Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 295–317 | Cite as

Extending ethical consumerism theory to semi-legal sectors: insights from recreational cannabis

  • Elizabeth A. 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, OR (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 12 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.


Political consumerism Sustainability Marijuana Cannabis Fair trade Illegal 



Environmental Protection Agency


Non-Governmental Organization


Oregon Liquor Control Commission


Research Assistant


Social Movement Organization


United States Dollars


United States Department of Agriculture


World Health Organization



My sincere thanks to the many individuals and organizations working in cannabis and fair trade who took time to share their experiences, knowledge, and ideas with me. I am appreciative of the time and energy of two anonymous reviewers and the editor, whose thoughtful suggestions made important contributions to my revisions. I am also indebted to Sebastian Koos, who provided tremendous support in thinking about the demographics of political consumerism and analyzing demographic data. I am grateful for the efforts of several colleagues who provided feedback at various points in this project, including Maryann Bylander, Alissa Cordner, Francesca Forno, Paolo Graziano, the participants of the “Environmental Social Movements and the New Politics of Consumption” workshop at the 2016 European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) Joint Session in Pisa (April, 2016), and the participants of the mini-conference on “Re-embedding the Social: New Modes of Production, Critical Consumption and Alternative Lifestyles” at the Society for the Advancement of Socio Economics Conference (SASE) conference in Berkeley (June 2016). Special thanks to my undergraduate research assistants Ben Beecroft, Maya Anthony-Crosby, Sophie Owens, Ellen Schwartz, Jesse Simpson, and Jacob Weiss for their tremendous work in collecting and analyzing data and conducting background research; Philippe Brand and Benjamin Falk for fieldwork assistance; Lewis & Clark College for research funds, sabbatical time, and a research retreat; and the Department of International Affairs for providing a supportive and provocative intellectual home. Any errors or omissions are, of course, my own.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of International AffairsLewis & Clark CollegePortlandUSA

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