Illegal Chic: Pot is Firing up Mainstream Pop Culture

High Prices: Lucien Pellat-Finet is serving up white-gold and diamond custom pot-leaf-emblazoned belt buckles at $56,000.High Prices: Lucien Pellat-Finet is serving up white-gold and diamond custom pot-leaf-emblazoned belt buckles at $56,000.In June, an estimated 25,000 people attended the inaugural THC Expo hemp and art show in downtown Los Angeles, an event that pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy – including a $22,400 payment directly to the City of Los Angeles for use of its convention center.

Barneys New York in Beverly Hills is celebrating the Woodstock spirit by selling $78 “Hashish” candles in Jonathan Adler pots with bas-relief marijuana leaves; Hickey offers $75 linen pocket squares or $120 custom polo shirts bearing the five-part leaf; and French designer Lucien Pellat-Finet is serving up white-gold and diamond custom pot-leaf-emblazoned wristwatches for $49,000 and belt buckles for $56,000.

This year, Season 5 of Showtime’s Weeds kicked off with promotional materials plastered on bus shelters, buses, and billboards throughout the city. Last year, just across from the tourist-packed Farmers Market, a Pineapple Express billboard belched faux pot smoke into the air. Even the ’70s slacker-stoner comedians Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong are back. After recently concluding an international tour, they say they are working on another movie, voicing an animated version of themselves, and even batting around the idea of staging a Cheech and Chong Broadway musical.

After decades of bubbling up around the edges of so-called civilized society, marijuana seems to be marching mainstream at a fairly rapid pace. At least in urban areas such as Los Angeles, cannabis culture is coming out of the closet.

At fashion insider parties, joints are passed nearly as freely as hors d’oeuvres. Traces of the telltale smoke waft from restaurant patios, car windows, and passing pedestrians on city streets – in broad daylight. Even the art of name-dropping in casual conversation – once limited to celebrity sightings and designer shoe purchases – now includes the occasional boast of recently discovered weed strains such as “Strawberry Cough” and “Purple Kush.”

Public sentiment is more than anecdotal; this year, a California Field Poll found that 56 percent of California voters supported legalizing and taxing marijuana. In July, voters in Oakland overwhelmingly approved a tax increase on medical marijuana sales, the first of its kind in the United States, and Councilwoman Janice Hahn has proposed something similar for Los Angeles.

“In this current economic crisis, we need to get creative about how we raise funds,” Hahn said in a statement.

Smoking pot used to be the kind of personal conduct that could sink a Supreme Court nomination (Douglas H. Ginsburg in 1987) or embarrass a presidential candidate (Bill Clinton in 1992). In contrast, it seems to be a non-issue for the current inhabitant of the Oval Office; Barack Obama issued his marijuana mea culpa in a 1995 memoir.

Drug references in popular music have multiplied like, well, weeds in the last three decades. Marijuana’s presence on TV and in movies has moved from the harbinger of bad things including murderous rage (Reefer Madness in 1936) to full-scale hauntings (Poltergeist in 1982) and burger runs gone awry (Harold & Kumar go to White Castle in 2001) to being just another fixture in the pop-culture firmament. Cannabis crops up on shows such as Entourage, Curb Your Enthusiasm, True Blood, and Desperate Housewives, and even on animated shows such as The Simpsons and Family Guy.

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at the University of Syracuse S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, says marijuana’s new status is no surprise.

“The people who are making movies and television shows, from the scriptwriters to the director and the producers – a very large chunk of those are probably people who grew up not only much more comfortable with marijuana’s presence in society but probably as consumers themselves of it.

“As a result,” Thompson said, “it’s almost switched with alcohol. Think back to Dean Martin and Foster Brooks – their whole comedy act was the fact that they were in the bag – that now is seen a lot less often. The stoner is the new drunk.”

There’s one hitch.

General marijuana use is, of course, illegal. Under federal law, marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance (in the same category as LSD, heroin, and peyote), and possession of it is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction. According to the FBI’s annual Uniform Crime Report, in 2007 there were 872,721 arrests in the U.S. for marijuana violations.

For Californians who are not covered under the state’s medical marijuana law (which continues to engender controversy among those who believe it’s abused by recreational users), possession of 28.5 grams or less is a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine.

What’s more, passing a drug-free urine test is still a prerequisite for many jobs.

Nonetheless, some indulge. Marijuana reform groups say it’s a $35.8 billion domestic cash crop. And today’s cannabis consumers – the state chapter of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws estimates the number of Californians who have smoked at least once in the last year is three million – open their wallets for pot-themed movies, handbooks, energy drinks, hemp clothing, and ganja-themed bus tours, all part of the ever-widening marijuana-adjacent economy.

How much is spent?

“It’s hard to say,” said Brian Roberts, cofounder of the THC Expo. “Do you count Pineapple Express that did $100 million at the box office? Do you add in Dr. Dre’s ‘[The] Chronic’ and ‘2001’ albums that [together]sold over 10 million copies? What I can tell you is that [the expo]pumped over $400,000 into the local economy,” he added, citing expenditures for security guards and other temporary staffers, banners, decorations, printing, and advertising, among other things.

Richard Laermer, a media and pop-culture trend watcher and author of several books, including 2011: Trendspotting for the Next Decade, points to aging baby boomers – a generation famous for tuning in, turning on, and dropping out – who are keeping their party habits going into their golden years.

“It’s hard to fathom that the 50- and 60-somethings would be against pot after all the pot they smoked,” Laermer said. “Their kids would laugh them out of the room if they started telling them not to smoke pot.”

The so-called marijuana movement has attracted some surprising names. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas) has spoken out about decreasing penalties for possession and protecting medical marijuana users. Earlier this year, Glenn Beck of Fox News announced on the air: “Look, I’m a libertarian. You want to legalize marijuana, you want to legalize drugs – that’s fine.”

David Bienenstock, senior editor of New York-based marijuana magazine High Times and author of The Official High Times Pot Smoker’s Handbook, said: “Whether you’re with the press or a politician, it’s no longer a third rail. In the past it could have cost you your job. Now people are at least able to have those conversations.”

Roberts, for one, is ready. He’s already booked 50,000 square feet at the Los Angeles Convention Center for next year’s THC Expo. It’s going to happen April 23 to 25 – right after the April 20 date that’s become a kind of pot smokers’ national holiday.

“They’re happy to have us back,” Roberts said. “They told me the food concessions sold $38,000 worth of food on the first day alone – and that’s more than they do in a whole week at the California Gift Show.”

– Article from Philadelphia Inquirer.