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January 7, 2019

How stigma affects everything in cannabis industry

Written by Marc Schwarz

Talk to anyone in and out of the marijuana business and the primary issue preventing its growth is the stigma associated with cannabis.

It affects everything from its status as a Schedule 1 substance, a prohibited drug on the federal level, and the image of those in the highly regulated industry, to the public’s perception of the plant and how municipalities deal with industry businesses.

“The stigma exists because of the 100 years of prohibition. Because Nancy Reagan told us just say no. Because we’ve locked up blacks and Hispanics at an alarming rate,” says Peter Barsoom, the founder of Nuka Enterprises. “It’s not going to go away overnight.”

It may sound simplistic to say that stigma is the root of the problems for the cannabis industry, but then read the definitions of stigma:

Dictionary.com: a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.

Cambridge Dictionary: a strong feeling of disapproval that most people in a society have about something, especially when this is unfair.

Now consider all the issues surrounding the legalization and criminalization of cannabis, pot, weed, marijuana, grass – even the words used to describe the plant are loaded.

NJ Cannabis Media will devote the next few months addressing stigma and how it plays out in the real world.

The issues we’ll discuss include:

  • Who has been affected by the stigma
  • The history of the stigma
  • The economic costs
  • The human costs
  • Talking about the stigma
  • How it affects service providers
  • Educating efforts to overcome the stigma
  • How to get rid of the stigma
  • The stigma of adult-use vs. medical marijuana

We will talk to experts and industry leaders as well as those who don’t touch the plant.

“I think a considerable amount of time has been spent trying to address the stigma,” says Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care which just won a license to open an Alternative Treatment Center in Vineland. “Often times, the stigma isn’t unwarranted. The industry has a lot of baggage that it needs to address and to address it in a very transparent and upfront way.”

That baggage includes the perception that the people in the industry are stoners just interested in getting high.

“The assumption – the stigma – is we don’t know what we’re doing, That, we’re less capable of running businesses than other entrepreneurs in other industries,” says Leise Rosman, chief operating officer of 4Front Ventures.

Colleen Mahr, the mayor of Fanwood and the new president of the League of Municipalities, understands why towns and residents don’t just view this as a new industry trying to establish a foothold in the Garden State.

“I think it’s people’s personal opinions about the legalization of a drug that comes into play,” says Mahr.

Perhaps, most important, and certainly the most affected by the stigma of marijuana are the communities of color that have paid the heaviest price of enforcement of the drug policies of the state and federal governments.

In 2016, New Jersey had the highest arrest rate for marijuana possession, according to the latest data available from the FBI’s Uniform Criminal Reporting program. More than one-third — 36 percent — of the possession arrests were of African Americans, although blacks comprise just 13 percent of the state’s population.

“A lot of it has to do a long-standing fight of having to undo decades of successful messaging of the War on Drugs and the stigma we have assigned to the people who have been entangled in the criminal justice system,” says Dianna Houenou, policy counsel, ACLU New Jersey.

How does the industry and the participants overcome the stigma?

It’s education and messaging.

“The more people get educated the more that stigma is going to dissipate,” says Stu Zakim, a veteran communications specialist, “It’s telling the positive stories – the people who have been helped by medical marijuana. Showing that people in the communities you live in are benefitting. So that the person who’s voting no in their town – I don’t want cannabis here – understands how cannabis can help. Especially with the opioid crisis.”


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