MMJ: Movement Symbols & Reclassification Actions

An Analysis of a Medical Marijuana Movement Logo

By: Regina Nelson


I was lost in downtown Denver searching desperately for the hotel where I was registered to stay.  As I attempted to make an illegal u-turn, I saw an apparently thriving new business (the parking lot was nearly full) in a converted 1950’s style gas station.  On this sunny spring day, the sun was shining brightly upon a brilliant white building with a large red cross painted across the middle of the building, but setting it far apart from the iconic Red Cross emblem was a giant green marijuana (cannabis) leaf right in the middle of the cross.  Any passerby could tell immediately that this was one of Colorado’s many medical marijuana (MMJ) dispensaries without even catching the name of the dispensary.  Not all dispensaries are this flamboyant in their presentation; most show no outward signs of the business that lies within.  Nevertheless, similar to how the golden arches represent McDonald’s franchises around the globe, most dispensaries use a signifier (i.e. logo) that identifies their business to new customers.  Again and again on websites, blogs, advertisements, and even as a backdrop to CNN and Fox News clips, the presentation of a red cross with a marijuana leaf at the heart of the cross is one of many symbols that have come to represent the medical marijuana movement.  This brief essay will be an analytical critique of this particular logo as a visual argument for the legalization of the use of marijuana for medical purposes.  The design of the logo is deliberate; the unauthorized use of an iconic symbol is an argument against the status quo of the ‘war on drugs’ and criminalization of marijuana in favor of an ethic of care.



(Unknown, 2011)


In contrast to the cannabis leaf which represents a counterculture with very limited power; the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who adopted the Red Cross emblem in 1863 during their first international conference, represents a social institution of considerable global power.  The goals of the conference committee who designed the emblem were to find a “distinctive” symbol “backed by the law to indicate respect for army medical services, volunteers with first aid societies, and the victims of armed conflicts” (International Committee of the Red Cross, 2011).  The design chosen that of a bright red cross met the primary objectives of being “simple, identifiable from a distance, known to everyone and identical for friend or foe” (International Committee of the Red Cross, 2011).  Since 1863 the Red Cross Emblem has certainly come to be universally recognized.

The American Red Cross and other Red Cross chapters throughout the world have “authorized permission” to utilize the Red Cross emblem through treaties with the Geneva Conventions that “ensure universal respect for the protective nature of the Red Cross symbol” (American Red Cross, 2011).  The MMJ movement and its advocates have received no such authorization to utilize this symbol, instead it has simply been re-appropriated due to its recognition as a symbol representing medical need.  Perhaps, for this reason, it has not been possible to identify the designer of the MMJ emblem or determine its origin.  The unauthorized use of this iconic symbol; however, does support the belief that those in the MMJ community are seditious, as does the unauthorized use of other symbols such as the caduceus.

Cannabis, even that used specifically by patients under a doctor’s care and recommendation in states that have “decriminalized” its use, remains illegal within the United States on the federal level.  For this reason, MMJ advocates openly oppose the ‘war on drugs’; considering it a war against America’s own citizens (Alexander).  By using a symbol identified with protection of war victims advocates have re-appropriated the iconic image to support their own cause: reducing suffering among victims of the ‘war on drugs’.  The ICRC “plays a humanitarian role” worldwide and “continuously works to persuade States to expand the legal protection of war victims, to limit suffering” (International Committee of the Red Cross, 2011).

The significance of the Red Cross within the medical marijuana logo is fundamental to the message communicated through this visual medium.  MMJ advocates are associating themselves with the ideal of limiting suffering instead of promoting wellness instead of intoxication, the most prevalent association with marijuana use.  Connected directly to the notion of limiting suffering is the concept of compassion and the need to be compassionate toward our fellow citizens.  An ethic of care as ascribed by scholar Martha Nussbaum acknowledges we “share possibilities” with these patients, in that we may to find ourselves in similar circumstances.  Those who do not “recognize him-or herself as sharing a common humanity with the sufferer will react to the suffering with an arrogant hardness, rather than with compassion” (Nussbaum, 2001, p. 237).  Advocates are able to imagine this “common humanity”; therefore, most see this issue as more than one of morality; instead they view it as a public health issue.

Even before the ‘war on drugs’ began over four decades ago, cannabis use was controversial.  The contentiousness that surrounds marijuana is embedded in a much lengthier historical narrative that constructs U.S. Drug Policy.  However, marijuana became a well known and easily accessible recreational drug in the 1960’s during the counterculture movement.  It was during this period that the cannabis leaf became a prominent symbol of resistance in our society and around the world.  Since the 1960’s, marijuana has been described as part of political opposition, hippie culture, and in relation to certain preferences in music (jazz, reggae, and later rock n’ roll).  Sociologist Edward Suchman argues cannabis consumption is “more likely to occur among those…whose behavior, attitudes or values, and self-image, were indicative of opposition to the traditional order” (p. 146).  Cultures consist of “patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols” (Couto, Munley, & O’Neill, 2010, p. 499).  In other words, cannabis is a popular drug among those who consider themselves creative, subversive, or rebellious in nature; thus it is fitting that those who support the use of cannabis as medication are open to re-appropriating an iconic emblem to support their cause.

In determining the cultural value of a symbol it is important to hear from those whose movement it represents.  Recently (April, 2011), I raised this issue with NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) members during a monthly meeting in Carrolton, Texas to see what significance the insignia of a cannabis leaf had for them.  As you can imagine I got a wide array of answers.  Interestingly, aside from the many responses regarding legalization—which is a given among marijuana legalization advocates—many argued it was a sign of freedom, although the legal use of cannaabis is not a freedom they currently have in the United States.  Others reinforced the definition I provided earlier of “resistance,” “revolution,” and even “anarchy” (Nelson, 2011).  In short, for advocates it represents an argument for legalization and is a sign that brings together like-minded persons.  For opponents of cannabis legalization, I asked several local Chamber of Commerce members who admitted their disfavor of cannabis use their opinion on the meaning of a cannabis leaf as a symbol.  They responded with labels such as “rebellious,” “lawlessness,” and “drug user” (Nelson, 2011).  Both groups provided similar answers given their position on the subject and supported the cannabis leaf as a cultural symbol with a wide variety of meanings, often for the same individual.

During these conversations, I found one other type of response quite prevalent among those within cannabis culture:   the marijuana leaf also signifies access.  For example, one college student stated a marijuana leaf signifies “the kid with it on his shirt in the library reading Bukowski is totally going to hook me up and make my Wednesday better” (Nelson, 2011).  Although others described access in less unlawful terms, the cannabis leaf signifies that a conversation about cannabis and its use can occur ‘safely’ with a party displaying such an emblem.  Now, whether that same conversation ends with access to cannabis is uncertain, but it is a held belief among cannabis users as a potential means to access.  Arguably, the cannabis leaf from the MMJ emblem also signifies access.  For a culture that is “coming out of the closet,” so to speak, the ability to recognize a kindred soul and engage in a conversation without judgment is critical to patient access.

This particular symbol is only one of many visual images that have been designed to represent the MMJ industry and its advocates.  As mentioned earlier, a wide variety of images containing a cannabis leaf and a caduceus, another iconic symbol for medical assistance are also used frequently online, on television, and on products.  In Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices Stuart Hall states, “any sound, word, image or object which functions as a sign, and is organized with other signs into a system which is capable of carrying and expressing meaning is ‘a language” (Hall, 2010, p. 19).  The design of the logo expresses an argument against the status quo of the drug war and criminalization of marijuana in favor of an ethic of care, as espoused by Martha Nussbaum, Carol Gilligan and Richard Rorty among other care theorists.  In fact, Gilligan explicates that “one who labels moral statements as expressions of approval or disapproval, and takes the matter to be finished with that, misses the very heart of morality.  He misses both feeling and content” (Gilligan, 1987, p. 19).  Perhaps the red cross, even more than the caduceus, is befitting the medical marijuana movement because of its connection to the need to limit suffering, whether friend or foe.  Certainly, the sight of a red cross with a cannabis leaf speaks volumes to most citizens whether or not they support the MMJ movement.  Before I left Denver I decided to enter this establishment, mostly out of curiosity; I had never seen a MMJ dispensary (I have since visited many—I enjoy each one, like a kid visiting their first candy store : ).
On my way in the front door I encountered three elderly white women hugging a large black man wearing a Raiders jersey—an unlikely scene on most street corners.  As they thanked him for his assistance, they turned to me and one stated, “You are in the right place, if you need help this man is one of best in the business.  He has helped me feel better than I have in years…and don’t leave without one of his momma’s brownies!”  Witnessing their exchange brought a smile to my face, because they seemed an unlikely community grouping; one that argues for “decriminalization” and access for patients who chose to use cannabis for medical purposes.





American Red Cross. (2011).

Couto, R. (Ed.). (2010). Creativity and Innovation. In Political and Civil Leadership (pp. 968-982).

Couto, R., Munley, A. E., & O’Neill, K. (2010). Leadership Cultures. In Political and Civic Leadership (pp. 498-506). NY: Sage Publications.

Hall, S. (2010). Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage Publications.

International Committee of the Red Cross. (2011).

Nelson, R. (2011, July). Symbolism of the Marijuana Leaf. Conducted at the DFW NORML Meeting, Carrollton, TX.

Nussbaum, M. (2001). Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach. London: Cambridge University Press.

Unknown (2011). Medical Marijuana Logo  [Computer generated Image]. Retrieved from


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