The marijuana debate: Is a civil dialogue about weed even possible in the digital age?
Think nothing can be more divisive than political conversations between liberals and conservatives?
Hold my beer. Let’s talk weed.
Or rather, let’s talk about our inability to talk about it — at least with any sort of civility. Granted, there are exceptions when it comes to having a civil dialogue about weed, but the rule of thumb seems to be that if marijuana is the topic, vociferous opinions will be voiced. Social media is a vast and wonderful landscape of ideas and philosophies and discussions on everything from plates of food to favorite films, but few topics seem to ignite such polarizing debate more than marijuana.
“This is something that ignites such ridiculous passion inside of people, and I don’t know the why. I honestly don’t, man,” says Ben Cort, a Colorado-based activist whose work has pushed for a common sense approach to marijuana legalization issues. “Sometimes, I think the unwillingness to engage in a rational and civil argument often points to a lack of actual basis from which to have your argument. It’s the ‘shouting louder’ idea. We have a culture right now, and maybe it’s always been like this but we’re just now noticing it, where facts don’t matter nearly as much as the passion with which it’s delivered.”
A civil dialogue about weed: A tale of two extremes
The problem, Cort believes — and one a cursory perusal of any and all social media comments surrounding marijuana discussion seems to support — is that far too many people think about it in binary terms. There’s a small, but vocal, contingent of individuals who believe that, as a mind- and mood-altering chemical, marijuana — or specifically, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive compound that provides users with the high associated with it — is bad news.
On the other side of the spectrum, there’s a much larger, and much more vocal, group of marijuana advocates who not only defend it as a recreational and medicinal herb, but seem to take offense at any questions raised about its efficacy.
The dilemma? Both sides have scientific and medical evidence on their respective sides, and nothing derails a civil dialogue about weed more than self-righteous indignation:
- Pro: Marijuana has potential role to play in addiction treatment, according to a 2018 study by the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute : “Evidence so far suggests that cannabis may have an important role both in addressing the chronic pain epidemic and the opioid crisis in the U.S.”
- Con: In 2018, a group of Canadian researchers combed through 68 cannabis studies “to determine what dangers citizens would face once the drug was legalized.” Their findings? “Of the reviews, 62 showed associations between the drug and various adverse outcomes, including impaired driving, increased risk of stroke and testicular cancer, brain changes that could affect learning and memory, and a particularly consistent link between cannabis use and mental illnesses involving psychosis.” 
- Pro: Marijuana may have pain management properties: “Using the largest database of real-time recordings of the effects of common and commercially available cannabis products in the United States (U.S.), researchers at The University of New Mexico (UNM) found strong evidence that cannabis can significantly alleviate pain, with the average user experiencing a three-point drop in pain suffering on a 0-10 point scale immediately following cannabis consumption.” 
- Con: “Marijuana, like other drugs of abuse, can result in addiction,” according to a 2016 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine . In fact, the last edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the guidebook on addiction and mental health related issues compiled by the American Psychiatric Association — actually included new information on cannabis withdrawal syndrome.
- Pro: Marijuana has shown some promising results when it comes to cancer, according to the Society for Integrative Oncology : “In cell cultures and animal models, cannabis-derived cannabinoids, particularly THC and cannabidiol, can have activity against some cancers … there are two early phase clinical trials published, one of which suggests it is possible cannabinoids might help treat a very aggressive type of brain cancer with few side effects.”
- Con: Marijuana can also accelerate the growth of other cancers and as an alternative medicine, it “may delay conventional treatment, resulting in worse cancer-specific outcomes.” 
Like a great many things, science and data can be cherrypicked to support both sides, and that’s an accusation Cort is used to. He can sling statistics and studies with the best of them, but a rote recitation of one set of facts after the other doesn’t make a conversation — because even those “facts” can lack the nuance than makes for a cohesive and logical argument.
“The predominant argument is the argument du jour — whatever people will listen to in the moment,” he said. “But a lot of times, the arguments are, at their very core, nonsensical, and they can be picked apart in a minute or two with logical thought. One that’s done the most damage is that it’s ‘safer than alcohol,’ and that’s become this cute little catchphrase. Is it less damaging to our society as a whole than alcohol? Oh my goodness, yes — but that’s because alcohol is so widely consumed.
“Is marijuana worse for the frontal lobe (of the brain)? For mental illness and psychosis? Yes. What they’ve effectively done with this catchphrase is make it so we’re constantly comparing this substance with zero history of commercial marketing in this country to the most commercialized product in this country. That’s like claiming that any other country in the world — pick one — is great, because it’s safer than Syria.”
One woman's pain is weaponized
Sally Schindel knows full well the perils of discussing marijuana in the gladiator-style arena of social media discourse. Her son, Andy Zorn, served with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq. Back home, he obtained a medical marijuana card and smoked regularly. Despite her experience with an ex-husband who spent 25 years in the 12 Step program Alcoholics Anonymous and her own time in the family support group Al-Anon, she couldn’t understand why something as innocuous as weed seemed to have such a stranglehold on her boy.
“As a child of the ’60s, I had used it myself as a college student, and I thought it was a relatively harmless thing that made you laugh and giggle and get the munchies,” she says. “I had no clue what was going on in the marijuana industry or with the increase in THC levels.”
When Andy was 31 years old, he hung himself. In his suicide note, he wrote that “marijuana killed my soul + ruined my brain.” On the other side of the grief that still threatens to swallow her whole some days, Schindel began to research how marijuana has changed over the past two decades, and how it may very well have contributed to his declining mental health and, ultimately, the depressed state he was in when he took his own life.
“I’ve learned so much that it horrifies me still, and I started speaking and telling my son’s story,” says Schindel, wo co-founded the awareness group Moms Strong and joined the Marijuana Victims Alliance in the wake of her son’s death. “That’s when I began to understand just how horrible people could be, with the things they would say to me. I was putting myself out there as a grieving mother. My son had just died, and these people would say the most horrible things.”
“Sounds like the parents wrote that before they hung him,” wrote one Facebook commenter about Andy’s suicide note.
“The moment you said your son was ‘addicted’ to it your credibility was gone,” wrote another.
“She is misinformed and probably on the payroll of some anti-weed group or some senator’s back pocket.”
“The rope must of [sic] been made of hemp for this to be true.”
Even on the Cornerstone Facebook page, on which a link was posted to Schindel’s USA Today opinion piece about the dangers marijuana, the reaction was visceral:
“Cornerstone of Recovery you are a sad person who only wants to brainwash people to your belief system. God forbid someone think different than you. You have become a joke with this post and I'm truly sorry for your miserableness.”
“Sorry about your son, but the rest of this is complete bullshit, any reputable source not pushing an agenda can confirm this is bullshit.”
“Quite a pussy for a soldier.”
“You guys are a joke.”
At this point, Schindel has heard it all so often that her skin is quite a bit thicker than it once was.
“I must have caused my own son’s death — I’ve seen that a number of times,” she said. “Something that I was advised early on, when I started speaking about this, is that this would happen, and that I should never read the comments. After a while, and with tough enough skin, it becomes entertaining, because I can’t not read them. But I’ve learned to let them inspire me rather than anger me. I have to keep doing this, and that’s why they make those comments — to try and drive me away.”
A civil dialogue about weed: Bring in the trolls
Trolling, as it’s known in internet parlance, is a phenomenon that’s increased dramatically in the past decade. Joel Stein wrote about it in a 2016 cover story for Time magazine, in which he pointed out that the internet  was “once it was a geek with lofty ideals about the free flow of information. Now, if you need help improving your upload speeds the web is eager to help with technical details, but if you tell it you’re struggling with depression it will try to goad you into killing yourself. Psychologists call this the online disinhibition effect, in which factors like anonymity, invisibility, a lack of authority and not communicating in real time strip away the mores society spent millennia building.”
Stein goes on to point out that while trolling has become a tool of the alt-right, it’s seeped into every aspect of digital culture — and that’s something with which Dr. Rayanne Streeter, an assistant professor of sociology at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, is familiar. “Her teaching and research interests include gender, bodies, and popular culture,” according to the Maryville College website , and she’s spent a good deal of time studying the body positive movement on the social media platform Instagram.
The nature of that particular social media outlet is different than others in that “the platform itself, in a lot of ways, breeds positivity,” she says.
“On Instagram, there’s only a ‘like’ button, and a lot of trolling behavior gets deleted,” she says. “That usually creates an environment in which people are generally going to be more positive.”
Another area of interest, however, is on Twitter, specifically ways in which fans of television shows can interact with producers, actors and writers to the extent that they can influence decisions and even alter storylines. There — and even on Instagram, despite its positive bent — the trolls seem to find a way.
“I think people engage in this type of behavior because they have such strongly held beliefs and values, so when they feel that those are threatened, that’s challenging their values in a way they deem threatening, and they want to police that type of behavior,” she says. “In your specific area of interest, it’s about the consumption of marijuana; in my experience, it’s that they might see fat people and think, ‘Oh, those people can’t be healthy, and they’re promoting obesity.’
“They want to make clear that what they see other people doing is wrong. We live in a society that has certain norms and values that are constantly changing, but that change can be scary or threatening to some, so that’s why they may lash out or troll on social media.”
A civil dialogue about weed: Myth, medicine or both?
In many cases, Streeter adds, trolling isn’t about being right or wrong; it’s about getting a rise out of the intended target. Many individuals who are passionately invested in a topic and resort to epithets or insults do so out of sense of self-righteous indignation — or, as Cort points out in the case of marijuana, “maybe it’s become a little bit of a litmus test to see how politically progressive you are, or maybe how hip you are.” Those individuals have spent a good deal of time investing in the idea that cannabis should be legalized, and in many cases, they may have found some relief for whatever physical or psychiatric ailments they may possess.
“We really, desperately, want to have a thing that fixes it all,” Cort adds. “We want to have something that makes it better now, and people who experience pain, have mental illness, have some of these complicating issues and tend to use this in higher percentages are the ones who have a hard time accepting that the real answer to those problems is hard, hard work and lots of it. It’s psychotherapy, it’s treatment a lot of times, and it’s not a simple solution.”
For some vociferous defenders of marijuana and marijuana culture, however, weed is as close to a “silver bullet” as they’ve ever found for those problems. Cort witnessed that passion firsthand when he found himself on a California panel discussing cannabis with a veteran who claimed that weed had cured him of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“You want to be careful about that, so I told him that I also have a PTSD diagnosis, and that I had gone about it in a different way, with psychotherapy and antidepressants, and I said that there is actually some evidence that (cannabis) might make things worse with higher rates of suicide associated with it,” Cort says. “This guy cut me off in the middle of what I was saying and said that my goal in coming to California was that I wanted to see more veterans dead from suicide.
“I was so stunned for a second, and all I could say was, ‘You’re insane! How in the world could that possibly be true?’ And he said, ‘Because you’re trying to take the one thing away from us that would work.’ Now, that’s a ridiculous standpoint, and that sort of narrow-minded and ridiculously dogmatic approach to the treatment of something as complex as PTSD does way more damage than it helps. But the thing is, I’m not in his head. I can’t say he didn’t get relief from that. But who is he to say that (cannabis) is the only solution to this?”
Schindel’s encounter with pot-for-PTSD advocates, on the other hand, has yielded the most positive online discourse she’s ever had about the topic. Michael Whiter, a Marine Corps veteran who’s been active around the country in pushing for less draconian marijuana laws, published half of a “he said/she said” editorial in a veteran’s magazine  alongside Schindel a couple of years ago, and the two struck up a civil dialogue about weed afterward, Schindel says.
“We had such a rational conversation that I was amazed by it,” she says. “He was kind and polite, and he read everything I wrote and responded respectfully. He made some good arguments, and his would be the ones that make the most sense to me, because he’s successfully using it for medical treatment. I don’t believe it’s a miracle drug, like they say, but I believe that they sincerely believe it.”
Visceral reactions and the abandonment of reason
It’s worth nothing that neither Schindel or Cort or anyone else has called for the complete and total elimination of marijuana. Neither he nor she has advocated that it remain on par with other Schedule I drugs like heroin. If their arguments could be boiled down to a single word, it’s caution: For Schindel, that it not be seized upon as a wonder drug and that advertisements promoting its use be banned; for Cort, that it won’t be monetized by corporations and turned into a cash cow at the expense of consumer health.
Still, the mention of marijuana in any manner other than unwavering and enthusiastic support draws ire from all corners of the internet. Peruse a few message boards or comment sections, and it's easy to see why a civil dialogue about weed is a rarity.
“Ed Gogek, an addiction psychiatrist in Arizona, points out that there’s no other drug where everybody gets out there and insists that everybody else do it with them, that there’s no other drug where everybody feels like it needs to be promoted and normalized,” Schindel says. “Certainly, there’s nothing like that with cocaine. There’s nothing that inspires its users to be out there and do anything they can to bully people like me.”
Some, no doubt, have hung their hopes on the growing wave of legalization and decriminalization laws. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has even designed a plan for legalization through executive action , all but insuring the issue will be a hot button topic in the 2020 election. Individuals like Schindel and Cort are seen, in some ways, as roadblocks on the highway to progress, and that precipitates feelings of fear.
“Fear, in a lot of ways, breeds anger,” Streeter says. “If you’re so scared that your way of life is threatened in any way, you may go into attack mode. I’m a sociologist, but that’s basic evolutionary psychology — flight or fight. If you’re looking at social media, while it is social and a part of everyday life in the way in which we interact and the way we get more intimate knowledge about each other, there’s some anonymity to it. It allows us to say things we wouldn’t in face-to-face conversations.”
Certainly, some of the worst online comments directed at Schindel — calling her a vile name that can only be described as the “C word” and claiming that her son is better off dead because it means he’s gotten away from her — would only be repeated face-to-face by a sociopath. Even putting such ugliness out into digital space, she thinks, must be what her son meant by marijuana killing his soul.
“Maybe it is killing souls and killing humanity in people,” she says. “I didn’t see that happening with my son, at least not with me, but perhaps he was feeling like that toward other people. Perhaps he felt his humanity slipping away.”
A civil dialogue about weed: Personal discourse is the path
For Cort, face-to-face conversations are crucial for any sort of understanding to be reached. He began his activism around Colorado’s Amendment 64, which legalized recreational marijuana, and the issue became political quickly. The first time a bomb threat was called into the offices of those fighting Amendment 64’s passage, he was stunned, he says.
“That was when I noticed it for the first time, because it was a shouting match from go,” he says. “Now, I can have fantastic conversations with people, even people on the opposite side, if we can sit down and talk about it. I remember back when the whole Occupy movement was going on, I was carrying a bunch of ‘No on 64’ signs, and a bunch of those guys were downtown and started yelling things at me like, ‘Bring back the weed!’
“But I stopped and stood with them, and we talked for, like, 20 minutes, and I explained my position that I thought it was essentially a corporate money grab. I don’t know if I changed any minds, but I felt like when I had conversations with people, they were awesome. But as soon as you get out in front of a group of people, logic and common courtesy go out the window.”
These days, Cort is more active on Facebook than he has been in years past, and even then, he attempts to engage with the opposition directly. Everything starts out as a shouting match, he feels, but one-on-one discourse has proven to be effective — not at changing minds necessarily as much as changing the tone from ugly and bitter and divisive to civil and respectful, even if both parties never see eye to eye.
And in the end, that’s the only way he feels like progress will be made. Everyone’s definition of “progress,” of course, is different, but as a species? As a polite and kind society? Regardless of the disagreement, it can be discussed without vitriol, no matter how many buttons are pushed or boundaries are tested.
“Personal responsibility is where it all likes, and that goes back to the fundamentals of recovery,” adds Cort, who’s been clean and sober since 1996. “Everybody around me can be going nuts, but if I can figure out a way to stay calm, that’s the most important thing I can do. Even if somebody’s looking at me as a one-dimensional (roadblock) to them getting the weed that they want, I don’t have to look at them the same way. If I can consider that everybody is doing what they’re doing for some sort of reason — that they’re hurting, that they’re lonely, that they’re afraid — and if I can listen and talk back to them, then that’s where it starts.
“We might not be able to change the whole world, but if we let good be the opposite of perfect, we’ll be trouble. The only control we have is changing our own reaction, and I absolutely think we can do that, man. It comes down to an individual responsibility thing and not getting riled up. I’ve only lost my cool once over this, and that’s when a guy said that he hoped my kids get hit by a bus, and I put my hands on him. I wish I hadn’t done that, because I know emotional pain as well as the next guy, and I have to try to remember that my God, my Higher Power, my whatever, loves him just as much as he does me.”