Marijuana’s older celebrity stigma goes up in smoke

snoopThe toke torch is being passed in Tinseltown. It used to be that Hollywood potheads were grizzled and off-the-mainstream grid — think Cheech & Chong and Willie Nelson. Then edgy rappers like Snoop Dogg and Cypress Hill became the famous faces of marijuana, with a couple of mischievous Texans thrown in: Woody Harrelson and a naked-and-bong-playing Matthew McConaughey.

Today’s stars caught with cannabis? Meet the mostly twentysomething toke turks: They’re the antithesis of counterculture, including heartthrobs like Justin Bieber, Chace Crawford, Michael Phelps and Armie Hammer. And then there’s Rihanna, who readily flaunts her affection for the illegal flora, posting pictures of her Valentine’s present (a bouquet of weed), 25th birthday cake (adorned with a gilded marijuana leaf) and Christmastime tush tattoo (yep, another leaf of weed).

Two years ago Lady Gaga told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes: “I smoke a lot of pot when I write music.” Justin Timberlake was casually candid to Playboy about his cannabis use: “Some people are just better high.” Last year Kristen Stewart told Vanity Fair her pot-smoking was no “big deal.”

The transgressions and admissions are clearly not affecting these young celebrities’ careers: Bieber cheekily apologized in a Saturday Night Live spoof last month; Rihanna seemed to get as many high fives as head shakes for her ganja gift. On New Year’s Eve, Frank Ocean got cited for pot possession in California. Three days later, he tweeted the following formality: “hi guys, i smoke pot. ok guys, bye.” And the issue all but went up in smoke.

Ditto Crawford and Hammer, who were each arrested in Texas for marijuana possession, in 2010 and 2011 respectively. In 2009, a British tabloid infamously ran a photo of Phelps inhaling from a bong. The swimmer swiftly apologized in a statement and, in a big barometer of public approval, lost only one major sponsor — Kellogg. Subway, Speedo and Omega kept their deals afloat. The incident proved more P.R. puddle than tsunami.

It was a far cry from what befell Jennifer Capriati when she was busted for pot possession in 1994 at age 18: The tennis prodigy lost valuable endorsements, including contracts with Diadora clothing and Prince rackets and a reported three-year, $2 million deal with Oil of Olay. Capriati became better known for her nose-ring-adorned mug shot than her moisturizer advertising spot.

Nowadays, when stars and marijuana mix, “nobody cares. Society has moved on,” says Howard Bragman, a longtime Hollywood publicist and the vice chairman of, a reputation management company. “It’s not in the top 10 of what bad things celebrities can do. I would much rather have a client get caught smoking a joint than a DUI. One is potential harm to yourself and one is potential harm to other people, and that’s a huge” difference.

“Nobody smokes a joint and gets violent,” Bragman continues. “They get violent with a bag of Doritos. That’s about the worst thing that happens.”

Igniting pot’s shift into pop, of course, is the marijuana legalization movement, which gained major momentum in November, when measures passed in Colorado and Washington state. Last year the number of states allowing medical marijuana use rose to 18 plus Washington, D.C.

Attitudes have relaxed. A late November USA TODAY/Gallup poll found that nearly half (48%) of Americans think marijuana should be legal. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, a robust 60% said yes to legalization. Only about a third of the country approved of such initiatives as recently as 2005. And when Gallup first asked about the issue back in 1969, a mere 12% supported legalizing pot.

“As more states embrace marijuana law reform, the cultural stigma surrounding cannabis will continue to wane, thus opening the door for more public figures to express their support and be more candid regarding their own private cannabis consumption,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director for NORML, the marijuana decriminalization organization.

And the movement is happy to embrace these new pot poster kids. “The truth about mainstream artists coming out of the closet openly about cannabis is that the younger generation has come to form a natural alliance with their parents and baby boomers,” says Norm Kent, the chair of the board of directors of NORML. “NORML welcomes partners from senior citizens to radio hosts, from pop artists to Olympic athletes who have shared their bongs with buddies.”

Indeed, “I promise the parents of Bieber kids smoked pot,” Bragman says, “and I think that’s the big factor” in why the pop prince went relatively unscathed for blazing up a blunt early this year.

Even some of their grandparents smoked pot, and still do. Tommy Chong, who, at 74, is the age of many a Bieber fan’s grandfather, says the recent rash of young star smokers “validates what I’ve known all my life,” that marijuana stokes his artistic spark. “I directed five major motion pictures and won a Grammy for writing comedy. And I owe it all to marijuana, because it wasn’t until I found the weed that I became creative … that things started to flow for me.” He’s cut way back these days personally, but professionally, he’s still got a buzz: the new Cheech and Chong’s Animated Movie gets a limited theatrical release on April 18 (yes, perfectly synced to the 4-20 high holiday).

Chong, a NORML advisory board member for 10 years, says he’s “very proud” of this new generation of reefer respect. “These talented kids are realizing the benefits of pot and they’re indulging.”

And they’re helping fuel society’s tolerance for pot. “One way in which pot can become normalized and more accepted is if people who are admired by the general public are seen admitting to enjoying it and it’s not some horrible demon drug,” says Mike Hughes, a reporter for High Times, the pro-cannabis legalization magazine, and the host of The High Times News Hit, a marijuana news podcast.

All of which, not surprisingly, unsettles members of the anti-cannabis community. “It’s extremely unfortunate and very irresponsible of (young stars) to promote this kind of a lifestyle to young people. Whether we like it or not, they are role models,” says Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free American Foundation, who has noticed Hollywood’s trend toward mainstream marijuana use. “It’s just really the wrong message to be sending.

“We really need to protect our children from this, not give them permission to smoke pot,” Fay says. Until 2012, marijuana use among teens increased for four straight years, according to the annual Monitoring the Future survey, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Last year, the rates flattened, to 36%, 28% and 11% for 12th-, 10th- and 8th-graders, respectively. Since 1991, the percentage of teens who see “great risk” in using pot regularly has steeply declined.

When Emerson College marketing communications professor Kristin Lieb asked a class of juniors and seniors about celebrities and pot, they shrugged off the issue. “To them, it’s a recreational drug used recreationally that isn’t very threatening to anyone,” says Lieb, author of the just-released book Gender, Branding and the Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of Female Popular Music Stars.

“For the generation of fans that make up these celebrities’ primary fan base — ages 12 to 34, let’s say — marijuana just isn’t ‘bad’ anymore. And if its use is normalized, then the ‘revelation’ of use by a celebrity isn’t a revelation at all,” says Anne Helen Petersen is a film and media studies professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., who’s at work on a book about scandal and Hollywood.

What would be problematic when it comes to stars and drugs? “They wouldn’t want to see one of their favorite artists take meth because it might mean they are hurting themselves,” Lieb says about her Boston students.

No wonder Gaga and Rihanna aren’t concerned about going public with their cannabis consumption: “It’s just not that big of a deal within their target markets,” Lieb says. (And no wonder Bieber did apologize: His market skews far younger.) “For Lady Gaga, this might be the least controversial thing she’s done in her career,” Lieb says.

For Rihanna, celebrating pot “will not even register as blip on anyone’s radar screen,” she says. “Her lyrics are going to get way more attention than her smoking a joint.” (Remember her 2011 song S&M?) “Rihanna’s brand is aggressively unwholesome,” and indeed, “her marijuana consumption is an integral part of her brand identity.”

Nor will she, or any of these smoking stars, register as a chirp on any police scanner. “Marijuana is probably at the bottom of the list of things that prosecutors want to prosecute, especially when you’re talking about small amounts” for personal use, such as a joint or dime bag, says New York criminal defense and trial attorney Stuart Slotnick. “You can’t prosecute when you don’t actually have marijuana,” he says. “You may believe it’s marijuana in the picture, but you cannot prove that case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The authorities get interested when large quantities are involved. “Law enforcement is concerned with people who deal marijuana and not so much with people who smoke marijuana,” Slotnick says. “This is a personal choice and a personal lifestyle that’s more and more accepted by society today. While it may be offensive to some people, it’s not likely to get great attention by law enforcement.”

A celebrity’s image takes a P.R. hit, however, when taking a hit is seen as off-brand. “Culturally, we can’t stand a hypocrite,” Lieb says. And sure, Bieber’s foray into illegal fumes was brand-detouring, but it was also humanizing. “Here is this 19-year-old boy growing up in the public making the sort of mistakes that other 19-year-olds make,” Lieb says. “It reminds us that he is becoming a grown-up and probably is going to want to make different kinds of music.” And “anything that sort of ages his brand is something that could be useful in building a long-term brand strategy.”

Which points to the upside of a celebrity’s brush with weed: It can burnish an image. Lady Gaga’s acknowledgment “only makes her cooler,” Hughes says.

But as more mainstream stars embrace pot and as pot becomes more mainstream, does pot undergo an existential crisis — does it lose its, well, cool?

Hughes remembers when, eight years ago, Urban Outfitters started selling a pot cookbook kit complete with marijuana-leaf-shaped cookie cutters. “At the time, it occurred to me that the reason pot is — and has been — so cool is because of its history of being anti-establishment. So the idea of the establishment endorsing it and turning it into mainstream pop culture struck me as the antithesis of what pot stands for.”

But “the marijuana movement needs to be embraced by the establishment in order to progress. And pot hasn’t lost any of its ‘cool’ factor as it has received increasing mainstream support.”

Still, Hughes foresees a potentially flipped future for the formerly derided drug. “It is possible that, years down the line — assuming pot is consistently embraced by the blandest of mainstream celebrities — there could be a backlash against pot in which teenagers choose to rebel by not smoking.”

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