Americans love to use drugs. Though the tendency to get high is universally innate across mankind—from the sanitized prescription pills of suburban moms to the bitter, muddy kava of the Polynesian Islanders—America is a paragon. Americans consume more drugs than any other country. We use drugs to alleviate pain and we use drugs to get high. We take for granted a goody-bag of a month’s worth of opiates for getting our wisdom teeth removed. We talk about our pain, and we expect it to be cured. The desire to do drugs is just as much a product to sell as the drugs themselves. We suffer from a wide array of uniquely debilitating mental illnesses that have been turned into marketable accessories, reifying suffering into identities we can feel a sense of belonging to. The drugs cure that, or cause that, it’s hard to tell which. It’s hard to tell where the physical pain ends and the mental craving begins (or where the physical craving ends and mental pain begins)—they exist in a sort of reciprocal relationship, mutually determining each other in the depths of the collective unconscious. This infinite oscillating condition is where our desire to do drugs is located.
It should be no surprise that a country with this general attitude toward drugs and pain would develop a sophisticated stoner culture, with seemingly infinite words for cannabis, infinite ways to consume it— water bongs, gas masks, bubblers, glass bowls, gravity bongs, DIY soda cans and apple pipes, various types of vapes, THC oil, and as many forms of weed edibles as there are possible foods (this is not exhaustive). Many of those things are completely alien to people of other countries, where the stoner culture only goes as far as putting a little pinch of hash in a cigarette. The intensity and depth of the collective desire is transformed into a seemingly endless multitude of ways to talk about it. Just like with talking about their pain, or their mental health problems, or almost anything else, Americans love to talk about how they smoke weed loudly and incessantly.
Against this backdrop we have the phenomenon of the “4/20” holiday. America’s secular founding precludes the possibility of nationwide religious holidays rooted in meaningful ritual practices, so our society fills that space with a series of holidays that celebrates nonreligious aspects of the country’s history to sanctify these civic aspects (Independence Day, the military holidays of Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, President’s Day, Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Jr Day). The result is that the federal holidays do not reflect the lived experience of people, or what aspects of life people celebrate. Those that are meaningful have some kind of connection to their seasons (Memorial Day and Independence Day in their connection to the summer, cookouts, the pool, and so on; Thanksgiving and its connection to the fall harvest; Christmas, connected to the winter, is both religious and celebrated worldwide, and thus a complete exception). Other events—specifically Halloween and the Super Bowl—that have plenty of real ritual meaning and widespread observance, have no formal state recognition, and it is not the norm that workers have the day (or the day after) off from work.
The days we do get off, like Martin Luther King Jr Day, President’s Day, Columbus Day, don’t have any comparable widespread ritual tradition and are thus more associated with retail sales. Any future federal holiday will likely be tailored as a symbolic concession to certain demographic groups, and will have not been practiced before by anyone before, much less the general majority. Such a holiday will also have little meaning beyond retail.
Because marijuana has long been outlawed, the observance 4/20 is (or was), in a sense, an act of resistance, although the end of prohibition and the mainstream acceptance of the drug is obviously changing that. Since marijuana is still officially a schedule 1 controlled substance, it’s criminal in the eyes of the feds to celebrate 4/20 anywhere, even in the most liberal places, where the tentacles of neoliberalism have already sanitized and whitened the drug such that it is another inoffensive commodity-accessory of a marketable identity. Like with gay culture, repression of marijuana use pushed it into underground channels—and created a series of signs, manners, rituals, and other mutual understandings for those in the know—at the margins of society. This marginalization makes those ritual meanings more intense than they would be otherwise. And like with gay culture, the intensity of those meanings makes it a prime target for the appropriation by capitalism, which opens up those networks of desire so that it may consume, digest, and sell them back to society at large as something wholly transformed.
The transformation of marijuana from something deviant to proper bourgeois has been going on for a long time, but accelerated dramatically this decade, particularly with the trend toward state-level legalization for recreational use. This year in particular it feels like we are on the cusp of a political breaking point (John Boehner is now on the board of a marijuana company, Chuck Schumer alludes to his “newly evolving” position on marijuana, among plenty of other signs). The mainstream acceptance and gap between what a sensible policy would be and the law as it exists now means that, aside from the interests of privatized prisons and pharmaceutical companies, the once fringe position of legalization should ripe for co-option even by the GOP.
Thus is 4/20, as both a specific event and a signifier for the cannabis culture as a whole, at a strange crossroads. It is respectable yet criminal, capitalist yet still largely part of a black market, forbidden to the elites of the security-clearance governing apparatus but ubiquitous for the elites of related systems of social control, and so on. In time, all that residual deviance may wash away and leave 4/20 just as much a consumerist social obligation as Valentine’s Day. But one thing is clear—Americans crave the relaxing buzz of weed intoxication enough to formulate a passionate identity around it. And where there’s an identity, there’s a market.