It should not be a surprise to anyone that cannabis has been a presence in film culture for near as long as there have been films. Because films- and later television as well- are a reflection of the times they are made in it should also come as no surprise that how marijuana is depicted on screens reflects a society’s relationship with it. Both the mainstream culture’s relationship with cannabis (however negative) and the countercultures’ (there are always countercultures) relationship with it.
In this article we will take a look at cannabis history through the lense of the silver screen. How depictions of cannabis mirror societies’ shifts in how it regards cannabis and the people who use it.
Sociologist Jerome Himmelstein states that marijuana first arrived in the United States during the transition years between the 19th and 20th century. It was brought by Mexican migrant workers who used it as a psychotropic drug. For a time it could be purchased legally from drug stores and other perfectly normal marketplaces. Usually this was in the form of teas or other herbal remedies to treat nausea, headaches, insomnia and various other ailments. Cannabis in the form of hemp rope and similar products was competing decently with industries that used more ‘traditional’ components to create the same items.
Then came the 1930s. The same fervor that fueled Prohibition also spread to include substances like cannabis. Some states even went so far as to categorize marijuana a poison. Mainstream culture’s negative view of cannabis was also (in its own mind) reinforced by the primary users of cannabis being minorities like Mexican migrant workers and black jazz musicians. This culminated in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which harshly criminalized nearly all activity involving cannabis- the sale and use of it- and destroyed the legal hemp industry via excessive taxation.
The mainstream society wide vilification of marijuana also happened to coincide with a history-shaking transformation in the film industry. The years following WWI- the Roaring 20’s- witnessed the growth of silent films to their height. Then in 1927 The Jazz Singer was released. The first film to combine motion-picture with synchronized sound. Thus began a massive boom in the film industry of that era. The timing of this boom with the mainstream views of cannabis resulted in Reefer Madness.
Reefer Madness has an ‘interesting’ place in modern cannabis cultural memory.
Premiering to American film-goers in 1938 or 1939, the movie was known in-production as Tell Your Children and has been alternately titled The Burning Question, Dope Addict, Doped Youth, and Love Madness. The film was made and financially backed by a church group that sought to create something they could show to childrens’ parents. A supposed morality tale that should teach parents about the ‘dangers’ cannabis and its use posed to their children and young people.
In 1936 the film was originally produced by George Hirlicolor- whose filmography at the time included Men o’War (1929), Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), Busy Bodies (1933), From the Frying Pan into the Fire (1935), and Captain Calamity (1935). However in 1938 or ‘39 the completed film was purchased by Dwain Esper, a known exploitation film maker. Seriously, one of his films was called Sex Maniac. It was Esper who added extra, more ‘salacious’ material to what would become Reefer Madness.
The film drastically and completely misrepresented cannabis’ effects. Reefer Madness tries to warn people of a “deadly addictive weed” and its rise to near “epic proportions.” The film refers to marijuana as the “killer-weed,” a “deadly narcotic” more lethal than heroin or cocaine. It even goes so far as to call marijuana a plague and “The Real Public Enemy Number One,” with sinister pushers preying upon innocent and helpless young people. According to the film marijuana’s effects include frenzied dancing, uncontrollable and violent sexual appetites, reckless driving, and even the potential for violent murder. All of the film’s main characters end up violently killed, commiting suicide, or catatonic in an insane asylum. All due in some way to having marijuana in their lives. According to the film at least.
It’s not exactly a subtle movie.
Marijuana and the MPPC
While Reefer Madness was the least subtle and most focused on negatively portraying marijuana, any film between 1930 and 1968 made and shown in the USA either depicted marijuana extremely negatively or not at all. During this time period the Motion Picture Production Code made it impossible to do otherwise. The Code’s standards and regulations were intended to keep out of films anything seen as “morally objectionable.” This included the glorification of drug use- treating marijuana the same as much harder cocaine and heroin- and various other “morally questionable” things like any depiction of profanity, anti-authority behavior, homosexuality, miscegnation, and more. It is because of this Code that married couples in movies and televisions had to sleep in separate beds even in the same room for fear of depicting anything sexual.
So when marijuana appeared in films like High School Confidential (1958- a cop goes undercover in a high school to break up a marijuana dealing ring) it was decidedly negative.
When the Motion Picture Production Code was relaxed also paralleled a growing societal relaxation towards marijuana. Over the course of the 60s and 70s marijuana was decriminalized in 11 states. Thus it is no surprise that depictions in films also began to shift. Easy Rider (1969) featured marijuana in a far more neutral light compared to earlier depictions. While some of the stigma can be interpreted in the film there is also growing acceptance for it and those who use marijuana.
I Love You Alice B. Toklas, starring Peter Sellers in a comedic but charming film, even depicts marijuana in a totally positive fashion. The film depicts those who use it as thoughtful, spontaneous, aware, and unburdened. Even later, more positive depictions of marijuana film had more caveats compared to I Love You Alice B. Toklas.
Cheech and Chong- Beginning of the Stoner Genre
It was in the late 70’s viewers got their first looks at what would become recognized as the ‘Stoner Genre,’ with Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. They are better remembered as the comedy duo Cheech and Chong. The duo had a decade-long career together performing counterculture comedy material which they reworked into the film Up in Smoke (1978). The movie was directed by Lou Adler (executive producer of the 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show). In addition to Cheech and Chong, the film starred Edie Adams, Strother Martin, Stacy Keach, and Tom Skerrit.
Despite not being popular with critics, Cheech and Chong’s debut film made $104 million on a $2 million budget and has since become a cult classic.
The film follows drummer Anthony “Man” Stoner (Chong) and driver Pedro De Pacas (Cheech), both marijuana users who- through fate and circumstance- come together on a cross-country journey to obtain more marijuana. On their adventure they encounter inept narcotics officers, drive a car made out of THC, perform at a Battle of the Bands, and accidentally evade arrest at the hands of more inept police officers, to name just a fraction of the hijinks the two get up to. All to get a little bit of cannabis.
Up until 1985 Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong would collaborate on a series of movies that became the cornerstone of what later years would label as the ‘Stoner film’ genre. As far as a reflection of American society’s view of cannabis this would be a mixed bag. While Cheech and Chong are clearly the protagonists of their films they are also bumbling and comedic with it. Some have even described their film characters as dim-witted and ‘not quick on the uptake.’ Thus the films have also set stereotypes that still dog cannabis users today.
Another famous, slightly less negative depiction of marijuana in films comes from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Directed by Amy Heckerling, this 1982 movie has since become an icon to at least one generation of marijuana users. The movie sets the tone with near all the classic cliches we associate with high school movies. Now acclaimed actor Sean Penn plays Jeff Spicoli, a constantly chill, totally cool surfer dude who more than regularly indulges while defying tight-fisted history teacher Mister Hand. Irresponsible yet lovable Spicoli would go on in the film’s epilogue to save Brook Shields from drowning, ultimately showing no negative effects to Spicoli or his friends for their marijuana usage.
A Big Step Backwards
Unfortunately the cultural view of cannabis would also suffer a setback in the mid-to-late 1980s. This was thanks to Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ initiative and all the other anti-drug campaigns that ensued as consequence. It was near a return to the days of the Motion Picture Production Code, at least in regards to drugs. If drugs appeared at all it was certainly in a negative light.
An example of the latter can be seen in 1988’s Clean and Sober. The movie was directed by Glen Gordon Caron and starred Michale Keaton in the leading role. Keaton played a real-estate agent with substance abuse problems. In the film Keaton’s character ultimately has to make a choice between drugs or death.
Even films where drugs- particularly marijuana- were normally at worst depicted in more neutral tones, that being the teen flicks like Fast Times, saw a complete erasure of marijuana. One of the most famous films of the late 80s, 1989’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure featured two lead characters (played by Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter) who were clearly meant to evoke the same tropes and isms of stoner film protagonists. Yet the film makes no mention whatsoever of drugs, alcohol, or smoking that similar films of earlier (and later) make were replete with.
In this way even films that were supposed to represent counterculture and youthful rebellion were bleached of one of the longest-standing symbols of those things.
The 1990s finally witnessed a shift in how marijuana was seen. This shift was much closer to the reality and avoided near-all talks of the ethics of using marijuana. In the 90s viewers and society could see marijuana being depicted on screens as a social drug. Not as something that would see you dead or condemned to the fiery pits of hell.
In the 90s smoking marijuana was portrayed as casually as smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer had been in the 1950s. With the films of the 90s viewers did not see marijuana-using characters get addicted, harmed, or even end up on ‘harder’ drugs in ways that could be attributed to their marijuana usage. This is all especially interesting given the contradictory nature of the times. The Drug War was still at its height but you also had US President Bill Clinton admitting they smoked (but not inhaled) marijuana. 1996 saw the legalization of marijuana for medical use.
In this period viewers saw films like Dazed and Confused and True Romance in 1993, Reality Bites in 1994. All notably depicted or featured pot-smoking but made no attempts to comment on the morality of the drug or its use. Dazed and Confused is still regarded as one of the best coming-of-age party films of all time.
1994 also produced Clerks, the creation of the now more widely known Kevin Smith and long since considered a cult classic. Clerks introduced both a throwback to the Cheech and Chong films in one-half of the weed dealing duo of Jay but a subversion in his partner Silent Bob. Played by Kevin Smith himself, Silent Bob was a novel character for the stoner genre. Though odd and an outcast from regular society he was also very intelligent, capable, and quite functional even while being constantly high.
Modern Marijuana in Modern Films
The trends and tropes of marijuana set by Cheech and Chong, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Dazed and Confused, Clerks and related Kevin Smith movies, so many other predecessors- though Reefer Madness in only a parody sense- can be seen throughout the 2000s and 2010s.
Pineapple Express, Super Troopers, and Harold and Kumar all more obviously follow the mold of their comedic, hijinks focused predecessors, but normalization of marijuana in films without true moral condemnation can also be found. If anything the comedic stoner genre is fading in the face of documentaries that treat marijuana as, if not a fact of life, then part of the future. While this has been happening on screens, in real life more states are decriminalizing and even legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
Perhaps, as the great Oscar Wilde once said, “Life imitates art more than art imitates life.”
How do you think film and television have shaped or been shaped by cannabis in our culture?