding of it.

With only a little personal experience of the recreational uses of cannabis or a brief outline of its medicinal and industrial applications, the average person can see that the images of cannabis given by the mass media display a stark and worrying divergence from reality.

It doesn’t require extensive knowledge of the long history and numerous applications of cannabis to realise that the official portrayal of this plant as a force for evil (a story that’s varied only slightly since the beginning of the 20th Century) is not only incorrect, but is the polar opposite of the simple, observable facts.
Cannabis is an immensely valuable resource with countless positive benefits – a truth that remains unchanged since the dawn of civilisation.

Many of us who are dedicated to spreading that truth have been forced to accept another, less palatable reality: that the main forces behind cannabis prohibition are politics and economics. Thus, the combined weight of science, medicine, evidence and logic may still be trumped by the ‘invisible hand’ of market forces.

As activists, we may have to accept that making changes on the macro-level will take time, plus that most important of political tools – economic muscle.

Even at the individual level, as we continue to spread knowledge and inform our fellow citizens, there are barriers to communication and subtle, powerful influences working against us.

The relentless marketing campaign aimed at demonising cannabis has been in effect for almost a century. Its effectiveness has ebbed and flowed over the years but it has succeeded in one important aspect. In every country, generation after generation of people have been fed variations on the same emotive lies about cannabis – dangers to sanity, harm to children, damage to the very fabric of society. With such diligent repetition, even the most ludicrous claims can gain the status of dogma.

It’s absurd that an artificial sense of morality has been attached to a plant (of all things!). When a plant can be irrationally, yet effectively labelled as a sin, popular images of cannabis begin to resemble articles of faith – sustained by unquestioning acceptance, not by reasoned argument.

To use marketing jargon (forgive me) the ‘brand positioning’ of cannabis has been effectively shifted to the sinister side of the collective consciousness.

One unfortunate result of this positioning is the pervasive and destructive stereotype of the ‘stupid stoner’.

When group stereotypes are reinforced by the mass media – whether the stereotypes are of racial, religious, political or social groups – the purpose is never the advancement of understanding. Stereotypes are, at best, an easy joke. At their worst, they are perpetuated in order to misinform the majority and to marginalise, even de-humanise the minority that is being caricatured.

Cannabis is portrayed by the mass media as a drug that numbs, stupefies and impairs judgement (rather like alcohol, when you think about it…). Unsurprisingly, it follows that people who enjoy cannabis may be labelled as numb, stupid or impaired.
Considered neutrally, the stereotype of the idiot stoner seems more likely to be a product of media indoctrination than a result of sudden exposure to powerful, soporific or ‘stoney’ commercial plants.

A good example of this is that genuine, living examples of the stoner stereotype are much more common among smokers from the USA.

It is hard to believe that this is because they all smoke especially incapacitating cannabis, and it seems unfair to assert that American smokers are somehow less intelligent than those from other countries.

However, it is not unreasonable to argue that they have been carefully and deliberately miseducated about the properties of cannabis. In this way, even ganja enthusiasts can be conditioned to expect certain effects from cannabis, which then makes them more likely to experience and to act out those effects.

It’s no secret that the USA is positioned at Ground Zero of the media explosion that started in the 20th Century. The recent political history of the US clearly demonstrates that the citizens of that country are especially vulnerable to manipulation by an unscrupulous mass media that seamlessly blends and promotes government and corporate interests.

For generations, the central thesis of official US propaganda has been the claim that cannabis damages the brain. While the story of how such damage might manifest itself has varied over the years, it has retained its overall theme. At different times cannabis has been said to induce violent madness, or jazz-loving madness, or pacifist madness or anti-capitalist madness. It has been variously claimed to cause brain damage, or ‘anti-motivational syndrome’, or impaired learning and cognition, or depression, depending upon the intended audience.

Right now, we can observe the re-launch of 1930s-style ‘Reefer Madness’ propaganda – the tired claim that cannabis can actually cause schizophrenia or any number of other mental illnesses. The lie has been cosmetically enhanced for the 21st Century, with questionable new ‘evidence’ in the form of massaged statistics and projections of genetic predisposition.
The falsehood is as blatant as in the original film melodrama, but it has been given a compelling pseudo-scientific disguise in order to be sold to a modern public. After all, we are supposed to live in rational times…

On the subject of films, entertainment media is equally effective in sculpting public assumptions as news media, maybe more so.

At first glance, images of cannabis smokers in films and television seem more reasonable than in the news, less irrational and puritanical in their outlook.
However, in combination with the Official Story – if we see both portrayals as sides of the same coin – the overall effect is insidious. Considered together, the two approaches seem like a good-cop/bad-cop ruse.

The government and news-media grind out obvious propaganda that an average person possessed of a healthy degree of skepticism should be able to see through.

At the same time, mainstream entertainment media allows a very limited version of truth to be mixed in with the regular falsehoods. Films and TV may allow an image of cannabis that’s closer to our real-life experience – an enjoyable experience, a welcome inspiration, a powerful medicine – but underlying these limited concessions is the same basic message given by the government. We could call the movie version ‘propaganda-lite’.

In entertainment media, smokers are overwhelmingly depicted as losers – slow, stupid, semi-comatose, lazy and (you guessed it) slightly crazy. They may be lovable and may be the central characters of a film, but their use of cannabis is nearly always portrayed as a vice.

By the end of most movies, they have the choice of giving up weed – so as to ‘grow up’ and join the productive world – or remaining useless (but loveable!) stoners.

The third option is not given, though it’s the one practised by most adults: to consume cannabis and have a normal, productive life.

Nearly all cannabis-lovers hold their own experience-based views, and have a healthy resistance to the daily doses of propaganda. But it’s worth noticing how indoctrination can slip in under the radar.

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