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What America’s weed habit says about the fall of Protestantism

A proud citizen of the United Stoners of America. Credit: Getty

May 24, 2024 - 4:00pm

You can tell a lot about a civilisation by its drugs of choice. So we should treat as significant a new study that suggests the USA’s erstwhile preferences for coffee and alcohol may be giving way to the United Stoners of America. According to the study, the number of Americans using marijuana daily has now outstripped the number drinking daily. Nearly half the USA has now at least decriminalised cannabis; in some states, Americans can even buy their weed at a drive-thru dispensary.

The study shows that this has brought a sharp rise in heavy marijuana users: a more than 15-fold increase in the per capita rate of reporting daily or near daily use between 1992 and 2022. Where in 1992 less than a million Americans reported using marijuana daily or near daily, by 2022 that number had increased to 17.7 million people, compared to 14.7 million Americans who drink daily or nearly so.

What, if anything, can we infer from this? We might speculate that it’s a lagging indicator of the Protestant work ethic’s fading cultural power, among at least some American demographics. As the historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch notes, the Protestant ethic that spread with modernity was powered by coffee and (moderate) alcohol consumption. The same culture’s working classes — and especially the sailors who enlisted (or were pressed) to serve in its global maritime expansion — spent their lives in a permanent mild alcoholic haze, thanks to rations that included half a pint of rum twice a day.

This was the Anglophone culture that “ruled the waves” in the 18th and 19th centuries. And its pattern of stimulant preference was exported to the American Anglophone civilisation that “rules the waves” today. In the accelerating preference for weed over alcohol, we might speculate that what’s discernible is a coming apart of the American dream.

For there’s some evidence that, albeit ambivalently, it’s possible to be both a high achiever and a heavy drinker, not least the expensive rehab centres that cater explicitly to this demographic. Conversely, heavy marijuana use is consistently associated with underperformance, as well as with a slew of mental illnesses.

Anyone who has tried both will understand why: the effects of these two substances are very different. Though both can impair cognitive function over time, the effects of long-term cannabis use seem to be more severe in this respect. And — importantly — one common effect of cannabis use is lethargy. As a result, while both heavy drinkers and heavy cannabis users have a problem, a heavy weed user is even more likely to be underachieving.

Heavy weed users still don’t represent a large proportion of Americans: some 17.7 million out of a total population north of 333 million equates to roughly 5%. But the promise of America has long been that all prizes await those who are willing to grind: a grind once powered by coffee, alcohol and Protestantism.

The opioid crisis has long stood as a highly visible symbol of an underclass element in the Land of the Free which has simply given up. But the shift among heavy American users of intoxicants, to one associated with increased lethargy, suggests there exists a growing body of people who no longer believe in the grind.


Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.

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Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
30 days ago

According to the study, the number of Americans using marijuana daily has now outstripped the number drinking daily.
The one missing element of this comparison is that the ‘drinking daily’ crowd includes people who have a single beer or glass of wine, the likes of which will have no intoxicating effect. The same is not true of marijuana, where there is always a buzz.
The weed element is also evidence of the truism that there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. Making the drug legal and widely available will result in increased usage. It may or may not result in over-indulgence, much like the repeal of Prohibition normalized booze consumption. We learned that there are alternatives between being a teetotaler and an alcoholic. Perhaps in some ways, weed has become the “bread’ component of the Romans’ use of bread and circuses to keep the masses in line.

Basil Schmitt
Basil Schmitt
30 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

It’s an interesting point. Weed is a pretty decent way to control the masses and quieten the young. After all, it’s primary effects are lethargy, apathy, turns you into docile livestock. Many people with difficult lives and depression turn to weed because of this. As a presumably French cook, I’d give the frog whose skin is peeling off in the scalding water a doobie.

Keith J
Keith J
30 days ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

It’s primary effects are indeed lethargy and apathy. That’s why it has become effectively decriminalised in the UK – the Police do not enforce the law because cannabis users do not cause the sort of drunken disorder in our town centres that the Police have to deal with every weekend.
The secondary effects though, especially from prolonged use, include paranoia (which I have seen in users that I know) and psychosis. Providing the “bread” to keep the masses in line, as Alex puts it, may result in much more serious long term problems.

James Pelton
James Pelton
30 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I spent a short while in the legal cannabis industry in Canada and the US. My sense is it’s more like the circuses.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
29 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I have heard of successful professionals who use an edible or a joint in the evening to unwind, like my wife and I have a glass of wine. I can imagine one drink per day types are included in the 14-15 million “daily drinkers” in the US. There’s simply no way the number would be that low.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
30 days ago

There’s only so much ‘grinding’ one can do whilst getting precisely nowhere before the alternative becomes more tempting.
What’s missing from the analysis is a breakdown of the use of marijuana between the different social classes. (Not blaming Mary for that, if the research isn’t yet available.)
There’s a huge difference however, between using weed as a means of relaxation from a position of having made something of oneself, and using it as a means of escaping the reality of not having made it.

Keith J
Keith J
30 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

A breakdown of the use of marijuana according to social class would be interesting to see. I must admit I was a bit underwhelmed by the statistics quoted in MH’s post – 17.7 million out of a total population north of 333 million (roughly 5% – maybe a bit higher as a percentage of the adult population). My own guess of usage in my (predominantly working class) hometown on the south-east coast would be somewhere around 25%.
Your final point is very pertinent – the champions of decriminalisation in the UK tend to be those who see “using weed as a means of relaxation from a position of having made something of oneself” and do not consider the social impact of those “using it as a means of escaping the reality of not having made it”. Luxury beliefs. 

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
29 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Maybe the weed, the opioids and political strife is caused by Americans finally realising the “American Dream” is a load of b*llocks.
We Brits have had a thousand years of the class system to know that meritocracy doesn’t exist, like communism it’s one of those ideas that only works in theory. We’re well aware that no matter how good you are or how hard you work you’ll always be overlooked for someone who has a good family name or the right accent.
Maybe the yanks are finally waking up to the fact their country is no different and it’s knocked them all for six that large numbers have just stopped trying

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
29 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

While we yanks certainly have a underclass from which it is difficult to escape, there is still a large middle class and wages are increasing. Things are certainly better for the cognitive elite and those with connections, but high school babysitters make about $20 per hour and our cleaning lady makes about $35 per hour (in a low cost southern city). If one is honest, reasonably personable, willing to work, and not beset by vices, there is a path to a good middle class life in most of the US. There are some exceptions, but don’t believe the excuse making of the incompetent, resentful and lazy.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
29 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Or maybe too many have been demoralized by decades of Leftists mocking individual effort, self-reliance and discipline because such things interfere with making the state everyone’s parents.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
29 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

This is really such a silly, hugely exaggerated point. Migrants to the US used to be extremely patriotic and positive towards that country and recognise how well they did compared to what they would have achieved in Europe, which was indeed more class bound. And today despite all the troubles of the United States people earn much more than in most European countries. Earning and paying your own way is just simply more dignified than claiming benefits and everybody instinctively knows this.

Although there’s been a dip in living standards since 2008, by most standards people ordinary people are among the best off they’ve ever been.

Your comment was a pretty clichĂ©d trope 50 years ago in terms of the British class system (and becoming pretty tedious when Monty Python and others were doing it to death). But then applying it to the more entrepreneurial society of the United States, is even more off the mark. About the same level of connection to reality as “Oh What a Lovely War” or Blackadder.

Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, even David Hockney of a wide range of political outlooks, and many others have acknowledged how the culture in the United States towards striving a success was very different to that in Britain.

No, there never has and never will be a society of precise equality of opportunity or outcome (and trying to make it so would result in a complete dystopia). However we used when we were considerably poorer as a nation have a much more widespread culture promoting self-reliance than we now do. It ought to be obvious that this self reliant approach is good for our society, but more than that, it is good for the people concerned, even if they don’t quite achieve all of their material goals.

We have five million people of working age sitting on their arses in the UK claiming to be mentally ill or whatever. No, you are not guaranteed to go up the social economic ladder, or even earn more than your parents. However attempting to do so is a great deal better than sitting back, accepting benefits and perhaps taking drugs, simply for your own well being and self esteem.

You can absolutely guarantee that this is not a mistake that Chinese are going to make, so we had better watch out. No, the state is never going to be in a position to solve all our problems. Even as it increasingly tries to do so, it often hasn’t got the competence – or the simple fellow feeling that you have for people close to you.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
30 days ago

It’s the economy stupid. Weed will get you through times with no money better than money will get you through times with no weed.

Basil Schmitt
Basil Schmitt
30 days ago

Weed is just really kind of pathetic. It’s a drug of lethargy and gluttony. You smell terrible and you give your little brain a good old scramble. Regular consumption over long periods of time reduces your IQ points, and you can’t get those back I wager.
At least booze brings people together and is pretty harmless in moderation.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
30 days ago
Reply to  Basil Schmitt

It stinks as well.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
30 days ago

You apparently have never been to a weed dispensary in the United States. It is, thanks to high state taxes, very expensive. Illegally grown pot is also very expensive. So in times with no money, cheap beer is the only option.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
28 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

In California there are licensed dope shops with inexpensive options that’ll still put you in a squishy fog, at least if you hold it in and keep at it. it was not cheaper when you had to break the law to get it. (I doubt moonshine would be in a dry county either). With the dizzying selection of flowers, edibles, and drinkables, etc.–combined with legality and ease of access–I’m glad I no longer regularly partake.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
27 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Why not? You make it sound like the ease of use and vast selection are a deterrent for you. Makes no sense.

James Pelton
James Pelton
30 days ago

I thought that when I was a kid. Then I stopped using weed and made a bunch of money.

JP Shaw
JP Shaw
29 days ago

And you can be assured of getting by with no money ever if you smoke regularly. Its a conundrum.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
29 days ago

HA! Quoting the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers! Your reference is lost on your fellow commenters.

Nathan Sapio
Nathan Sapio
29 days ago

The ironic thing is that the plain meaning of the allusion says enough even if you don’t know the reference. Kind of a psychological slip…

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
28 days ago

Thank you. Somebody got it 🙂

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
30 days ago

Weed is for losers. All the cool kids are doing mushrooms these days.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
30 days ago

Yes ! And thats a good thong. Boosts creativity and brain power

Ian_S
Ian_S
30 days ago

Marijuana is certainly a drug used mainly by people who have not succeeded in society. It’s a tell.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
27 days ago
Reply to  Ian_S

Bill Mayer uses marijuana daily as does Snoop Dog just two famous, successful pot smokers that we know of. I’m sure they’re not the only ones.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
29 days ago

I was never a fan of weed, I was lazy enough to start with let alone making the situation worse I’d have never got out of bed. Good old fashioned cocaine and ecstasy was what got me through my twenties

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
27 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

The drug of choice depends on the personality, constitution and how the brains of the users are wired. Some need uppers and some need downers. For many people marijuana causes anxiety rather than just getting a mellow buzz.

George Locke
George Locke
28 days ago

All the cool kids are doing mushrooms these days.

You’re a right wing hippie. I do not trust you to know what cool is.

Thomas Donald
Thomas Donald
30 days ago

Huge Harrington fan. Not this time. Linking alcohol to Protestantism, and weed to “other” is iffy and dubious. Any relative harms index shows booze is far more harmful (individual and population level) than weed, and the world has finally cottoned on.
There isn’t a “collapse of the West” story here, despite UK intellectuals love of this narrative.
Hit and a miss this time.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
29 days ago
Reply to  Thomas Donald

I disagree that alcohol is more harmful than weed. The only reason it causes more hassle is due to the sheer numbers who drink. If only 5% drank then it would be non existent. If as many people smoked regularly as people who drink the mental health clinics would be overflowing

Thomas Donald
Thomas Donald
29 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

It’s not a matter of opinion.
The epidemiologists have done the analysis, the evidence base is in, and booze is worse than weed. Individually. And at the population level.
(Not meaning to be snarky. It’s just that opinion-based medicine and policy doesn’t trump NICE-standard evidence.)

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
27 days ago
Reply to  Thomas Donald

There is a real lack of research about weed because of its illegality. More research is being done now and the findings so far aren’t great, they suggest that it’s not nearly as benign as many people have assumed.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
27 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Alcohol is far more dangerous than weed. Domestic violence is usually alcohol-fueled, and drunk driving usually has tragic results that are not always to the driver. Both substances can be used to self-medicate for anxiety but of the two weed would seem to be preferable.

Dr Illbit
Dr Illbit
29 days ago
Reply to  Thomas Donald

I concur. Cannabis atm is just like alcohol was during prohibition times was for alcohol.

Except now that it is legal we have a legacy of really strong strains akin to “moonshine” and very few original, weaker types which are suitable for recreation.

Think of the difference between strong spirits and wine


Nathan Sapio
Nathan Sapio
29 days ago
Reply to  Thomas Donald

Swing and a miss…? Unless there is some weird cricket phrase at play here.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
29 days ago

The lack of a work ethic goes with the expansion of higher education where graduates believe they are entitled to a comfortably high-paid job. When none transpires, they retreat to the communal lifestyle of a student house-share in which they smoke their days away with the blessing of too many state governments.
We see the same with university graduates in the UKs. As the home of the Protestant ethic, only Germany has maintained a work-oriented ethos largely due to their greater discipline over time-keeping.

Dave Canuck
Dave Canuck
29 days ago

True protestantism is abstinence and sobriety, prohibition was mainly a protestant movement, aimed at the immigrant drinking cultures ( for the most part Germans , Italians, Irish in those days, mostly Catholics). Of course that failed, the result was the rise of organized crime networks and the black market for alcohol, speakeasies, etc. Associating protestantism with alcohol is quite a stretch imo, maybe Scotch whiskey and gin for some. I also remember being quite unproductive after drinking too much the night before, it can be quite hard on the system.
Maybe the daily grind in many jobs becomes such a bore that marihuana helps, or the knowledge that AI and tech will replace you soon resigns you to your fate. I’d be curious to know how many daily pot users are Protestant, or religious in any way.

Emre S
Emre S
29 days ago

This article may look like a push, but the decline of Protestant ethics and its replacement with secularist substance abuse is a story waiting to be told whether it’s of the Wokeist or red-neck variety.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
28 days ago
Reply to  Emre S

Yeah no mention of opioids, nor of heavy boozing of the non-functioning kind, which is far from rare.
I used to look forward to Harrington’s articles but her increasingly reductive and sensationalized approach has wrecked that for me.

Emre S
Emre S
28 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I think she’s onto something here and I very much like her and appreciate her intelligence and being informed about emerging trends. But the idea of substance use isn’t explored much here despite some rather interesting past trends having shaped society is my observation.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
28 days ago
Reply to  Emre S

This one was little more than a swing and a miss for me. I fear she’s going into full prematurely-old lady mode of late.
Nothing is explored in depth, nor with much evidence or balance, not that I can see. Harrington is capable of far better; I wish she’d produce fewer, more substantive pieces.

Clare Knight
Clare Knight
27 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Well said.

David Yetter
David Yetter
29 days ago

Happily for me, marijuana gives me a headache. Being around enough pot smoke to get a contact high gives me a headache which more than wipes out any pleasant effects on mood — which are there, just suppressed by the headache. I’m sticking with booze.
Besides, there’s such variety in booze, everything from a refreshing lemon radler, to a genuinely good vodka (yes, there is such a thing, with some subtle flavor making it past the ice-cold alcohol), to an Imperial stout that could serve as a drink and a meal all at once, to the infinite variety of cocktails (my current favorite is the Negroni, though there are good things to say about Manhattans, Sazaracs, Hot Toddies and even Gins-and-Tonic), to a good scotch (Lagavulin being mine and my wife’s favorite — and she thought she hated scotch because here parents always has some ghastly blended scotch in the house) served with a few drops of cool water, to….

George Locke
George Locke
28 days ago

Alcohol = Protestantism = Good.
Weed = Other = Bad and end of Western civilisation.
Give me strength.

Christopher Michael Barrett
Christopher Michael Barrett
27 days ago

14.4 million Americans drink daily…. ok this number is radically wrong

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
27 days ago

Indeed. Unless you are no longer a “daily drinker” if you take two or three days off every year.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
27 days ago

It should be no surprise that so more people are taking up weed compared to other legal substances.
We are constantly bombarded with anti-tobacco messaging, it’s health effects, that it makes people stink and look old, that it’s antisocial. Taxes on it tend to be high and it’s carefully kept away from minors in many places. Advertising is often restricted.
Booze is more acceptable but there are still a lot of messages about the possible ill effects, messaging around minors using it, and it’s become so unacceptable in many circles to drive while drinking that it has affected how people think about using it more widely.
Where weed has been legalized, we don’t see or hear nearly the same level of official messaging giving health and safety warnings, or complaining that it is anti-social to smoke where it will bother others etc. If anything the message is more “look how progressive we are with legal weed, and don’t you know it can cure all your health issues too!”