Immoral Sin or Luxury Good?: The Ethical History of Chocolate and Marijuana

When goods that were once considered immoral become commonplace, it’s often hard to imagine they were ever socially unacceptable. Tattoos, alcohol, and birth control are all relatively common twenty-first century goods that were far less agreeable two generations ago. Many things we consider normal in contemporary times were once considered wrong—or even illegal. So it is with chocolate and marijuana, two commodities that have throughout history been associated with immorality and unethical users, but today are beginning to be seen as luxury goods in certain settings. The two are sometimes even combined in the form of cannabis edibles, which create a unique way to experience each ingredient and demonstrate a blending of two goods that mirror and echo each other in many ways. Chocolate and marijuana are two goods that have recently emerged in the luxury wellness space. These two unique commodities have experienced parallel paths in social perception from immoral or sinful goods to luxury goods with potential health benefits.

Building on my first blog post, Social Associations and User Ethics of Chocolate Through the Ages, in which I examine the history of ethics and chocolate, I will analyze the shifting ethical history of chocolate alongside another commodity which has transitioned in recent years from a sinful, and even illegal, product to a potentially luxurious product and a lucrative market: marijuana. I will begin by retracing the ethical history of chocolate, focusing specifically on the recent shift towards understanding chocolate as a luxury good associated with health and wellness. Then, I will examine the history of user ethics of marijuana and the way this unique good has transitioned in the eyes of American and global society. Finally, I will consider these two commodities in combination and see what new insights can be revealed when two goods that have so many parallels are baked into a single product.

Ethical History of Chocolate: Elite to Mass to Luxury Again

From its earliest beginnings, chocolate was a luxury good. For Maya and Aztec civilizations, chocolate was a drink accessible only to elites, signaling the ways commodities factored into the complicated social structures of these ancient societies. Below is a photo of a member of Aztec society holding a cacao pod, potentially in preparation to form into chocolate drink and serve to elites.

An ancient Aztec statue depicts a member of Aztec society holding a cacao pod (Wikimedia Commons)

“Our sources unanimously declare that the drinking of chocolate was confined to the Aztec elite,” say Coe and Coe, demonstrating the way chocolate was completely stratified into circles accustomed to luxury (Coe, Coe, 95). The only people with access to chocolate were “the royal house, to the lords and nobility, to the long-distance merchants, and to the warriors” (Coe, Coe, 95). Cacao beans were also sometimes used as currency in these ancient societies, though archaeologist Eleanor Harrison-Buck explains in the Smithsonian Magazine that cacao was more than simply “a form of currency that elites could control and administer as a means of consolidating their power” (Garthwaite, 1). Instead, cacao as a resource was “grounded in social relations”—and confined to elites.

Cacao and the chocolate it created retained its aristocratic implications throughout its expansion to Europe. Across France, Spain, England, and beyond, chocolate continued to be the food and “drink of the elite,” but in luxurious “coffee houses” instead of Aztec or Maya settlements. But as chocolate was made accessible in more and more places, its mass production meant it was also less associated with elitism and luxury. Thanks to technological advancements such as salting, canning, refrigeration, transportation, and retailing that fueled mass production, large conglomerate companies were able to spread chocolate goods across the country and world—for far cheaper prices (Goody). When companies like Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé mass produced chocolate items for low prices, the commodity became associated with lower classes, and at times the stereotypes of sin and immorality that accompanied classist associations. But the primary switch in the social perception of chocolate that this paper is most interested in exploring is a more recent one. The transition from cheap, mass-produced commodity associated with poor user ethics (lack of self-control, sinful desires, disregard for health) to a luxury good tied to health and wellness is a more recent shift that opens up questions about commodity stereotypes, the contemporary wellness space, and the nature of social change.

Chocolate’s Resurgence as a Luxury Good

As the health and wellness trend sweeps the nation, bringing with it crystals, kombucha, and kale, certain chocolate-makers have begun to rebrand their products as a part of a naturally healthy food trend. Below, a screenshot of a webpage from luxury wellness and lifestyle website Goop shows the article “The Good-for-You Chocolate Guide” advertising the health benefits of chocolate “supported by science” and the ways it may fit into a contemporary, health-focused lifestyle. 

An article from the luxury wellness site Goop provides a guide for “Good-for You Chocolate,” claiming the food has benefits related to inflammation, heart health, stress, and more (Goop).

Wellness sources and chocolate companies alike have begun to tout the health benefits of chocolate, especially the antioxidant properties, vitamin compounds, and presence of other ingredients like magnesium and calcium. In 2012, James Howe undertook an investigation into chocolate’s cardiovascular health properties, describing how “assertions of this sort, alleging great health benefits from chocolate, go back a long way in Europe and the Americas” (Howe, 43). In his article, Howe investigates a claim concerning the Kuna people of Panama linking their particularly avid consumption of chocolate to low blood pressure and solid cardiovascular health, though Howe finds this correlation to not indicate causation (Howe, 45). As sources from wellness websites to scientific studies have promoted chocolate as a health food, its social perception has begun to shift—and with it, the product’s price.

Especially as chocolate producers themselves have advocated for chocolate as a healthy food, people have begun to see it as more associated with a luxurious and wellness-focused contemporary lifestyle. This changes the perception of user ethics: if people who eat chocolate do it for their health and wellness, they can no longer be seen as immoral or sinful. But the move towards craft chocolate can also be dangerous for people who cannot afford the price increases that accompany the movement towards better-made, more health-focused chocolate. As Dr. Martin says in her article “Sizing the Craft Chocolate Market,” “Some individuals and companies that identify as part of the craft chocolate movement commit publicly to paying prices substantially above bulk commodity for cacao” (Martin). This is positive for chocolate producers, who may make more money as a part of this willingness to increase in price, yet can also cause problems for consumers with less access to money for food. Groups like the FCCI are working to develop a model for the craft chocolate market—which Martin defines as people who organize their companies and “lives—work, production, consumption—around the pursuit or furtherance of their desires,” indicating a more values-based trade—that includes more stabilized pricing, but this is an understandably difficult task. Thus, in some ways, chocolate becomes another commodity in the long line of goods that cause harm for lower socioeconomic classes by becoming a status symbol for the wealthy. Another of these commodities, in even more complex terms, is marijuana—which I will explore in following sections.

The Complex Ethical History of America’s Favorite Illegality

Anti-marijuana advertisement targets family stereotypes (Gillespie, Blogspot).

Why has marijuana been illegal in the United States for decades? The answer will help to demonstrate the path marijuana has charted from socially immoral to luxury good. Though marijuana had been present in various forms in the United States far before the twentieth century, it grew in prevalence following the influx of Mexican immigration to the U.S. following the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s. When “hundreds of thousands of brown-skinned migrants [fled] to the U.S. in search of safety and work,” some brought with them a new method of ingesting marijuana through smoking (Lee, 41). Thus the drug was associated with Mexican immigration from the beginning of its rise in American society—and thus tied to racist and xenophobic views about immigration that grew in a “climate of fear and hostility” toward “Spanish-speaking foreigners” (Lee, 41). America’s primary introduction to marijuana was one tainted with social perceptions of immorality and danger, solidifying its spot as a social vice.

As “public officials and newspaper reports depicted marijuana, the Mexican loco weed, as a dangerous vice, an alien instrument into American life,” legislation lined up to ban marijuana and criminalize its possession. Though prior, more minor laws had passed earlier in the twentieth century, the main legislation banning marijuana was the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970. Signed by President Nixon, the CSA placed marijuana and its derivatives in the same tier of categorization (high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, unsafe to use even under supervision) as drugs such as heroin and LSD. Cocaine, fentanyl, and oxycodone were all placed on lists indicating lower risk. This plunged the perception of marijuana even deeper into the waters of immorality: now, it was not only socially frowned upon, but also deeply illegal and dangerous. The following video reiterates these points of historical context and helps to explain why and how marijuana became criminalized as it did.

Lee writes that “marijuana is by far the most popular illicit substance in the United States with 10,000 tons consumed yearly by Americans,” indicating that the drug’s categorization as highly dangerous has been disproven by the general population (3). As is obvious in contemporary times, it has also been disproven by science—marijuana’s recent resurgence has grown out of countless studying indicating its harmlessness and health benefits. Now, marijuana legalization is moving forward at a rapid pace, and today medical marijuana is legal in 33 states and recreational marijuana in 10 (National Conference of State Legislatures.

With this shift in legality has come a shift in perception, and the decriminalization of marijuana in most states means the drug has come to be seen as less dangerous and immoral as it once was. In very recent years, this shift has taken a step further—towards considering marijuana a luxury good or health product. Lee says that, in general, “younger voters were more in favor of ending pot prohibition than other age groups,” and as these younger voters have grown up and made money, they’ve created a sometimes opulent culture around America’s favorite illegality (403). This shift which many commodities, including chocolate, have also experienced, has class-based and racial implications.

Marijuana of Two Worlds: The Shift to Luxury and Health that Excludes a Crucial Population

Marijuana’s recent triumph over public judgment means it is far more widely acceptable across social classes than it was ten years ago, and out of this acceptance has emerged a new space of luxury and health-based marijuana products. The below video features a tour through a luxury marijuana store in Seattle, Washington.

The video demonstrates the wide variety of products that can incorporate marijuana, and the ways the drug has recently come to indicate an expensive—and often mindful and healthy—lifestyle. Barneys New York, a luxury department store with 27 locations in the U.S. and Japan, recently announced plans to launch a specialized cannabis boutique called “The High End.” In an article in The Atlantic detailing the new launch, writer Amanda Mull notes that “Given luxury shoppers’ average demographic—wealthy and white—the launch is a stark reminder of how much the risk of smoking a little weed in America can vary from person to person, and whose interests legalization is primed to serve first.” Mull’s point is important, and demonstrates the way marijuana legalization continues to be racialized. In 2017, 659,700 people were arrested for violating marijuana law (Drug Policy Alliance). In the same year, the percentage of people incarcerated for any drug-related law violation that were Black or Latino was 46.9% (Drug Policy Alliance). The sheer volume of people, especially people of color, behind bars for marijuana possession is devastating—which creates an ever starker comparison for tweets like the one below, when wealthy, well-known, and white members of society show the ease with which they can access and use legal marijuana.

Billy Ray Cyrus’ tweet may have been intended comically, and recreational marijuana has long been legal in his home state of California, but still the tweet sparked backlash for its inability to understand the deeply-rooted injustice of marijuana possession and mass incarceration in America. Thus marijuana traces a similar path as other commodities have in the past: from considered immoral or even illegal to a luxury good associated with higher socioeconomic classes and believed to hold many health benefits.

Conclusion: Chocolate and Marijuana in Combination

It is now clear that the ethical histories chocolate and marijuana have experienced parallel each other in many ways. But the two have also become popular to combine, often in the form of marijuana brownies or other baked goods, in an interesting exploration into their collective power. Popular recipes and videos across the internet describe how to bake “weed brownies,” and online marijuana dispensaries even allow customers to purchase brownies infused with marijuana on their online stores. Dr. Martin describes brownies’ “powerful hold on the American palate and imagination” in her social history of the dessert, including that marijuana brownies have grown in popularity with legality to “become one means of therapeutic oral delivery of the drug” (Martin).

This combination indicates perhaps that the two commodities are simple to mix in a recipe, or are well-suited to be ingested simultaneously. On the other hand, on a more theoretical level, the popularity of the two combined may point to a larger truth. Chocolate and marijuana have both faced complicated pathways as America’s understanding of their ethics has shifted in recent years. Chocolate was once something associated with people who had no self-control or desire for healthful living. It was a cheap snack, a vice for the masses. Marijuana was once classified similarly to life-threatening drugs such as heroin, frowned upon socially and criminalized broadly. It was a danger to society and its possession was a crime worthy of incarceration—especially for people of color. Now, chocolate and marijuana are both featured on every luxury wellness website on the internet. Wealthy Americans pay extreme prices for healthy, craft, antioxidant-rich chocolate and opulent marijuana products of every variety and amount. For $18, someone over 21 years old in a state where marijuana is legalized recreationally could buy a marijuana-infused edible brownie. In taking a bite of this brownie, this person would become part of the complex ethical histories of two of its most important and controversial ingredients. Though they may not recognize the parallels beyond the taste when combined, the broad social implications of the two commodities impact the world around them every day.

Works Cited:

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. 2013 [1996]. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd
edition. London: Thames & Hudson.

Garthwaite, Josie. 2015. “What We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/

Goody, Jack. 2013. “Industrial Food: Towards the Development of a World Cuisine.” Food and Culture: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Goop Wellness, 2018-9. “The Good-for-you Chocolate Guide.” https://goop.com/wellness/health/the-good-for-you-chocolate-guide/

Howe, James. 2012. “Chocolate and Cardiovascular Health: The Kuna Case Reconsidered.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies. The University of Califonia.

Lee, Martin A. 2012. Smoke Signals. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Martin, Carla D. 2012. “Brownies: The History of a Classic American Dessert.” http://www.ushistoryscene.com/uncategorized/brownies/

Martin, Carla D. 2017. “Sizing the craft chocolate market.” Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (blog). https://chocolateinstitute.org/blog/sizing-the-craft-chocolate-market/

Mull, Amanda. 2019. “Legal Weed Gets a Luxury Makeover.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/02/barneys-launches-new-cannabis-department/582772/

National Conference of State Legislatures. 2018. “Marijuana Overview.” http://www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/marijuana-overview.aspx

Pellicier, Diego. 2017. “BuzzFeed Bring Me: The World’s Most Luxurious Pot Shop – Diego Pellicer.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkrHDQ6Lufc&feature=youtu.be

USA Today. 2018. “The surprising history of marijuana and why it’s illegal.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qSflkWavOhw

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