Legal Marijuana: The Aesthetic Vanguard of Techno-Dystopian Futurism

January 16, 2016

On November 4, 2014, Oregon voters passed Measure 91, which simultaneously legalized the use of marijuana by persons 21 years of age and older and provided breathtaking aesthetic insights into a future of hyper-technological social control on a dead planet. Legal marijuana dispensaries lend themselves to some of the more overtly fetishistic and connoisseur-oriented consumer displays to be found in the world’s zones of privilege, just as developments like the tar sands and China’s unbreathable air intensify the overt misery and hopelessness associated with the world’s zones of sacrifice, helping signal even to viewers utterly bereft of a minimal sense of aesthetic subtlety that the particular movie we are living in is dystopian science fiction.

Bathed in fluorescent white light and the watchful gaze of countless surveillance cameras; consisting of minimally furnished rooms of polished wood floors, glass counters, chrome light fixtures, and black-trimmed white walls; offering, after checking your identity card and ushering you past lobbies into windowless interiors, arrays of hyper-specialized strains of marijuana engineered to produce highly specific alterations of the user’s subjective state (focused or euphoric, inspired or calm): Legal marijuana offers an enrichment of consumer privilege which seems badly needed in an era of ecological decline and hierarchical intensification.

There are, after all, tailings ponds around some bitumen mines in Canada which are so toxic that birds will die if they land in them, which must be surrounded by specially-engineered guns that emit frequencies inaudible to the human ear, which the birds find horribly painful, deterring them from landing. It is only natural, aesthetically, that a world whose sacrifice zones feature guns that shoot painful audio frequencies at birds from sludge mines also has zones of consumption in which the privileged get through their days by smoking euphoria-enhancing Death Star, a 25% THC cross between Sensi Star and Sour Diesel, before calming down with a CBD-rich strain like Cannatonic at night.


When the individual is calm, rested, and focused, all of society benefits.

At some point on our path to a nightmarish future in which no stretch of land or ocean is wilderness, no species exists which is not domesticated, and no human exists whose entire being is not incorporated into an identity-negating apparatus of control and injustice, we passed a few crucial aesthetic benchmarks which can tell us with considerable certainty precisely which totalitarian future we are careening so haplessly towards.

Clearly, we are not entering George Orwell’s 1984, nor Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. The world is not becoming more like North Korea or the Soviet Union. Only in Islamic and Christian fundamentalism are there globally politically powerful forces which centralize obedience through intense personal discipline and restraint (e.g. by placing restrictions on personal pleasures like sex and intoxication). These ideologies are clearly the quixotic opponents of a dominant trend, toward a global empire consisting of an intense material hierarchy, with massively suffering underclasses and a preponderance of prisons, borders, and ghettos, which is nonetheless less severe in the social control it exercises on its privileged citizens, allowing a wide range of personal expressions, consumer indulgences, and identities. In short, our particular dystopia looks a lot like The Hunger Games, with cities like Portland, Oregon and Brooklyn, New York the wealthy districts where the disaffected-looking rich people with the idiosyncratic fashion and the weird hair watch poor people kill each other for amusement.

It is the dystopia in which a black man can be United States president while black men continue to be incarcerated at rising rates, the dystopia in which corporate executives go to Burning Man and health food is produced with prison labor. The austere socialism of China and the USSR didn’t simply acquiesce in a global power struggle to the economic and military might of capitalism: It also morally acquiesced to the naked human desire for the iPhone 6s with 3-D Touch and 14.65% THC Cantaloupe Haze. The stable form of empire, the one which is essentially becoming the global form of empire, is the one in which the apparatus of social control is used almost solely on the oppressed, while diversity and individuality are tolerated among the privileged.

Drug laws increasingly allow for the military repression of entire neighborhoods while politely deferring from passing judgement on the use of intoxicants by people with more money. A host of such laws and policies took effect in the 80s and 90s, such as the notoriously disproportionate penalties for possession of crack and powdered cocaine, and cannabis legalization continues the trend.

Race, sexuality, and gender are in and of themselves decreasing barriers to acceptance within the power structure, but the power structure is intensifying as capitalism achieves global ascendance and societies feel the reverberations of ecological change, requiring this demographically more fluid hierarchy to utilize increasingly violent forms of exclusion and control. Culture is becoming more tolerant and egalitarian while material society is becoming more restrictive and unequal. The black president presides over deployments of military force into neighborhoods whose black citizens are tired of being randomly killed by the police. City streets are renamed after Cesar Chavez in a country constructing a vast militarized wall on its border with Mexico. In the zones of privilege, it is increasingly acceptable to not believe in god, to fuck people of the same gender, and to smoke weed. In the zones of sacrifice, it is increasingly plausible the liberated-but-still-privileged of the world will drown you with their rising seas.


Rich people will look no more or less stupid in the future than they do today.

The search for a model of this globally ascendant new order outside the realm of young adult fiction could plausibly end up in the classical world. Empires like the Persian, Greek, and Roman embraced extraordinary cruelty and avarice while disavowing the obsession with demographic homogeneity and adherence to a universal creed which characterized Nazi Germany or medieval Christendom. The current tendencies of global capitalism are not without precedent.

In searching for an explanation for why contemporary global capitalism resembles classical civilization (at least in this one curious regard), two complementary explanatory approaches might be valuable. One is a primarily material and economic, focused on historically-specific developments, and one is more broadly cultural and biological.

Some of the most compelling material concerning the historically-specific is found in Christian Parenti’s book on the prison state Lockdown AmericaLockdown America documents two crucial stages of the current military build-up of American police and prisons. One stage emerges as a direct response to the social unrest of the 60s and 70s, and is part of a broader strategy of social control in which the poor/invisible are kept in inner cities while the affluent flee to the suburbs. The second stage emerges in the 80s and 90s when the American economy is no longer riding the post-WWII surge in manufacturing durable goods (like refrigerators and televisions) and is shifting to an emphasis on entertainment, finance, technology, and real estate. This shift is accompanied by a reawakened interest in urban cores, complete with massive investments in convention centers, arts and shopping districts, and other “revitalization” efforts.

Central to the ideology of urban revitalization has always been the removal of urban decay, a term which vaguely suggests that concrete might sometimes rot away from infectious agents, but which in fact refers to the unsightliness and lost economic opportunities which stem from human suffering. Perhaps, for some reason owing to the logic of cities no one bothered to consider at the outset, it was easier to keep people from the margins than from the center. The age in which American cities have restructured to facilitate more arts, culture, entertainment, and shopping—the age in which the interior of American cities have become theme parks for the privileged, playgrounds for sophisticated consumers altered by carbon-intensive indoor super-weed and fortified by smoothies featuring obscure rainforest superfoods—has also been an age of massively overfunded cops and proliferating cages. The cohort of technology professionals, consultants, and financial experts crucial to the economic success of the new inner city require endless stimulation, consumption, and recreational opportunity, ideally with minimal restrictions (born from archaic social conventions, after all) on the pursuit of personal pleasure. Police militarization, and the out-of-control prison state it has engendered, are necessary to keep the Apple Stores and arts districts of the American urban interior shining.

Inmates walk around an exercise yard at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino

The deals at Bed, Bath, and Beyond are, quite simply, too good for society to give everyone equal access to those deals.

This, however, might give the impression that the entire tangle of cultural, political, and economic forces which are shaping this reality—a restructured economy and a relaxation of cultural and legal prohibitions on individuality and pleasure—were engineered by some diabolical cabal capable of determining world events. It’s unlikely, and in fact, the people who advocate for borderless, unregulated capitalism historically have not have been the people who advocate for getting high, exploring polytheism, taking it up the ass, or any of the other behaviors which have fairly recently escaped their taboos. One cannot simply look at modern history as the ascendance of one ideology over another.

On the contrary, there have been consistent domains of victory and defeat. Examining the entangled cultural and political forces that shape complex societies, it would appear ideologies which emphasize equality and the acknowledgment of ecological limits have done far more to change the cultural landscape than the physical one, consistently losing battles that relate to actual corporeal realities, like the deregulation of global trade or the invasion of countries. Ideologies which emphasize hierarchy and ecosystems as human resources have consistently been associated with losing cultural battles, against everything from Satanic heavy metal to homosexuality to drug use in film, while succeeding in precisely those domains where egalitarian/ecological ideologies lose. After a certain number of battles concerning free expression and cultural standards are won while the same number of battles concerning carbon dioxide emissions and bombings are lost, it begins to appear a pattern is present which is worth scrutinizing intensely. It begins to appear both like people with egalitarian values are better at winning arguments about gratification than about restraint, and that they’re better at influencing cultural and symbolic realities than material ones.

Whatever the underlying explanatory framework, the ability of legal marijuana dispensaries to presage crucial aspects of the future compels an inevitable search for analogues. The only institution which illustrates our trajectory as clearly, in many crucial aesthetic, ecological, and economic respects, is Burning Man. The absurd cost of attending the festival, the outrageous expenditure of resources necessary for it to occur, and the fortuitous presence of gas masks and dust storms make it an obvious predictor of future manifestations of capitalism. But the two features that make Burning Man truly exemplary in this regard, the two features which most closely ally it with the emerging trajectory of global power, are its ephemerality and its indulgence.

The ephemerality simply stems from the fact that the world is growing so ecologically unpredictable that zones of privilege are increasingly likely to be physically temporary. Rich people will increasingly jetset to those portions of the globe not currently being devoured by apocalyptic flooding or hellish conflagrations, presumably with a vast physical infrastructure of portable Yoga studios and juice bars and an entire sub-society of service industry workers in tow.

Equally so, however, Burning Man exemplifies the future because privileged people stumbling from spectacle to spectacle on drugs, free to express every facet of their unique identity while the world burns, exemplify the future. This is particularly true as corporate executives become prominent figures at the event and $10,000 packages are offered with direct flights and private kitchens.

sst-burning man

We have depleted all living systems of the landscape we are currently occupying and will soon move on.

Somewhere in the lurid pages of Patterns of Culture, Ruth Benedict tells us about the aristocracy of native tribes of the Pacific Northwest coast sacrificing human slaves as a show of wealth and status during potlatch ceremonies. In a world where the powerful lock the powerless in cages and allow them to die of thirst on rooftops after floods, and in a world where the powerful are increasingly attracted to two-story tall pyrotechnic sculptures, it isn’t difficult at all to imagine particularly grisly future permutations of such rites, albeit this time carried out by people whose moods will be considerably enhanced by the liberal use of 18.81% THC Jedi Kush.






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