Willie Nelson, Marijuana, and the Elephant in the Room

photo: Pamela Springsteen

When Willie Nelson took the stage November 13th at the 2019 CMA Awards with Kacey Musgraves to sing “Rainbow Connection,” a cause for concern went up for the country legend from many. It wasn’t just that he was having a hard time singing. It’s that he was clearly having a hard time breathing. These concerns weren’t a criticism of Willie Nelson personally. At 86-years-old, suffering from breathing issues is not entirely unexpected. Willie has already lived years past the life expectancy of the average human. And even though the performance had some people alarmed for Willie’s heath, it was also so heartfully poignant, it made you appreciate just what kind of gift it has been to live on this earth during the same era as Willie Nelson.

A few days after the CMA Awards performance, Willie took the stage at one of his regular haunts—Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth—and seemed much better. A big portion of why Willie’s rendition of “Rainbow Connection” was so difficult for him is likely because it’s a song he doesn’t regularly perform. But the other reason is that for years Willie Nelson has been suffering from lung issues, prompting him to have a stem cell procedure in 2015, and at times, forcing him to cancel shows.

In a recent interview, the long-time marijuana advocate revealed that he is no longer smoking pot due to his continued breathing issues. The news came as a shock to some, if not many in the marijuana community, and others that see Willie Nelson’s name as synonymous with marijuana. At this point, there may be many of the younger generation who know Willie just as much as the marijuana man as a country music performer.

“I don’t smoke anymore,” Willie Nelson confirmed to KSAT out of San Antonio. “I have abused my lungs quite a bit in the past, so breathing is a little more difficult these days, and I have to be careful. I mistreated myself when I was [young]. I started out smoking cedar bark, and went from that to cigarettes or whatever, and that almost killed me.”

Many have worried that Willie Nelson’s insistence on continuing to perform may be what might do him in now. Willie has said in the past that he wants to die on stage, but he also insists that performing is important for him, and specifically for his lung health. “Singing out there for an hour is a good workout. Your lungs are the biggest muscle you’ve got. So when you’re out there working, you are working out,” Willie says in the new interview.

When Willie Nelson first started advocating for marijuana use, it was illegal everywhere but Amsterdam. Now marijuana is fully legal in 11 U.S. states, decriminalized and approved for medical use in most others, and only still fully illegal in nine states. It’s just a matter of “when,” not “if” marijuana becomes fully legal in the United States, while Canada and other countries have already legalized marijuana nationwide.

Marijuana advocates owe a large part of their inroads against marijuana laws to Willie Nelson. As a universally-beloved character throughout culture, when Willie speaks about the potential health benefits of marijuana for some, how it can help farmers, and how imprisoning people for marijuana use is the wrong approach, people listen. And Willie has put action behind those words, not just by being a well-known pot smoker over the years, but by offering his wrists to be cuffed when pot was found on his bus in 2010, knowing it would do more to help the decriminalization effort than his words alone. He also launched his own independently-owned marijuana company, Willie’s Reserve.

But therein also lies the problem when it comes to talking about Willie’s breathing issues. Willie Nelson has become like a poster boy or mascot for marijuana advocacy, though his lung issues somewhat complicate how people could view that legacy, now and in the future. This is nowhere severe as The Marlboro Man dying from lung cancer, but it’s a sticky situation nonetheless, and one Willie and his business concerns have played coy with over the years.

Willie’s Reserve is not just Willie Nelson’s personal marijuana brand. It’s what his estate and the Willie Nelson franchise hopes to bank roll and carry Willie’s legacy into the future, sort of like the Newman’s Own food brand from actor Paul Newman. This is also one of the reasons for the exorbitant prices for many Willie’s Reserve products, and the price of his merch in general, which has skyrocketed over the last few years, with $50 T-shirts now regularly found at the merch table. The estate is gearing up and provisioning for the inevitable day when Willie is no longer around, which is completely understandable.

After the news broke of Willie going marijuana free, his son and fellow performer Lukas Nelson stepped forward to clarify the situation, posting on Twitter, “There is a lot of articles going around saying my father is no longer smoking weed. It’s almost 2020, how people ingest cannabis has changed. Between vaping, edibles, gummies, drops, etc. I think it’s safe to say Willie will never stop enjoying Mary Jane!”

That specific tweet was later deleted, but Willie’s Reserve remained on the offensive, making sure to let the public know that Willie is not marijuana free, but without directly addressing that he indeed no longer smokes pot. No pigs in the sky, Willie’s still getting high!! At 86, Willie Nelson demonstrates there’s more than one way to get high, one tweet from Willie’s Reserve read. Other tweets and retweets from the company took a similar tone. Willie’s Reserve sells branded marijuana in six states where it has been legalized: California, Colorado, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. They also sell chocolate edibles, fruit chew edibles and a line of vaporizers. Willie Reserve-branded accessories are sold everywhere, including at Willie Nelson performances.

But underscoring that Willie Nelson still imbibes in marijuana is dodging the bigger issue, and clearly a move of brand security by Willie’s Reserve. Willie was asked a question in an interview, and did what he’s always done in his legendary career: he answered it honestly. Though reams of studies tell us that there are minimal to negligible health issues from smoking marijuana, and for certain ailments it can offer great benefits, there are also studies that have found that long, prolonged marijuana smoking has been shown to cause decreased lung capacity and other breathing issues in certain users, especially ones who have preexisting lung conditions.

In Willie Nelson’s 1988 autobiography with Bud Shrake, Willie Nelson himself says, “There’ been a lot of talk about marijuana being harmless, bit I think it’s a lot more dangerous to the lungs than most dope smokers realize. Especially the strong marijuana that’s around these days. Each year it seems to get a little stronger. The wise course is to not abuse it. Your lungs are not really supposed to breathe anything but oxygen—pure, fresh air.”

This was in 1988, when marijuana was much less stronger than it is today. In his autobiography, Willie also talked about just how much he smoked cigarettes during his younger days. “I smoked three to five packs a day . . . I started smoking so much I couldn’t enjoy a cigarette with my meal because I’d already smoked a pack beforehand. My throat burned and my lungs were sore. I smoked for years after I had stopped enjoying it. I quit smoking a hundred times before the day I finally took a deep inhale and it hurt my lungs so bad I knew at that instant I would never smoke a cigarette again.”

For most smokers, marijuana is not going to lead to health issues, and is a much safer alternative to cigarettes. But for some, there are health factors that should be taken into consideration, especially for people who compromised their lungs early in life with cigarette smoking, have a history with asthma or emphysema, are elderly, or just may have an issue with marijuana smoke or particulates in their lungs in general, not to mention the negative effects many have with paranoia, and the negative effects it can have on brain development for minors. Some who choose to use marijuana, but perhaps have weakened lungs like Willie Nelson, should be persuaded towards other products.

Instead of side-stepping and downplaying Willie Nelson’s breathing issues and why he quit smoking marijuana, Willie’s Reserve and marijuana advocates should be honest about the situation, and do what Willie Nelson has done throughout his career, which has been to advocate for safe and legal marijuana use by speaking about the matter in plain language as opposed to trying to spin what Willie Nelson has said himself, and what close fans have known for many years—Willie Nelson has serious lung problems.

It sometimes feels like Willie Nelson is morphing into the Ronald McDonald of pot. His marijuana use is the common punchline whenever his name is referenced in popular culture, often taking a back seat to his music legacy, or even his work with marijuana advocacy. Willie’s Reserve has been fighting against the corporate control of marijuana in the face of rapid legalization, but it’s also put Willie Nelson out there as the face of marijuana use, which is making him just as much a marketing symbol as a cultural icon for his work in country music and humanitarianism.

During the opening monologue of the 2019 CMA Awards, Willie’s pot use was referenced in a punchline once again, and his marijuana company Willie’s Reserve was mentioned in the joke. Then moments later when Willie performed “Rainbow Connection,” the whole world could see what long, prolonged smoking of marijuana can potentially do to someone’s lungs, especially when they’re compromised from cigarette smoking or disease. This is a truth even Willie Nelson has now fessed up to. Using that experience as a lesson as opposed to brushing it under the rug and continuing the marijuana mantra that smoking pot is safe for all people is the best way to continue the normalization of marijuana in culture. Otherwise, that narrative will be defined by what people see and hear. And with Willie Nelson, that’s not always good.

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