It’s 4/20 baby!!! It’s Saturday, you’re lit, brain perfectly calibrated to toasted, sparking your joy, blowing smoke rings so on point it feels criminal not to share on your Instagram story.
But something stops you from posting. And it probably sounds like the voice of your D.A.R.E. teacher yelling about how posting pictures of pot online can get you arrested and ruin your career.
“Even if you just post one picture, it comes back,” said Anjela, who is very much not a D.A.R.E. teacher. Preferring to keep her full name separate from her online weed-sona, she’s better known as Koala Puffs, a weedfluencer with over half a million Instagram followers.
“You gotta be sure that’s where you wanna take your life before you post. Because you have to be able to take on the judgement that’s gonna come with expressing yourself.”
You’d think that in the year of our lord 2019 we’d have moved past the taboo of being 420 friendly on main. Cannabis decriminalization across the U.S. is at an all-time high, along with the general population’s support for further legalization.
Yet while many of us are passing the blunt (or at least not harshing people’s buzz) IRL, the stigma around talking openly about cannabis online remains.
Elon Musk got the not-so-dank wake up call when he started posting vague (awful) 420 jokes on Twitter, culminating in a smoke sesh no one wanted or asked for that landed him and his company in hot water. Musk also drank alcohol on the same podcast, though, and no one cared two shits about that part.
And if Musk, a person with endless Fuck You Money and fame, doesn’t have enough privilege to protect himself from online pot-shaming, who among us mortals does? Not even weed influencers can post to Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or Facebook without facing repercussions that feel like we’re stuck in 1998.
The cost of a pot-sona
In early 2018, YouTube went on what appeared to be a marijuana-based purge, deleting and giving strikes to swaths of weed influencers’ channels. Soon after, it started happening on Instagram. While both companies cited community and user policies about depicting, smoking, and selling drugs on their platforms, others theorized that the crackdown pertained more to advertisers’ trepidation after a litany of unrelated scandals from big names like Pewdiepie and Logan Paul.
But by and large, the fear of being publicly weed-friendly on social media isn’t about getting banned. It relates to the unique stigma of making cannabis part of your online persona.
Koala Puffs said the nine months after she quit her corporate job to pursue cannabis influencing was the hardest in her life. Her family, friends, boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s family couldn’t get behind her pro-bud rebranding.
“Nobody changed their minds until I was 200,000 followers deep,” she said. But to this day her mom still thinks she’s just outgrowing a college phase.
“I 100 percent still experience stigma from within my family,” said Arend Richard, who went from 420 YouTuber to cannabis CEO after launching The Weedtube, a weed-friendly alternative to YouTube that’s releasing a new app Saturday in response to the crackdowns. Granted, the weed stigma in his family is only exacerbated by their larger difficulty in accepting another aspect of his identity as a gay man.
“But I will say, if you want your family to not judge you for using cannabis, just start a cannabis company, and get it written up in Forbes,” he joked.
Since taking on the business side recently, though, even Richard went back and deleted over 200 posts from his Instagram. Because legitimate cannabis businessmen also need to avoid the stereotypes associated with the stoner label, which seems to stick like glue in an age when social media signifiers define so much of how other people perceive you.
Particularly, Richard doesn’t like to post himself in the actual act of smoking, even though a tutorial video teaching people how to smoke was what first began his path into cannabis influencing. That conscious curation is part of a larger shift in how people are expressing their cannabis use online.
“At first, over-consumption was kind of the game in the cannabis industry to get a following. You just did The Most,” said Richard.
When total prohibition was the law of the land in America, seeing copious amounts of weed, bongs, and blunts was an exciting novelty. But now it’s possible for just about anyone with enough money in certain states.
“We’re in the biggest change in trends for online cannabis communities right now, moving more toward positivity and less toward over-consumption,” said Richard.
Cannabis/beauty/wellness influencer and yoga instructor Brittany Tatiana (or sweettatas) quite literally embodies this positivity movement, by normalizing weed as a lifestyle choice on social media.
“We’re in the biggest change in trends for online cannabis communities right now.”
She got into weed influencing after a car accident left her with chronic pain. Unable to go back to her corporate job for six months, weed became her best alternative to the opioids doctors prescribed. At the time she’d already began dabbling with modeling and beauty influencing, building a following and doing promotion with a few brands.
But then she made the fateful decision to take the leap into letting her 420 flag fly. “I guarantee you I lost jobs and contracts because of it. Immediately,” she said.
“It’s been hard for me to represent my full self and not have people judge me based on what they see in one post,” Tatiana said. Straddling the more commercial beauty industry and the cannabis-friendly world is like walking a tight rope.
“It’s been a real battle with friends and brands. It’s a fine line to cross. So I just try to be conscious about what I post.”
Tatiana hesitates to post herself smoking too, for example. But overall, “it basically comes down to a day-to-day, case-by-case basis. Am I OK with how this post represents me? Do I believe in it? Would I want my younger self to post it? Is this true to who I am?”
She decides whether or not to post by thinking of her weed habits almost like a diet, or any other wellness lifestyle activity. Would she post a picture of a smoothie because it feels good and is part of her wellness regimen? Is that also the case for her marijuana-related post?
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“It comes down to choosing how you’re gonna show it, and what cannabis means to you,” she said.
But the risk is always there, especially since the stoner label seems to dominate any other way you define yourself.
“I worry in general that it’ll put me in some sort of box that I don’t want to be in. Even though these days, it’s becoming a way bigger box.”
That caution should be part of everyday people’s process for posting 420-friendly stuff on personal social media channels, too — regardless of whether or not they live in legalized states like the influencers we talked to.
The legal case against legalized marijuana
Because any career development expert will warn you that companies do look at your social media before hiring. There have also been a few cases of people getting fired in legalized states like Colorado for using medical marijuana even when they’re not on the job.
A 2015 survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found that a vast majority (94 percent) of HR professionals with employees in legalized states still have formal policies against cannabis, with 73 percent in medical marijuana states and 82 percent in recreational states characterizing them as zero tolerance.
This strict approach might be showing signs of changing since 2015, though. More recent suggestions from the HR group advise companies to handle weed in the workplace with more nuance and care.
“We’ve yet to see robust employment protections be adopted across legal markets regarding an individual’s cannabis consumption,” said Justin Strekal, federal lobbyist at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. But there are some emerging cases, like a recent ruling in Massachusetts that sided with an employee suing his company for wrongful termination over medical marijuana.
Still, posting about weed is far more penalized in the workplace than, say, a post about happy hour with your coworkers.
When it comes to criminal persecution, aside from the occasional headline-worthy case, “there’s not an epidemic of law enforcement arresting individuals for posting about marijuana online,” said Strekal.
“But that still doesn’t change the fact that it’s their legal right to arrest an individual for smoking cannabis, especially in criminalized jurisdictions. And if you post evidence publicly that could be used against you in a court of law, you are volunteering evidence against yourself,” he said.
Even if the police aren’t out to get you, those kinds of posts can add fodder to other legal battles, like child custody. And looking at the racial divides for how marijuana is prosecuted in the real world, it’s likely that some of those biases translate into who’s more likely to get away with posting about weed, too.
The answer to whether or not it’s OK to be open about weed in your online persona depends on who you are.
“The application of law enforcement when it comes to cannabis is clearly racist. Full stop,” said Strekal, pointing to the ACLU’s famous report on how the war on marijuana is racially biased. The 2015 report found, “marijuana use is roughly equal among blacks and whites, yet blacks are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.”
That also tracks with the general demographics of 420-friendly influencers which, at a cursory glance, tend to be disproportionately white and often female.
Largely, the answer to whether you should be open about weed through your online persona depends on who you are. Beyond profession, local marijuana rules, and your age, your IRL community is another major factor in determining whether or not it’s OK. Because, as Strekal pointed out, social media is mostly regulated by algorithms and abuse reports.
“So the biggest question an individual needs to ask themselves is how are my friends going to respond to this? Is my social bubble going to report this as abuse to these platforms?”
Tatiana agreed, saying that, “If you live in a community of churchgoers, they won’t respond well. And it’s going to get around. So it’s really a question of who you are, what you’re willing to stand up for.”
Taking the hit, for a cause
Interestingly, though, despite all these risks, repercussions, and cautions, lots of people still do get 420 friendly on main anyway. Just search 420 on your preferred social media platform. You’ll find plenty of weed content.
And an overwhelming majority of those posts will be positive, much like what researchers found when they tracked attitudes towards marijuana on Twitter between 2013 and 2016.
Anecdotally, it feels as if we all live under the hazy threat of social media leading to pot-shaming or worse in the real world. But statistically, positive social media chatter around bud just keeps getting danker.
That is the fundamental tension with cautioning people against sharing their weed consumption. While people should remain mindful of the repercussions, the truth is that fighting the stigma largely takes place in social spheres like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. At least that’s what some recent studies found, suggesting a link between positive social media and support for legalization.
Let’s be real
“People are making a point to be more open about it because they’re done with that shit. We can all see it for a lie now. And posting, like, ‘I’m smoking this joint,’ or ‘my mom takes CBD pills’ — that’s people taking back their power. That’s sending a message in and of itself,” Tatiana said.
As we all know, social media is never a perfect reflection of the world as it is. Like the #FOMO travel pics that dominate your Insta feed, posting is about creating a collective ideal.
Until marijuana is legalized on the federal level, no one can tell you it’s perfectly OK to be 420-friendly on main. At the same time, changing public perception by normalizing weed online just might be how we keep the wave of support for decriminalization and legalization alive.
Solving the issues around being weed-friendly online is a chicken and egg problem — or rather, a bud and the flower problem. Because in the world of social media, pretending we all don’t smoke weed is so damn tired — but wishing everyone on your feed a happy holidaze is totally wired.