Attitudes towards cannabis are normalizing, but the hope is that personal stories will serve to kick stigma to the curb

Breaking the Stigma (BTS) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to ending all stigmas—including the persisting one against cannabis use—that keep society from evolving. In late June, the group held the first of a series of private events to introduce people to the Breaking the Stigma: Cannabis campaign, a project about the healing journeys of medical and adult-use cannabis consumers, the everyday lives of patients and how they have and continue to battle stigma.

The GrowthOp spoke to Melissa Rolston (MR), founder of Breaking the Stigma and the group’s PR director, Jessica Nudo (JN), to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the campaign and what it is trying to accomplish.

How did BTS get its start?

MR: Back in 2014 when I was working in a dispensary. We had well over 5,000 members, and the majority of people that would come through were all medical patients. This was at a point when the MMPR, the Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulations, was entering into the space, so we were in a massive transition phase. I am from a military family, so I had a family member that had a diagnosis where CBD would have been one of the best approaches for them to manage their symptoms and enhance their quality of life. However, they couldn’t get past the fact that this was illegal, even though we’ve had a medical program since 2001, and they didn’t want to be labelled a stoner.

BTS will host a safe space, allow people to hang out and connect with others in the cannabis industry and community, and set up a camera for people who want to share their stories.

Melissa Rolston is founder of Breaking the Stigma, which has launched a campaign to gather the healing journeys of medical and adult-use cannabis consumers, the everyday lives of patients and how they continue to battle stigma. Photo: Jessica Nudo Photo: Jessica Nudo

What do you hope to accomplish with BTS?

MR: Being able to create this kind of community and space will really help to diminish the stigma and allow people to just have relief and do it ethically, so that these patients have access to an alternative medicine that’s still going to provide them with the quality of life that they’re seeking. We’re not looking to monetize anything, [just to] create a space for community and for people’s voices to be heard.

Why did you choose this approach to try to break the stigma around cannabis?

MR: We want to be a hub where people can go and get the information and support that they require. It all just comes down to community. When your voice is heard, you feel better as a person, especially if you’re on a healing journey.

JN: It’s opening a portal to other conversations that we need to have that are related to other stigmas, so it’s like a stepping stone to navigating and healing these concerns and providing an outlet that can also be cathartic.

What kind of imprint did the stigma of the past leave on cannabis consumers of today?

MR: I’ve been a medical cannabis patient for years, and I had to deal with family members being like, “What the hell are you doing?” Now, to be in this environment where it’s acceptable, and everyone’s cool about it, it still doesn’t diminish the fact that you had to deal with, for so long, negativity from people that love you and that are supposed to be in your circle or support system.

JN: Even when the [medical] evidence is right there in your face, there’s this stronghold on the stigma against cannabis. It’ll take probably, I suspect, at least a generation to break through.

Jessica Nudo is PR director of Breaking the Stigma, which has developed a cannabis-specific campaign meant to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the perceptions and misperceptions that cannabis consumers face. Photo: Annie MacEachern

I think that the boomer generation, especially, is quite divided. You have a lot of people that are coming around, changing their minds, that were probably more likely to consume cannabis when they were younger. And then you have that other part of the generation that was just always bit stiffer and more resistant to either change or alternative forms of medicines, because the fear-mongering did a number on them.

What signs have you observed that indicate stigma around cannabis is falling away?

MR: In Canada, specifically since October 17, 2018, there’s been a massive mind shift with people more interested in approaching this from a therapeutic perspective. I’ll give you a perfect example: my great aunt, who has been having inflammatory issues and fibromyalgia. For years, I was telling her she should be doing CBD. She was always hard no. We were on a call the other day, and she wouldn’t stop talking about how excited she is to try CBD oil. That’s just a perfect example of someone who was dead set against it, and now we’re post-legalization, and she can’t wait to get her CBD oil in the mail.

To be able to tell those stories and help inspire people elsewhere in the world, to try to advocate and push for policy change, is what we want to do.

JN: I think that large public events having consumption spaces will be a great way to remove the stigma, because then it’s really putting us on par with people who consume alcohol.

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Jessica Nudo

Editor, photographer, storyteller.