How are Cannabis Cultural and Harm Reduction Practices Created?

Although still illegal in many jurisdictions, cannabis cultural practices have developed through friends and other networks.

Prohibitionism and the war on drugs are cultural phenomena. They are associated with and bring together notions of ethics, ideologies, modes of existing in the world and relating to it. The issues around drug use, harm reduction, prohibitionism, decriminalisation, and legalisation are all embedded in cultural practices and discourses. And that is why a statement in Ella Glover’s piece on “cannabis dependency” struck us as odd. In order to make a case for the need to study it, Glover spoke to Ivan Ezquerra Romano, a doctoral researcher in neuroscience at the UCL, who is also the founder of Drugs and Me. Ezquerra Romano told Glover that one of the reasons why cannabis dependency is not much talked about is that: 

‘’we don’t have any ‘cultural practices’ around cannabis use. ‘Cultural practices, such as drinking wine after dinner are usually learned from parents and grandparents, etc.,’ he says. ‘Usually, when you do anything from those practices, you have the automatic social and cultural punishments that go along with them [such as being hungover] that help you adjust your behaviour.’ The problem with cannabis use, then, is that we don’t have these cultural practices that we can follow, or examples of what constitutes healthy vs unhealthy cannabis use, which leads to people using cannabis in a consistently unhealthy way – with little information on how to use it in a healthier manner.”  

We beg to differ. While it is true that many cultural practices are learned from parents and teachers, many others, especially those around illegal substances, are learned from older siblings and through peer groups of friends. Learning about cannabis use mostly falls in the latter group for most in the West, though it may be learned through families in other parts of the world. Illegal cannabis use is embedded in and enacts many cultural practices, and a quick search on Google Scholar shows the breadth of evidence on the topic. 

Forty years ago, Norman Zinberg conducted one of the first studies of the many “rituals, sanctions and controls” employed by “controlled cannabis users”, which he published in his classic book Drug, Set and Setting. Zinberg concluded that cultural practices do far more to promote safer drug use and reduce harmful consequences than drug prohibition laws have or ever could. Indeed, there is mounting evidence to show that prohibition laws do far more harm to users than the drug they ban - including health problems (e.g. from adulterants and mould in cannabis products), through the criminalisation of the possession or cultivation of cannabis, and the stigmatisation of users, discouraging them from seeking help when needed.

Even if we don’t learn how, when, and why to smoke spliffs from our parents or grandmas, we do learn it from other people—be they our neighbours, friends, co-workers, dealers or anonymous people on the internet as is increasingly common nowadays. If you were a jazz player in Chicago back in the 1950s and 1960s you could learn how to smoke it from your peers, and even write a book on it as sociologist Howard Becker did. In Becker’s seminal Outsiders, he describes, among many other things, how he learnt that the technique for smoking a tobacco cigarette is different from that used for smoking a spliff—or a joint, which is what Americans like Becker call what in the UK and elsewhere is referred to as a spliff. Different names and naming are, again, cultural practices.

It’s difficult to escape culture, even if one wants to. Culture shapes the way we think of things, the way we talk about things, and the way we relate to them. The way we relate to drugs is learnt through social—and cultural—practices. Our individual experiences cannot totally escape our surrounding environment. Even if you don’t use drugs in the company of other people, and you learned how to use them—and how to hide your use—from others, you would have to engage in cultural practices to purchase or create your substances. If you had to learn the best practices for buying cannabis on the darknet, or used Portuguese to read about safe MDMA dosages on a forum before using it in a party, or you heard from someone that it’s better not to use a damp and moulded 1 dollar bill to snort a line - you are engaging in cultural practices. 

In real life, people who smoke cannabis share their tips and experiences, including: how to avoid being caught by your mum, husband, or a police officer; how to get a good deal; what the best and worst settings are for getting stoned (another cultural term); how to cope with any negative effects like paranoia or forgetfulness;  how to distinguish ‘’good weed’’ from ‘’bad weed’’—where the distinction varies based on taste, location, or subgroup. 

Living in the world and thinking about it also equips people with categories and skills to identify what is good and desirable, what is bad, and what we should avoid, among other things. This is the basis of Claude Levi-Strauss's argument on the science of concrete things

Let’s think about the process of learning how to roll a spliff using a few examples that we, the authors, know. In Brazil, it’s common to learn how to roll a spliff from older friends and acquaintances who smoke cannabis. Until the late 1990s, it was very common to use brown paper bags to roll a spliff.  Poorer people and also those serving time in jail were very familiar with newspaper spliffs. Smoking, Pure Hemp, OCB, and Rizlas were not widely available, and regional variations of Colomy paper were the rule before thinner paper was widely available. 

Now take a jump across the pond to the UK. Do you know people who roll spliffs in papers like Brazilians do? Do you know many people who smoke cannabis without mixing it with tobacco—the way Brazilians and Americans do? Do you know many people who roll a spliff without putting a roach (cardboard tip) on it? Many of you do, and they are likely to include Brazilians, Jamaicans—or hail from somewhere where the use of tips in spliffs is not widespread like in these two countries. Doesn’t it look like there are a whole lot of cultural practices around cannabis?   

We also learn about harm reduction and healthy practices in cannabis use from people in the context of prohibition. When Felipe got to Jamaica to conduct fieldwork a few years ago, many Rastafarian interlocutors advised him against smoking cannabis mixed with grabba, the whole tobacco leaves that are very popular in the Caribbean island. He was advised that it wasn’t any healthier than industrial tobacco and that he should refrain from smoking it. He never had a problem with that, since smoking cannabis mixed with tobacco is not a widespread cultural practice in Brazil, where he grew up and learned how to smoke. His Rastafarian friends found it funny, though, that he used the thin Pure Hemp papers instead of the thick red Rizlas that are popular in Jamaica. That’s another cultural practice, isn’t it?

Similarly, when Russell was funding his way through university in the 1980s by selling cannabis to other students, like many dealers (and as a budding harm reductionist) he would often advise his customers about how to minimise risks and maximise benefits. We know it might sound weird to some, but many people who sell drugs also practice harm reduction. Russell would notably guide his clients on how to avoid lung damage by not mixing cannabis with tobacco; reducing the risk of getting arrested by keeping cannabis in their underwear until they got home; on avoiding using it in public places if this made them feel paranoid; on reducing the risk of a habit by having weeks (or days) without smoking. He taught them that one needs to bake cannabis before eating it (or it won’t have much effect). And, of course, he taught them the etiquette on the art of sharing a spliff. Golden rule: ‘’don’t bogart that joint,’’ or, pass the spliff around fairly or face ostracism! 

Indeed, as both Becker and Zinberg concluded, cannabis use is utterly infused with cultural rules and practices, which spread from subculture to mainstream culture as cannabis use becomes normalised. Every stage of its consumption involves cultural controls and rituals: access (dealing and growing practices), preparation (e.g. rolling a spliff), administration (e.g. sharing a spliff), experiencing the effects (e.g. giggling, rambling) and communicating the effects—which involves a host of terms invented by users, many of which have now seeped into our wider culture (e.g. the munchies, whities, crossfaded, the thousand-yard stare). 

Why does it matter to talk about cannabis cultural practices? Well, in a historical context where drug use is widely perceived as a synonym for addiction, dependency, and moral failure, it’s important to understand and explain how the use of substances is, in itself, a cultural practice articulated with many different meanings. There’s an abundance of literature on cannabis cultural practices across the world and through history, and as we gain momentum in the fight for legalisation and universal access to cannabis, it’s imperative that we claim cannabis use as a cultural right. 

Felipe Neis Araujo is an anthropologist. His research interests include drugs and drug policy, state violence, social justice, and reparations. He currently works at the Department of Criminology, University of Manchester. 

Dr Russell Newcombe (a.k.a. Doctor Nuke), runs 3D Research from Liverpool, UK. Cartoons have been taken from Potology, Russell's book into cannabis practices