Issue #23 May 2023

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

In the previous issue of this newsletter, I talked about how drug companies don’t usually call their products “drugs” or even refer to the type of drug they produce or sell. Alcohol and tobacco companies emphasize the social context of use – always depicted as a positive one, of course. Pharmaceutical companies prefer “medicine”. And very few users of legal recreational drugs – whether ethanol, nicotine, cannabis, or caffeine, will ever refer, in casual conversation, to our pastimes as drug use.

But isn’t it interesting how commonplace is the use of the word drug when we talk about the illegal ones? There are the legacy street drugs: heroin, opium, cocaine, crystal meth (methamphetamine), LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), peyote, psilocybin, MDMA (methylenedioxymethamphetamine), etc. When substances belonging to legal pharmaceutical categories of medicines such as stimulants, sedative-hypnotics, and opioids are diverted from the legal supply to the street, they become illegal. Only at that point, are they commonly called drugs. They are the same substances; only the context has changed. Illegal knockoffs of these substances are forged in clandestine drug labs. A presumption of purity and dosage from these labs is always a gamble that, too often, ends in drug overdoses and drug-related deaths. In addition to the legacy drugs, we also have designer drugs, with new ones emerging from underground labs as you read this.

The stigma attached to the word drugs has led to language changes in our health and social care systems as well, giving rise to the use of the word “substance” as in substance use and substance misuse.
The law enforcement system has not been so quick to likewise respond. The police drug squad carries out drug raids on illicit labs and the homes of those involved in the retail end of the illegal drug trade. The media covers these events with great fanfare as drug busts.

In contrast, no one is smashing down doors in the middle of the night when legal drug companies run afoul of the law. The broader context is that we have two types of drug crime in Canada. One type is committed by people who trade in drugs that are illegal. They are serviced by the drug squads, armed with battering rams and military ordnance. The other type of drug crime is committed by people who have licenses to sell legal drug products but, as I describe in detail in Buzz Kill, often do so illegally. This group receives the polite attention of government ministries or commissions, and only rarely the courts. Battering rams and war weaponry are replaced by legal documents, warning letters, and stay-out-of-jail-free cards. Unlike their unlicensed counterparts, corporate drug law violators almost never go to jail or prison. The inequity of this juxtaposition might be enshrined in social media with hashtags such as: #DealersInHoodiesVersusDealersInSuits, and #CrimeInTheStreetsVersusCrimeInTheSuites.

If there really is such a thing as turning in one’s grave, George Orwell must get a great deal of exercise.

Much has been made of the stigmatization of drug use, which is widespread and harmful. However, stigma represents only one end of a spectrum of attitudes about drugs. At the other end is the valorization of drug use—the disingenuous and perilous promise of an upgraded lifestyle from playing with one’s body chemistry. This omnipresent promise has been, in part, the architect of our pandemics of alcohol and tobacco harms. Both extremes of drug attitudes are harmful.

What are the implications for cannabis legalization? How will the language used to describe cannabis and cannabis users change, as this drug continues its historic transition from demonized street drug to glamourized consumer commodity? Will it become less stigmatized? Will commercial interests unrealistically glamourize cannabis? Will we call it a drug? Confronted with stigmatization and glamourization, will we find that elusive sweet spot of informed and non-judgmental, but cautious acceptance when we talk about cannabis?

Mike DeVillaer
Hamilton Ontario Canada
May 25 2023