The global youth conversation around weed and cannabis has grown steadily over the last number of years. The whole world was talking about weed again this week when US athlete Sha’Carri Richardson (21) saw her dreams of Olympic success go up in smoke when she tested positive for cannabis. The 21 year old athlete had only recently qualified for the Olympics in Oregon and was on a fast track to winning not only athletic glory, but also the affection of her nation.
This week’s 52 Insights looks at how youth weed culture is clashing with existing ‘norms’, the accelerating rise of weed legalization...pondering the question ‘should Sha’Carri run?’
COVID-19: WEED RISING
Gen Z’s weed purchasing habits grew by 127% in 2020. A lot of users are newcomers trying it for the first time. Nearly 25% of 18-to-29-year-olds (US) are more likely to smoke cannabis compared to older generations. Millennials still represent the biggest proportion of buyers but as younger cohorts of Gen Z come of age, this segment will grow over the next number of years. People who grew up as children seeing their childhood idols like Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and One Direction being slapped on the wrist for weed scandals regularly have evolved from observers to imitators, without the judgement. The European cannabis market is estimated to be worth €403.4 million by the end of 2021 (source).
With the rise of use comes the inevitable paraphernalia. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s digital dispensary Houseplant launched in March of this year selling rolling trays, lighters, and ceramic pieces as well as indica, sativa, and hybrid cannabis flower strains. Elsewhere there’s glass-blown pastel petal pipes, floral print rolling papers & glitter resin trays in the lines of Edie Parker Flower.
...And yes, #WeedTok (or #OuidTok) is a thing too (#OuidTikTok has over 446 million views).
RICHARDSON: REALITY & RULES CLASH
Sha’Carri Richardson qualified for the Olympics in Oregon, a state in which cannabis is legal. The 1 month ban initially ruled her out of the 100m, leaving her hopeful of selection for the 100m relay, but the selectors declined to name her for participation in Tokyo and her Olympic dreams are now shelved until Paris ‘24.
Was it too harsh? Opinions ranged wildly on this but many Gen Z-ers seemed to think banning Sha’Carri was unnecessary. She claimed stress on account of hearing of the death of her biological mother via a news reporter, but despite this many young fans simply remained in awe of the fact that she could still run faster than everyone else while smoking weed.
“...To not be allowed to run over something this minor is mad imo.” Sia, 23
EVOLVING ATTITUDES & OUTDATED STEREOTYPES
Is banning weed in sport outdated? Gen Z’s permissive attitude towards cannabis seems to be fast becoming the norm - especially as legalisation creeps across the globe. This April saw New York legalize recreational cannabis linking the east coast with the west in the gradual spread of legalisation, and creating a new industry potentially worth $4.2B. This month, three more states moved to legalize the drug - Virginia, Connecticut and South Dakota. In Europe, the European Court of Justice ruled that CBD is not to be considered a narcotic substance under EU Law. Even countries well known for harsh cannabis laws, like France, seem to be softening (in October 2020, the government gave the go-ahead for a testing programme in medical cannabis). The questions raised by Richardson’s situation are just another example of the continued acceptance of and rise of weed culture.
“...USATF fully agrees that the merit of the World Anti-Doping Agency rules related to THC should be reevaluated…” USA Track and Field
Dr Charles Yesalis Professor Emeritus of Health and Sports Science at Penn State (who has studied performance-enhancing substances for more than three decades) said that policies on substances are influenced as much by perception as by their actual effects, he said: ‘It's not good to market the Olympics if you have a bunch of 'stoners.’ This jaded stereotype is at odds with two things 1) the actual effect of cannabis on athletes, as is the one that cannabis slows you down, is a performance-enabling rather than enhancing and 2) evolved attitudes around the drug. From a sports perspective, cannabis works by helping an athlete manage pain and inflammation and recover from training and competition.
RACE & WEED: TACKLING INJUSTICE
It would be remiss to explore modern cannabis culture without acknowledging the inherent racism in the system. Our friends over at Ben & Jerry’s are working to tackle the inequality in the industry with a 420 campaign, claiming that ‘legalisation without justice is half baked.’ The problem? Cannabis company owners are overwhelmingly white, but the US prison system is filled with Black Americans locked up for non-violent first-time offences (even though Black people and white people partake at similar rates). New York has pledged that 40% of revenue from cannabis taxes will be distributed among minority communities most impacted by the war on drugs. But it will take more than that to make a meaningful difference.
Commentators also claimed that the banning of Sha’Carri Richardson would not have happened had she not been of colour and belied an anti black sentiment. Sha’Carri Richardson’s banning may have sparked a sea change after The White House stepped in to suggest a review of the doping law after the Richardson ban. What comes of this remains to be seen - but the future looks increasingly more green.
The cannabis and weed industry only seems to be going one way - higher and higher. We continue to see a challenge to the status quo with weed culture, with youth audiences breaking rules they don’t believe should be rules in the first place. Opportunity: are there rules or regulations relating to your industry that feel outdated from a youth perspective?
The Sha’Carri Richardson story this week is a lens through which the inequalities in society are again shown to be a complex and insidious problem. Even if issues around inequality don’t seem immediately obvious, it's always worth exploring the narratives deeply and considering how diverse audiences are treated differently in society. Fighting inequalities and promoting true diversity and inclusion are passionate deal-breakers for youth audiences. Consider how your board, your business, your recruitment process fare in this context - and consider how you can help youth audiences to see themselves reflected in your business.