California’s real impact on the battle to legalize marijuana


When California legalized recreational marijuana in January, it sparked a national conversation on the future of the drug. Seeking to highlight the relevance of this event, the media quoted the state’s large population – comparable to Canada’s; the potential sales and taxes; the jobs that will be created there; and the size of its economy which, ranking sixth in the world, comes in ahead of France’s and India’s.

Despite California’s impressive numbers, however, economic factors won’t be the state’s critical contribution in moving the legalization debate forward. Ultimately, California’s cultural reach and influence are what will make it a turning point in the battle to legalize marijuana nationwide.

This is where California’s so-called soft-power kicks in. First coined by political scientist Joseph Nye, the term refers to the ability to persuade others to do what one wants “without force or coercion.” And few places can claim as much of this sort of power as California can.

After all, California has Hollywood and Silicon Valley, two places that have been shaping an enormous portion of the national – and global – culture for decades.

“California has been molding the perception of marijuana for decades. The infamous “Reefer Madness” campaign was spawned in the Golden State in the late 1930’s and was largely responsible for cannabis prohibition in the U.S.”

All one needs to do is travel almost anywhere outside of California to notice the extent to which people around the globe look to this state as a cultural model and trendsetter. From Hollywood stars like Scarlett Johansson and Leonardo DiCaprio, to Apple and Google, California’s cultural and technological creations reach almost every corner of the planet.

Every year, Portland Communications and the USC Center on Public Diplomacy assess objective metrics and polling data to produce “The Soft Power 30” report, which seeks to rank the nations with the leading soft power capabilities.

In an attempt to explain where America’s extensive soft power originates (it ranked third in 2017), the organization points toCalifornia. “America’s film, television, and music industries continue to set the … trends for the rest of the world and it is unlikely that the dominance of Hollywood will decline anytime soon.”

When asked for further details on this data, Portland Communications’ General Manager in Asia explained that California is largely responsible for global perceptions of the U.S. on both the cultural and technological fronts.

While acknowledging that all four corners of the country make contributions to American cultural and technological exports, “the most visible, and certainly the most globally ubiquitous, are film and television, which come overwhelmingly out of Hollywood.”

In other words, no other place on earth shapes global culture like the U.S. in general, and California in particular.

In fact, California has been molding the perception of marijuana for decades. The infamous “Reefer Madness” campaign was spawned in the Golden State in the late 1930’s and was largely responsible for cannabis prohibition in the U.S. – and even worldwide. At the same time, California’s own William Randolph Hearst crafted and propelled a bitter crusade against legal weed through his vast newspaper empire.

But, fortunately, times have changed, and adults in California can once again buy and consume cannabis legally. It can be argued that this turn of events will have a great impact on story lines in media and entertainment. So, it won’t be the taxes that could be collected, nor the schools that could be built, that will change the people’s perception of pot.

In the end, marijuana consumption will be normalized by pop culture TV shows depicting the consumption of weed as typical as grabbing a beer after a day at the office. And that normalization will support legalization initiatives, either through the ballot or through state legislatures, in many of the jurisdictions that have yet to make marijuana legal.

Movies and TV are already banging the drum. Showtime’s Emmy-and-Golden-Globe-winning “Weeds” focused on a struggling, widowed mother (Mary-Louise Parker) in California who grows and sells weed, and works hard at it, to support her family and pay off the debts she inherited from her late husband. The series premiered in 2005 and quickly became a mainstream hit, running for eight seasons.

Netflix’s “Disjointed,” is a newer entry that revolved around the adventures and mishaps of the owners and the employees of a marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles. The show, which bowed in August 2017 and was recently canceled, starred Kathy Bates and was created by industry heavyweight Chuck Lorre. It portrayed cannabis consumers as respectable, hardworking, productive members of society.

Shows like “Disjointed,” “Weeds,” and “High Maintenance,” a web series that was acquired by HBO in 2016, could eventually play a role similar to that of TV shows on other formerly controversial issues. Think of the impact “Will & Grace” had on the gay rights and gay marriage movements. Although it’s pretty hard to quantify, it’s safe to claim that “Will & Grace” helped normalize homosexuality for Middle America.

Similarly, these new shows have come to normalize cannabis consumption, marking a substantial turn away from the stereotypical “stoner,” humor of Cheech and Chong, and Harold and Kumar.

A recent study conducted by Consumer Research Around Cannabis actually showed that pot consumers in the Los Angeles Greater Metropolitan Area are more likely than non-users to be white collar workers who are employed full time and regularly exercise.

Cannabis is increasingly represented in films and TV as just cause, with positive societal, economic, racial and public health implications. And California, with its disproportionate cultural impact, might prove to be the last domino needed to spur a nationwide movement that will power political change.