I’ve been forwarded the clip five times now via email and read at least that many articles hailing it as the best part of “the season’s funniest episode” (Slate), “the funniest concept” that the show has “generated in a long time” (Jezebel) and simply the “best sketch” (Entertainment Weekly). “It” is Woody Harrelson’s Saturday Night Live skit last weekend entitled “New Marijuana Policy.” Making the most of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent announcement that the NYPD will no longer arrest people for possessing less than 25 grams of marijuana, the sketch features hipsters waving around bags of pot in celebration. The kicker comes when Woody Harrelson, an unabashed marijuana aficionado in real life, emerges in dreadlocks and a reggae-style poncho, shouting, “Free at last!”
It’s funny, right? Woody Harrelson brandishing a bong, stoners pouring into the streets waving a Funyuns banner. “Free at last” applying not to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but to millennials being able to carry pot in public. That’s clever stuff. But the underlying theme of the sketch is that we’re headed not just toward the decriminalization of marijuana, but also to its normalization. And that’s not so funny.
Make no mistake: I support the new NYC policy. Nonviolent drug offenders have no place among actual criminals, and exposing them to that environment puts them at considerable risk of assimilating criminal behavior. Equally important, a felony conviction for drug possession can ruin a young life, rendering the offender ineligible for certain benefits and making employment exceedingly difficult (there’s nothing like a criminal record to scare away employers).
The problem is that, as the SNL sketch makes clear, pot is not only becoming decriminalized, but also normalized. And that’s a problem. It’s a problem because, while it may or may not be more dangerous than alcohol (as legalization advocates like to point out), it’s still far from a benign substance. It’s particularly not benign for adolescents, whose still-developing brains have the most to lose from regular marijuana use.
Yet today’s kids—thanks to all this normalization—don’t see pot as any big deal. Research bears this out: A National Institutes of Health survey found that 60 percent of high school seniors don’t think regular marijuana use is harmful. And as anyone who interacts with teenagers can tell you, life experience also bears it out. I can’t count how many times a teen in my life has brandished some dubious “study” that claims marijuana isn’t dangerous, addictive, or bad for you at all. And when I produce a counter study, I get that look that everyone over age 25 knows well: the “you just don’t get it” look, the one that says, “Don’t you know? Times have changed.”
Those teens are both right and wrong about that. They’re correct that times have changed regarding how our society views marijuana specifically. But the issues surrounding it are strikingly, eerily, and unfortunately familiar. When I was growing up, health and youth advocates were fighting the normalization of tobacco, which was never outlawed but has become much less normalized over the past few decades, to the point where cigarette smoking among teens is now at its lowest level in 22 years. That old iconic image of James Dean wearing an undershirt and dangling a cigarette from his mouth would be frowned upon if it were marketed to teens today. In fact, when newly bad boy Justin Bieber recently replicated Dean’s pose, he was quick to assure fans that he doesn’t smoke. At about 15%, the cigarette smoking rate among teens is still too high (and e-cigarettes are on the rise—a subject for a whole other post), but we’ve clearly come a long way from the days of glorifying it. The moral? Supporting decriminalization without conceding normalization is tricky, but it can be done. We can change the course of things if all sectors of society—from government and community to education and entertainment—agree that a different direction is necessary, instead of throwing up our hands and declaring the destination of the current course “inevitable.”
Let’s hope that once the novelty of these new marijuana laws wears off, we stop laughing about it and get serious about conveying to kids the message that marijuana is a dangerous drug with long-term consequences—just as we did when we convinced a generation that cigarettes aren’t sexy when they lead to a hole in your throat. Then the “New Marijuana Policy” SNL skit will seem as dated as that old James Dean still.
Karen L. Sodomick
Vice President and Director, Marketing and Communications
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