Marijuana Matters: Will legalization reduce weed's stigma?

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) It's been nearly two weeks since Vermont's marijuana legalization law went into effect. Alexandra Montgomery investigates the possible stigma users and nonusers face following decades of government messaging to "just say no."

For some, like Brandon Shortsleeve, 21, legalizing pot in Vermont hasn't changed what they've already thought for years.

"My parents had that talk with me, but it never really bothered them. I mean, they knew it was going to happen. I mean, I live in Vermont-- it just happens," Shortsleeve said. "Everyone around here is happy, hippy. I mean it's not really a bad drug. It's not really anything like-- I mean. I don't even consider it a drug. It's just a plant."

While others, like former cop and DARE officer Kim Burbo, say the state is going down a slippery slope.

"We already have enough problems with the opioid crisis," Burbo said. "They don't want people smoking, yet now they're going to legalize, you know, lighting up?"

She says there is always a group of people who won't do something simply because it's against the law.

"And now it's going to open the floodgates to say, 'Oh, must be OK-- it's legal,'" Burbo said.

University of Vermont sociologist Andrew Golub says it's possible legalization will change some people's minds.

"I think that there's going to be a range of responses. Some will be to hide it, some will say, 'No, we've been smoking for years.' Some haven't been hiding it at all and they'll say, 'OK, now it's legal,'" Golub said.

But Golub says Vermont isn't going from zero to 100 and that normalization of pot use is already underway in our culture.

"The leading joke here in Vermont when somebody says, 'What do you think about the possibility of legalizing marijuana?' was, 'I didn't know it was illegal,'" Golub said.

According to a government study released in 2015, people ages 18-25 use pot more than all the other age groups. So what happens when a marijuana users turn 26, 40, 60? Golub says he anticipates that legalization will encourage people to use for longer.

"The prevalence of alcohol use does not decrease with age among white populations, mainstream populations," he said. "Based on that analogy, we can't expect marijuana use will increase in that 25 and above population."

Golub says that bridges the age divide.

"A lot of the stigma associated with substance use is a proxy for forms of racism and ageism," he said. "I don't really see the stigma of marijuana often here in Vermont.

But Ed Hatin, a grandfather, says he worries about use in front of children, calling pot addictive.

"I think we tend to be-- especially Chittenden County-- we tend to be more liberal. So, I don't really think there's a stigma and it's been an underground thing, but just barely underground," he said. "Some people may now feel that they can. I still wouldn't, whether it's legal or not. I don't want to encourage them."

It's something that Golub says some parents won't see as a problem.

"People will smoke with their children the way people used to, the way people in other countries drink with their children," he said.

Ultimately, Golub describes families as creating their own culture and making their own decisions about pot.

"There's an awful lot going on with family and culture, those norms will continue to evolve," he said.

Golub says there's a difference between use and abuse - and that no moderate use of marijuana recommendation exists like it does for alcohol consumption.

He says legalization of pot creates community and cuts down on a "black market," where people aren't sure what they're getting. And while he says that helps create safer use, standards will be a part of the normalization of marijuana.

"As things become standardized, we'll be able to figure out what standards doses are, and tell people, like, don't have more than two or three drinks, don't have more than so much THC; how many hits off of what quality potency," said Golub.