Deconstructing stereotypes with David Schmader

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David Schmader: speaker, essayist and author of the new book, "Weed: the User’s Guide"
Tom Nelson

was taught that the two things that I love the most, homosexuality and weed, were completely evil,” says David Schmader, speaker, essayist and author of the new book, Weed: the User’s Guide. “I want to protect other people from being fed that bullshit because once I reckoned with them, I found those are great pleasures of life. But I was taught nothing but wrong about them, which got me wondering, what if everything that I’ve been taught was bad was actually good?”

In this post-prohibition era of marijuana, long-held stereotypes are being challenged as rumors are replaced by the realities of legalization. It turns out that not all consumers are stoners, not all stoners are wasting their lives away and dealers aren’t as evil as the drug war made them out to be. In fact, this isn’t about heroes and villains at all.

Rather, it’s a story built on stereotypes, ideas about people that are widely held, fixed and oversimplified. Sure, they can be useful, forming characterizations to help navigate the billions of unique people on Earth. But with that utility comes the risk of the human tendency to manipulate, to weave a tale about how weed is dangerous, addictive and destructive and to build laws that demonize its consumption.

In his TEDxRainier talk, On Marijuana Myths, that he gave in Seattle last year, Schmader said that “stereotypes are dangerous at best, diabolical at worst.” Dangerous because they tempt us into believing truths beyond our own experience. Diabolical because they can actually ruin people’s lives.

His first experience of the villainy of the stereotype was in being gay. “Stereotypes keep normal people scared,” Schmader says. “In the old days it was like, I didn’t want to come out because the only gays I knew were Divine or dead. There was no role model. There was just the cartoon sense of gays, as someone who is different, with different desires and drives than you and me.

“As queers you just learn not to trust stereotypes or the law. Like when drag was illegal. You just don’t listen to certain laws — you learn that early on. Because of that, I had a weird mistrust for morality when it came to weed. I never had that thing where I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t bear to do something illegal,’ I was just like, ‘Oh, don’t get caught.’”

Now that marijuana laws are going away and he doesn’t have to live in fear of criminalization, Schmader doesn’t just talk openly and frequently about weed, he is of the mind that it is his obligation. If stereotype is the villain, the hero capable of bringing its demise is brutal and unbarred honesty. Schmader may just be a regular guy, but he is remarkable in his willingness to be vulnerable, to lay himself bare, in order connect with people to realize a collective truth.

“Being honest about weed was a lot like being honest about gayness,” Schmader says. “There is a duty to be more honest, to add more specificity. Instead of saying that I am going out on a date, I am going out on a date with a guy. Instead of saying that I am going to smoke, [I’ll say] out of a bong.”

Here is where Schmader’s view gets extreme because he readily admits (spoiler alert) that we are all dying. Since we are all on our way out, we might as well enjoy the ride and stop faulting each other for the ways that we choose to live, love and recreate.

“If you are doing anything you are dying,” he says. “That’s what is happening right now. Hopefully we have a long, lovely stretch at this, but the idea that [weed] is dangerous, that pleasure is dangerous, and that they outweigh the small dangers that have been overstated to us our whole lives [is ridiculous]. And then we get, not just to pleasures, but to these medical benefits that take it out of the realm of personal morality. Marijuana is a gift to humanity that we need to reckon with.”

To be sure, overcoming the stigmas of marijuana isn’t just about an adult’s right to choose, it’s about getting rid of a stereotype in order to pave a road toward researching the medicinal properties of cannabis. For years, the government has cited the federally illegal status of marijuana as a legitimate excuse to not explore these benefits. In this case, the stereotype is actually trumping the scientific method for truth and preventing access to a potentially life-saving medicine.

Schmader came onto my radar because he is publishing a book about weed but the impression that he left goes far beyond marijuana. He opened my eyes to the interconnections of stereotype in society and made me realize that lazily accepting a stereotype in one context inclines us to do so in another. And, perhaps most importantly, he empowered me to admit that I do that too, because I am imperfect and flawed, just like him and just like you.

“Monsters are made of the same stuff as us,” Schmader says. “So a lot of this is about denouncing monsters, not trying to make them seem like they are not human because everyone of us will be a monster to somebody someday. To vilify them is just bullshit.”