Framing the User: Social Constructions of Marijuana Users

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Framing the User: Social Constructions of Marijuana Users and the Medical Marijuana Movement

Nelson A. Pichardo Almanzar Dept. of Sociology Central Washington University Ellensburg, WA 98926

Thanks to Laura Appleton and Ericka Stange for comments on an earlier draft. Thanks also to Kirk Johnson for his assistance in locating criminal data sets.

Framing the User: Social Constructions of Marijuana Users and the Medical Marijuana Movement

ABSTRACT Social movements are continuously engaged in the act of framing. Whether it is to present their message in a positive light or to cast their opponent’s arguments in a negative light, SMs find it necessary to engage in a public contest over how they are perceived. Although the SM literature has been focusing on questions related to framing it has not given much attention to a particular class of framing “objects”: that is, users. This is not surprising considering that the social constructions of users are only pertinent to a narrow range of movements having to deal with drug use. Only a few significant movements pertain among them the Prohibition, Tobacco Control, Marijuana Reform, and Medical Marijuana movements. This paper explores social constructions of marijuana users over the years and how the medical marijuana issue has altered these constructions as a means to understand the framing processes involved and the changing public conceptions of marijuana reform with an eye toward explaining movement outcomes.


There are many elements of social movements that are subject to the act of framing. Framing is simply the social meaning given to various social movement elements among which include global perceptions of the movement and its legitimacy, perceptions of activists, attributions of cause and responsibility, proposed solutions, reasons for taking action, and the degree of resonance with the larger culture (Benford and Snow 2000). As noted by Benford and Snow (2000), there has been a significant increase in the amount of scholarly attention to this subject. Although this attention to framing processes has increased our understanding of social movement processes there are still a number of gaps in the literature (see Benford and Snow 2000 for a fuller discussion). One such “gap” is the failure to attend to the variety of movements that exist and the unique framing concerns that these movement types may confront. In particular, I wish to focus on a movement that marks a distinction between activists and “users”, that is, movements that deal with drug use. In particular, this paper will focus on the Medical Marijuana movement and how it has influenced and affected perceptions of marijuana users with an eye toward understanding the outcomes of the movement. Collective Action Frames Collective action frames are not static entities. Rather they are dynamic and processual in nature. That is, they are continually negotiated and renegotiated meanings. Social movements attempt to influence the outcome of these meanings but they are not the sole contributors to the meanings created. Framing contests take place in multiorganizational arenas. As noted by Gamson (1992), “[c]ollective action frames are not merely aggregations of individual attitudes and perceptions” (p. 111). In addition to movement activists, antagonists, bystanders, the media, and the government are also


involved in what is referred to as the “politics of signification” (Hall 1982). Frames are contested and contentious and imply agency and purpose. Because of the involvement of many different parties, many of the inputs into the process of signification are beyond the control of movement activists and in fact are subject to direct repudiation. This is referred to as counterframing, which are attempts “to rebut, undermine, or neutralize a person’s or group’s myths, versions of reality, or interpretive frame-work” (Benford 1987:75). Prominent among the parties involved in this...
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