Cannabis is one of the world’s most commonly used recreational drugs, and in recent years public opinion has been shifting in its favor. More and more countries and local governments have been legalizing its use for either medical use, recreational enjoyment or both. Meanwhile public approval for legalizing cannabis has never been higher – and it keeps going up every year.
Despite this, cannabis remains illegal in many parts of the world, and many cannabis users still deal with stigmatization from society. These cannabis users report discrimination in workplace and social contexts, judgements or rejection from friends and family, and encountering negative stereotypes about cannabis consumers being lazy, dangerous or less intelligent.
Researchers from the University of Amsterdam recently compared seven european countries with differing levels of cannabis criminalization to see whether cannabis stigma was higher in countries with harsher penalties for cannabis use. The results, recently published in the European Journal of Criminology, showed that where cannabis laws were the most punitive, stigma was also the most intense.
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In many ways, this makes sense. Cannabis stigma only arose as laws began to shift around cannabis. At the turn of the last century, cannabis was a legal and widely used medicine that your average person wouldn’t think twice about taking for a variety of different maladies. But in the 1930’s a targeted campaign of public reeducation and new laws began to sweep across the globe – bringing on a new era for cannabis, where the stigmatization of cannabis users quickly became the societal norm.
To learn more about the connection between cannabis criminalization and stigmatization as it exists today, researchers on this study conducted a survey of 1225 cannabis users from seven different European countries, Greece, Germany, Italy, France, the UK, Portugal and the Netherlands. These seven countries all have fairly different policies surrounding cannabis, although it is technically illegal in all. The Netherlands, followed by Portugal, has the least punitive laws and Greece has the most punitive laws. Depending on the country, those caught with cannabis might face between 0 and 12 years in prison, showing the wide variety in criminalization of the drug.
The researchers surveyed participants from each country about their own experiences of facing stigmatization, hypothesising that those living in Greece would report the most stigmatization while those in the Netherlands would report the least. Here, stigma refers to factors like negative stereotypes about cannabis consumers, social norms deeming cannabis use to be ‘not normal’ or deviant, or rejection and judgement from friends and family because of cannabis use. To learn about this, participants were asked questions about how stigma has impacted their social lives like “‘Did some of your friends reject you because you use cannabis?” and “Did some of your family reject you because you use cannabis?” They were also asked about their perception of general social norms like whether they agree that most people believe that someone who uses cannabis is dangerous or unreliable. And they were asked about factors related to being alienated or isolated from society, like “‘Do you sometimes avoid people because you think they might look down on you because you use cannabis?” and “Do you feel you have to prove yourself because you use cannabis?”
After analyzing the responses, the researchers found that their hypothesis was generally correct. Participants from Greece, where penalties were highest for using cannabis, reported the highest level of stigma, while those from the Netherlands reported the least. Interestingly the most common way people reported experiencing stigma was through the perception of negative stereotypes people hold about cannabis users. Around one half of respondents said most people believed that cannabis users are unreliable – and around 25% said most people believed that cannabis users are dangerous. Around 25% of cannabis users also reported avoiding people because they feared they’d be looked down on for their cannabis use. In all countries, being a daily user of cannabis increased your likelihood of reporting cannabis stigmatization.
In an encouraging finding, being rejected by a family member for using cannabis didn’t seem to differ based on the criminalization in the country – but being rejected by a friend for using cannabis was most likely in Greece and least likely in the Netherlands. Still Germany stood out in the study. Despite being more liberal in its policies towards cannabis than Greece, it had almost as high ratings when it came to certain aspects of stigmatization, which the authors suggest might be a response to Germany’s recent contentious public debates around cannabis.
Still overall, across the seven countries, there was a statistical tie between harsher penalties for cannabis use and higher levels of stigmatization. So, as predicted, there does seem to be some connection between governments penalizing cannabis use and societies stigmatizing them. Future studies could investigate further to better understand this tie.