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  • Writer's pictureVeronica Irwin

Smoke Screen

Libertarian cannabis influencers and conspiratorial budtenders are encouraging skeptical stoners to just say no to the vaccine.


SF Weekly

It’s easy to assume everyone who smokes weed is a lefty. Take a stroll down Haight Street toward Golden Gate Park and you’ll see reminders everywhere of the connection between cannabis and the 1960s counterculture. This neighborhood was the epicenter of the Summer of Love, where hippies gathered to sing their flower power anthems in a haze of pot smoke.

In the neighboring Castro District, Brownie Mary laid the groundwork for the compassionate use movement, selling potent baked goods to gay men suffering from a highly stigmatized and misunderstood disease that some conservative Americans still blame on “lifestyle choices.”

Pilot the Volkswagen minibus across the Bay Bridge and take a trip up Telegraph Avenue to UC Berkeley — where young organizers continue to pass joints as they plan anti-war, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist rallies.

Zooming out and taking in the country as a whole, you’ll recall that the deep-blue states of California, Oregon, and Washington were some of the first to legalize marijuana — both for medicinal and recreational use — while Democrats as high-ranking as New York Senator Chuck Schumer are now advocates for legal weed.

From this vantage, it’s easy to draw some additional conclusions about those who partake.

We may assume people who smoke weed are social justice advocates, tree-hugging environmentalists, and that they toe the party line when it comes to respecting the conclusions and recommendations of medical experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci — or, to put it another way, that they #believescience.

However, conflating American counterculture with the American left, especially in this case, is something of a logical fallacy.

Cannabis users may have a track record of questioning authority, defying the law, and living life by their own rules — but that philosophy often has little to do with the political party in power. And over the course of the pandemic, countercultural attitudes in pro-cannabis circles have manifested in suspicion of lockdowns, opposition to mask mandates, and rejection of the vaccine.

“For a lot of stoners, it’s like, ‘No, why? I smoke weed. I’m calm, I’m cool, and if it’s my time, it’s my time,’” says Dae’Junique Thomas, a cannabis entrepreneur who is choosing to not get the vaccine.

She is not alone.

Surveying Skeptics

Just over 60 percent of Americans have received at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. Now that President Joe Biden’s administration has gotten a handle on distribution pipelines and supply shortages, convincing the remaining 40 percent is one of the country’s biggest challenges — especially when it comes to changing the minds of those holding out for ideological and socioeconomic reasons.

Self-identified Republicans, for example, are refusing the vaccine at 10 times the rate of Democrats, according to a recent poll by PBS, NPR, and Marist. People living in working-class cities, like one East Cleveland city surveyed by American Community Survey, are proving to be as much as 26 percent less likely to get vaccinated than the rest of their state. According to data from the CDC, more women are getting the vaccine than men, while rural areas are lagging behind urban cities.

The cannabis industry, however, transcends these boundaries of political affiliation, demographics, economics, and geography.

Indeed, there’s no one-size-fits-all way of thinking in the cannabis industry, and plenty of workers — from weed trimmers to budtenders to dispensary owners — have gotten the vaccine. Among those who are vaccine hesitant, however, skepticism of the federal government and the pharmaceutical industry drives their concerns more so than it does with the rest of the population, only 4 percent of which are “system distrustors,” according to recent polls.

After speaking to many industry professionals and combing through internet forums, Instagram accounts, and Reddit feeds, it appears that cannabis users and workers are primarily refusing the vaccine because of deeply held suspicions of the government. The vast majority of their concerns originate in decades of trauma and oppression that aren’t addressed in vaccine campaign messaging.

“The government’s been spraying people with what they spray on plants and stuff,” says Thomas, alluding to the popular — and counterfactual — Chemtrail conspiracy theory, which holds that the government is using aircraft to spray chemicals on citizens from on high. “I just don’t trust this government,” she says.

Plants Over Pills

Over the past year Americans received a crash course in social justice. Policy proposals such as the movement to defund police — once deemed too radical for any mainstream politician to openly or seriously consider — have taken center stage in public forums and in the media.

Conversations surrounding reform of law enforcement and the carceral system have focused on dismantling institutional racism and finding ways to reverse the damage done by our country’s decades-long War on Drugs.

Those who work within the cannabis industry are particularly attuned to these conversations. The War on Drugs is not only largely responsible for our country’s epidemic of mass incarceration, but also the unsustainable practice of indoor cannabis growing, systematic disadvantages that generate low rates of Black cannabis business ownership, and a workforce only loosely protected by federal labor laws.

Though cannabis arrests are on the decline in the United States, they still accounted for 35 percent of all drug arrests in 2019, and even outpaced arrests for violent crime. Simultaneously, the United States has seen a sharp rise in opioid deaths in the last two decades, which the CDC — and anyone paying attention — can easily connect to the pharmaceutical industry’s irresponsible push to sell opioid painkillers.

It should come as no surprise, then, that distrust of the government and Big Pharma runs deep in the cannabis industry.

“Being in the cannabis industry for the last six years, I’ve heard people talk about how they came to this plant because they were put on pharmaceutical products that have harmed them,” says Bess Byers, founder of the digital marketing agency Blaise Creative. A vocal libertarian activist and cannabis Instagram influencer, when Byers posts about her criticism of the vaccine, she often include the #PlantsOverPills hashtag.

“I just think it’s so interesting to see so many people in the cannabis space who have for years just railed against these [pharmaceutical] corporations all of a sudden want to push this on their budtenders,” she says, referring to vaccine requirements in dispensaries.

Thomas cites similar concerns, as well as trauma she has personally experienced, including an abortion she was pressured into at 17 and the loss of her father-in-law after a tough bout of radiation treatment.

Ade Mann, a Black budtender, cited the Tuskegee experiment as a reason he can’t trust the medical system. The experiment, in which researchers recruited Black men with latent syphilis and watched them go blind, insane, and die — even after life-saving medicine became available — is considered one of the worst violations of medical ethics in U.S. history and is often cited as a reason for Black distrust of the medical system.

Cannabis photographer Kat Lee brings up the friends she’s watched become addicted to prescription opioids when explaining her skepticism of pharmaceutical companies and, thus, the vaccine. “I’ve seen some really sad, spiraling cases and yeah — that’s enough for me.”

Stoner Science

Despite the fact that marijuana is mostly banned on Instagram and Facebook, the cannabis community thrives on social media. Like every other community that’s active online nowadays, there are different cannabis niches: some accounts are focused on cannabis policy or wellness, while some just post memes. There are influencers of every political persuasion, representing every race, color, and creed — and an appreciation for plant medicine, beautiful nugs, and chill vibes are a constant.

Cannabis workers, like so many of their fellow Americans, get much of their information and news from these social media platforms. Both Lee and Thomas, for example, say they are avid YouTube watchers. Though Lee says she “stays away from conspiracy YouTube,” she also says she’s a big fan of Joe Rogan — who hosts the world’s most popular podcast and regularly features guests who question the efficacy of vaccines. Byers publishes her concerns about the vaccine and why she disapproves of mandatory masks and lockdowns on an Instagram page dedicated to her politics.

Vaccine skepticism is not entirely driven by social media, but vaccine skeptical posts do appear to cloud cannabis Instagram, and they are almost certainly making some stoners more paranoid than a fat dab of wax.

To test this theory, I made an Instagram page just for the purpose of this project, and followed only cannabis accounts — including brands, a diverse range of influencers, and cannabis policy organizations. While I scrolled through the pictures of stank nugs and chuckled at the dank memes, my eyes were inevitably drawn to the flood of anti-vaccine propaganda in my “Discover” feed, where Instagram’s algorithm funnels content it thinks users will be interested in.

At this point, plenty of ink has been spilled covering the ways in which social media platforms and their algorithms elevate and amplify extreme views. The New York Times podcast “Rabbit Hole” highlights how AI-generated recommendations — designed to keep users engaged in a given platform — tend to push individuals deeper and deeper into silos of radical misinformation.

But while the general concept of algorithm-assisted radicalization may be broadly understood, it’s worth emphasizing that none of the individuals I spoke with for this story seemed to be acting maliciously. Rather, in the same way that the uninitiated might presume cannabis users lean left — linking pot to progressive politics through a chain of general associations — weed smoking anti-vaxxers often arrive at their defiant position via a similar string of logical fallacies.

For Thomas, childhood trauma and negative experiences with mainstream medicine fuel her suspicion of the pharmaceutical industry and the government.

Mann’s understandable disgust at the Tuskegee experiment have led him to adopt similar views on official health mandates, while his familiarity with the concept of plant-based medicine have made him more amenable to homeopathic approaches to his health. Mann referenced a study on black seed oil — an immunity-boosting supplement available at stores such as Whole Foods — which gives him confidence that taking it adequately protects him against COVID-19. That study, however, was not peer reviewed, making it substantially less reputable in the eyes of the mainstream medical community.

Byers backed up her views by cherry picking data that is accurate, but misleading, without providing much context — a common practice amongst who seek to discredit mainstream scientific consensus. For example, she points to a CDC finding which asserts coronavirus vaccines are 94 percent effective as a reason she wouldn’t be getting the vaccine. “I’m healthy, I don’t have any underlying health conditions, and I know that if I was to get COVID, I would have a 99.98 percent chance of recovery, so I don’t think I need it,” she says.

However, this reasoning fails to account for the finding that vaccines available in the United States protect against 94 percent of any degree of illness — not just deadly cases — so comparing it to what she estimates as her overall risk of survival is misleading. If she were to get the vaccine, she would actually have at least a 99.99971 percent chance of survival, even if she got COVID, according to data from the CDC. Regardless, 94 percent is considered a high effectiveness rate for any shot — especially compared to ones like the flu vaccine, which was only 39 percent effective for the 2019-2020 season.

Burning Bridges

But just like busting out some bottom-shelf schwag is sure to draw dubious looks from a group of cannasseurs, attempting to correct vaccine skeptics is a surefire way to further erode their trust. In fact, every source who spoke with the Weekly brought up a vaccine campaign that struck them as unethically coercive. Mann, for example, noted an article in which Black doctors were encouraging Black people to get the vaccine because of COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. The article made no mention of how systemic racism was at the root of these health disparities, he observes.

“We’re definitely targeting African American people to get it, saying stuff like, ‘People of color are more at risk for COVID,’ without touching on the basis of stress, and how stress is induced when you’re being oppressed,” he says. The stress hormone cortisol is proven to be higher in Black men, for example.

Similarly, Lee found campaigns that offered free food, weed, or money in exchange for proof of vaccination to be taking advantage of financially vulnerable people. Such campaigns have become particularly popular as vaccine enthusiasm has waned, and initial findings show they’re effective at getting people vaccinated. A survey by Blackhawk Network, for example, found that three-quarters of their vaccine-skeptical employees would voluntarily get a shot if they knew they’d be paid $100 for doing so.

“If I was a mom, and I was low on cash, I would have to get a vaccine to get a $100 Walmart gift card,” Lee says. “I think that’s cruel.”

Cannabis business owners wondering whether they should mandate a vaccine for employees, too, has become a hotly contested topic. Upon hearing that one of her hometown dispensaries was offering a chance at $1,000 bonuses to employees to get the vaccine, for example, Byers posted to Instagram about it. The incentive is evidence of the shop “bribing their employees,” she said in the Instagram video, and she worries that employees will take the vaccine before becoming knowing all the facts.

George Sadler, CEO of the cannabis vape brand House of Platinum, also said he would not be encouraging or even asking his employees whether they have the vaccine, despite the fact that he estimates about 60 percent of his workforce has gotten sick with COVID. In fact, he says the high rate of illness at his business actually reaffirms his belief that the vaccine shouldn’t be mandated: “You have to understand: everybody who works upstairs has had COVID, and everybody got it at different times — nobody in the office got it from each other,” he asserts. “I’m not forcing anything on anybody.”

For Kevin Reed, president of The Green Cross dispensary in the Mission Terrace neighborhood, the calculation is very different: many of his regular customers are seniors or immunocompromised, and he believes he has an added responsibility to keep them safe. Though he only “encouraged” vaccination when cannabis workers first became eligible, he eventually gave workers a firm deadline of one month to get vaccinated or resign.

“I admit there was some hesitancy at first from some of the staff, but by leading by example and providing accurate information on the benefits of being vaccinated we were able to alleviate their concerns,” he says. Only one employee out of his approximately 50-person work force declined to receive the vaccine and walked away from the position.

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