Many millennials are excited about legalization, but are conflicted about whether to share that enthusiasm publicly. Pictured: Revelers celebrate at Denver's annual 4/20 marijuana festival at Civic Center in 2014. (Brennan Linsley, Associated Press file)

Cannabis stigma: Millennials caught in changing norms

The millennial generation, defined as people ages 20 to 36 in 2017, has a unique perspective on marijuana legalization and use.

These children of the 1990s and 2000s, also known as Generation Y, grew up and became adults while historic marijuana legalization efforts where unfolding across the United States. And those changes just keep coming. Following the November elections, the number of Americans living in a region where recreational marijuana use is legal went from about five percent to nearly 25 percent.

But do millennials, who now make up the nation’s largest living generation, have the interest or political will to keep cannabis legalization efforts moving forward?

A Pew Research Center survey from last October found that millennials were “more than twice as likely to support legalization of marijuana as they were in 2006 (71 percent today, up from 34 percent in 2006), and are significantly more likely to support legalization than other generations.”

Despite that support for cannabis legalization in America and a growing social openness and acceptance about pot, many are reluctant to talk on the record about cannabis or their own use of it.

“They’re very scared of Big Brother,” says 26-year-old Emalee Hyde, founder and president of Colorado nonprofit Viverde, a resource center for medical cannabis patients. “They’d rather just sit back.”

Those like Hyde who work in the cannabis industry are more free to speak openly. Hyde finds it ironic that millennials are afraid to talk about marijuana while a record number of states now have some form of cannabis legalization.

That self-imposed silence extends to social media. Speaking during a phone interview with The Cannabist, Hyde says many millennials are caught up in the dilemma created by their web feeds: It’s OK for them to post pictures of themselves and their friends drinking alcohol, but smoking a joint? Not so much.

Indeed, six other millennials were contacted for this article, but none were willing to discuss their views on record. The majority said they were concerned their comments might affect their job prospects with present and future employers.

In Hyde’s view, Generation Y is at a crossroads of sorts with cannabis, saying it’s “much less taboo, much less scary, much less risky” for millennials than it was for their parents or grandparents.

“So many people in my generation have seen the older generations either consuming (marijuana) or getting information about it through their culture. It was getting normalized and ‘outed’ by our parents’ culture and it’s just more normalized for us. And we hope to see a continued shift in culture — I think that’s what a lot of people want to see.”

Research supports Hyde’s assessment. According to a recent University of Michigan study, 38 percent of college students in 2015 said they’d used cannabis in the previous 12 months, up from 30 percent in 2006. It also noted that between 2003 and 2015 the number of 19- to 22-year-olds who believe regular cannabis consumption is dangerous for the user fell from 58 percent to 33 percent.

Sam Méndez, executive director of the Cannabis Law and Policy Project at the University of Washington School of Law, says that while the cannabis legalization movement continues to grow, marijuana still carries a stigma that alcohol or tobacco use don’t have.

“If you walk by a co-worker on the street and you see them drinking a beer at a happy hour, you automatically don’t think them alcoholic,” Méndez tells The Cannabist during a phone interview.

“But a co-worker lighting up a joint at around 5:30? Most people’s perceptions of that person will be vastly different than if they were having a drink. There are going to be assumptions that that person is a drug user, that person is a stoner.”

Even with potential misconceptions, Hyde says marijuana legalization has brought new freedoms to many of her fellow millennials: being able to walk into a dispensary in a legalized state, knowing they’ll be able to buy a lab-tested and regulated product without any fear of being arrested for cannabis possession.

She feels that now is the time for Generation Y to get off the fence and take action when it comes to keeping those benefits of cannabis legalization.

“Being lazy is not going to work for us anymore,” she says. “I don’t like to call my generation ‘lazy,’ but we are definitely less active than most. I think we saw that with the elections.”

But she believes a growing number of millennials need to step up and defend marijuana legalization “before it becomes a much larger problem, and specifically their problem, down the road.”

Méndez says millennials are also proving that not all who use pot are abusing it. “The main point I would make is you can be a functional cannabis user,” he says.

“You can have a job, you can raise kids, and just like you can have a drink in the evening to relax, you can do the same with cannabis and not necessarily be an abuser or a stoner.”