‘Pop Culture Was My Gateway Drug’: On Cannabis and Conquering Big Brother


My first experience with cannabis was pretty typical. Angsty teenager looking for adventure, bored in a small town, and smoking with her boyfriend and his friends. I can hardly remember what I thought about cannabis before the first time I used it—but I vividly remember what otherpeople thought of it.

My parents never had direct conversations with me about such things. My primary influence, for better or worse, was pop culture. From television, movies, and music, I got the idea that cannabis was a harmless indulgence of adults looking to be youthful or young people looking to feel mature. Cheech and Chong, RoseanneThe Simpsons90210Degrassi Junior High, while stereotypical in their approach to stoner tropes, all helped shape my understanding of what cannabis could be.

Pop culture addressed cannabis in sensational yet real ways, and for me, a spoof of something was better than nothing. I was lucky enough to have parents who let me explore pop culture on my own terms—I remember feeling so sorry for my friends who couldn’t watch The Simpsons or Dawson’s Creek.

During this time I used cannabis casually with friends but never really noticed all the positive ways it was affecting me. It helped me form bonds with those around me, helped me not get overwhelmed with school work and social hierarchies, and maybe most importantly, helped me understand stereotypes and stigma. After all, cannabis was really nothing like anyone ever said it was.

As I moved into University, taking Women’s Studies, Canadian Studies, and Pop Culture courses, and volunteering at the Women’s Resource Centre, I was doing everything I ever wanted. Still, I felt like I could never truly be my full self. I figured if my friends knew I was using cannabis every day, they would immediately judge and pigeonhole me. Quitting cannabis to avoid its stigma wasn’t an option. What would later reveal itself to be gastroparesis (along with the stress from its symptoms and misdiagnosis) had put me in a position where I needed cannabis on the daily.

A few people very close to me knew, but other than that I was all alone with my secret. I would always carry gum and perfume to hide the weed smell from my classmates and professors. During class breaks, you’d find me hidden in some faraway nook, smoking my secret doobie. It wasn’t until years later, maybe even not until now, that I realized how detrimental such isolation and hiding was to my psyche and self-confidence. I created this person who was self-assured on the outside but terrified of dismissal on the inside.

The real regret I have for not bringing my pro-cannabis perspective to University is the chance I missed for the examination of the intersections between my feminist studies and cannabis. The judgment I started to get in the classroom around my pop-culture studies mimicked things I had heard about cannabis: Television was “for lazy people” and pop music was the audio equivalent of junk food. “It’s all just a distraction,” peers would say. “It’s shallow and stupid.”

I refused to believe any of it. I was sick of being told what was supposed to be meaningful and smart—I knew what resonated with me. I finished up my degree and did my thesis on The Power of Pop Culture. Pop Culture and Pot Culture were both valid parts of me and I wasn’t going to hide it anymore.

I moved from Calgary to Toronto for a clean slate and a chance to be my new self. I got a job at Vapor Central, a cannabis lounge on the (wrongly named but world- famous) “longest street in the world” Yonge St.

Vapor Central changed my whole perspective and self-image. There, people from all walks of life gathered to talk, work, watch TV, and smoke cannabis. Doctors, lawyers, artists, activists, politians, students, comedians all become just people there – people looking to get baked. it is really an incredible thing to behold.

I went from spraying myself with perfume before I went on the bus to whipping out my stash by accident because cannabis became just a normal part of my life. It was the act of seeing other people and hearing their stories that liberated me–which is also the beauty in pop culture – specifically reality TV.

Working at Vapor Central gave me enough confidence to audition for Big Brother Canada, a reality TV show I had watched for years, that pits people against each other in mental and physical tasks. Most countries have their own version of the show and they’re all slightly different, but at their core, they’re all social competitions. When the Big Brother casting team asked me what I did for a living, I said, “I’m a hemployee.”

“Does that mean you smoke a lot of weed?” they asked.

“Yes it does,” I responded. In that moment, I was able to be my true unabashed self, and because of that, I was cast on the show.

Was I scared to be on a national television show in front on millions of people as “the pothead”? A little, but mostly I was excited for an opportunity to show the country that being yourself can pay off. And did it ever. I won my season and became a living representation of everything I ever believed—pop culture has power and so does being true to yourself.

Now, I get to normalize cannabis use through media interviews, the written word, and continuing to be myself—and it means the world to me. People message me to thank them for opening up a dialogue with their parents about cannabis or to thank me for challenging their own stereotypes about cannabis.

And now I’m an official Leafly columnist! Here I hope to provide a candid glimpse into my world and the cannabis scene in Toronto and beyond; hitting events and interviewing the knowledgeable people I have been lucky enough to get to meet in the weed world. My aim is to help contribute to the work of so many others in creating a place where we can be ourselves and discuss all things pop and pot culture, follow me @flatshanlon and let me know your cannabis trip.

By: Sarah Hanlon, Leafly