Before I launch into this analogy, I would like to say that I understand how many will find it inappropriate, and that I came up with the notion while stoned out of my mind.
I’m starting to think about cannabis as having a similar journey and backstory to Olympic gold medalist and transgender reality star Caitlyn Jenner. Until recently, like Jenner, trailblazers on the weed front have organized in secret closets and basements, hoping one day to live safely, truthfully, and freely in the great wide open. And, like Jenner, marijuana—aka Mary Jane—has been an accomplished, harmless, and friendly sexpot all along . . . but has recently undergone a full makeover and is beginning to dress things up with PR campaigns, professional packaging, couture oils, and all-important accessories.
Let’s start with the name. Bruce took the name Caitlyn (notice her refusal to use the letter K—as in Kris, Khloe, Kourtney, Kendall, and Kimye) to reflect her change (and independence). Marijuana, on the other hand, has reverted back to cannabis, after being identified first as marihuana, then bad-mouthed with slurs such as loco weed, grass, pot, killer bud, the Devil’s weed, dope, schwagg, even shit (as in “THE shit”). Antidrug propaganda created “marihuana” in the 1930s—a sad attempt to scare the public with a “new” and terrifying substance (used by jazz musicians!), even though the plant had been sold in pharmacies for over a half-century in America. Marihuana sounded “foreign” (read: Hispanic), and Reefer Madness was used to incite fear, round up immigrants (especially during the Great Depression), and scare the masses to outlaw it. (By 1931, cannabis was illegal in 29 states, and in 1937 it was criminalized through the Marijuana Tax Act.)
The legal documents for the new Ms. Jenner’s identity will be challenging. It can take months for name- and gender-change applications to be approved (what I wouldn’t give to be in the DMV line that day), and these ID docs—often requiring background checks—affect everything from bank accounts to Social Security cards, to say nothing of her Twitter handle. Similarly, those in the cannabis community have had challenges of their own: States requiring medical-marijuana patients to sign a registry (including Washington) are forcing them to admit to a felony at the federal level, clearly in violation of HIPAA laws. For canna-businesses, both dispensaries and recreational stores have been unable to utilize banking and insurance services for fear of criminal investigations, while at the same time navigating massive tax payments to the IRS.
Sadly, anyone in the LGBT community is butting up against conservative moralists, gender assumptions, and entrenched cultural ideals on a daily basis. The process of cannabis’ conversion has been similarly dramatic and life-altering—going from the tyranny of the War on Drugs to only recently being accepted and fully legalized in four states. It’s as if the subject has lived two entirely separate lives.
As with one’s sexuality, your use of cannabis doesn’t affect anyone else. It’s a private matter (that is, until I Am Cait airs on E! in August), and one your employer, and the government, should have no say or stake in. While it’s been argued otherwise (as in Elinor Burkett’s New York Times article “What Makes a Woman”), Jenner’s transition doesn’t undermine feminism or women’s identities, it doesn’t challenge masculinity, it is not immoral, and it doesn’t hurt others. Correspondingly, ganja doesn’t hurt others—that is, unless you’re hot-boxing or too stoned to drive (or, in Jenner’s case, haven’t had experience driving in high heels and crash while avoiding paparazzi). Pot also doesn’t undermine the other legal drugs you may be drinking, smoking, or popping.
Fighting gender stereotypes and stoner stereotypes, of course, are not the same. Being a pothead is a choice, while Jenner’s identity is baked in, so to speak, a part of her biology (though surgery, plastic or otherwise, is not a requirement). But just as transitioning individuals must be taken seriously and their choices respected, those who partake of cannabis need their rights recognized. Sadly, many parents have their children taken from them for marijuana use (including medicinal), while others lose their jobs; veterans with PTSD cannot access it for relief; and over 650,000 citizens a year lose their freedom when arrested for marijuana-related offenses.
The opposition to Jenner has been fierce, phobic, and ridiculous. (A campaign is underway to take away Jenner’s 1976 Olympic Gold medal in the men’s decathlon.) When a man becomes a woman, it’s a complex issue that may take some explanation, patience, and, above all, tolerance and compassion. The legalization movement is also locked in debate, full of nuances, ignorant tirades, continuing arrests, and Washington’s own version of medal take-aways: Despite legalization’s convincing statewide victory, hundreds of city councils are banning marijuana in their jurisdictions.
Times are changing. Just as Jenner went from Wheaties cover boy to Vanity Fair cover girl, cannabis has gone from “The Marihuana Menace: Assassin of Youth” to this month’s scientific centerfold in National Geographic. In the end, both Caitlyn and cannabis are elevating the dialogue—about personal truths, the right to choose your own path and be legally recognized and protected, and what it means to be free.
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