Issue #22  April 2023

[This is a modified excerpt from “Buzz Kill: The Corporatization of Cannabis”. ]

I am, by calling, a dealer in words; and words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.”

– Rudyard Kipling

Whether by calling or not, we are all dealers in words when we talk about drugs. When I talk about drugs, drug products, drug use, drug problems or drug policy I use the word drug with its most inclusive application—to alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, caffeine, pharmaceutical products, and a lot of other substances of illegal or uncertain status. I call all of them drugs because that is what they are. (But please do not ask me if sugar is a drug. I once posed the question to a pharmacologist, an expert on such matters. She winced and quickly changed the subject.)

In ironic contrast to my chosen lexicon, companies that produce and sell recreational drug products will rarely, if ever, explicitly acknowledge publicly that they are in a drug business. In their lexicon, they do not sell drugs, they sell pleasure and belonging.

Beer, wine and spirits producers and retailers never use the words drug, ethanol or alcohol in their advertising and marketing. Promotional content is not concerned so much with the product, as it is with the social benefits, real and imagined, of enjoying the product. Canadian advertising icon Terry O’Reilly has cleverly opined that Molson is not so overtly in the beer business, as it is in the party business.

Words can be fashioned into less appetizing impressions as well. The next time you see an aesthetically seductive ad for an alcohol beverage, consider that alcohol is a product of a fermentation process involving yeast and bacteria. Alcohol is the urine of micro-organisms. This adds a more literal meaning to “getting pissed.”

In the days when tobacco companies more publicly advertised cigarettes, they were not inclined to mention nicotine to promote their product. Neither does the new nicotine monger on the market—the e-cigarette (vaping) industry. This industry has been called out by Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada as “…the highly-transmissible vaping variant of the older tobacco pandemic.” You will never see the word nicotine or addiction in public promotions for e-cigarettes either. A Reuters investigation quoted a former executive from e-cigarette company, Juul, who disclosed that the company’s sales staff would emphasize “the device’s unique addictive power” only when they were talking to retailers (Kirkham 2019).

In his book, Smokescreen, Philip Hilts (1996, 217) tells how language used within the tobacco industry obscured the reality of what they did:

Things that cause disease become things that are “biologically active”. Nicotine becomes “satisfaction”. The rank bitterness that indicates how much nicotine a smoker is getting becomes “its impact”. Addiction is just a “habit”. Toxic chemicals are merely “controversial compounds”. Children are “the youth market”.

Neither do cannabis companies ever talk about being a drug company. Interestingly, some cannabis companies will extol elevated levels of delta 9 tetra-hydra cannabinol (THC) in their products. THC is the component most responsible for cannabis’ psychoactive effects. In doing so, these companies conflate potency with quality and desirability, or worse yet, with bad-ass machismo, or what a tobacco marketer, in the case of women, once called “female virility.” The legal cannabis industry is still immature, and largely testosterone mediated. I expect that it will eventually learn and mature out of its current pubescence.

Even pharmaceutical companies will almost never use the word drug in their public communications. They prefer the unstigmatized “medicine” or “product.” The fine art of euphemism has also found its way into the language used by Health Canada in its inspections of licensed cannabis producers. If a licensed producer fails to follow legislative and regulatory requirements, the inspectors do not report an infraction or failure, they report an “observation.” When Health Canada requires a producer to issue a recall of a contaminated or improperly labelled product, it is called a “voluntary recall” by the manufacturer.

The murky vernacular often found in industry and government bureaucracy has also infiltrated our daily language customs. Very few people would say they were going to take a drug when they intended to use alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, or caffeine, except satirically. When I worked in The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH) Community Programs Office in Hamilton, Ontario, I would sometimes tell my colleagues that I was going downtown to buy drugs and ask if anyone else wanted to score. They knew I was going on a coffee run. I must confess that I always thought there was something disturbingly Huxleyan about lining up for a drug to help us get through the day. Calling this drug product, a latte, cappuccino, double-double, Frappuccino, or matcha green tea lassi seems so much less dystopian.

Nonetheless, the word drug aptly applies to caffeine, possibly the most popular recreational drug in the world, and one that many of us have already used today. I do not give much attention to caffeine in Buzz Kill as it is not commonly associated with significant harm. That said, I would not dispute a challenge concerning the ten days of headaches and lethargy that come from caffeine withdrawal when one abruptly curtails long-term daily intake of cappuccinos and flat whites. I re-learned this recently. It was not an enjoyable experience. I am reminded of 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson who wryly confessed to being “…a hardened and shameless tea drinker.”

In the next issue I will further explore the power of words as intoxicating substances in the world of illegal drug use.

Mike DeVillaer

Hamilton Ontario Canada

April 24 2023