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What The Cannabis Movement Can Learn From Hacker Culture

What The Cannabis Movement Can Learn From Hacker Culture

Society is filled with different groups built around similar interests, and this grouping mechanism is one of the fundamental ways that humans socialize with each other. A typical sight at post-secondary institutions is the pavilion of student clubs offering their pitches to prospective members during orientation week, and this concept extends all the way to social clubs for retirees.

Tribalistic behaviours often form around these groupings, but are usually secondary to the purpose of the organization itself, which is primarily concerned with some activity or goal rather than forming a community, although that often happens in the pursuit of those goals. As a result, the broader organizational activity often incorporates multiple communities, sometimes causing conflict. Two very poignant examples are the hacker and cannabis communities, of which the hacker community is arguably further developed in terms of cultural evolution by way of having spent more time in a legitimate context and having tighter integration into modern capitalism.

The concept of ‘hacking’ definitely pre-dates the forming of the modern hacker community, dating back to the earliest iterations of technology and altering devices beyond their intended purpose. The hacking community, on the other hand, is largely a modern era creation. It is difficult, and ultimately not necessary to attempt to pinpoint its formation, the more important relation is that of broader cultural awareness. In this context, there are two main areas, hackers as counter-culture and hackers as members of an industry.

Hackers as Counter-Culture

Hackers as a counter-cultural force is best exemplified by the era of ‘Phreaking’, or hacking telecommunications devices before the internet received mass adoption. In the popular awareness, this centered around both personalities and pieces of technology. Devices were given colour-coded references to indicate their purpose, a Red Box would let you make free telephone calls by simulating coins being inserted into payphone, and a Black Box would tell the telephone system that a call had not been answered when it had been, resulting in free long distance calls.

The most well known personalities of the counter-culture era of hacking are Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but lesser known individuals such as Kevin Mitnick, Steve Wozniak and John Draper all carried the same root ethos. Best known today as ‘disruption’, the ideals were about acting contrary to technological and cultural orthodoxy to create new things in some cases, in others to disrupt as a form of political protest. The ‘Free Kevin’ campaign is the most well-known example of counter-cultural hackers drawing awareness to politics and justice, and found its way beyond stickers and commentary to various acts of website defacement.

The transition from the counter-culture era of hacking is illustrated clearly by the change in approach to each other by the state and the hacking community. In the 90’s, a popular game at the earliest iterations of the popular information security conference DefCon was ‘Spot The Fed’, and Bill Clinton famously painted all hackers as credit card thieves. Today, Republican personalities such as Rudy Giuliani run cyber-security companies and the NSA offers device charging stations at DefCon and other conferences.

From Hackers To InfoSec

With a few exceptions such as job positions entitled ‘Hacker-In-Residence’, the nomenclature has changed to ‘Information Security’, or ‘InfoSec’. Corporations have entire vertical business units based around computer security, and a technology company’s C-Suite would likely be regarded as incomplete without a Chief Security Officer. The most mainstream conferences focus more on how hackers can add value to corporations, the polar opposite of the prior philosophy of how hackers could thwart corporations.

It’s important to note that the modern hacking community is still not a monolithic one even with the trends of corporate gentrification, there are many communities and conferences that bristle at corporate involvement and prefer to remain closer to the counter-culture values. In this way the hacking / information security groupings are more correctly described a diverse ecosystem rather than a community that is preferential to one particular set of ideals.

Cannabis Culture Origins

So with all of the above said, what does this mean for the future of cannabis? There are many parallels to both communities, but it’s as important to note the differences. Even in Canada’s restrictive vision of cannabis legalization, the general legislative trend is about making things more legal. Today’s computer security laws stipulate harsh penalties for activities that were either lightly punished or not illegal at all in the counter-cultural era of hacking.

Cannabis has historically been, and to some degree still is a counter-cultural movement, but with stronger formational ties to social justice than hacking. The plight of patients suffering under the AIDS crisis of the 80’s was eased by the earliest forms of medical cannabis, long before the modern treatment regime of multiple anti-retroviral medications was available. Cancer, chronic pain, and other conditions were also eased by the use of cannabis in a medical context, and medical cannabis programs are generally the first step in establishing completely legalized cannabis access. There is likely no better example of a counter-cultural statement than your local neighbourhood dispensary standing in opposition to expensive medication from ‘Big Pharma’.

Cannabis legalization has also been focused on acts of protest, the most famous being yearly events on April 20th, or ‘4/20’. Cannabis legalization in Canada has seen protests take different forms, both events like 4/20 and legal protests by way of challenging cannabis prohibition. While Canada’s eventual step to legalization was legislative, there is no question that the movement would not be where it is today without the strong medical cannabis community that established itself in Canada since the late 90’s.

The Modern Cannabis Industry

Legalization today in Canada, a little over 5 months since the coming into force of legislation, looks very much like the early stages of the birth of information security as an industry. Corporations slowly gentrifying communities and activism circles, and employing personalities from those communities. Major corporations such as Canopy Growth employing well-known activists such as Kirk Tousaw, Hilary Black and Adam Greenblatt is a direct parallel to personalities such as Kevin Mitnick being eventually employed as security consultants. It’s not the intention of this piece to pass judgment as to whether that is ultimately a positive or negative development, merely that it seems to be a natural part of counter-cultural movements becoming accepted by the general population.

Going back to the title of this piece, the cannabis movement in general and various communities that comprise it can take some lessons from the evolution of the hacker community:

There will always be room for opposing communities : For every corporate-focused event or conference, there is another more closely rooted to the original hacker ethos. SchmooCon, Chaos Computer Club and others exist in stark contrast to the RSA Security Conference and other corporately-aligned events. Although there was largely a passing of the torch from the Treating Yourself cannabis expo to the Lift Conference, smaller conferences are already starting to propagate such as micro-producer focused events. While it’s likely that at some point the overall cannabis ecosystem will more closely resemble the alcohol industry, legislation and enforcement have no hold on the formation of communities opposed to the encroaching corporate orthodoxy.

Friction between communities is normal : Another common thread between hacker and cannabis spaces is that conflict does occur. It’s important to frame what ‘normal’ conflict looks like, in calling attention to defects in policies, injustice, and bad actors behaving poorly to the detriment of the overall community. Personal squabbles are, of course, to be expected, but not something that should be encouraged. In short, if your community is a monolithic entity that never has any form of conflict, you probably don’t have a very healthy one.

Detrimental influences should not be tolerated : The hacker community has been quick to call out bad actors, who engage in activities ranging from dishonest business practices to sexual predation on the community. So too has the cannabis scene at large, both in calling attention to ethical lapses from licensed producers as well as the mainstream media finally reporting on the alleged misconduct of Marc Emery, somewhat of a direct parallel to the banning of John Draper from conferences due to allegations of misconduct with underage persons. Communities should not shy away from calling out bad behaviour, lest they be painted by an unfavourable brush by opportunistic members of the political establishment as Bill Clinton did in the 90’s.

Effecting policy change should not be a single-pronged effort : There have been many policy battles in technology at large, and they have had multiple fronts of conflict. As websites were defaced by some to call attention to injustices such as Kevin Mitnick being held without trial for years, lawyers like Jennifer Granick and others argued for reforms and defended the rights of those accused of computer crime. This continues to the present day, where organizations such as the Electronic Freedom Foundation argue against policies such as the EU’s draconian filtering proposals for the internet. The cannabis movement has also historically had a multi-pronged approach, and should continue this even in the era of legalization. While some fronts of civil disobedience have given way to creative compliance, there is still a need for arguing for policy reforms to legislators and raising awareness of issues such as draconian driving restrictions and a lack of public consumption options. These battles are best served by attacking the issue from as many angles as possible, rather than deciding to concentrate solely on one area.

As the movement changes, deciding on what your communities stand for becomes more important : As the hacking movement at large became more mainstream, it undoubtedly underwent changes to some previously held core goals. Communities themselves, however, need not be as malleable, and it’s important for community organizers to decide and stand firm to what they want to curate. Some hacker groups have welcomed corporate sponsorship, others have eschewed it in favour of remaining independent. This extends to cannabis communities, who in the face of corporations welcoming themselves into the overall movement, must decide whether welcoming the corporate tribe is a natural progression or antithetical to their core values.

Celebrate changing the world : Finally, both the hacker and cannabis movements at large have changed the world, and participants should not let ongoing frustrations overshadow that fact. As Spock once said, ‘it is illogical to assume all conditions remain stable’. Movements will change, and the early steps towards stabilization are often both the most exciting and harrowing. Many hackers still recount stories of early DefCon events at Alexis Park with nostalgia while critiquing the more corporate focus of the current iteration of the conference. It’s likely that the current events in Canada and elsewhere will be looked upon similarly in a decade or two, and those shaping what the world will look like should take a minute or two to enjoy both the process as well as the end result.

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