If you were in high school during W’s presidency — well before a handful of states had decriminalized weed — your stoner stories hit differently. They’re dramatic, plot-driven, intrepid quests to and from your drug dealer’s house, or a side street that you both agreed to meet at and hoped would stay vacant for the next 10 minutes while you exchanged cash for goods. The stories are haunted, puffed with paranoia.
Where there is paranoia, there is superstition, especially in stoner circles. For non-stoners, these foreboding, unlucky symbols present themselves as broken mirrors, the number 13 or a black cat you wish you hadn’t seen right before some seemingly consequential event. But for friends huddled in semi-circles, passing around a joint or sharing a bong, nothing initiates the doom spiral like the guy who pulls out a white lighter.
The myth of the white lighter, that most cursed talisman, is a creeper. First, it’s mentioned in passing, establishing itself like a person’s face you recognize but can’t place. “If you used the white lighter, your bong was going to break,” one lifelong stoner recalls. Then, like a corrupt prosecutor, your brain begins to collect instances of bad luck wherein a white lighter was present. It’s a process of dismantling your logic, one coincidence at a time. Take this one redditor, for example, who claims that in high school, “every single time cops were involved it was a white lighter.”
Once the evidence reaches a fever pitch, the paranoia carves its way into your daily life. “Over the last few days I have had white lighters appear out of nowhere in my house,” writes a different redditor. He makes it clear that neither he nor his friends buy white lighters. “I checked my entire house and there aren’t any intruders in it leaving lighters around to spook me,” he continues. “I doubt it’s my friends playing a trick on me because they are generally freaked out about the situation as well. I’ve also had this happen to me before with lighters cloning themselves in my old car and no rational reason as to why they are there.”
Ultimately, then, the white lighter becomes a hardened superstition — a ghost in the smoking culture. This, according to Don Saucier, a professor of psychology at Kansas State University, is typical of any superstition. “What happens is, people tend to imbue some explanatory power onto the things around them,” he tells me. “One of the things that we do, to control our environment and to lessen our anxiety and our stress, is to exert what we call prediction and control.” Therefore, in instances where we don’t know what’s going to happen, like those that once involved a controlled substance, we try to look for cues to bad things that happen around us in order to avoid them. “So if something bad happens to you, and you recall seeing a black cat, you would say, ‘It was the black cat that crossed my path that caused the bad luck,’” says Saucier. “We’re naturally set up to do this, to try to find the explanations for the bad events.”
His research on the subject of superstition has led him to conclude that there are three distinct components of belief in superstition: There’s belief in good luck, belief in bad luck and belief that luck can be changed. “And we found out that they were related to locus of control,” he explains. “Which is basically this belief system that you think you can change things in your environment. People who think they can change things in their environment might believe that luck can be changed more. They might also be more likely to believe that luck controls events — things are going to happen out there, no matter what I do.”
He imagines a similar trail of events leading to the construction of the white BIC lighter myth. “What I’m thinking is that, somewhere along the way, someone had something really bad happen, and remembered having seen a white BIC lighter, which they didn’t always see, so they made that connection,” he says. “They mentioned it to someone else, and that someone else — probably having seen a white BIC lighter at some point, and probably had something bad happen — created that connection, and that leads to a correlation.” He refers to this connection as an illusory correlation, or “when you tie things together as being related when they’re really not.”
Strangely, however, one explanation for this “illusory correlation” between the white lighter and bad luck is a trail of stories that are, even in and of themselves, mythologized. According to Snopes, the most commonly offered reason for the myth of the white lighter is that several members of the ‘27 club’ (musicians who all passed away at the age of 27) — including Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison — all allegedly had one in their pockets at the time of their death. “The biggest knock on this theory is that the white disposable BIC lighter simply didn’t exist when Hendrix, Morrison or Joplin died,” reports Snopes. “The first disposable BIC lighter wasn’t produced until 1973, more than a year after Morrison’s 3 July 1971 death, and Hendrix and Joplin had both passed away even earlier, in 1970.”
Further discrediting this theory is the mere fact that, while it’s possible that Cobain could have had a white BIC lighter on his person at the time of his death, the literal evidence says otherwise. Photographs from the Seattle Police Department show Cobain had two lighters in close proximity to him on the day of his death, neither of which were white. “One multi-colored lighter was discovered in his heroin kit, and another lighter that appears distinctly pink in photographs was found nearby,” reports Snopes.
Why, then, did this association that never even existed gain such momentum?
That, according to Adam Davis of the Missouri Folklore Society, gets back to Saucier’s point of how superstitions stem from our craving to layer coincidence with a sense of control. “So at the core of the folk-belief, attached to furtive and not altogether wholesome pleasure, is a hint of carpe diem,” David told Atlas Obscura in 2017.
The key to a budding superstition in the culture is, per Saucier, dependent on the strength of the event it was associated with. “If I had my blue water bottle and I won the lottery, I’d make a much quicker association than if I’d my blue water bottle and I found a quarter on the sidewalk,” he says.
This explanation also explains how the other, somewhat more permissible origins of the white lighter myth came to be a signal of something eerie on the horizon. Atlas Obscura reports, “In the early days of BIC lighters, they only came in two colors, white and black, and that the white versions more clearly showed evidence of illicit use.” So if you used your lighter to pack down the bowl, a white BIC, more than any other color lighter, is going to give you away. “So when marijuana smokers would use white lighters to pack down their bowls, the lighter would get stained with ash and resin, which the cops could then use to bust them,” the Atlas Obscura piece continues. “Thus, the lighters became bad luck.”
It’s precisely why Jake Browne, chief creative officer for The Grow-Off and former cannabis reviewer for the Denver Post, “always hated using white lighters because there was a very visible mark when I’d use it to cap a bowl.” He doesn’t, however, buy into any superstition around them. “Any wrapped lighter with a design on it was white underneath, an annoying fact that I’ve used to bum out high people a number of times,” he tells me.
Still, as Saucier has found in his research, logic has limits when you begin to associate symbols with the way certain events unfold, especially when you’re stoned. “The rational mind understands, generally, that superstitions aren’t real relationships between objects and outcomes,” he says. “But as you start to become less rational, as your cognitive capacity is diminished, it would make sense that people are going to latch on to these relationships more easily.”
This superstition isn’t reserved solely for the stoners, however: Even BIC has seemingly latched onto the urban legend surrounding their white Classic Maxi Lighter. “We feel that it’s best to keep an urban legend a mystery, and cannot validate the myth, except to say BIC started making lighters in 1973 and the white lighter isn’t currently sold in the U.S.,” one of their representatives writes via email. Which is to say that any hope for putting to bed this white lighter conspiracy is officially lost — with their somewhat ominous statement, it’s clear that BIC is at least prepared to take any relevant information about the myth to their proverbial grave.
There is a way to mend this ostensible glitch in the matrix of your mind with regard to the white lighter, though. Basically, you “train your mind out of a superstition,” says Saucier. First, you need to create pairings where the expected outcome doesn’t happen — i.e., you have to carry a white lighter around and hope that nothing bad happens enough times to make that connection in your brain. The problem is, “you could have 100 trials where that white lighter has no negative effect, but if the 101st trial has a negative effect, your superstition is back,” says Saucier. “It’s one of those things where you can diminish it, but the potential for it to be re-inspired or re-strengthened is always there.”
Especially if you still rely on a drug dealer to unite you with your herb.