Cannabis and cinema have a long history together. The birth of modern cinema happened around the same time as the first criminalization of cannabis by the U.S. federal government. At that time, around the 1930s, as a result, cannabis-themed entertainment lay in the world of horror. If not scare stories.
From that point on, weed has continued to wind its way through cinema. It is funny to see how it was depicted in different ways. As some killer drug that might make you gay or even kill you, or as something that makes you look a whole lot cooler. Over the course of time cannabis enhances nearly all aspects of existence and helps to focus energy and commitment on worthwhile endeavors. More or less it is only harmful only to those without ambition or are incapable of free thought.
From the Reefer Madness to Easy Rider and the stoner buddy flicks of Seth Rogen and James Franco, your favorite plant has a long history in Hollywood.
The flawed relationship between weed and wonder all started with the movie Murder at the Vanities, a flick released in 1934 that didn’t just have a fleeting reference to weed, as it was actually had a musical number dedicated to weed called “Sweet Marijuana” – and, no, it’s not a joke.
But the attitude towards weed would quickly change from sweet to sour, just two years later, with the release of the infamous (and, of course, iconic) Reefer Madness. The movie, notorious for helping kick off the anti-cannabis hysteria, was released the same year as Marihuana, with the two movies helping to demonize weed. The two titles showed people smoking the “killer weed” and becoming “crazed sex maniacs” and murderers.
It was during that period that Harry Anslinger, a Federal Agent for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (the pre-precursor for the Drug Enforcement Agency), started a crusade against the cannabis, which also included some “fake news” that helped whip up even more hysteria from the public. Throughout the thirties, in fact, marijuana remained a staple prop for teen miscreants. And as subject matter it did not regain cultural significance until of course, the 1960’s.
The youth culture of the 1960’s saw the next big Hollywood discussion about cannabis – and that happened in one of two ways. It either showed up in counter culture films – Easy Rider (1969) being just one. Or it showed up in documentaries or early “music videos” if you will. Portrayal of pot use in particular was widely shown as part of youth culture, music culture and 60’s mainstream “alt” culture for a good decade. It was also part of beat literature and the writers of the era including Hunter Thompson and Charles Bukowski, who wrote about drug use.
Although still portrayed as “outside” of mainstream adult use, the first mainstream portrayals of the positive impacts of drug use, including marijuana come from this time. Of course it should not be forgotten that there were also still movies made like Maryjane (1968), in which marijuana was portrait as something really bad, and something you might end up in jail for.
By the 1970’s, drugs in general and cannabis in particular hit a strange period. The theme of the times, which lasted, with few exceptions until the 1990’s, shifted dramatically. Drugs were demonized. The consequences of being mixed up in them dire.
See Midnight Express, a movie about an American student getting caught for smuggling hashish out of Istanbul and ending up in prison. See Death Drug, a serious movie gone kitsch-college circuit flick circa 1978. The plotline? Unmemorable, except for a very creative presentation of a PCP-induced hallucination in a supermarket.
Weed is depicted as something naughty but pleasant, but of course also this movie doesn’t go without containing some warnings of marijuana being illegal. Before the joints are being lid, it is being mentioned that “a man in Michigan was sent to prison for having just 2 joints”.
The few exceptions to this period, portrayed cannabis in one of few ways. It was the pairing of Californian Richard “Cheech” Marin and Canadian Tommy Chong that would change the cinematic landscape forever when the stand-up comedians (who were already famous for their comedy albums) made their film debut in Up In Smoke (1978), which led to five more films.
Early into the eighties, Cheech & Chong were still making appearances together on screen, but, for most of that decade, weed would make a cameo when it was time to have some teenagers being rebellious, with the most memorable of such characters in teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and The Breakfast Club (1985). At the end of that decade, weed went from being used as a comedic trope to something that was a negative influence, which was all thanks to the meddling of the government (by the Reagan administration).
The Nineties and Now
By the mid-nineties, culturally speaking, the U.S. was in the midst of the next part of the legalization discussion. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was finally made into a movie. The book by Hunter Thompson had shaped a part of this debate off-screen since he wrote it. The making of the film version was the beginning of the really modern portrayal of at least cannabis.
As the new century dawned, however, films about drug use tended to also now go in two different directions. There were films about junkies (see Requiem for a Dream). Or even Enter The Void in 2009. Trainspotting (1996) is another good example. The other, not junkie direction, were films like The big Lebowski, Friday and Dazed and confused, depicting stoners as slackers on their way to possibly ending up as junkies, but with a good sense of humor around it.
Sex, drugs and rock and roll have so long been a part of Hollywood culture. So much so that it is hard to really understand how to separate the two. However there has been a definite new shift towards particularly cannabis over the last decade. Since legalization in 2014 in Colorado, entertainment in general has become decidedly more pro-pot centric.
Films like Saving Grace (2000) and Pineapple Express (2008) dealt with the issue humorously but not at the expense of users. Documentaries like Super High Me (2007) also began to look at the political forces now pushing reform. Also The Wolf of Wall Street, which showed graphic drug use of all kinds, kicked in a new era in drug portrayals in Hollywood. The 2013 satirical black comedy took on many issues. Drug use was just one of them. And of course, legalization will be a major theme in digital entertainment going forward for at least the next decade. It is nice to see how cannabis use is slowly being accepted, but watching this very bad depiction of life around a dispensary most likely makes you want to throw up all over Netflix as it is just one stereotypical joke after the other, putting us users in a whole new (not so bright or flattering) light. Cannabis consumption in motion pictures needs to be better promoted as a healthy and natural quality of life as opposed to detrimental. Demonizing or otherwise condemning marijuana while featuring booze and cocaine as preferred social lubricants fosters a dismissive message to the youths that sneak into R-rated movies without their parents consent. Hollywood needs to think about the kids.