Extending ethical consumerism theory to semi-legal sectors: insights from recreational cannabis
By Elizabeth Bennett
Ethical consumerism theory aims to describe, explain, and evaluate the ways in which producers and consumers use the market to support social and environmental values. The literature draws insights from empirical studies of sectors that largely take place on the legal market, such as textiles and agri-food. This paper takes a first step toward theorizing ethical consumerism in semi-legal sectors where market activities occur legally and illegally. How does extant theory extend to sectors such as sex work, cigarettes, and recreational drugs?
This study draws on the case of recreational cannabis (marijuana) in Portland, Oregon (USA). Data from 33 interviews, structured fieldwork at 64 dispensaries, and the US Census Bureau American Community Survey are analyzed using qualitative, quantitative, and spatial methods. The findings are compared to twelve suggestions that emerge from the literature on fair trade, organics, alternative agriculture, and political consumerism.
I argue that not all ethical consumerism theory extends to semi-legal sectors. Cannabis closely resembles theoretical expectations in terms of supply/demand, prioritization of ethical issues, and pervasiveness of false claims, but differs in terms of who organizes, which types of strategies are pursued, and how ethical products are framed. The differences stem from several pervasive stigmas about cannabis. I also argue that the stigmas that set cannabis apart from other (more legal sectors) and present challenges to ethical consumerism in cannabis are directly related to the War on Drugs. These insights suggest that prohibition (and its lingering effects) can inhibit the emergence of ethical consumerism.