Let’s Talk About The Disturbing Lack Of Diversity In Cannabis Media

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I believe that cannabis is truly the universal uniter of all people. Whether you are rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, Mary Jane is everyone’s best friend. I’ve sat and smoked with people from all walks of life, people I never would have looked twice at had the situation been different, but cannabis created the perfect catalyst for conversation. In many ways, cannabis has opened my eyes to many of my own internal biases and helped me to break down those barriers. So why, when the cannabis community is so truly and beautifully diverse, are we missing that diversity in many cannabis-related media outlets?

My question arises from a relatively benign task: clearing out my inboxes. As I was sorting through my Instagram DMs, I came across an old conversation I had with HighTimes Magazine back in August when they offered me tickets to the Cannabis Cup in exchange for promotion of the event. Though I was unable to attend the event due to short notice and short finances, I asked if I could give them some feedback on their magazine. They seemed open at the time, though when I suggested more diversity in their models, they “left me on seen” as they say. Below are screenshots of the entire, unedited conversation:

The purpose of this blog is by no means to put HighTimes specifically on blast, but rather to identify a greater issue within the cannabis community. A simple Google search for “bong models” reveals more of the same: Usually white (or white-passing), able-bodied, stereotypically “attractive” cis (or cis-passing) women. It gives us a sort of crystal ball into the type of demographic that magazines like HighTimes believe they’re catering to. Though our community is so wonderfully diverse, it seems as though many cannabusinesses believe their target market is comprised solely of straight dudes who only find women who adhere to corporate America’s definition of beauty to be “attractive”.

Now, we know that everybody is somebody’s “type” and that there is more than enough room for models of all colours, body types, ages, levels of ability, etc. but let’s not forget that this isn’t simply about the “sex sells” marketing ploy. Of course, advertisers are going to keep running with what has worked in the past, and what has worked in the past is usually scantily clad, able-bodied, white cis women… but no longer. Our generation is speaking out against the status quo and saying “We want equal representation for EVERYONE. Everyone can be sexy.”

While the primary “canary in the mineshaft” of cannabis media diversity is the disturbing ratio of Caucasian models to models of colour, the way that people of colour are depicted in cannabis marketing also perpetuates many harmful stereotypes. Ads for cannabis products fetishize women of colour by generally portraying them as coconut-bra-wearing jungle-dwellers. If male models of colour aren’t draped in gold chains and surrounded by scales and baggies to portray the “gangsta” lifestyle, they’re shown as the quintessential dreadlocked Rastafarian. Rachel Kuo put it best in her article 4 Reasons Calling A Woman Of Colour “Exotic” Is Racist:

“When beauty is in the eye of the beholder – and the beholder is often a white, cis-heterosexual man – beauty narratives become racialized.”

Now let’s talk a little bit about ableism in cannabis media because it’s a HUGE PROBLEM. While advertisers in cannabis media outlets generally focus on the recreational side of cannabis, we need to remember the enormous community of medical users that rely on cannabis every day. Cannabis media loves to portray the party side of cannabis, but what about the side of everyone’s favourite plant that isn’t so commercially glamourous? Sure, many people find your average big-bosomed, blonde-haired, bong model attractive, but show me the REAL beauty of a bald woman with mastectomy scars who fought death and won holding that same bong and I will find her a thousand times more attractive than your cookie-cutter bong Barbie. Rather than the basic 420 model template smoking a huge joint while hanging out the open-top of a convertible; show me the radiant smile of a PTSD and phantom pain-free car crash survivor rocking a prosthetic limb and smoking that same fatty. Medical cannabis users make up a significant portion of our cannabis community, and having a disability doesn’t always jive with corporate media’s idea of “pretty”, but disabled folks exist and it’s High Time we got some representation. (See what I did there?)

Now let’s explore the issue of gender and sexuality in cannabis media. The trend we can see in most media outlets is that cannabis products and media are primarily marketed at cis-het men using the two standard-issue marketing tactics: a) Men they want to be, and b) Women they want to be with. The latter being more prevalent than the former. But these cannabis advertising firms can’t legitimately think that their entire audience is comprised of 18-35 year old straight dudes (and maybe a handful of lesbians) who are only attracted to cisgender women… can they? We know that women consume cannabis. In fact, the Cannabis Consumers Coalition (CCC) 2017 Report on Cannabis Consumer Demographics and Consumption Habits states that 53% of cannabis consumers are women and 47% men (the survey did not account for non-binary individuals, which is an issue in and of itself). In addition, statistics show that gay men are 3.5 times more likely to consume cannabis than straight men, so where are all the scantily clad and overtly sexualized MALE weed models? No, seriously… Where are they? 😉 All jokes aside, the cannabis community is comprised of people of all different genders and sexualities. Trans* people especially report finding comfort and stress-relief in cannabis while undergoing the incredible stress of transitioning and living in a world that can be quite unkind to anyone that doesn’t conform to society’s conventional idea of male or female. Why is the only representation of the LGBTQ+ community we commonly see in cannabis media the done-to-death fetishization of white, blonde, able-bodied, large-breasted, cis lesbians so clearly marketed to cis-het guys when we can prove statistically that cis-het men are a very small part of the cannabis consuming audience?

The cannabis movement has always been associated with that which is progressive to the point of being controversial, so why does that seem to end with the concepts of race, gender, and ability in cannabis marketing? Of course there will always be a place for models that meet the traditional, corporate definition of beauty in cannabis marketing. After all, it wouldn’t have become the industry standard if nobody at all found it attractive. However, some people’s idea of beauty should not drown out or overrun the true beauty that is found in the inclusion of ALL people. If someone is offended or outraged by a queer/trans*, disabled, model of colour being pictured in the same media outlet as their cis-het, able-bodied, white counterpart simply because it is not their personal idea of beauty; then that outraged person is, to put it simply, just a jerk. Let’s keep our culture one of positivity and acceptance, not one associated with jerks.

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