How Cannabis Became the New Normal

How Cannabis Became the New Normal

By Medaya Ocher

This article originally appeared in the premiere issue of MedMen's new quarterly magazine, Ember, created in collaboration with PAPER. MedMen is a California-based cannabis company and investment firm with properties spanning coast to coast.

Take a second to think normal. Extraordinary, outstanding, remarkable — let all of them go and focus on the absolutely ordinary. Normal implies, obviously, a norm, a standard. It's the usual activity or thought or situation. It's common, and often so common that it doesn't need explicit explanation. We are born into the norms of our world and we gradually adapt and learn from them. These are norms big and small, broad and personal. Normal isn't particularly exciting; it can, in fact, be pretty banal or boring, but it can also be comforting. You can order the usual and know what you'll get. You can rewatch a movie you've seen a thousand times, laugh at all the same places. Normal is what we're used to and what we, at least most of the time, accept as the way of the world.

And yet, there is so much fight behind normalcy. Some of the biggest movements in the world have been driven by the sheer pursuit of it. A woman going to work, for example. Well, now that seems absolutely unremarkable, why even talk about it? But of course, at some point that was anything but normal, and many people had to fight for many years to make it banal and not even worth noting. Or think of two men getting married, living together, coming home, making dinner for the kids, falling asleep in front of the TV. In other words, two men living through a boring, absolutely normal day that actually took years of marching in streets, lawsuits, court battles, TV coverage, debate. Isn't that strange, the work that goes into banality?

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These are, of course, the biggest examples — normalcy around the basic rights of people to live their lives. It's the way in which the normal can actually buttress human dignity. There are also much, much smaller ways in which we might fight for a personal normal on a daily basis. We drag ourselves to the gym maybe, make time for coffee with friends, try to go to sleep an hour early. We don't necessarily do these things to make ourselves feel invincible or amazing, but fine or maybe even good, if that's an option. Normalcy can take work on many levels. At the same time, however, there is the chance that we might also find pleasure in it. When stability is hard won, there is an undeniable enjoyment in experiencing it.

Bethany Cosentino, Feminist Rocker

"Marijuana doesn't need to be frowned upon. I think it's pretty incredible that there's one plant that can do all of this — medically, creatively, emotionally."

Cannabis has long been confounding how we think of normal precisely because it touches on all of these ways in which normalcy is complicated. It seems though that we are finally beginning to rethink what the relationship between cannabis and normal is. Of course, marijuana has been in recreational use throughout the world for decades now. Smoking a joint is, for most people, not an extraordinary or particularly shocking activity. Both of our former presidents, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, admitted to smoking weed. Cannabis is so visible in our culture that you would never guess it was an illegal substance. We have a genre of popular movies called "stoner comedies"; we have cultural icons who don't shy away from publicizing their love of weed; we have television series dedicated to the exploits of high, lovable duos like High Maintenance, Cheech and Chong, Broad City, Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg.

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In public, marijuana use is often talked about with a wink and a nudge. The growing normalization of weed is precisely why its complicated legality can be turned into a public joke. We're all in on it: use is so common and widespread that the show of following the nominal law is funny. Tiffany Haddish, for example, told a widely loved story on Jimmy Kimmel Live! about taking Jada and Will Smith on a swamp tour. She mentions that she smoked "a whole bunch of weed" before and then quickly adds "the doctor told me to." The audience laughs, not because it's funny to go see a doctor or have an illness, but because we know that's not true. She's just saying that because she has to and because the legal hoops for marijuana use — a perfectly common activity — have really become silly. Just a few weeks ago at the Oscars, Jimmy Kimmel joked about smelling marijuana at the theater, and Gal Gadot agreed and jokingly added, "Not that I know how it smells but it's true." Again, the audience laughs precisely because they know she's lying. Of course, she knows what weed smells like, how could she not? The use of cannabis is so common, so normal, that it's funny for her to insist that she's never encountered it before. It's also funny because she's making a show of avoiding trouble. At this point, the law just needs to be humored, literally and figuratively. The juxtaposition of how normal it is and yet simultaneously restricted is, no way around it, silly.

Ariel Stark-Benz, Potrepreneur

"If a stoner is someone who's trying to escape societal expectations and as a result they become a less desirable person — that's a myth. That's just someone who needs help. I'm a normal person who enjoys getting stoned."

In this way, culture often moves faster than the law, and that has clearly been the case with cannabis. It seems, however, that the law is finally catching up. As of January 2018, marijuana is legal in some form in 30 states, and recreational and medicinal use of cannabis was legalized in California, which became one of nine states in the United States (including Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Nevada).

This was, of course, a landmark change in the country and most importantly a step toward the formal normalization of something that has been normal for decades. We now have cannabis stores opening up to the general, adult public throughout Los Angeles. You can pop in on the way to dinner or a movie, browse through merchandise, speak to professionals who can help guide your purchase. You can ask for what you want, receive advice, know exactly what you are choosing or taking. You can pick by packaging or type of product, you pick stuff up and put it down. You can just wander around and take your damn time. You can, in other words, have a completely normal, fun shopping experience. Purchasing has finally caught up with use.

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MedMen is one of these emerging establishments encouraging our new relationship with cannabis and its products. The stores, located throughout Southern California (as well as in Nevada and New York), provide a real sense of normalcy to the recent legalization. They are clean, bright, and beautifully laid out, resembling a warmer Apple store. A recent piece in Fast Company compared them to the "Starbucks of Weed," and that comparison actually seems pretty apt. Starbucks has normalized so much about the way we consume coffee today — its portability, variety, availability. MedMen has a more difficult task ahead of them, but the similarities and opportunities here are obvious. They have taken the task on ably: the entire design and makeup of the store lends itself to destigmatization. The merchandise is displayed under glass, and sales associates are walking around, offering help. Charles Britton, who is Director of Learning and Development, stressed how educating the sales team promotes a new understanding of what cannabis does. He said, "The best way to normalize something is to educate people and eliminate preconceived notions. If it's a knowledgeable conversation, it eliminates the stigma around cannabis as something to get you high." He also emphasized the importance of an open conversation, saying: "The best way to mainstream marijuana is for people to talk about it openly and honestly. That can get rid of the shame or embarrassment around it, encourage people to not be scared of what people think. If everyone is open to having a conversation, it removes that embarrassment."

The normalization of cannabis — the encouragement to not be scared of what people think — has also led to a real burst of creativity around the product. Companies like Beboe, Lord Jones, and Dosist have begun making beautifully designed products with a focus on carefully selected and sourced materials. Ryan Hamilton, Art Director at MedMen, stresses the "power of design to transform people's relationship to things." For Hamilton, the way that we have long understood cannabis has been informed by a number of factors: the political, cultural, and racial history behind the product, which even influenced the term "marijuana" and has guided its public portrayal for decades. Part of that equation has always been the ways in which cannabis was presented: "A lot of these things being told to people are reinforced through imagery," Hamilton explained, "holding people back from understanding what cannabis can be: a healthy alternative from a medicinal standpoint. [Our understanding of cannabis] is actually a social construct, reinforced by stigma."

This evolving redesign of cannabis has, in fact, allowed many users to try it for the first time. Jeiran Lashai, an acclaimed acupuncturist based in Los Angeles, admitted that she had "always been super conservative about marijuana, even though I grew up in Northern California." More recently, however, her patients have been seeing results, not just from cannabis but from cannabidiol, otherwise known as CBD: "My patients have really opened me up to CBD. They're using the relief balms and oils for pain when traditional medicine doesn't work and are seeing incredible results."

Charles Britton, Director of Learning & Development

"People assume that stoners are burnouts — unmotivated, unsuccessful. I wholeheartedly disagree. I look at cannabis like a nice glass of wine or a beer, to be enjoyed at the end of the day from time to time."

Iris Alonzo, Creative Director

"People imagine stoners just chill out. I use pot to be more productive."

If you talk to people about cannabis, you will hear this again and again: it seems that there is suddenly an opportunity for, well, just feeling better. This idea that cannabis can bring relief for a variety of ills is an old one — it's been largely accepted as a palliative for chemotherapy, as potentially healing for glaucoma. Despite its illegal status, its medicinal properties have long been taken for granted. But now we are at least allowing an entirely new population to experiment with the benefits that cannabis offers. Lady Red, a Los Angeles-based designer and MedMen sales associate, said, "I do consistent microdosing for a chronic illness, to let my body know I'm taking care of it. It's not about the party. It's about the pain." This sentiment was echoed by many other people I spoke with, who appreciated the ways in which cannabis can help restabilize them physically and emotionally. Bethany Cosentino, from the band Best Coast, has long been a cannabis advocate as well as a powerful speaker on sexual assault and predation in the music world. She said, "I don't take pharmaceuticals anymore. Weed helps me mellow out when I'm having a stressful day, when I'm aching from performing, to sleep. And I don't need it for this, but it helps me laugh and appreciate the little moments." She believes that "marijuana doesn't need to be frowned upon. I think it's pretty incredible that there's one plant that can do all of this — medically, creatively, emotionally."

This is cannabis in the real world — just helping people feel normal — go to sleep, keep calm, mitigate pain. Lara Apponyi, artist and half of the wallpaper design duo Work + Sea, talked about how moving to California has opened up a new avenue for maintaining health. She said: "Honestly, I was comforted by the access to natural products for a variety of problems." She had recently torn a muscle between her ribs after a bad cold and was using cannabis cream for treatment. She also confessed: "I was very depressed at one point last year so I started taking a cannabis supplement."

To that end, the normalization of cannabis has also led to a kind of standardization that we haven't encountered before. Dosist, a vaporizer company, makes pens that vibrate with each dose, so the user can easily gauge how much they're taking, when, and for what. Tian Martinez, Director of Marketing at MedMen, points out, "Disposable vaporizers make up approximately 50% of our overall sales. This is due to the simplicity and ease of use of the product." The Dosist pens also have targeted uses: Sleep, Calm, Relief, Bliss, Arouse, and Passion. Bliss and Passion might sound exciting, but see how utterly normal the other four are.

Lady Red, Fierce Queen

"Stoners are thought to be lazy. I'm an overachiever who's excited about life. I can do anything but fail."

It's important to recognize that within this process of normalization, there are also opportunities for pleasure. While some people stress the use of cannabis for healing or feeling better, others also point out how much it helps after a long day. This, again, is normal. Hunter Alexander, an architect based in Los Angeles, said, "Back in the day, as a teenager, I smoked pot to be punk. Now, I work nonstop and am extremely motivated. As an architect, I'm a public servant in many ways. At the highest level, I'm looking out for public safety. For me, enjoying cannabis is just like going home and having a nice scotch at the end of the day." MedMen's Charles Britton echoed the sentiment: "People assume that stoners are burnouts — unmotivated, unsuccessful. I wholeheartedly disagree. I look at cannabis like a nice glass of wine or a beer, to be enjoyed at the end of the day from time to time."

In this way, we can find a place where work, pleasure, normalcy, and relief all meet. Eben Britton (no relation to MedMen's Charles Britton), a former football player, actually played a game while using cannabis. He said, "My greatest achievement while using cannabis? Easy. Playing in an NFL game. Pre-season 2012. I was on the Jacksonville Jaguars, starting at left guard, playing the New York Giants." Now that he is retired, however, "Marijuana helps me primarily as a form of pain relief. But it also helps me reframe the moment — whether that's when I'm writing or simply when I want to view a situation in my life from a different perspective."

Eben Britton's point of view also bolsters the idea that cannabis and the process of normalization itself can be generative. In Lady Red's words, "Marijuana helps me do the one thing I love best, and that's giving joy to people. Whenever I'm out of pain, I'm able to share as much joy as possible. I always say, don't be afraid to share your joy. If your laughter is your thing, laugh your way to hell, honey."

Feeling normal, or feeling good, isn't necessarily just a way to take care of ourselves but, potentially, to bring joy to others. There is then something radical nestled within the difficult process of establishing a new normal. It's the way in which normal can actually be generative, multiplying, spreading. As long as this pattern in legalization continues (and it has to: what choice does it have when practice is so out of step with the system?), cannabis will become more and more normal, and perhaps, we'll be able to see in that process an undeniable virtue. Who knows, cannabis may soon even lose its edge, like espresso circa 1996.

Photography: Emman Montalvan
Styling: Sue Choi and Sean Knight