I’m scrolling through Instagram when I spot a post from a cult New York beauty brand. Instead of the usual shots of graphic eyeshadow or glittering lipstick, I’m struck by a picture of a small plastic bag, the type you’d normally see on a club toilet floor, having previously housed something like cocaine or MDMA. Printed with the numbers 4.20 – the universal code for weed – it seems like an odd choice for a makeup ad.
In 2019, using recreational drugs to market new products is rife within the beauty industry. Milk Makeup's Kush Mascara ('kush' being a word used to describe a strain of marijuana) is a well-known product among beauty obsessives. Cult lip balm brand eos also got in on the promotional action for 4/20 – an annual event celebrated on 20th April – with two limited edition weed-inspired flavours, Happy Herb and Baked Brownie. In early 2019, makeup brand Hard Candy released its Look Pro! Smoke Out, a palette of 15 trippy green hues, each infused with hemp oil, and Herbivore Botanicals used weed-heavy imagery on Instagram when promoting its Emerald CBD Oil. There’s even a German brand called Svenja Walberg that promises to boost your eye makeup look with its Lash Coca!ne mascara.
When I speak to Lisa Payne, beauty editor at trend forecasting agency, Stylus, she attributes this trend to a wider movement that sees beauty brands being more vocal about their values and beliefs. "As social media has become the vehicle for rebellious thought-share, we see more divisive products and ideas starting to come through," she told me. "The use of previously 'taboo' ingredients, such as cannabis, is now a part of this."
With the legalisation of cannabis across many US states and CBD hitting the mainstream, cannabis-inspired beauty is becoming big business. In fact, CBD beauty is predicted to be worth a staggering $25 billion by 2030. Lisa thinks that the brands peddling drug culture are appealing to potential young consumers by positioning themselves as 'one of them'. "By saying 'we are like you, we are free, and unafraid of boundaries,' these brands are sending a very powerful message, both to other brands and governing bodies, as well as consumers."
But like any so-called trend, beauty brands glamorising drugs is a practice we've seen before. The beauty industry has a longstanding – albeit on and off – relationship with drug culture; the example that springs most obviously to mind is 'heroin chic': the pale, thin, grungy look made famous by Kate Moss in the early '90s. During this time, once-indie brands like Urban Decay came to the fore, contributing an alternative approach to the classic department store beauty offering. "These products were ostensibly fashionable or beautiful but tapped into the uglier side of life," beauty historian Rachel Weingarten explains.
This romanticisation of drug use has always caused controversy. In 2011, an advert for YSL's Belle d'Opium fragrance was banned in the UK by the Advertising Standards Authority because "the woman's actions simulated drug use". Across the pond, a petition backed by addiction charity Facing Addiction called for Urban Decay to rename the eyeshadow 'Druggie' in its After Dark Eyeshadow Palette. The petition read: "In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported data detailing 76,522 drug-induced deaths. All of these people lost their battle with drug addiction can and often times are referred to as 'druggies,' and you have named your eyeshadow after them."
Today’s brands glamorising drug culture raises eyebrows too. Phrases like "Get munchies not crunchies" – used to promote Milk Makeup’s cannabis oil-infused collection – are clearly tongue-in-cheek but for a brand that trades on supposedly woke values, some argue that it has missed the mark. Estée Laundry, the anonymous beauty collective on Instagram known for calling out beauty brands and their mistakes, declared the campaign 'weedwashing'. "You know what needs to drop? Using drugs to glamorise beauty products," their post, later turned into a saved Instagram story, read.
A number of Estée Laundry's followers, in particular those in recovery or working in drug treatment facilities, shared their upset at the campaign. One wrote: "I’ve been in treatment four times and this seems like a huge slap in the face to people like me. I really don’t like this. It’s distasteful." Another said: "I’m an addictions counsellor and work in recovery in a city that is dying because of its drugs problems. This normalising of drug use, or suggesting that it makes you cool or it’s necessary, is deplorable." A further drug counsellor pointed out how it's particularly dangerous for brands with a young audience to use their influence in this way: "If you’re a 14-15 yo young kid you might think 'Wow, drugs are cool. They are not a bad thing because my favourite brand uses it.'" Another beauty fan I spoke to said this drug-led marketing puts her off purchasing. "It’s not cool or clever. This packaging cheapens the whole product for me. It’s not what I want from a luxury beauty brand."
What's more, the enormous issue with cannabis criminalisation (in the US, people of colour are 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for possession) cannot be ignored. One member of the Estée Laundry community called out beauty brands' "huge lack of self-awareness" and wrote: "[This] implicitly capitalises on the drug industry that continues to wrongly imprison thousands of people, mainly POC and low income earners." Another wrote: "Disgusting that companies are profiting off the 'cool' factor of 4/20 and weed when countless black and brown people are in prison for minor drug offences. If you’re going to profit off weed culture you better back it up with some fucking reparations. This shit is getting old."
Weed-loving beauty brands could perhaps learn a thing or two from CBD companies in the wellness space. Take CBD gummy brand Not Pot, for example, and its Not Pot Bail Fund, which pays for someone’s bail each month. "Our motto is 'Free plants and people'," founder Kati told me. "It’s a self-funded organisation designed to combat mass incarceration, one human being at a time."
Beauty is forever intertwined with glamour, and romanticising the age-old notion of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon. After all, courting controversy is a surefire way to create hype and drive sales that can't be underestimated. However, the statistics and feedback from consumers is blindingly clear. It might be time to call it quits on drugs in the beauty industry once and for all.