Pass the Vibes: Beliefs and Rituals
In this video, a stoner outlines basic norms, rituals, and beliefs of stoner culture; in other words, he gives a quick overview of what he sees is key in stoner social interactions. He discusses diffuse networks, specialized vocabulary, the social support system, stigmatization, shared distinctive meanings
Many pre-modern cultures, ranging from Herodatus to Golden Age Islamic thinkers, engaged in ritualistic, communal marijuana practices. The contemporary stoner subculture is rooted in the jazz clubs of the 1920s and 30s, later reformed as the Beat subculture of the 1950s. Most famously, contemporary stoner subculture is a descendant of the hippies and Rastafarians of the 1960s and 70s (Sandberg, 2012). More recently, the pro-cannabis, anti-establishment cultures of the hippies and Rastafarians has combined with the hip hop movement of the 1990s (Torgoff, 2001). Together, these forces have birthed the 420 stoner subculture today, and stoner subculturists (stoners) are proud of the past. For instance, stoners often retell the story of Bob Dylan (of the hippies) and Alan Ginsburg (a Beat poet) smoking marijuana together and writing songs (Wilentz, 2011). The stoner culture sees itself as constantly in flux, with a legacy of American countercultural icons and movements; for instance, stoners do not see themselves as hippies, but instead, consider themselves stoners, and acknowledge their hippie roots (Weicko and Thompson, 2013).
In a clear connection to its parent subcultures, Stoners are or hold positive attitudes towards oppositional youth; stoners often distrust police and support vegetarianism, affordable housing reforms and left-wing politics (Johnson, 1973).. Stoners often resist “the system” but fail to explain what “the system” is or why it is bad with much specificity. Stonerism’s homology necessitates political resistance and marijuana consumption; not all marijuana users are stoners, but all stoners are marijuana users. An anonymous contributor to r/trees, a marijuana forum demonstrates:
“Every time I spark a joint, I do it in protest. I do it in protest because weed is a reminder of all the freedoms that were taken from us. It’s crazy, how scared they are that you will think. Early ages you have no idea you’re oppressed, because the alternative reality simply doesn’t exist for you.”
For many stoners, clearly, lighting up is a form of active resistance to the mainstream. In Norway, a country will mandatory military service, stoners are more likely than their mainstream peers to appeal as a conscientious objector (Pederson, 2009). The sociological demographics of stoners differ based on when they enter the scene. Often, but not always, individuals who begin smoking as teenagers have high parental education levels, experience low parental support, enjoy experimental music, and experience family problems (Timberlake, 2013). Conversely, adults who enter the scene are often male-bodied and male-identified, less educated, have a lower income, and report maintaining fewer stable relationships outside the subculture (Pederson, 2009). Both cohorts experience similar social support within the scene. Also, an estimated 90% of both cohorts entered the scene through a friend; within the stoner subculture, social connections are paramount (Johnson, 1973).
Mainstream society perhaps mostly associates stoners with their frequent marijuana consumption and communal marijuana practices. Stoners do consume marijuana in higher rates than their peers, and their drug preferences are crucial elements to their identity formation (Thornton, 1995). Yet, for most stoners, using marijuana is not their most significant identity, rather, being a stoner often is (Hughes, 1945). Still, one cannot overemphasize the role of marijuana consumption within the stoner community; it is pivotal to the dimensions and practice of authenticity and group identity (Sandberg, 2012).
Within marijuana consumption, the stoner subculture emphasizes sharing within group rituals. The importance of sharing is equally important to the marijuana itself. Marijuana consumption at all levels, in all stoner communities, is built on sharing— an active rejection of capitalistic ownership claims (Weicko and Thompson, 2013). Even self- and peer- identified stoners who are violent, large-scale marijuana distributors emphasize the importance of sharing within the culture; therefore, in part, this subgroup sees themselves and are accepted as stoners (Sandberg and Pederson, 2009). In smoking sessions, each participant is expected to contribute marijuana, not cash (Sandberg, 2012). If a participant of the smoking session does not contribute marijuana, they may be considered “stingy” and not emotionally or financially devoted to other subculture members. Once each participant has contributed, stoners pass marijuana around the circle, “that ritual is really important. Most people roll joints and then the bowl comes out and everyone puts a bit in. It is then rolled and passed round, always to the left …” (Sandberg, 2012). If a member does not have marijuana to contribute, they must ask a friend to give marijuana in their name, as taboo within the subculture (Author’s interview). Stoners
pride themselves on their resistance to capitalist structures and hierarchies, so consumption within the subculture depends on an expected rotation or total communal practice of gifting. Stoners do not have any accountability measures to ensure that all participants donate, so free riding is common but stigmatized. Similarly, stoners often “puff puff pass” (inhale twice, then pass on), but really, they must walk a delicate line: consume enough to get high and demonstrate edgework, but not too much to appear that one prioritizes their own experience above others (Sandberg, 2012).
One smoking session begets another; as stoners smoke together their interaction “obligates future social interactions” (Zimmerman and Wiender, 1977). This expectation reinforces social bonds, group identity, and help perpetuate free and leisure spaces, where stoners can participate in submerged networks to discuss the faults of the heteropatriarchy, marijuana legalization, methods of capitalist resistance, and a safe space to try on the stoner identity.
Up in Smoke: Secrecy and the Normalization Thesis
Parker et al. (2002) defines the normalization of marijuana as an increase in availability of access, increase in first-time experimental rates, an increase in drug-usage rates, accommodating attitudes of “sensible drug use,” and a degree of cultural accommodation (Parker et al., 2002). In other words, the normalization thesis argues that consumers “know the risks,” but feel that they must consume marijuana as a mechanism for impression management. While marijuana is the most frequently consumed illicit drug worldwide, with over 150 million, annual participants, many sociologists believe the normalization thesis exaggerates consumption and cultural acceptance (Sandberg, 2012). Critics of the normalization thesis argue that outsiders place their own interpretations of marijuana use on stoners; they do not acknowledge the subjective nature of ritualistic behavior. Stoners do not see marijuana as a health or social cost. An anonymous female stoner explains: “pot is a gift from God put on earth to help people. I don’t care what the law has to say about it,. . . weed should not even be considered a drug; it’s a natural plant that makes people feel good and kind to each other.” (Weicko and Thompson, 2013).
Furthermore, if the stoner subculture were to become normalized, unlike now, most stoners would not conceal their stoner identity from their family (Sandberg, 2012). In fact, contemporary stoners compartmentalize their existence in and outside of the subculture, this phenomenon is known as the double life (Weicko and Thompson, 2013). Moreover, when authoritarian outsiders (parents, teachers, police) confront stoners about their drug use and subcultural participation, their responses usually follow specific patterns of stigma management (Weicko and Thompson, 2013).
First, stoners maintain a denial of injury (Weicko and Thompson, 2013). In an interview, “Jake,” a white male stoner, insists “weed is less addictive than coffee. Why is coffee okay?” Similarly, many stoners will remind others that marijuana is safer than alcohol. Secondly, stoners will condemn their condemners, for instance, a stoner, like “Annie,” would argue, “there are so many rapists just walking around, why do cops need to attack people who are minding their own business?” Lastly, and most provocatively, stoners will appeal to higher loyalties, outside of dominant ideology (Weicko and Thompson, 2013). In other words, stoners argue that morally, marijuana consumption should be normalized. They argue (correctly) that the War on Drugs is racist and extend the argument that ideological disapproval of marijuana is an extension of racist moral entrepreneurial campaigns.
The racialized aspect of “normalization” or the end of the stoner subculture cannot be overlooked. Stoner enclaves may function as “free spaces, places relatively removed from (and safe from the surveillance of) dominant groups in which activists can build collective identity…” around marijuana consumption (Haenfler, 2014). So, as marijuana acceptance rises, the necessity of free spaces for white stoners may diminish. However, African-American stoners likely still need free spaces, because marijuana legalization does not end predatory policing. For example, even though whites and African-Americans carry and consume marijuana at similar rates, police racistly and disproportionately target African-Americans (Brame et al. 2014). In areas with legalized recreational marijuana,, the rapidly expanding marijuana industry is overwhelmingly white; in short, white people co-opt and make money off marijuana and stoner subcultures while people of color stay in jail (Lewis, 2016). If there is rising acceptance for the stoner subculture, it accepts some of the stoner subculture’s cultural artifacts, like marijuana. Yet, as the dominant class commodifies the stoner subculture; it leaves behind the elements of resistance. Within the legalization and acceptance of marijuana, there is a risk of McDonaldization (Ritzer 1997). Marijuana may become mainstream, but stoners’ resistance to neoliberal capitalism will remain underground.
Page by: Maya Dru
Featured Image: Drew Taylor, Unsplash
This is a playlist of iconic stoner music. Notice representation of hippie, Rastafarian, hip hop artists, modern Slacker rock bands. Many of these songs use specialized vocabularies to discuss the subculture through hidden transcripts.
Machine Gun Kelly’s song “Mind of a Stoner ft. Wiz Khalifa” provides an emic approach to a stoner putting his own day to music, and sharing it for hip hop fans and stoner subculturists.
Iconic stoner movies, such as Reefer Madness (1936), Fritz the Cat (1972), Friday (1995), and The Big Lebowski (1998) all intersect postmodern comedy, nihilism, social commentary, and on-screen marijuana consumption.
This 1936 film trailer does not have captions. Reefer Madness (the movie and trailer) summarize a plot which depicts how marijuana causes sexaul immorality and deviance, suicide, violence, murder, debauchery, and clinical insanity. Ironically, the film presents cigarettes as the harmless alternative.
Broad City is, perhaps, the most iconic and beloved contemporary piece of stoner subculture. This clip demonstrates the physical practice, sex positive feminism, and sharing rituals.
This show blends traditional cooking travel shows with what stoners call “the munchies.” The munchies are an increased appetite, which goes hand in hand for the show’s star, Abdullah Saeed.
Sveinung Sandberg, a professor of criminology and sociology of law at the University of Oslo, is one of the most ambitious and influental current scholars of marijuana cultures, narratives, and behavioral practices. While most of his work is in Norwegian, his work in English is an essential starting point to delve into this subculture.
Sandberg, Sveinung and Willy Pedersen. 2012. Street Capital Black Cannabis Dealers in a White Welfare State. Bristol: Polity Press.
Sveinung and Pederson detail and contextualize the lives of young, Black men in Oslo as they relate to larger marijuana institutions.
Sandberg, Sveinung. 2012. “Cannabis Culture: A Stable Subculture in a Changing World.” Criminology & Criminal Justice13(1):63–79.
Sandberg, S. 2012. “The Importance of Culture for Cannabis Markets: Towards an Economic Sociology of Illegal Drug Markets.” British Journal of Criminology52(6):1133–51.
Dahl, Silje Louise and Sveinung Sandberg. 2014. “Female Cannabis Users and New Masculinities: The Gendering of Cannabis Use.” Sociology49(4):696–711.
Martin Torgoff is a American studies scholar, who publishes his work as books, articles, interviews and documentaries. His book, Can’t Find My Way Home, American in the Great Stoned Age gives a historical account of how mainstream shapes stoner subculture and vice versa.
Torgoff, Martin. 2004. Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age 1945-2000. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Bruce D. Johnson
Bruce D. Johnson was one of the oldest and most groundbreaking marijuana subculture researchers. In the 1970s, Johnson was among the first to study stoners without the sole or explicit purpose to break up the subculture or limit marijuana consumption. Today, the American Sociology Association presents an award to the top graduate paper on drugs, alcohol, and tobacco in his honor. Until 2012, Johnson was affiliated with the National Development and Research Institutes in New York City.
Johnson, Bruce D. 1973. Marihuana Users and Drug Subcultures. New York: Wiley.
Bruce Johnson runs a statistical analysis of surveys and interviews of 3,500 stoners in the 1970s.
Golub, Andrew, Erich Labouvie, and Bruce D. Johnson. 2000. “Response Reliability and the Study of Adolescent Substance Use Progression.” Journal of Drug Issues30(1):103–18.
Golub, Andrew, Bruce D. Johnson, Eloise Dunlap, and Stephen Sifaneck. 2004. “Projecting and Monitoring the Life Course of the Marijuana/Blunts Generation.” Journal of Drug Issues34(2):361–88.
Johnson, Bruce D., Andrew Golub, and Jeffrey Fagan. 1995. “Careers in Crack, Drug Use, Drug Distribution, and Nondrug Criminality.” Crime & Delinquency41(3):275–95.
Johnson, Bruce D., Flutura Bardhi, Stephen J. Sifaneck, and Eloise Dunlap. 2005. “Marijuana Argot As Subculture Threads.” The British Journal of Criminology46(1):46–77.
Ream, Geoffrey L., Bruce D. Johnson, Eloise Dunlap, and Ellen Benoit. 2010. “The Role of Marijuana Use Etiquette in Avoiding Targeted Police Enforcement.” Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy17(6):689–706.
Dahl, Silje Louise and Kåre Heggen. 2014. “Negotiating Identities: Patterns of Self-presentations among Socially Integrated Cannabis Users.” Young22(4):381–98.
Foster, Karen and Dale Spencer. 2013. “‘Its Just a Social Thing’: Drug Use, Friendship and Borderwork among Marginalized Young People.” International Journal of Drug Policy24(3):223–30.
Pedersen, Willy. 2009. “Cannabis Use: Subcultural Opposition or Social Marginality?” Acta Sociologica52(2):135–48.
Suchman, Edward A. 1968. “The ‘Hang-Loose’ Ethic and the Spirit of Drug Use.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior9(2):146.
Timberlake, David S. 2013. “The Changing Demographic of Blunt Smokers across Birth Cohorts.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence130(1-3):129–34.
Wiecko, Filip M. and William E. Thompson. 2013. “Growin Grass: Paradise by the Sodium Light.” Deviant Behavior35(4):332–45.
Brownlee, Nick. 2002. This Is Cannabis. London: Sanctuary.
Hecht, Peter. 2014. Weed Land: Inside America’s Marijuana Epicenter and How Pot Went Legit. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.
Lee, Martin A. 2013. Smoke Signals: a Social History of Marijuana– Medical, Recreational and Scientific. New York: Scribner.
Preston, Brian. 2002. Pot Planet: Adventures in Global Marijuana Culture. New York: Grove Press.
Rubin, Vera D. 1975. Cannabis and Culture. Vol. 2. Berlin, Germany: Mouton.
Vice documents a 420 gathering in the UK. Notice the stoners’ resistance to police and insistence on sharing marijuana (even with the reporter).