420 Ways Marijuana Smoking is a Subculture
The possession, consumption and cultivation of marijuana is a controversial subject, both politically and socially, in the United States, and has been for the past century. Advocates point to its natural properties and passive affects while critics believe that the use of marijuana is unethical and that it fosters other and potentially more serious illegal activity. Whichever side of the spectrum you fall on, it remains true that the drug is the most popular recreational drug in the world .1 Marijuana is smoked by about 5.4 million Americans daily. 2 Its popularity and wide usage cannot be denied. Despite the herb’s extensive role in ancient human culture, this natural mild hallucinogen now remains legal in only three countries worldwide (fig. 1).
Incredibly, marijuana has been illegal for less than 1% of the time that it has been in use. 3 The fact that marijuana is still considered to be largely detrimental to the modernity of society, and therefore illegal in virtually every country, has given marijuana smokers around the world a special identity and a sense of belonging – a belonging to a community that embraces a counterculture movement. From its subtle beginnings within the Beat movement of the 1960’s 4 , to the eventual election of President Obama who admits to have smoked marijuana as a child, the gradual acceptance that marijuana is around us has successfully shifted American zeitgeist. The act of smoking marijuana has cultivated a highly diverse subculture that includes common beliefs, shared language, and universal customs.
There is no better place to look for answers on this subject than at a University that lies within one of the United State’s largest metropolitan areas. There are over 30,000 students at Boston University, all of whom come from a total of 100 different countries and every state in the U.S. Once you become immersed in the many different subcultures that BU has to offer, it is not hard to find those students who smoke marijuana daily. It is not much harder to find someone who deals the drug, as I was able to identify four dealers in my building alone – two of them live on the same floor that I do. As my ensuing paragraphs will show, I developed a questionnaire on Facebook aimed at students that lived on campus and was able to draw answers immediately. I was not at all surprised with my results, which reinforced my theory that marijuana smoking clearly displays properties of a subculture.
Before I begin regurgitating my data and observations, I would like to start with a brief history of the topic in the United States and how this eventually created the stereotypes associated with smoking marijuana. Beginning in 1920, The Volstead Act raised the price of alcohol in the United States and therefore made marijuana an attractive alternative .5 It was in the mid 1920’s when smoking began to catch on in the U.S. Its recreational use was prominent among jazz musicians – as “reefer” (a slang word for marijuana) songs became widely popular among such artists. Marijuana clubs called tea pads began to spring up in every major city across America. There were 500 tea pads in New York City alone. 6 Around the late 1930’s, public opinion shifted and marijuana became stereotyped as a violent drug, partly due to its rise among lower class citizens in poor neighborhoods across the country. In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, 7 which federally criminalized the drug. Ever since the Tax Act passed, many laws have been ratified that set mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana-related offenses. These severe laws began to subject many marijuana smokers to harsh criminal sentences. The public saw our government launch a war on drugs. Smokers were being arrested left and right for possession of any amount of the drug. With the media’s help, the public immediately categorized these people as “criminals” who supported a violent drug. There was a social stigma against anyone who smoked marijuana in the 40’s and 50’s due to accusations by the government that it promoted other drug use. 8 It was not until the 1960’s that marijuana became popular among the young crowd; particularly college students, hippies and musicians. Characterized by free spirit and individuality, this emerging subculture sought to challenge authority and the government. In historical retrospect, the major stereotypes associated with smoking marijuana today stem from the political and social problems that arose in the mid 20 th century. In the survey I handed out, the most common stereotypes that people had in mind when thinking about marijuana smoking were “hippies”, “rappers”, and “surfers”. All three of these stereotypes involve young people. All three have roots in the counterculture movement that started taking place in the 20’s with jazz music. Rappers, a progressive form of jazz music at the time, hippies, who evolved from the Beat Generation, an anti-establishment movement with beginnings in the jazz community, and surfers, who were in essence a type of hippy. Today’s perception of the typical marijuana smoker have been largely skewed with historical references like the ones I presented. These movements throughout the 20 th century provided a face – or faces – that continue to define marijuana smokers today. However true these stereotypes are today, we cannot look past the fact that the emergence of this subculture was due to harsh government regulation of the drug, which ultimately lead the majority of the public to hold a distasteful view of marijuana.
The first question I asked myself when I thought of this topic was why people smoked marijuana in the first place. I am not convinced that people today smoke for the same reasons as the Beatniks of the 60’s did. I also do not believe that the hippy culture of the 70’s has had a large influence on smoking today. The mentality back then was counterculture – these groups fought conformity mainly through dressing differently and listening to a certain genre of music, but also by smoking marijuana and promoting peace, unity and the free-spirit. 9 This intellectual foundation has by no means carried over to the ideology of today’s smokers. Sure, there are neo-hippies and jazz musicians who smoke weed, but the bulk of marijuana users today smoke for personal reasons. The first question on the questionnaire that I developed was “why do you smoke?”. It was a simple question that aimed to prove that there are many different personality types associated with smoking marijuana. I received a multitude of unique responses, including people that thought it was “relaxing”, “fun”, and “chill”. Others claimed that it was their “passion” and that it was “essential” to their lifestyle. A majority of respondents believed that it helped them “alleviate pain”, whether it be physical or mental (stress). One person even stated that the reason they smoked was the “vice” involved. My personal favorite was “why not”. It is clear that many different personalities exist within this smoking subculture, which is what leads me to denounce the modern stereotypes associated with smoking. Probably the most intriguing of the responses was “social”. How can smoking be social? It seems farfetched, quite possibly naïve. It might seem strange that someone would believe that doing something illegal can incite any type of positive social interaction, but if you take a closer look at the actual activity, it is easy to understand why this respondent feels this way. Most people who do not smoke marijuana do not realize the social atmosphere that it can create. In any other situation, two people committing a crime together would be very nervous of each other, not to mention the fact that they could be spotted by police at any time. However, when smoking a joint or a blunt (I will go in to shared language later, but a blunt is a common smoking technique in which the marijuana is placed and rolled in cigar paper, making it larger than a joint), most people are very comfortable with their partners in lawlessness. A sense of unified accomplishment arises; you and your friends have avoided being caught by the police and the residence assistant on call, you all dupe the Boston University security guard into believing your sober, you roam the dining hall with your accomplices in hopes of finding something that will subside your insurmountable hunger. My research tells me that marijuana is an effective medium of social interaction. The shared experience of unlawful activity brings people together in ways that nothing else can. When you share this type of experience with someone, it creates a special bond – a bond that promotes long lasting friendship, trustworthiness and a sense of unity. People smoke weed for a variety of reasons, but you cannot deny that it has the ability to stimulate social interaction within the subculture. Smoking is a team sport.
A subculture is a group of individuals who share a distinctive set of common beliefs, as well as a shared language and customs. My next observation investigates the former. I wanted to see what some of the common beliefs of marijuana smokers were. My initial instinct, which turned out to be right, was that people in the subculture believed that marijuana is a mild psychoactive drug that is less harmful then alcohol. I cannot speak for the majority of weed smokers in the world or in the United States, but most of those at BU that I observed were in accordance with the legalization of marijuana and believed that it was less harmful than alcohol, which kills 100,000 people a year, as opposed to marijuana, which reportedly kills 0 people a year. 10 One student, who wished to be introduced with the moniker Johnny Marijuanaseed states that, “Marijuana is the least harmful drug known to man” and that “the effects of alcohol far outweigh the effects of being stoned” or high. He went on to talk about personal experiences, “When I’m drunk, I’m more heated and can get into fights easily. It makes me more confrontational. It makes me belligerent basically. When I smoke with my friends though, I become relaxed. Sometimes I can sit for hours with friends after we smoke, talking about politics, music, or anything else that comes to mind. I can’t recall ever doing that while drunk”. With this in mind, I asked other people who took the questionnaire if they applied the same reasoning to the respective situation. 100% of the respondents told me that they agreed with Mr. Marijuanaseed, and that they felt smoking and drinking had similar effects on the brain and that marijuana should be legal if alcohol is legal. This common belief, for smokers at BU at least, shows like-mindedness within the subculture and displays a unified ideology, driven by the idea that marijuana is a drug that arouses soothing qualities in one’s self.
“Yo, let’s cop a dub after class today. I’ll roll us an L and we can blaze down by the esplanade”. You may or may not know what cop, dub, L and blaze mean, but marijuana smokers sure do. Smokers have created their own language using slang words, just as any other major subculture probably has done. I can tell you that to “cop” something is to “buy” it (in other words, visit a dealer. The actual definition is “to take unlawfully” but it is not used in this context when referring to buying weed). A “dub” is an amount of weed equal to $20 (amount of marijuana varies by location). Rolling an “L” refers to a marijuana joint created with two papers, that before rolled, has an L shape to it. Two papers are used instead of the normal one paper because an “L” usually contains more marijuana than does a joint. Lastly, the most commonly used term in the sentence, “blaze”, is probably the easiest to decipher. It is just a fancy way of saying “smoke”. 11 There are 12 words alone (that I could find) that are synonymous to the word “marijuana”, including; “weed”, “pot”, “bud”, “reefer” and “herb”. The list goes on, as there are a myriad of other slang words that I could flood this paper with. The point is that these terms are very common among people who smoke marijuana, especially young people and students. Slang words make the speaker feel special and give them a sense of identity, uniqueness and belonging. 12 In the case of my study, they are identified as being a part of the marijuana subculture. After thinking about some of the more common slang terms such as “joint” and “blunt” (blunt derives from the cigar brand, Philly Blunts), 13 I found it funny that I had no synonyms for either of the words. These two slang terms have imbedded themselves in our mainstream culture. I asked my parents, neither of whom have ever smoked marijuana, if they could tell me what either of the terms meant. Both my mom and dad successfully defined each, without ever having tried a joint or a blunt. Next, I proceeded to ask my thirteen year old cousin who is in middle school to define both words. He did so, after telling me that he has never smoked in his life. Despite my family members detachment from the marijuana subculture, they were still able to correctly define two of the most common words used by weed smokers. This indicates public awareness of marijuana smokers, which is a necessity to any subculture. Without the acknowledgment from mainstream society, the marijuana subculture is not a subculture at all – just a group of people who happen to share the same beliefs and customs. As soon as the public recognizes that distinct differences exist between them and groups who develop shared behavior, then, and only then, will the minority group become a subculture. External recognition must be evident or the subculture loses its legitimacy. It is clear from the simple interviews that I conducted that the marijuana subculture has fulfilled this recognition. Not only is the public aware of the subcultures existence, but it has also been influenced by the subculture to such an extent that two of the most commonly used words used by pot smokers are widely known.
Shared customs are also a major part of the marijuana subculture. Marijuana pundits have a wide variety of options available at their discretion. Festivals, film festivals and marijuana marches are held annually in just about every Western nation. The Global Marijuana March takes place on the first Saturday in May. 600 different cities around the world host the event, which celebrates the marijuana subculture as a personal choice and a lifestyle. Magazines such as High Times and Skunk Magazine are devoted to marijuana and advocate the legalization of the drug. It is even possible to attend schools such as Oaksterdam University and The Cannabis College, which offer training in the cannabis industry and seek to educate their students on the many varied uses for marijuana and industrial hemp. 14 The Cannabis Cup, by far the world’s most popular marijuana festival, is held in Amsterdam every year. Judges from around the world smoke and rate their favorite marijuana strains. Cannabis connoisseurs flock to the Cup to sample new types of marijuana and to take advantage of Amsterdam’s lax drug policies. The most defining characteristic of this subculture, however, is the phrase 420. Outsiders sometimes ask themselves “four hundred and twenty what?” The 420 stamp can be found on merchandise across the world, from t-shirts and mugs to clocks and wallets. I will not address the intricate origins of the catchphrase, as there are many different stories, but it is believed that a group of high school students in the 70’s came up with the term because 4:20 in the afternoon was the perfect time to smoke. 15 Forty years later, the term has come to embody everything that the marijuana culture stands for. April 20 th is a date that celebrates cannabis culture, a date where smokers come together and , as one BU student puts it, “congregate, unite and share an intimate experience with one another”. I continued to probe this student about 420 and what it meant to him. He recounts a story in high school, where another student asked what time it was. The teacher responded with “4:20”, evoking laughter from his students. Another interviewee explained to me how she was able to wear the symbol to school. She had bought a shirt in Amsterdam with the “secret” symbol on it. This shared custom can be used to identify others who smoke marijuana and is also an effective way of uniting the subculture. Secrets, jokes and exclusive catchphrases create a social division between people within the subculture and outsiders. 16 The entire concept of 420 has become a foundation for pot smokers around the world, providing them with common ground and a universally recognized “holiday”, both important aspects that shape this subculture.
On 4/20, I was able to visit the three major dormitories here at Boston University and locate the popular smoking spot in each area. I live in Myles Standish Hall and found that the most common smoking spot was a ten minute walk to a dock on the esplanade. Whenever I hear someone say, “want to hit up the docks?” I understand that to mean they are inviting their friend to smoke weed. At West campus, where I am less familiar with, the smoking area is called the “clambake”. I was not able to determine the origin of this name, but it is the area between the walkway and the field. When I visited Warren, I found students smoking in a small open area near the laundry room. They called this the “crack den”, for obvious reasons. The students who smoke, and continue to smoke in these three areas have effectively continued the legacy of pot smoking at BU. In order to keep their secret safe and to maintain exclusivity, these smokers will continue to use these nicknames.
After extensive field work it seems reasonable to conclude that the marijuana subculture is indeed a subculture and that it has a large presence in Boston University. I can only make an educated guess that schools surrounding BU also have a large concentration of students who are part of this subculture as well.
Smoking weed is founded on principles of exclusivity and secrecy. If I told my friend (who does not smoke) to walk down the hall to where the dealer lives, knock on the door, and try to buy some marijuana, he would be met with a glaring (and very possibly, reddened) eye. Outsiders will have to show signs of camaraderie and trustworthiness before being accepted. As the public and the media become more and more accepting towards the most used recreational drug in the world, important values that the marijuana subculture holds will begin to disappear. The legalization of marijuana is imminent. When this happens, the complex social structure of the marijuana subculture might fall apart. Exclusivity will be lost. Slang terms will be published in The Oxford English Dictionary . April 20 th will become a date in which everyone can celebrate. The “clambake” at West campus will cease to exist, and only a patch of cement between the walkway and the field will remain, stripped of its character and name. If the marijuana subculture seeks legalization, they should understand that it will come with dire consequences to their group identity.
Digication ePortfolio :: CGS Team B: Tyler Walz by Gillian B Pierce, Christopher K Coffman, Edward C Rafferty, Heidi E Chase,Tyler Walz at Boston University. 420 Ways Marijuana Smoking is a Subculture The possession, consumption and cultivation of marijuana is a controversial subject, both politically and socially, in the United States, and has been for the past century. Advocates point to its natural properties and passive affects while critics believe that the use of