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Why Does American Culture Glamorize Getting Dangerously Wasted on Booze, While Vilifying Pot?

Alcohol is far more dangerous than pot.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Green Publishing

The following is an excerpt fromMarijuana is Safer, So Why Are We Driving People To Drinkby Steve Fox, Paul Armentano and Mason Tvert (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013): 

"Drink Life”: The Portrayal of Booze in Popular Culture

Although booze and pot are woven into the fabric of America’s popular culture, they are typically portrayed in entirely different ways. The use of alcohol by adults is marketed aggressively, celebrated openly, and is normally depicted by the media in a positive manner. That’s why most Americans give little, if any, thought to the moral and health implications surrounding the use of alcohol, and many could not imagine a society that was anything but accepting of the public’s “right” to drink.

Just for a moment we’d like you to think about your own social routine. Now think about how often alcohol plays a role in your activities. For instance, have you ever given wine to a family member as a gift during the holidays? Chances are, you have. Ever gotten together with friends to have some beers and watch a sporting event on television? Or asked your colleagues to “grab a drink” after work? Of course you have. Who hasn’t? And what about the last time you attended a wedding ceremony? Friends and families “celebrated” the marriage by toasting the bride and groom with a glass of champagne, didn’t they? Sure they did; after all, it’s the customary thing to do.

In virtually all of these examples, people don’t really think about how or why they’re consuming alcohol. Rather, the use of booze is simply viewed as a traditionally and socially acceptable means to complement a festive occasion—no more, no less.

Now think about how often you are exposed to images glamorizing the use of alcohol. Even if you don’t drink booze, all one has to do is turn on the television—a billion dollars in TV advertising goes a long way—to witness the various ways in which contemporary culture glorifies the consumption of alcohol. For example, a national marketing campaign for one top-selling American beer a few years ago commanded consumers to “drink life,” as if to imply that those who imbibe get more satisfaction and enjoyment out of their days and nights than those who abstain from booze. A prominent series of ads for another top-selling brand implied that nothing else but a cold beer can sufficiently counter the aftereffects of a long, hard workday. In fact the very term “happy hour” (or its brand-specific equivalent, “It’s Miller time!”) is synonymous with the use of alcohol at the end of the day. Conveniently, this ubiquitous phrase promotes the positive, euphoric effects of alcohol while making no mention of the drug’s downsides—such as the hangover that might follow the next day.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, one of television’s most popular sitcoms was the lighthearted barroom drama Cheers, where a cast of lovable characters routinely bantered over beers at a local watering hole “where everybody knows your name.” Alcohol-fueled arguments, fistfights, and regrettable drunken hookups—frequent occurrences at most bars on any given Friday or Saturday night—were rarely incorporated into the show’s plot during its eleven-year run. And, aside from some friendly ribbing, there were few complaints that the characters’ consumption of alcohol made them hopelessly unproductive—although they routinely spent a significant part of their day sitting at a bar.

How many of you reading this routinely watch professional sports on television? How often have you witnessed pro athletes celebrate important wins by publicly dousing one another—and usually, in recent years, at least one attractive female broadcaster—with beer and champagne? Curiously, were a group of nonathletes to engage in similar behavior at, let’s say, a private fraternity party, there’s no doubt that their actions would be castigated (and rightly so) as alcohol abuse and sexual harassment. Yet this same behavior is routinely aired on primetime network television following major sporting events without any thought given to the “message” these activities might be sending to younger viewers.

Sports stars also frequently serve as pitchmen for alcohol products. After all, what child of the 1970s can forget watching their football and baseball heroes comically debating whether Miller Lite beer “tastes great” or was “less filling”? (The memorable ad campaign, which Miller launched in 1976, was selected as one of the top ten best ad campaigns of the twentieth century by Advertising Age magazine.)

The alcohol industry is a prominent sponsor of professional sporting events—Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies play in Coors Field, for instance—as well as a prominent advertiser during televised games. Booze is also a staple of “tailgating”—a longstanding and much revered tradition where sports fans camp out in the stadium parking lot prior to a game and drink copious amounts of alcohol. Notably, this tradition is exceedingly popular among college-age sports fans, many of whom are under the legal age for alcohol consumption.

This Bud’s For You: The Portrayal of Pot in Popular Culture

While cultural references to cannabis may not be as common as those pertaining to booze, they are becoming more prevalent and prominent—even if the plant’s illicit status discourages many of its consumers from identifying themselves publicly. For instance, references and accolades about the use of pot are widespread in popular music. Numerous top-selling hip-hop artists like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Cypress Hill, and Redman have brazenly celebrated weed in their lyrics. Similarly, rapper Method Man titled his 2006 album “4:21 . . .
The Day After” in an effort to appeal to marijuana-friendly audiences. (April 20 is a date that is widely recognized in cannabis culture as a day to celebrate the use of marijuana.)

Country music heavyweight Willie Nelson’s fondness for marijuana is similarly well known. In 2005, the artist adorned the cover of his CD Countryman with a marijuana leaf. Nelson also serves as a spokesperson for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Reggae legends Bob Marley (“Ganja Gun”) and Peter Tosh (“Legalize It”) were similarly outspoken about their pot use. Today, even heavy metal fans have a “pot-friendly” musical subgenre known as “stoner rock,”—so-named because of the bands’, as well as their fans’, affinity for weed.

Affectionate references to cannabis are equally popular in film and on television. Late-night hosts like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Jay Leno liberally sprinkle their monologues with jokes about weed. While many of their punch lines seize upon various marijuana stereotypes, the hosts are just as likely to elicit laughs from the audience by poking fun of politicians’ all-too-often antiquated attitudes toward the plant. 

Hollywood is also cashing in on Americans’ fondness for marijuana—a trend described in 2008 by the Christian Science Monitor as cinema’s new “stoned age.”Successful films and cable television shows like Weeds, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Half-Baked, Pineapple Express, Entourage, Dazed and Confused, and 50/50 not only utilize marijuana-themed plots and characters, but also incorporate cannabis into their marketing. For example, distributors for Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay and Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical both chose to debut their films around April 20. Writing in 2008 about Hollywood’s growing acceptance of pot, Canadian reporters Ben Carrozza and Leah Collins concluded, “With pot-friendly flicks often scoring huge at the box office—and earning bags of pop culture credibility—stoners are almost mainstream.”

Many prominent actors and directors are outspoken about their past or current use of cannabis. Award-winning filmmakers Robert Altman (MASH, Nashville) and Oliver Stone (JFK, Born on the Fourth of July) both have admitted to being lifelong cannabis consumers. Shortly before his death in 2006 at age eighty-one, Altman told a British newspaper, “At the end of the day you want to have a laugh and sit down and smoke a joint, which I do every day of my life.” Meanwhile in front of the camera, “A-list” celebrities like Jennifer Aniston, Sarah Silverman, Seth Rogan, Matthew McConaughey, and Woody Harrelson are some of the Screen Actors Guild’s most successful pot smokers. Harrelson’s support for the rights of cannabis consumers is so strong that he once withheld several thousand dollars in federal taxes to protest the government’s prohibition of marijuana. He is also an active member of the advisory board for NORML.

Certainly all of you reading this are aware that many prominent American politicians have dabbled with herb. And while twenty-five years ago the political fallout of such an admission was quick and severe—in the mid-1980s, Supreme Court nominee Douglas Ginsberg was withdrawn from consideration for having admitted using pot in college—well, the times they are a changin’. In the 1990s, two-term Democratic president Bill Clinton famously acknowledged trying pot (although he alleged that he “didn’t inhale”), while his arch nemesis, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, dismissed his own past marijuana use as “a sign we were alive.” By the 2004 presidential election, the use of marijuana by presidential candidates had become so passé that candidate Joseph Lieberman publicly apologized during a nationally televised debate for not having tried the drug. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama also spoke openly about his own pot use, admitting, “I inhaled frequently; that was the point.” The live audience—many of whom had also undoubtedly “inhaled frequently” from time to time—applauded Obama’s candid remark. The statement galvanized Obama’s support among young people, many of whom either had used or continue to use pot, and all but secured votes from America’s budding cannabis community.

Of course given the herb’s criminal status and the numerous penalties associated with its use, the fact that there exists any pot culture—much less one that is as prominent as cannabis culture—is a testament to how many people consume marijuana and view the plant favorably. Opining in the July 7, 2008 edition of the Central Florida Future newspaper, a student columnist aptly wrote, “Marijuana is one of the only illegal substances so influential in American culture that its users have developed a sub-culture of their own.” The author continued: “Weed culture is a nationwide phenomenon complete with films, music, books, stores and silly T-shirts; all dedicated to America’s favorite criminal pastime. It’s a culture with its own heroes, like Bob Marley, Willie Nelson, Cheech and Chong. A pot leaf is more than just a picture of a drug; it is a symbol that connects people to a lifestyle.”

The Marijuana Constituency

At the turn of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of concerned citizens joined together to lobby for the prohibition of alcohol. They succeeded. In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, prohibiting the public sale and consumption of booze. Thirteen years later, tens of thousands of concerned citizens joined together again to lobby for the repeal of alcohol prohibition. They also succeeded. Today, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of concerned citizens are once again lobbying their government for a repeal of prohibition—pot prohibition.

Unlike other illegal substances, marijuana has its own self-identified, vocal, grassroots constituency. Today, a variety of social advocacy groups such as NORML, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), and SAFER work full-time on their behalf. In fact, NORML proudly bills itself as the “marijuana smokers lobby.” Combined, these and other like-minded organizations have tens of thousands of members and annual budgets of several millions of dollars.

Of course these budgets, as impressive as they are, pale in comparison to the financial resources available to groups that lobby on behalf of the alcohol manufacturers. Organizations like the Beer Institute, the Wine Institute, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, and the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) employ large staffs and make substantial financial contributions to politicians of both parties. These groups also engage in grassroots organizing. For example, the NBWA has members in every congressional district across the country, and Anheuser-Busch employs a company lobbyist in every state capital.

Despite possessing significantly fewer financial resources, groups like NORML, MPP, and SAFER, as well as their supporters, also play an active role in local and state politics. In recent years all three groups have sponsored successful campaigns to liberalize marijuana penalties at the local and state level. These organizations and their constituents are also becoming more and more engaged in federal politics. Marijuana-law reformers in December 2008 made their voices heard on the Web site Change.gov, the official site of the Obama administration transition team, during an online poll to determine the nation’s top public policy priorities. Of the 7,300 different questions voted on by the public, more than a dozen of the top 50 pertained to fixing America’s pot laws, and the number 1 question was: “Will [the U.S. government] consider legalizing marijuana so that [it] can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?” In the years since, marijuana-specific questions have similarly dominated every White House–sponsored public-opinion survey.

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So there you have it. On the surface, marijuana and alcohol are simply two popular substances—nothing more, nothing less. But obviously there is something more. One substance is legal and the other is not. 

Published with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing

Steve Fox is director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and serves as a senior policy advisor for Freedom Leaf, Inc. He is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2013).