It’s responsible for 5.3% of all deaths worldwide each year, its harmful use is likely to lead to over 200 diseases and injury conditions, and 5.1% of the global burden of disease and injury can be attributed to it, never mind the social and economic losses. These are only 4 of the negative realities of alcohol listed by the World Health Organization, but when was the last time you saw a warning label when you went to take a sip of your casual beverage?

Don’t get me wrong, I happily started writing this while savouring a mojito at 11am on a beautiful beach in Playa del Carmen. The problem is that to most, the first associations with that sentence are likely ones of envy. It’s a scene of relaxation and my early afternoon substance use is nothing out of the ordinary in the setting. To the contrary it’s viewed as normal, even expected, on vacation. In the same unprovocative breath, all throughout our days here you can find my friends excusing themselves for a cigarette. A habit consistent during working hours, too. However, replace either of those substances with a cannabis joint and you’ll find yourself with a whole other basket of associations – stoner, irresponsible, unmotivated.

Were Alcohol & Tobacco Always Normalized?

Prominent academic Wolf Wolfensberger’s defined normalization in terms of disadvantaged groups and the way they are perceived. By nature then, something has to first be stigmatized before it can be normalized. This is discussed at length in a longitudinal study done by researchers at the University of Manchester. When looking at an upward trend of recreational drug use in the population, 4 factors are listed in the normalization process:

  1. Availability & Accessibility
  2. Substance Trying Rates
  3. Substance Usage Rates
  4. Accommodating Attitudes to Sensible Recreational Use

With substance trying and usage being individual factors, we can look at society’s role in the stigma in terms of legalization (availability & accessibility) and attitudes towards, one key word, sensible recreational use. We are all familiar with the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s that played a large part in its stigmatization, but what’s interesting is that tobacco use has never been outlawed in North America. Instead, we see its stigma rise as knowledge about the health risks of smoking builds from the 1970s through to the 1990s.

What is Sensible Recreational Use?

Among circles of cannabis users, a common comment in legalization conversations is “people just need to be smart about it, treat it like you would alcohol.” Read: don’t get high during work, don’t get high and drive, be mindful of your habits, etc. Unsurprisingly, this component of sensible recreational use is organically being acknowledged as the primary factor that will defeat the stigma over time.

In fact, if you attempt a google search about alcohol & tobacco stigma, your results will be directed towards the stigma around individuals with established dependencies instead of recreational use. The final segment of this series will discuss how we, cannabis users and non-users alike, can do our part to eliminate this lingering stigma more quickly.