Like many of my age (i.e. old enough to have grown up with cannabis still broadly illegal), the humble hemp leaf started creeping into my consciousness as I reached adolescence—a mysterious symbol of something slightly illicit, but as yet, undefined.
As it revealed its meaning, it opened up a hidden world of sub-cultures and subversion unlike any other symbol. On the face of it, a leaf is an odd choice for a counterculture icon; botany is rarely perceived as a radical practice. No one is getting wheat sheaves, cider apples or hops tattooed on their torso in appreciation of their place in the alcoholic production process. Perhaps the nearest equivalent of the elevation of a recognisable symbol of production is the bunch of grapes when it’s printed on labels of cheap supermarket boxed wine, or swinging above the aisles on convenience store signs.
A sign becomes a signifier when it transcends the purely visual and takes on an adaptive meaning — the Christian cross, for example. This is both their power and weakness. The hemp leaf is a symbol so fully loaded that it is impossible to remove it from decades of counterculture. Like a pentangle, it will always carry with it an undercurrent that will alienate some of the audience. Such a powerful link has been made between the image and cannabis’ psychotropic effects, they’ve become virtually interchangeable.
Ubiquity isn’t always a guarantee of acceptance…and copying something ubiquitous is definitely not the way to create something original.
This creates both a problem and also an opportunity for cannabis and CBD brands. Look at the products out in the market and you’ll see a proliferation of hemp leaves. Sure, they’re not all graffitied stencils or Jamaican pastiches — some are stylised modern nods to the leaf. But it’s still the leaf, and with it comes all the baggage of the past 100 years.
That’s a century of references—from the radical politics of the sixties to stoner rap, dingy bedsits, bongs and paraphernalia. That’s ‘Spliffy’ character hoodies and terrible psychedelic poster art. To say that’s a confusing mash-up of references is an understatement. And yet much of it keeps reappearing—even on CBD products. Harmful for an industry that’s looking increasingly toward medical efficacy.
The cannabis leaf holds a special part in pop culture. But as the industry grows up, it’s time to drop the leaf and move on. After all, the problem with anything that becomes ubiquitous is that, paradoxically, it becomes virtually invisible.