Letter from the Publisher: Cannabis at the Crossroads
Categories: Health & Healing
It is extraordinary how quickly things can shift in our culture, exemplified by the recent activity around cannabis. According to Gallup, individuals in favor of the legalization of cannabis moved from 36 percent in 2005 to 58 percent in the recent polls. We’ve seen this shift at the voting booth as twenty-three states and the District of Columbia currently have some law legalizing the use of cannabis. But this loosening of restrictions raises new questions as cannabis moves toward full legalization.
Californians are likely to see a legalization measure on the 2016 ballot and, if passed, it will be a watershed moment for the reform movement. But what are we likely to experience as cannabis moves more fully into the mainstream? Cannabis has been used for centuries by various cultures, particularly in India and Nepal, for healing, spiritual, and shamanic purposes and these practices are still active today. To understand possible paths of cannabis as it moves into mainstream Western culture, it is interesting to consider the history of another sacred plant teacher that has already been fully integrated: tobacco.
Tobacco has long been a sacred plant for the indigenous people of both North and South America and is considered one of the four sacred medicines, along with sage, sweetgrass, and cedar, by First Nations peoples. But with the arrival of Spanish and English colonists, tobacco was pulled from its sacred context, restricted, and controlled, enriching those in power. This use of the plant immediately removed it from its traditional uses, which were generally limited to small amounts in ceremony integrated into community life, pulling it into an ever-widening global trade. This colonization of tobacco has resulted in the current dangerous, chemically modified, and commodified form that bears no resemblance to its previous life as a means of communication with the divine. Is cannabis on the path to a similar outcome?
The substantial difference between tobacco and cannabis has been the criminalization of the latter nearly eighty years ago. Ironically, due to its status as a Schedule I narcotic, cannabis developed an underground following, which kept it at the margins of mainstream corporate culture. And while it has been and continues to be sold on the black market, there is a dedicated underground that has worked for decades to promote the proven benefits of cannabis use while acknowledging its sacred roots. It is this community that stands ready to lead the way for utilizing cannabis in this new era.
Prominent among this community of activists is Steve DeAngelo, the founder and executive director of Harborside Health Center and a forty-year veteran of the movement. In his new book, The Cannabis Manifesto: A New Paradigm for Wellness, Steve outlines the positive benefits available through cannabis for both individuals and communities and how criminalization has moved us in the wrong direction as a society. The current approach has halted promising research and restricted access to effective medicine while costing taxpayers billions of dollars and creating the conditions for the racial imbalances we see in the criminal justice system. But most noteworthy, Steve takes the position that cannabis should be chosen for wellness, not intoxication—a view that harkens back to the earliest uses of the plant. He explains, “My own first consumption revealed a deeper significance—that cannabis could enhance my spiritual awareness and personal introspection.” For Steve, cannabis has always been a medicine and should continue to be used respectfully and mindfully, with the good of the greater community in mind.
Steve is by no means alone in this wider perspective. Earlier this month, I toured the facilities of Care By Design, a substantial cannabis operation whose work includes growing, extraction, equipment and medicinal product sales, and nonprofit educational activities. What struck me as I chatted with the people there was the shared passion and dedication and their commitment to a greater mission. While they are seeing the financial benefits of medicinal cannabis, they are also highlighting the opportunity to remake business through collective, sustainable, and just models including collaborative partnerships and eco-friendly operations. It was inspiring to hear their goals and witness the progress they’ve made.
Cannabis stands at the crossroads. Will it follow tobacco down the path of colonization and commodification or will its long-time proponents help it navigate a different path? Based on my experience with longtime advocates and the vision of Steve’s manifesto, a positive integration of the medicine into our culture is not only possible, it has begun.
North Atlantic Books