How Hollywood Shaped Our Relationship to Weed

Photo by Paramount

"Marijuana" as narrated by Hollywood is a subject that's been valiantly tackled by a few writers, mostly focused on tying films back to specific politics events or cultural movements. It is impossible not to acknowledge the challenge of addressing how Hollywood makes culture and, how in turn, that culture makes Hollywood. It's equally impossible to adequately synthesize the entire history of cinema and pot here.

Last year, the New York Times published an article titled, “What The Movies Taught Me About Being a Woman,” perfectly timed amidst the swirl of #metoo and #timesup.

I loved the article and simultaneously mourned over its truths. The social scientist in me swooned hard. The writer was talking about an idea I’d been obsessed with since first reading Yuval Harari: narrative is everything.

For anyone who's ever wondered "Am I naturally scared of cannabis or have I been taught to be scared of cannabis?" let this be your introduction to the wild chronological history of movies and weed.

Hollywood and Cannabis: The 1930's

The first time the public ever saw cannabis featured on screen, it was preceded by a manifesto decreeing the danger "marijuana" posed to society, and especially to society’s children. Let’s not be mistaken. Reefer Madness (1936), and similar films like Marihuana (1936)—where smoking weed triggered things like rape and killing and drowning and just general mayhem—were intentionally propagandized films intended to scare the public. This is just a fact.

Harry J. Anslinger, the head of the Federal Drug Administration appointed in the early '30s is generally acknowledged a racist, a bigot, and a pro-prohibition meathead. He enlisted psychologists like James Munch to verify his false claims about the drug. Then, he riled up the government and the public by pointing fingers at society’s misfits (aka predominately people of color and artists), saying their habits were permeating some notion of American purity.

The hilarious part of it is, Anslinger only directed his attention to cannabis because the alcohol issue he was originally hired to solve was more or less solved, and he didn’t want to be out of a job. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was largely under his influence and put our relationship with cannabis into a coma by making it illegal in the US with few exceptions. That’s when people started getting thrown in jail.

The 1940's and 1950's

Anslinger didn’t necessarily put firm regulations on Hollywood, probably because of freedom of speech or something like it, but the public sentiment that resulted from his prejudiced, conservative idiocy was enough to scare the American people, and to scare Hollywood out of most storylines depicting any sort of drug use in the decades that followed. The Motion Pictures Association of America prohibited it, specifically.

If it slipped under his FDA-helming nose that narcotics were being shown on the big screen, Anslinger would bark at the studio heads, which would then serve as forewarning to anyone who attempted to cross him. The reality is, Reefer Madness—the film and the movement—is often associated with the '30s, but it scared the shit out of the American public and industry for decades to come.

This was despite a study put out in 1944 detailing that previous claims about the drug "marijuana" were in fact, unfounded. Anslinger plowed on, unscathed. In 1951 the Boggs Act instated mandatory sentencing and state laws criminalizing drug use. More people went to jail.

The 1960's

Bless the two-timer that was JFK who arrived with a democratic force, ousted Anslinger, and did his darnedest to loosen or at least question restrictions on cannabis. Use of the drug became more popular, even with the white middle-upper class. For some reason though, we don’t see any films from the 1960s showing a bunch of rich white people hanging around a dinner table puffin’ on blunts.

Easy Rider (1969), critically acclaimed yet boring as hell, shows a couple of handsome hippies driving across America, smoking hippie weed with their hippie friends the whole way. Their sex partners are female and their dealers are Mexican—classic choices. Conservative or "normal" America looks down on them, because they’re wearing jeans and multi-colored bandanas.

Easy Rider achieved a bit for mainstreaming the recreational use of cannabis by introducing it as OK within a certain counterculture. The great (and most problematic) thing about counterculture, though, is that a lot of the time it becomes mainstream culture, even if it takes a while.

The 1970's

It is a pointed irony that the decade that birthed the War on Drugs is also the decade that birthed the stoner movie. In 1971, Nixon notoriously launched the war as an excuse to throw anti-war hippies (like the ones in Easy Rider) and people of color in jail. Since those communities were "known" to be the principle users of drugs at the time, because racism, this was a breeze for his administration.

The DEA was created. Communities of parents were once again brought to the fore of the fight. But Nixon couldn’t scare the public the way Anslinger did, though, despite his loud campaign and suppression of valid scientific research. The counterculture had taken hold. High Times had been founded. Carter swooped into office with the democrats and, in 1978, Cheech & Chong's Up in Smoke was released. So was born unto the world the representation of a stoner™.

The film solidified the role of the stoner as a societal archetype. We know archetypes well—they embody a series of character traits that are replicated over and over again, on-screen and off. Any kid who wanted to be a stoner when (s)he grew up, now had a poster to put on the wall. The aesthetic, the language, the attitude—and the '70s brand of sexism. Lest we forget the blatant objectification of that poor busty blonde woman.

This schtick would influence generations of weed smokers to come, all of whom knew they had voices, and rights.

The 1980's

The '80s were so conservative, it makes me nauseous. Nixon’s War on Drugs was picked up by Reagan, and carried away by his wife Nancy with, “Just Say No.” Poor Nance, if only she knew or cared for how many lives she ruined. The fact that the face of the War on Drugs was a woman’s probably didn’t do much to help cannabis' cause, especially among the pearl-clutching mainstream.

Plus, cannabis was still classified as a Schedule 1 drug (right next to heroine, LSD, cocaine, and ecstasy), per Nixon’s rule. In films, "marijuana" remained the drug of choice for hooligans, rule-breakers, unaware innocents, and people of color. Never women.

I’ll never forget the image of Sean Penn rolling head-first out of a baked van in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982). His character was the doofiest of the doofs, but it’s maybe the first time we see a story in which respect is given by conservative authority to a stoner, like in the scene at the end where his teacher silently forgives his failings and accepts him for who he is. Baby steps.

The 1990's

It’s hard to say what made the '90s the '90s, but some suggest it had something to do with The Big Lebowski (1998). The '90s were unreasonably epic for films portraying cannabis use, and I don’t just mean in terms of the complexity of the stories told. It didn’t even matter that the Bushes and the Clintons were both piping on with the War on Drugs and that the Mayor of LA—of all places—kicked off the biggest waste of taxpayer money in the last 30 years: the D.A.R.E. program. You know the t-shirts.

Meanwhile, liberals rebelled. The quality in weed storytelling skyrocketed to unprecedented heights. Think: Mallrats, Dazed and Confused, Friday, Half Baked, that episode of Sex and the City where Carrie got caught "smoking a doobie", you get the gist. Yes, there was still marginalization, mass criminalization, misogyny, and incarceration, but something happened in Hollywood in the '90s.

We started to see weed stories made for and by people of color. Mallrats finally gave us intelligent women who dated weed smokers—even if they didn't smoke weed themselves. Ugh. American Beauty showed upper-class white people smoking weed to relax in the garage. Stepmom shows Susan Sarandon smoking a joint while undergoing chemo. Medical marijuana was legalized in California in 1996. There aren’t any coincidences here.

The 2000s

The floodgates were open by the time Y2K rolled around. The presence of cannabis in film had become commonplace. US states were legalizing it. Drug policy reform organizations roared with fury. The people were speaking up. A slew of films came out depicting cannabis use in some form or another, pulled cannabis further and further toward the mainstream while somehow keeping it on the outskirts by still painting it as irresponsible and, at times, unlawful.

The most important of these films, as far as I’m concerned, is Smiley Face (2007). Watching Anna Faris navigate her citywide to-do list after accidentally eating weed cupcakes is akin to the comedic prowess present in The Big Lebowski. I might have actually laughed harder. This is the first time we see what a bad high–or any high, tbh—looks like when it’s female. Hurrah.

Oh, and then in 2008 Obama got elected, said he used to smoke weed, and we all lived happily ever after. For about eight years.

The 2010s to Now

Ah, to be a young doe prancing around in Obama’s America once again. His loose approach to regulation around cannabis use urgently invigorated the decriminalization of weed across the country, despite its maintained illegal status at the federal level. Obama gave a sense of power to youth which translated well into a sense of freedom in Hollywood.

Big networks picked up well-written shows like High Maintenance and Broad City (praise!) that took weed stories out of California and onto the New York City streets, where there were no signs of it even coming close to legalization at the time.

Finally, thanks to the bravery and honesty of young people and the intelligence of premium television networks to understand the zeitgeist, weed stories, in 2019, are not just about stoners and crime. Finally, we see a range of experiences with the plant, including productivity, relaxation, and intimate connection.

Finally, we can collectively say pretty much everyone uses weed in some way (or should) and they do it for different reasons. Boom. Marijuana is legalized in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, California, Alaska, Maine, Illinois, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine. IPOs are declared. Liberals hate Jeff Sessions. CBD is all over the market. Now, the biggest conversation in cannabis is how to defend and free the people still criminalized for using it, and how to prevent weed from being completely sanitized amid a "green rush."

So that's where we are now. Sure, there have been—and will continue to be—plenty of wins and losses. But as far as Hollywood's portrayal of weed? Reefer madness is no more. And if that’s not progress, I have no idea what progress looks like.

Sarah Gavish is a writer, researcher, and recovering New Yorker with a killer sweatshirt collection and a penchant for witty banter.