November 19, 2023 - 4:20pm

Last Friday, the rapper Snoop Dogg made a grave announcement. “After much consideration and conversation with my family, I’ve decided to give up smoke,” the rapper posted on social media. “Please respect my privacy at this time.” The terse seriousness of the statement could well be tongue-in-cheek: perhaps Snoop, already a serial entrepreneur in all things weed-related, is about to launch a smoke-free product, like a marijuana vape or edible.

But many people certainly have stopped smoking weed. ONS data from last year shows that 16.2% of British 16–24-year-olds had smoked cannabis over the past 12 months — a decline from 28% about 25 years previously. This trend is mainly youth-led: for 16-59-year-olds, the drop is less pronounced, from 10% to 7.4%. 

Weed’s cultural power has waned, too. Classic stoner comedies of yore, such as Seventies and Eighties flicks by the American duo Cheech and Chong, imprinted upon us an archetype of the laid-back, snack-loving smoker. Nowadays, the drug is treated as one among many. Guy Ritchie’s 2019 film The Gentleman, about an American-born cannabis king who wants to retire, doesn’t make much of his chosen product aside from a half-statement about class — he grows his crop on the estates of hard-up aristocrats.

The drug was once a low-risk form of rebellion. It was illegal, but it wouldn’t particularly screw you up. That has changed — and not just in the US, where it’s fully legal in 24 states. In Britain, medical weed is legal in certain circumstances, while CBD oil, which isolates marijuana’s therapeutic compound, is on sale at every high street health shop. The weed you get from dealers, though, can hardly be called a soft drug: skunk, bred for intense levels of psychoactive THC and linked in multiple studies to psychosis, now accounts for 94% of cannabis seizures by police. Weed has become not so much an uncool drug as a background drug, taken in high-status medicinal form or as a mind-curdling palliative to poverty.

In its place, other substances have jumped on the zeitgeist. Nitrous oxide — or laughing gas, or nos, or “hippy crack” in tabloid-ese — was taken by 9% of 16–24-year-olds in the late 2010s. Dealers would hang around club entrances and sell balloons of the stuff to departing punters, as ubiquitous as ushers with trays of ice creams at theatre intervals. Even then, usage has since deflated to 4%, and earlier this month it was banned in the UK.

To some extent weed, and in a less gentle way acid and ecstasy, epitomised utopian summers of love. That optimism is alien to young people today: a January study by the Prince’s Trust found that the overall wellbeing of UK 16-25-year-olds was at its lowest point since research began 14 years ago, largely due to economic pressures. This has polarising effects. Some people “quiet quit”, resigning themselves to the bare minimum, while others are driven on by anxiety. Maybe it’s a sign that Gen Z-ers see no alternative to getting ahead. The laidback life of the stoner has gone up in smoke.

Josiah Gogarty is assistant editor at The Knowledge, an email news digest, and a freelance writer elsewhere.