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Ideas | S.I. Rosenbaum

Should you smoke pot in front of the kids?

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Snezana Pejic runs the Etiquette Academy of New England in Brookline, and when she’s stumped on an etiquette problem, she brings it up in her regular conference call with her peers across the country who form the American Association of Etiquette Professionals.

Over the years, she’s found herself discussing a range of brand-new social questions: What are the rules for decorum at a same-sex marriage? What should the standard practice be regarding gender-neutral pronouns?

And, most recently: what should be the etiquette rules for consuming legal marijuana?

Of course, in some circles, “take two hits and pass the joint” is as deeply ingrained a rule of politeness as “start with the salad fork” might be in others. But as legal pot becomes more widespread, novel questions arise. Is it an acceptable host gift? Can you consume it in front of your co-workers? What about your kids? Should you bust out a joint at your nephew’s bar mitzvah, or bring out some edibles after your aunt’s funeral?

“They started laughing first,” when she brought the subject up, Pejic said. “And then they said, ‘Wow, this is really new.’ . . . Even [experts in] states where it’s not legal yet, they said, ‘Oh, wow, this is coming.’”

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RELATED: Good manners for a pot-friendly society

For anyone reared in the “Just Say No” era, the notion of marijuana etiquette might sound funny, even oxymoronic. To many ears, the term “etiquette” has a connotation of rigid propriety. Historically, one function of etiquette has been to enforce social norms, and a legal ban on a substance is a powerful way to prevent the emergence of accepted social manners about how to use it politely.

Yet the deeper purpose of good manners isn’t to show off one’s good breeding or catch other people in unsuspecting breaches of arcane and sometimes arbitrary rules. It’s to help a broad variety of people —- rich and poor, hosts and guests, and, yes, users and non-users of marijuana — navigate complex social situations they encounter in the real world.

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And, increasingly, the overt use of marijuana is one of those situations. Massachusetts is one of 10 states that have decriminalized marijuana so far, and the only one on the East Coast to sell marijuana at consumer stores. Since most Americans are supportive of ending marijuana prohibition, Pejic’s colleagues are right — Massachusetts is probably at the crest of a nationwide wave of legalization.

RELATED: Map: Are pot shops planning to open in your community?

People who might not think twice about enjoying a beer or a glass of wine in front of their children must decide whether and when it’s OK to indulge in a pot brownie instead. Old guilt trips die hard. How do you consume a long-banned substance that’s suddenly legal — at least in your state, if not under federal law — without feeling a little sketchy?

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As with alcohol, though, the social rehabilitation of a marijuana is likely to take some time, and whichever path it takes to full legalization will shape the social customs that develop around the drug.

After booze was re-legalized, some states stayed dry for decades (Mississippi was the last holdout, legalizing alcohol in 1966). Well into the 21st century, other states — including Massachusetts — were still rolling back their old “blue laws” restricting liquor sales.

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And even now, alcohol consumption in the United States has retained a lingering aftertaste of illicitness that it doesn’t have in Europe. Pejic, who grew up in Serbia, remembers alcohol being a part of family meals, something a child might buy on a grocery errand. “As children, we learned that it is really to balance out certain foods, it’s not there to make you drunk,” she said, “so it’s a different culture.”

In the United States, marijuana and alcohol have very different histories. Alcohol prohibition was driven by a popular movement and only lasted a relatively short time, from 1920 to 1933; marijuana has been banned by federal law for over 80 years, and it owes its federal illegal status largely to the efforts of one man.

Harry J. Anslinger had been appointed head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, where he saw alcohol prohibition weaken and finally get overturned. In a history of US drug policy, “Chasing the Scream,” author Johann Hari argues that Anslinger saw an anti-marijuana crusade as a way to justify the existence of his department in a post-Prohibition world. “A war on narcotics alone — cocaine and heroin, outlawed in 1914 — wasn’t enough,” Hari wrote. “He needed more.”

Anslinger staged an unscientific, frankly racist propaganda campaign to vilify marijuana. Marijuana had been introduced to the United States by Mexican immigrants around 1900, and was still more widely used in Latino and black communities. Tapping into white fears about “darkies” and “degenerate races,” Anslinger profited from a feedback loop that damned pot by association with minorities, and minorities by association with pot. Twenty-six states had already banned marijuana, but in 1937, thanks in large part to Anslinger’s efforts, the Marijuana Tax Act made cannabis contraband throughout the country.

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Over the next few decades, efforts to ease or reverse the ban on marijuana went nowhere. But in the late 1980s the modern pot legalization movement was born in the same crisis that would lead to many of the other social changes Pejic and her colleagues have been reacting to.

When AIDS first struck the gay community in San Francisco, there was no treatment for the virus or many of the opportunistic diseases that followed infection. But AIDS patients noticed that marijuana helped stimulate their appetites, control their pain and nausea, and lighten their outlook.

“The illegal drug has an underground network of AIDS patients passing the word about the drug’s medicinal benefits,” The Washington Post noted in 1990.

It was the AIDS community that made medical marijuana into a movement. In 1992, San Francisco started to allow medical marijuana distribution throughout the city; California legalized medical marijuana in 1996. Modern pot activism spread from there, arguing for legalization on grounds of compassion. Why shouldn’t someone in agony, advocates asked, be allowed to smoke a little pot if it gave them relief? The compassion argument proved powerful at the ballot box.

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For marijuana, being recast in the popular imagination as a medicine was a huge part of rehabilitating the drug’s image. “We’ve had medical marijuana for over 20 years . . . and the sky has not fallen,” said Jolene Forman, a senior staff attorney with California’s Drug Policy Alliance. In states where medical marijuana has been legalized, “We’ve started seeing family members using marijuana for medical reasons, we’re seeing loved ones using it, and not becoming crazed,” she added.

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The marijuana-as-medicine pitch also reshaped the existing rules of pot etiquette, ones which evolved during its long career as an underground drug. California’s early dispensaries functioned like speakeasies, said comedian and activist Ngaio Bealum, who hosts Netflix’s cannabis cooking show “Cooking on High.” As a central place for people to gather, smoke pot, and socialize, dispensaries “helped bring cannabis culture out from a ‘dirty hippie’ type of vibe to a more upscale sort of counterculture,” he said.

By providing a central place for pot enthusiasts to mingle, dispensaries helped popularize pot-related social rituals like lighting up at 4:20 p.m. or “cornering the bowl” — lighting only part of the marijuana in a pipe so that every participant can take a “green hit.” You might think of these as the equivalent of turning the teapot at high tea.

Rules like these, Bealum said, are part of an established marijuana etiquette that will probably become more widespread with legalization. “It’s not something new,” Bealum said. “I don’t think it’s about creating a new culture [around marijuana] so much as about these new smokers learning about cannabis culture: Hang out, be yourself, have fun, don’t be rude. Pass weed to left. Try to bring some weed, don’t be a moocher.”

These days, Bealum frequents a local cannabis club in Portland, Ore. Members bring their own pot, and the club offers smoking paraphernalia, snacks, and entertainment. It’s an evolution of the dispensary, and one possibility for how marijuana consumption might develop in Massachusetts.

In the end, Bealum says he hopes that however legal marijuana use evolves, the social rules around consumption will retain some of the flavor of underground pot culture: laid-back, generous, and egalitarian.

“One would hope,” he said, “that these counter-cultural mores would infuse their way into our capitalistic society.”

In the meantime, though, social norms for legal pot remain in flux. Until commonly agreed upon standards emerge, Pejic said, it’s probably best to refrain from pushing the boundaries of polite sensibilities by blazing up in front of your kids. Or the neighbors’ kids.

But as with all forms of etiquette, she adds, the rules should always serve kindness: they’re there not just to reinforce standards, but to make people feel comfortable.

So there might be a time when passing a joint is the most polite thing you can do — whether you’re in high society or just society that’s high.


S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at si@arrr.net. Follow her on Twitter @sirosenbaum.