Just over twenty years ago, the stoner cult hit Half Baked came out. The whole premise of the film is that Dave Chappelle struggles with an addiction to marijuana, though no one will name it as such. It’s messing up his relationships, leaching out his motivation, and draining his bank account. But when he seeks help and attends an NA meeting, he’s laughed off the stage. 

The subtext is clear: Weed isn’t a real drug. It’s a punchline and not something we need to be worried about. 

In the movie, we’re told that worrying about weed isn’t a good look. It’s the same stance that fueled the “reefer madness” of the 1950s. For most of the 20th century, the critics of pot-smoking were very-uncool Nancy Reagan types (“Just Say No”) or, worse, racist McCarthy-era newscasters deploring the rise of “loco weed” on the U.S.’s southern border. Many saw the mid-century opposition to pot as so wrong (and indeed, it was), that this thing they deplored had to be right

In large part because of the rabid push back from social conservatives, the pointy cannabis frond became a potent symbol for counter-cultural rebellion, resistance to the war in Vietnam, and free love in the age of Woodstock. 

The pointy cannabis frond became a potent symbol for counter-cultural rebellion, resistance to the war in Vietnam, and free love in the age of Woodstock. 

In 2019, things are different.

Legalization of recreational cannabis, politically unpalatable a decade ago, seems inevitable today. Marijuana is on the move and, at first blush, that could be great news. The criminalization of the drug helped account for skyrocketing rates of incarceration and we should be thankful that the political hysteria — which resulted in the locking up of millions of people, often young men of color — finally seems to be coming to an end. From a social justice perspective, legalization is undoubtedly a good thing, but, for those in the recovery space, the drug’s new social acceptance also presents many issues. 

It’s really difficult to talk about the downside of pot-smoking without sounding square at best, reactionary at worst. 

Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article seemed poised to criticize some of our glib acceptance of legal weed but it wound up channeling a lot of the breathlessness of earlier critiques. Gladwell rightly notes that using THC as a teen can help precipitate psychotic disorders, like schizophrenia. But his argument falls flat when he tries to link increased incidence of mental illness to crime, and he was, rightly, slammed by critics from the mental health community. It’s unfortunate that the piece failed to provide an opportunity for us to think what a right-headed approach to marijuana might be. 

People use weed to push away all sorts of emotional and familial issues, and the new marketing of cannabis posits it as a high-end cure-all, wrapping it in the branding of kombucha and other holistic health supplements. 

Weed isn’t just a leaf: it’s a psychoactive drug. People use it to push away all sorts of emotional and familial issues, and the new marketing of cannabis posits it as a high-end cure-all, wrapping it in the branding of kombucha and other holistic health supplements. Lots of horticultural innovation has come with legalization, making it possible for humans to get significantly higher levels of THC (the psychoactive substance found in cannabis buds that gets you high) into their bloodstream. It’s also made it possible to remove THC altogether, leaving behind Cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive chemical that is seeing a newfound popularity thanks to its promotion for therapeutic use. 

Both compounds are available in a dizzying array of elixirs, oils, and snacks; with full legality in 10 states now, they are relatively easy to get. 

The rise of CBD, in particular, presents an interesting quandary for the recovery community. Currently, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says that CBD is not addictive and, while it affects your body, you remain clear-headed. However, Harvard Medical School also warns — which means that it is not regulated by the FDA and, therefore, we still do not know about CBD, its effects, and the safety and purity of each CBD product currently on the market. 

Many people in recovery remain skeptical. A woman who has been in recovery for four years says, “We literally still know almost nothing about CBD. Since the FDA doesn’t regulate it, we don’t truly know if it’s safe for most people or if it supposedly does all of the good that smart marketing people would have us believe. I tend to be skeptical of any product that claims itself to be a cure-all and, with CBD now found in everything from vitamin gummies to face creams to your morning coffee, I think it’s more hype than anything. And yes, I tried CBD for my anxiety a few times and so did my partner, who is also sober. We both felt that whatever positives we briefly felt were largely due to the placebo effect.” 

But some sober folks remain fans. A sober friend who chews CBD gum for chronic neck pain defended it by saying that the difference lies in the intention. 

“Sure, CBD makes you feel different,” he said, “but it doesn’t really alter your mental state, and the intention in taking it is never ‘this thing is gonna get me f—ed up.’” The chemical, he hoped, would help him to resume a normal, pain-free life. 

It’s been promoted in the U.S. as an alternative to the painkillers that have led so many into addiction. Yet, CBD, with its relative newness, has yet to be defined: Is it a medicine? A food additive? A curative? We certainly need to do more research to know if it’s the “cure-all” many companies are claiming it to be.

Our notions of what it means to consume cannabis continue to evolve: Smoking up is no longer a counter-cultural act of rebellion. 

There’s an interesting parallel in the ancient introduction of coffee to the Islamic world. New substances had to be vetted to determine if they were halal or haram. When coffee came on the scene in the 16th century, it was one of the first big tests for the still-young Islam. Did coffee, which alters your mood, fall under the same category as explicitly-forbidden wine? No, said the early modern jurists, because the new brew did not intoxicate (the reasoning by which hashish was banned during the same era); in fact, some held that the stimulant should be promoted because it allowed the devout to pray deep into the night. 

Part of the hard work of addressing legal weed will surely be in this parsing the potential curative properties of CDB. The language of marijuana legalization rested for years on the notion of compassionate medical use, and — as the discussion shifts toward “innovation in the market,” with gummies, vape pens, and even cannabis K-Y jelly — it’s important that investigation for therapeutic uses continues, and that the U.S. government opens up the (currently still draconian) policy to allow researchers to find out how the cannabis plant works on pain and anxiety. In the meantime, our notions of what it means to consume cannabis continue to evolve: Smoking up is no longer a counter-cultural act of rebellion. 

While a lot of our popular culture treats it as such, getting high isn’t an arbiter of coolness or a sign that one is “down.” In many cases, it’s a way to mess up your relationships and a hindrance to achieving your life goals. At the end of Half Baked, much to the chagrin of the stoner audience, Chappelle is left to make a choice between his new girlfriend and an anthropomorphic joint. It’s a tougher call than it needs to be, but, eventually, he tosses it away.