Free Minds & Free Markets

Nonmedical Marijuana Use Is (Mainly) Recreational, So Why Not Call It That?

Fear of fun can be found on both sides of the legalization debate.

JZSJZSThis month Nevada's medical marijuana dispensaries began serving all consumers 21 or older, not just patients with doctor's recommendations. The name for this new sort of cannabis commerce, according to Question 2, the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized it, is "retail marijuana," a term that fails to distinguish between medical use, which has been allowed in Nevada since 2001, and nonmedical use, which is newly legal. Question 2 also refers to "personal use," which likewise does not elucidate the change made by the initiative.

This fuzziness is no accident. So far eight states (Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington) and the District of Columbia have approved general legalization of marijuana, all by ballot initiative. All of those measures avoid mentioning recreational use, preferring vague euphemisms such as retail, personal, and adult.

Reformers who eschew recreational have several concerns. Some worry that it sounds frivolous, while others say it is imprecise, since nonmedical use encompasses, say, spiritual or artistic purposes that may not fit comfortably in the category of recreation. But probably the most common objection is that recreational scares voters, as Dale Sky Jones, chancellor of Oaksterdam University, argued in a 2016 interview:

When they hear "recreational," they think about what their children are doing, because recreational is fun. It's Disney World, playtime, going to some park. That's recreation. Go ice skating. That's recreation. Why are we making this sound fun to children when the specific point here is to keep it away from children? We need to stop calling it "recreational cannabis." This is cannabis for adults. It's retail. It's commercial. It is not recreational….

Please stop calling it "recreational." Not only are you making it sound fun to the very group of people that we don't want consuming this for fun, but you're also scaring the soccer moms that are going out to vote.

Although I'm skeptical that most children or adolescents think "fun" when they hear the word recreational, Jones may be right that the adjective alienates soccer moms. Still, marijuana is fun (among other things), and recreational is the most apt way to capture that aspect of it. The word also encompasses the use of cannabis as a social lubricant and an aid to relaxation. Those three functions surely account for the vast majority of nonmedical use, making the term pretty precise as well as honest.

It cannot be said too often that there is nothing shameful or morally suspect about fun, although same varieties of it may not be appropriate for minors. Support for drug prohibition is based largely on the assumption that there is something wrong with chemically assisted pleasure, as reflected in recent comments by Scott Chipman, Southern California chairman for Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana. "'Recreational' is a bike ride, a swim, going to the beach," Chipman told The New York Times, sounding remarkably like Dale Skye Jones. "Using a drug to put your brain in an altered state is not recreation. That is self-destructive behavior and escapism."

I do not know whether Chipman thinks drinking is immoral or that alcohol should be banned for similar reasons. But even assuming he does, his line drawing seems arbitrary. Whether cannabis consumption (or drinking) is in fact self-destructive depends on the context in which it occurs. The fact that it can lead to injury does not distinguish it from riding a bike, swimming, or visiting the beach.

As for "escapism," Chipman's preferred forms of recreation surely can provide an escape from quotidian concerns, as can reading a book, watching a TV show or a movie, listening to music, playing poker or video games, hiking, skiing, riding roller-coasters, or any of the myriad other enjoyable activities in which people engage when they are not working. The fact that Chipman deems cannabis consumption especially objectionable may tell us something about his own tastes, there is no reason the rest of us should be morally or legally bound by them.

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  • Zeb||

    Recreational' is a bike ride, a swim, going to the beach

    Ever ride a bike, swim or go to the beach.... on weed?

    Does this dude think that all people do when they get stoned is sit on the couch and eat cheetos?

  • Charles Easterly||

    Greetings Zeb,

    Your comment reminded me of this movie scene, which perhaps you intended to partially quote.

  • Zeb||

    That is what I was doing.

  • Dillinger||

    is there a term for if I'm awake?

    >>>but you're also scaring the soccer moms that are going out to vote

    the ones who are on their kids' ritalin and drinking at 10:00 a.m.?

  • AlmightyJB||

    Before their Harper Valley PTA meetings?

  • Mickey Rat||

    How about you concentrate on getting voters to repeal laws against recreational use and not worry about whether they like it it or not?

  • Dan S.||

    How about simply calling non-medical use of the stuff "non-medical" use?

  • KerryW||

    ^ This

  • perlchpr||

    The terror that someone, somewhere, might be having fun.

  • Juice||

    Legalize fun.

  • SQRLSY One||

    No!!! NOOOO!!!

    Medical sex should be legal; recreational sex should be illegal!!!! We've got to stand up for some VALUES here!!!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Sullum, you're fired as my PR man.

  • Charles Easterly||


    Perhaps the Alt-Text is on one or more of the labels in Mr. Sullum's choice of imagery.

  • Rockabilly||

    Listen up all killjoys and loves of the commie big government. I will put into my body and grow on my own property what I want. I don't need a fucking permission slip from you or anyone. Fuck off slavers

  • Agammamon||

    That's convenient. Because they're not offering permission slips.

    They're offering a choice.

    Submit or die.

  • EscherEnigma||

    ... so is Sullum arguing that we should ignore strategy and tactics in favor of just calling things by whatever we feel is "right"?

    Um, sure. You go for that. Sounds like a winning strategy. But only incidentally so.

  • IceTrey||

    Retail sounds about right. There are retail and wholesale sales of alcohol. The problem I have is calling it marijuana and not cannabis. So the correct phrase should be "retail cannabis".

  • Texasmotiv||

    What's the matter with calling it Marijuana? Cultural appropriation?

  • IceTrey||

    More a slur.

  • AlmightyJB||

    How about whacky tobaccie?

  • Latka6||

    Sure have and it was fun.

  • simplybe||

    Having smoked pot for the last 51 years I can tell you it is not addictive. It also doesn't cause the social problems of alcohol. I think there to two main reasons that government doesn't want pot around. Politicians would lose the kickbacks from the timber industry and potheads just don't seem to buy into all the bullshit that oozes out of Washington DC.

  • ||

    I vote for "adult-use cannabis" because it doesn't moralize in any way and also reflects the fact that the legislation being passed is intended for use by adults and not children.

    Who are you to declare "most non-medical cannabis use is recreational"? On what do you base that? I've never seen a poll where "getting high" was greater than 50% of the total responses. "Relaxation" and "inspiration" are cited as much if not more.

    Really all cannabis use is nutritional anyway. The so-called "medical" benefits and the so-called "recreational" fun are both a result of simply providing the body's Endocannabinoid System with some much needed cannabinoids to regulate homeostasis and maintain good health.

    The euphoria the "fun-seekers" are after may just be a result of the joy the body feels at finally getting what it needs. Water is the most wonderful thing in the world to a someone dying of thirst.

    Most of the "medical" cannabis patients I meet at support groups describe a situation where adding a daily serving of cannabis to their diets has lead to greater health and the ability to stop taking all kinds of pharmaceuticals.

    Is this because cannabis has medical healing properties or because a healthy balanced diet includes cannabis just as much as it includes protein or iron or fiber?


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