How Cannabis and Hempfest Are Driving the Politics of Pleasure

Hempfest is a free speech festival wrapped around cannabis. But why is it so hard for us to defend legalization on the basis of pleasure? (400tmax/iStock)

‘The Haymaker’ is Leafly Deputy Editor Bruce Barcott’s opinion column on cannabis politics and culture.

Hempfest’s arrival in Seattle this week got me thinking about cannabis and pleasure. The annual “protestival” got its start as a free speech festival 28 years ago, and it remains, technically, an event grounded in the First Amendment. But it’s also a celebration of joy, fun, and the pleasure that cannabis can bring to our lives.

We struggle with the politics of pleasure. We can argue for justice, thrift, medical necessity—but never pure enjoyment.

We struggle with the politics of pleasure here at Leafly. Our editors and writers strive to expand the world’s cannabis vocabulary in positive new directions. We wrestle with the real consequences of stigmatic terms like “user,” “dealer,” “black market,” and other vestiges of the drug war. We reach for new phrases to describe the varieties of human experience when discussing specific products and cannabis strains.

But when the discussion turns to politics, we pivot to justice, science, and economics. Somehow it’s okay to talk about cannabis offering patients medical relief, but god forbid we should legalize it because it offers a healthy person pleasure: No. You go too far.

If It Feels Good It Must Be Bad

This pleasure-phobic principle is embedded in public banter and jokes. Last week former FDA head Scott Gottlieb went on CNBC and talked about a woman who calmed her dog’s anxiety with CBD. Another panelist on the show joked that “the dog was high.” Gottlieb smirked. “Exactly,” he said. “It might have had THC in it. I didn’t ask her if he had the munchies too.” (Hat-tip to Marijuana Moment’s Kyle Jaeger for reporting on Gottlieb’s appearance.)

The meds probably didn’t have THC in them, but what if they did? Would that have made the dog’s calmed anxiety somehow illegitimate? The collective assumption that floated Gottlieb’s joke was this: Using cannabis for pleasure is cheating. It’s wicked and irresponsible. It is an artificial means of obtaining pleasure, which we’ve been raised to believe should flow only from natural sources. Like…caffeine and alcohol.

CBD Good, THC Bad?

This demonization of cannabis-sourced pleasure colors policy discussions surrounding legalization, medical marijuana, and CBD. The author and cannabis pioneer Martin Lee has written extensively about the troubling emerging dynamic that too often frames CBD as the “good” compound and THC as its evil twin.

“Diehard marijuana prohibitionists are trying to exploit the good news about CBD to further demonize high-THC cannabis, casting tetrahydrocannabinol as the bad cannabinoid, whereas CBD is framed as the virtuous cannabinoid,” Lee wrote recently in testimony submitted to a US Senate committee. Project CBD, the highly respected organization Lee founded, “categorically rejects this moralistic, reefer madness dichotomy,” he said.

Pleasure’s Okay if You’re Eating, but…

The pursuit of pleasure drives the consumption of all sorts of substances. It’s the foundation of the global food and beverage economy. When it comes to drugs, though, discussion of pleasure as a morally righteous pursuit remains taboo in the realm of scientific research and public policy.

We know so little about the healthy, non-problematic use of cannabis for pleasure that the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is now recruiting researchers to discuss the issue at a one-day meeting in November. The hope is that those scientists can help develop studies that address questions like:

  • What’s the role of pleasure in drug use choices?
  • How can we better understand pleasure as part of non-problematic drug use?

Cannabis Consumption: It’s a Mystery

We know so little because decades of past research on drug use has been driven by federal funding and, as DPA officials put it, “the pervasive belief that some drugs are inherently harmful and addictive.” For “some drugs,” read “cannabis.” In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), one of the federal agencies most committed to the demonization of cannabis, even today remains the only source of cannabis for most American researchers who want to study the drug.

We know so little about pleasure and cannabis that one group is asking researchers to start collecting data.

DPA officials might consider inviting adrienne maree brown, a Detroit-based thinker and writer who’s breaking new ground in the emerging field of pleasure activism. (The lower-case name is her choice.) brown’s recent book—Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good—collects her own writing with that of others working on new definitions and moral defenses of pleasure. An earlier generation declared: The personal is political. For brown, the pleasurable is political. Her book is a revelation, and the idea at its heart is simple and revolutionary: Every human has the right to enjoy pleasure.

Her first maxim: “Pleasure is a measure of freedom.”

“Pleasure activism asserts that we all need and deserve pleasure, and that our social structures must reflect this,” brown writes. That requires understanding “the politics and power dynamics inside of everything that makes us feel good,” including sex, drugs, fashion, humor, passion, work, connection, reading, cooking, eating, music, movement, and other arts.

This isn’t about excess, she cautions. “Sometimes when I bring up this work to people, I can see a bacchanalia unfold in their eyes,” brown writes, “and it makes me feel tender. I think because most of us are so repressed, our fantasies go to extremes to counterbalance all that contained longing.”

America’s Leading Pleasure Activist

Cannabis isn’t the only drug brown has consumed, but it’s played an important part in her mental health, personal development, and in the evolution of her pleasure activism. She’s enjoyed it since early adulthood and acknowledges the complexities involved. “When I sense that I’m numbing myself, I’ll go months without getting high,” brown writes. She’ll cut back when she’s writing nonfiction that requires a particular kind of sharpness. “But I often get high for brainstorming fiction writing,” she adds, “when I want access to my imagination, dreams, and magic.”

I was reminded this week of the critical role cannabis has played in the evolution of my own relationship with morality, judgment, and pleasure, thanks to the arrival of Hempfest. The annual Seattle “protestival” has been setting up its stages and tents within view of our new Leafly headquarters since Monday. Years ago, my first visit to Hempfest inserted something in my brain. Call it a mote of acceptance. A virus of change.

Hempfest and Cannabis Promote Pleasure

After a lifetime spent absorbing messages about the evils of marijuana and the moral failures of its consumers, I listened to the logic of the speakers. I watched people smoke, relax, laugh, talk, and bask peacefully in the sun. It was not my idea of a super fun time; I’m not that great with festival crowds. But many people there were experiencing pleasure enhanced by cannabis. And somewhere in my brain, my conscience wondered: What’s so morally wrong about that?

We’re still not very good at advocating for cannabis as a tool for the expansion of pleasure. But here at Leafly, with the help of DPA, adrienne maree brown, and our friends at Hempfest, we’re striving to get better.