On January 1st, 2018 the Union’s largest state, home to about 12 % (just over 39.5 million) of Americans, legalized recreational marijuana for adult consumption. California’s passage of Proposition 64 reforms add crucial energy towards the movement supporting national legalization. Yet, when we look back at the historical moments signifying major shifts in how marijuana became normalized the United States, one of the most significant stories of the night occurred roughly 800 miles east of the state line (where I-15 enters the state by Baker).

Since Dick Clark institutionalized “rocking in” New Year’s Eve, broadcasting (and now streaming) collective merriment has been interwoven into the fabric of our annual celebrations. For those choosing to participate the ritual often includes joining with millions of others in our national ‘imagined community’. A cavalcade of celebrities, public figures, and private individuals invite millions of viewers to join them in counting down to the midnight.

Marijuana and the Cross Roads of the World

Dick Clarke Celebrates New Years Eve

Historically, the worlds of New Year’s Eve broadcasted celebration and marijuana have not crossed paths.  However, something different and significant happened on CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live. The program anchored from Times Square in New York City by Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen had the marks of a solid, although perhaps not revolutionary, televised event.

Kaye Speaks With cooper and Cohen from Colorado.

CNN correspondent Randi Kaye rocked in New Year’s Eve from Denver on the networks national coverage of the night’s festivities. At about ten to nine from Times Square Cooper and Cohen tossed coverage from Times Square to Kaye. What set Kaye’s coverage apart was the sound of lighters sparking rather corks popping.  The revelers and Kaye basked in a lazy rolling haze filling the negative space of the shot.

Responsible Transit and Mellow Art

As the night unfolded, Anderson and Cohen periodically checked in with Kaye. The correspondent boarded a “Cannibus”, a party bus where marijuana substitutes for alcohol. The destination was a “paint and puff” party where attendees light it up, and let out the art. Her coverage included very willing participants demonstrating the use of an ‘Incredibowl’, as well as the proper fitting of a cannabis friendly gas mask that keeps the smoke on the inside. After the segment viewers probably had a better idea of the variety of colors rolling papers marijuana comes in. Moreover, in addition to being smoked or eaten, cannabis infused drinks were noted as a new popular form of consumption. For her part, the CNN reporter was affectionately dubbed “Kush Kaye” by other party goers (As a consummate professional Kaye dutifully complied to CNN policy, FCC regulation, and Federal Law by consumed nothing … on air).

As the shot moved back to the New York hosts it was evident laughs at the spectacle were being shared by all. Then, quite unceremoniously, Cooper and Cohen said goodbye to Kaye, and cut to another location.

There are several things we could take away, but at least one was unmistakable. Marijuana crossed a threshold in popular and political culture during that broadcast. The open consumption of marijuana on live air during a national ‘media event’ was shown in a festive and controlled environment. To be sure adults may be acting silly. But there was nothing malicious nor threatening about the situation. There was novelty in being this open about using marijuana, but nothing was underhanded. People were having fun that was for all intents and purposes unencumbered by direct mortal dangers. It just seemed that using marijuana was a natural and normal part of the celebration in the carnivalesque atmosphere of New Year’s Eve.

A Gateway to the Executive Choom Gang

I watched some of the broadcast live while attending a New Year’s Eve party with friends (I watched the segments in their entirety online the following day). While everyone took note, we all did so in non-critical ways. This was independent of our comfort with cannabis. Whether we partook or not all were relieved to see a nation coming to its senses.

But what of the kids whose fragile sensitivities may be so easily violated by the site of silly adults; what of the children? The elementary aged children watching the broadcast with us seemed as if they could not care less about anything, let alone anything marijuana related. They didn’t bat an eye. They most likely saw it as nothing more than grownups acting silly on New Year’s. I’m not sure if it registered at all. The only puzzlement they seemed to display was at the shocked faces of the adults who were watching the same program as they were. The only thing the broadcast ‘did’ to upset the children was that it necessitated the video game they were playing be turned off. That, and the Time’s Square Ball Drop was still so far off.

It wasn’t just us gathered at the party that took note of the distinctiveness of the broadcast. The news media took note too. Kaye’s segment was panned on by the likes of editorially conservative media. The Daily Mail was concerned for the children. Laura Ingraham told her viewers that the segment showed “dopes doing dope” in the service of “big weed”.  More dangerous and road accident causing “pot heads” (never mind the Cannibus, presumably with a designated driver), could be the only outcome as far as Laura Ingrham could myopically foresee.

Not everyone took the position of errant moral entrepreneurs like Ingrham. Desus and Mero offered late night commentary that was satirically appreciative. Colbert devoted several minutes of airtime making light of the segment followed by asking Anderson Cooper, who was a guest. There was a playfulness to Colbert’s musings, and far from panic or alarm. In fact, according to Late Show part time contributor, “Stoney Von Dankington”, marijuana legalization might have been one of the least important things to occur in California

The segment was a testimony to America’s growing easiness and long overdue acceptance of marijuana for its silliness and quotidian flavor. There were adults, they were behaving like adults, and they just happened to be enjoying cannabis on New Year’s Eve. The people imbibing were not out of control, let alone developing into raging homicidal maniacs. Kingpins, cartels, and terrorists were not enriched. Children were not sacrificed to the gods of the devil weed. The sky did not fall. All that happened was about twenty minutes of air time with the revelers, well, reveling.

Cooper appearing on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert after the CNN New Years Even broadcast.As the clock struck midnight on the West Coast many interested in marijuana turned their eyes towards California. The Golden State was the political trailblazer regarding medical marijuana. Now it brings economic, political, and civil heft to the ‘legalize and regulate’ cause. The US State that can be measured against nation-states, let alone it’s confederated siblings, is no longer merely a ‘fellow traveler’. Although the push towards marijuana legalization has made considerable headway since Colorado and Washington voted to legalize in 2012 the importance of California’s change in law cannot be understated. Neither should Kaye’s broadcast. Looking back, her segments on CNN’s New Year’s Eve Live may be a watershed moment crystallizing the normalization of marijuana in American political and popular culture.

Cooper is a guest on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert after the New Year’s Eve broadcast. He is asked about Kaye.

Never Forget

We must keep some other things in mind while we note this milestone. What we saw on CNN’s New Year’s Eve broadcast was a significant moment in the normalization of marijuana in the United States. What these people were doing, rightfully I might add, would’ve been grounds for arrest in many other jurisdictions. It is the unfortunate fact that for far less than what was going on before America’s eyes, (openly, safety, and in celebratory exuberance) people have had their lives ruined by racist, classist, reactionary, and draconian drug laws. For all those claiming common cause with the side of justice, not just marijuana reformers, that fact must be recognized and rectified. Likewise, we must also understand, that like any substance we may imbibe (like alcohol, tobacco, opiates, or fast food), there are consequences as to how much we use, where we use, and where the we obtain. These must be considered when thinking about regulatory reform. The work of Dr. Mitch Earleywine is an excellent place to start this process.