420, weed, mary jane and pot are all colloquial terms for the green leafy drug formally known as cannabis. Cannabis is a plant-based drug whose properties can range from relaxation to euphoria, depending on the tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiol percentages.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the compound that gives weed its psychoactive effects, also known as the high. Cannabidiol (CBD) is known for its relaxing and calming effects but does not cause a high. Hemp is associated with CBD, and marijuana is associated with THC.

“The THC level is what differentiates a hemp plant [in] legal usage, as opposed to the marijuana plant, which then has to be regulated … The hemp plant has 0.3 [percent THC], or less. The marijuana plant has more because higher than that dose could potentially have a psychoactive effect,” said One Plant Goleta’s general manager Bryon Bryan.

Traditionally, weed is sold as dried plant material called flower or bud, which is then burned and inhaled. Methods of inhaling bud involve pens, bongs and pipes. As cannabis has become more accessible via legislation, the selection of products has grown.. Edibles and vaporizing cartridges allow users to consume or inhale without having to burn the plant itself.

The variety and growth of diverse weed products provides people who don’t like to smoke an alternative to accessing and consuming cannabis. 

“I think that cannabis really just brings people together,” said Alyssa Romero, a cannabis retail specialist at Farmacy Isla Vista. “I think that people are able to bond over weed, they’re able to get together, whether they’re using it socially or if they’re able to relate to each other saying, like, oh, you know, smoking a joint really helps with your anxiety, too? And that creates friendships and fosters relationships.”

Though cannabis is one of the oldest recreational drugs in the world, its status as a legal drug in the United States has been fairly contentious. Hemp was often grown in the colonies, and cannabis was used in medicine during the 19th century.

After Prohibition ended in the early 20th century, Harry Anslinger, an ex-Prohibition politician, saw this as an opportunity to gain power. He spread paranoia and blatant lies about the supposed dangers of the plant and blamed it on people of color, primarily: Mexicans immigrating to the U.S. to flee the Mexican Revolution and jazz musicians, who were a predominantly Black demographic at the time.

“Harry Anslinger was heading the [Federal Bureau of Narcotics]. What he was doing was basically turning marijuana into a racialized subject,” explained assistant history professor Utathya Chattopadhyaya. “So marijuana becomes something you want to stop [doing] because it’s associated with immigrants, jazz musicians, youth culture, basically disorderly elements.” 

In part to this fear-mongering campaign, the U.S. government criminalized the growing of hemp under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. 

These fear tactics toward cannabis affected the perceptions of Americans for decades to come. Cannabis is still classified in the same category with drugs like heroin, and to this day, many believe that it is a gateway drug according to Romero. 

While these laws are unbiased on paper, in practice, they are used to justify the arrest of Black and Brown people at disproportionate rates. 

In recent years, the government and the people have started to reinstate cannabis legalization. In 1996, California became the first state to legalize weed for medical purposes, bringing it in direct contention with federal law. Though cannabis has not yet been legalized on a federal level, forty states have since approved the use of medical cannabis, and twenty-one have further legalized it for recreational use – including California in 2016.

“I think the legalization comes out of two things. One, medical research on the cannabis plant, that’s basically showing the possible medicinal uses for anxiety, medications, things like that. All of that research plus [two], the opposition to the war on drugs – like the popular social movement against [it],” Chattopadhyaya said.

Despite the legal challenges and zoning difficulties of opening a legal dispensary, businesses have scrambled in an attempt to meet customer demand. Total taxable sales of legal weed in California have almost doubled in the past five years and quadrupled in Santa Barbara County.  Yet, there is still a massive market for weed in California.

Angelina Song / Daily Nexus

Total taxable sales of legal weed in California have quadrupled in Santa Barbara County from 2018-2022 due to dispensaries opening to sell. In a smaller reflection of this trend, two cannabis shops have recently emerged near UC Santa Barbara: One Plant Goleta, which opened in May 2021, and Farmacy Isla Vista, which opened its doors Dec. 2022. These two stores are both within a two-mile radius of UCSB, and much of their clientele consists of of-age students.

“For the license to [sell cannabis], you have to have a lot of capital which you're investing into, and then also having storefronts. But not a lot of people can do that. And then the maintenance of the farms is also expensive, Chattopadhyaya said. So for people who can't put up that kind of money, they basically grow cannabis anyway, and then just sell on the black market.” 

In California alone, marijuana is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it is here to stay.

“My guess is weed culture is going towards what is called the agro-business model, where large farmers will be growing for [most of the population]. Because it's so capital intensive, you need so much money to start it … and then we will see a kind of concentration of capitalist power in the market,” Chattopadhyaya predicted.

Jake Jensema / Daily Nexus

The average total taxable cannabis sales map categorizes California's counties based on their taxable sales of cannabis, with darker shades of green indicating higher sales. Notably, populous areas such as Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara have emerged as major players in the cannabis market, likely due to their dense population and accessibility of dispensaries in these locations.

Jake Jensema / Daily Nexus

Per capita sales, which is calculated as total taxable sales over the population, offers a different perspective. Although Mono and Inyo Counties exhibit the darkest shade of green, they may not generate as much cannabis sales as the major cities. However, when it comes to the average amount spent per person on cannabis, these counties are evidently prominent contributors. An interesting observation is that San Francisco stands out in both charts, demonstrating a substantial volume of cannabis sales as well as a high average spending per person.

As for how weed culture differs by county, Los Angeles and coastal areas are known for their weed cultures. This is reflected in the average total taxable sales figure, where the West Coast dominates weed sales. However it’s also interesting to note how per capita, eastern counties have higher sales. For instance, Mono County’s average per capita sales are the highest average per capita sales out of all the California counties. Other eastern counties with higher sales include Inyo County and Yuba County.

Even among the West Coast, differences still exist with weed culture being more prominent in Los Angeles than in Santa Barbara. 

“There's definitely a huge difference, and I honestly think that's because cannabis is newer here in the 805, and we're still trying to pave a path for people to see cannabis as something that is beneficial, whereas I feel like in Long Beach, LA, it's already been a little more normal,” said Romero.

Nevertheless, the popularity of weed has been steadily rising

“I think that's really important,” said Bryan. “I think it's critical for us to destigmatize cannabis and stop viewing it as something that is hurtful. So with this increase in the amount of people that are opening their minds and being willing to try cannabis, the more people that are able to realize that this isn't a bad thing, that it's super helpful both, you know, mentally, physically, spiritually.”

And despite popularity among the nation, states and counties, concerns revolving around cannabis culture is inevitable.

“Regardless, if you like cannabis or not, do your research, do some education. Educate yourself on the different ways that cannabis can be consumed, the different benefits it may have before,” Romero said. 

Jackie Chen contributed to reporting.

A version of this article appeared on p. 4 and p. 5 of the April 20, 2023 print edition of the Daily Nexus.