Why Do We Still Depict All Pot Smokers as Bong-Toting Losers?

These stock images are meant to help the media rethink the way they portray stoners.

by Louise Matsakis
Apr 21 2016, 7:00pm

Image: Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance

According to a Health Canada report, about 39 percent of Canadians have tried smoking pot. There's no way they all look like Cheech & Chong, so why does the media keep portraying them that way?

As Canada's Liberal government continues decriminalizing pot and moves towards legalization in spring 2017, the country has to get its story straight about who pot smokers really are. These stock photos from New York-based nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) are here to help.

Image: Darrin Harris Frisby/Drug Policy Alliance

Many of the biggest influencers in the Canadian cannabis movement aren't young people, yet those who smoke weed are rarely depicted in the media as anything other than lazy, tie-dye wearing teenage boys.

Canadians who use legal medical marijuana to treat a variety of serious ailments, from anxiety to chronic pain, still face stigma. And the general population is rarely exposed to the diversity of stoners that actually live in the country.

Image: Darrin Harris Frisby/Drug Policy Alliance

No one can seem to paint a picture of marijuana users accurately, as evidenced by the absurdly racist filter that Snapchat released on 4/20 in order to celebrate the holiday.

Even non-profit groups that advocate for legalization have been affected by negative stoner stereotypes, and for decades couldn't even admit that they themselves used the plant for fears of not being taken seriously.

"When it came to marijuana use, only those who were bold enough or naive enough or not connected to institutions enough could be honest and come out of the cannabis closet," Allen F. St. Pierre, the executive director of the aptly named National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) told me from the non profit's headquarters in Washington DC.

Image: Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance

In a bid to help people see cannabis users more like real people—and less like weed-hungry stereotypes—the Drug Policy Alliance, where I was formerly an intern, created this series of realistic marijuana user stock images, which it released last year.

Instead of the classic stoner with a blunt on his mom's couch that often accompanies serious articles about the drug, these images feature relatable people of all ages doing normal things, like taking a bath, doing yoga, or hanging out with friends.

Image: Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance

The DPA released these images in order to help dispel stereotypes associated with marijuana users. They're admittedly hilarious, and paint a much more interesting and diverse picture of cannabis than most stock photos.

What's especially interesting about the pictures is that they showcase a wide range of THC consumption methods, especially more uncommon ones, like tinctures and salves.

Image: Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance

I checked in with Sharda Sekaran, the DPA employee behind the project, to see if the photos were effective in changing how people think about marijuana users, and why she created them in the first place.

When journalists wrote about serious topics like incarceration rates, "the go-to images were these canned photos that outlets had, of like 4/20 fests and super stoner-y looking images. It would happen both on television and in print," Sekaran told me.

Since they were created, a number of media outlets and nonprofit organizations have used the pictures. There are also similar efforts elsewhere, like Stock Pot Images, the first-ever commercial stock photo agency that specializes in cannabis-related imagery.

For Sekaran, words and images matter, and the stock images she created present an opportunity for journalists to rethink how they portray marijuana users. After all, even though they do sometimes fall back on lazy stereotypes, surely some writers must be marijuana smokers themselves.

The pictures are especially important for use in stories shared on social media, where readers often see the image before they can even read a story's headline.

The project is inspired by similar pushes to diversify stock photography for other stereotyped groups, including women. The DPA created also a stockpile B-roll footage of marijuana and you can access the rest of the photos here.

"Marijuana prohibition is not a joke," Sekaran said. "It's ruined thousands of lives."

Image: Darrin Harris Frisby/Drug Policy Alliance

CORRECTION: The original version of this story asserted that Stock Pot Images was inspired by the Drug Policy Alliance's photos. They were not. Stock Pot Images was founded before the DPA released its images.