A Sign of the Times: The Evolution of Cannabis in Film

The shifting portrayal of weed in film throughout the decades.
A Sign of the Times: The Evolution of Cannabis in Film

This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue of High Times Magazine. Subscribe here!

Contemporary Storytelling

The arrival of film caused the world to change in drastic ways. It created a whole new way to tell stories, giving birth to a new type of fame and talent that has turned into one of the most popular ways to consume entertainment to this day. Film connected people to famous stories of the future with Metropolis, introduced horrific tales in Frankenstein and King Kong, and created fantasy in ground-breaking animation in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Film is the reason that man was able to witness astronauts walking on the moon (or a fake recording, if you’re one of those people). Human history is saved in vibrant technicolor, black and white, and 4,000K, thanks to the advances of technology. 

There have been so many unique advances in film that we would be remiss without focusing on the topic that is nearest and dearest to our hearts—marijuana. Just as the industry has evolved from its underground, black market roots, so too is that transition documented in the various films that focus on or mention Mary Jane. Here is the evolution of cannabis in film. 

The Devil’s Lettuce

The history of film is rich in facts. The earliest motion pictures first made their appearance around the conclusion of the 19th century. These films varied in length and experimentation, and the art of the silent film officially ended in 1927, when the first film to add sound received the title of “talkie.” Adding music and later, dialogue, to these films took the world by storm. It was only about one decade later that weed made its not-so-sparkling debut in the infamous film, Reefer Madness in 1936. “Drug-crazed abandon” and “Women cry for it—men die for it!” lined the film’s release posters—and the film became the poster child for over 70 years of stoner stereotypes. Featuring illegal underground market sales, underage consumption (and negatively impacted youth), rape, and murder, Reefer Madness created a fictional story that viewers saw as fact. 

It isn’t a secret that cannabis was once used in some early 20th century medicines, but by the time the 1930s hit, the plant was prohibited by over 30 states. By 1937, the United States began its prohibition on cannabis with the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. With that regulation, which was written by well-known prohibitionist Harry Anslinger, all cannabis (including hemp) became illegal to possess and sell. Reefer Madness set the foundation of expectation for cannabis as a negative act, specifically when it comes to fostering fear in those who had never tried it, and demonizing those who had.

Nearly 20 years later, High School Confidential hits theaters. In 1958, the stoner stereotypes were as strong as ever. The film revolves around an undercover cop who infiltrates high school students to uncover the presence of narcotics. Films that include narcotics usually emphasized as heroin, cocaine, or other harmful Schedule I substances—but in High School Confidential, the main focus is on marijuana. This view of marijuana as a drug is naïve in and of itself, but it successfully perpetuates negative connotations that come with consumption.

It’s a Lifestyle, Man

In 1969, the view of marijuana and the portrayal of drugs matured. Easy Rider is one of the first films to portray a bevy of drug use, which includes but is not limited to cocaine and LSD, and alcohol abuse as well. It follows the story of two motorcyclists delivering cocaine across the border and enjoying the various substances at their disposal. Having been released in the midst of the Vietnam War (which didn’t conclude until 1975) and at the end of the “free love” decade of hippies and rise of cannabis advocates, Easy Rider still perpetuated the idea that only bad people do drugs, as well as highlighted the negative consequences of those actions.

Things begin to change once the 1970s hit. Cannabis became paired with satire and parody in film for the first time with the animated adult film, Fritz the Cat (and coincidentally received the first X rating by the Motion Picture Association of America). It featured Fritz, whose journey mimics the freethinking radical college students of the 1960s. Its mature content included profanity and sex, but most importantly, marijuana use. It was a trailblazer in its time, not just because it satirized the stereotypes of cannabis consumption, but it built the foundation for adult animated entertainment that we see today in the form of shows like The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy.

The year 1978 may begin to ring a bell for longtime readers. With the foundation of Fritz the Cat blazing the trail for comedy, up comes along Richard Anthony “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong with their debut film, Cheech and Chong: Up In Smoke. The duo made history introducing its characters as banner men of the counterculture that was developing, having worked together for somewhere around 10 years before a movie was released. While it also preserved the stoner stigma (if not strengthening it), Cheech and Chong: Up In Smoke played out the adventure of the stoner buddies beautifully. It gave stoners an anthem to support recreational cannabis use, not to mention an identity they could finally get behind as a culture.

Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke and Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie, released in 1980 and 1981 respectively, helped the comedy counterculture identity thrive. Once the 1980s hit, and success was found in the stoner film, other films went into production as well. It was suddenly very popular to portray marijuana consumption as comedic antics. 

Fast Times at Ridgemont High followed closely after Cheech & Chong’s third film, released in 1982. It’s a typical coming-of-age tale of students in high school, one of which is described as both a stoner and a surfer (played by Sean Penn). The stereotypical “stoner” persona really took form in this movie, as well as many others that released in the ’80s. Usually male and still in their youth, the stoner has been notoriously categorized as lazy or a distraction to others—however, this never stops them from having fun and enjoying life in a stress-free and relaxed manner. By 1989, the stoner characters were well established, and were even represented in films without any direct cannabis references. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure plays off this approach to the stoner archetype. Dazed and Confused (1993) follows the same coming-of-age recipe as Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Broadening the Stereotype

Then in the mid-1990s, the most famous stoner films began to exhibit some diversity. With Friday (1995) and Half-Baked (1998), these films shifted the now-predictable narrative of the life of a stoner, which was typically presented only as white males. Friday featured famous Black actors and showed various types of cannabis consuming personalities. For example, Craig Jones, played by Ice Cube, was an intelligent, serious, relaxed, and yet jobless consumer, while his cousin Smoky, played by Chris Tucker, was a high-energy consumer who was holding down a real job. Later, stoner comedy How High (2001) continued to add Black representation with Method Man and Redman as the lead actors. Then the world was introduced to some Indian and Asian representation of weed humor in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004). This is a small but monumental shift in the stoner meta, which has continued to evolve. 

In 2007, one of the first stoner films to feature a female star (as played by Anna Faris) was seen in Smiley Face. This was just the beginning. Portraying marijuana consumers as anybody, rather than just white males, became a major statement in convincing skeptical non-consumers that medical and recreational cannabis is for everyone. 

But in the 2000s and onward, diversity in stoner comedies was still followed by movies whose main characters fit the traditional stoner that goes back decades in film. Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000), Clerk’s II (2006), Grandma’s Boy (2006) all portrayed an evolving version of the white stoner characters and adventures. In 2007, the film Knocked Up displayed the stereotyped stoner of a man who gets a woman pregnant, but in the end he realizes that having a family means ditching his “bad” habits (marijuana use, among other daily things). Stoner films were beginning to recognize their characters as real people making real decisions, rather than pure stoners having fun on adventures with few consequences. Again, it must be reiterated that the evolution of stoner films has changed at this point, but there is and always will be new renditions of stoner film adventure. 

The Tipping Point

Things began to change drastically following the states that began to legalize recreational cannabis. The first of these are apparent in Colorado and Washington in 2012, followed by Alaska and Oregon in 2014, and so forth. Cannabis was becoming a national topic in the US, and people’s opinion of the herb was changing at a rapid pace. Cannabis in film took a sharp turn, from the stoner film hero to real life heroes instead. One of the first notable cannabis documentaries, entitled Weed, came out in 2013. Featuring CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta, this documentary validated cannabis as medicine, as seen through the life of young Charlotte Figi who was experiencing near-miraculous improvements in her daily seizures by taking medical cannabis oil. Advocates had been crying out for easier access to medical cannabis for the sake of children and adults alike, but it took the recognition of a national health officer to spread the word—ditching the stereotypes completely and recognizing cannabis for its merits, which Gupta witnessed firsthand.

Cannabis has blossomed into being worthy of film festivals in recent years as well. Like all film festivals, it features the unique talents and vision of filmmakers that share cannabis as a common ground. This resulted in a number of short films and full-length films that explored what cannabis is and what it means to smoke cannabis and experience its unique effects. A cannabis film festival was featured in California for a few years. The SPLIFF Film Fest is still happening this year—stuck at home style! The New York City Cannabis Film Festival was active for many years, while the Colorado International Cannabis & Hemp Film Festival has been operating for four years, and the show continues. 

Stoner Comedies Live On

In the last decade, comedy stoner films are still easily recognized and will never cease being made, but the plots at least have been changed. Using a fill-in-the-blank description, comedic stoner films have turned into “What if we make a stoner film but…” Your Highness (2011) fits the bill perfectly, featuring a stoner comedy that takes place in a medieval setting. Want a stoner film with zombies? Enter Bong of the Dead (2011). How about a stoner film where the main character’s teddy bear comes to life, and—wait for it—is also a stoner. We’re looking at you, Ted (2012). 

Reboot films have also been very prevalent within the past two decades or so, and some of the most iconic stoner films aren’t exempt from that. Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019) hilariously approaches the idea of characters Jay and Silent Bob losing the rights to their own characters. Just last month, Bill & Ted Face the Music released, completing a Bill & Ted film trilogy.

Beyond the Funny

While the use of cannabis still shows up in a lot of comedies, more recently we’ve seen marijuana films branch out into other genres. Star Leaf (2015) brought us a cannabis-centric horror/sci-fi/thriller movie. The plot involves a war veteran who finds extraterrestrial marijuana that can treat his PTSD. Another shining example of a cannabis film that doesn’t need comedy is The Marijuana Conspiracy (2020), which is categorized as a drama that is based on a true story. Based in 1972, this movie tells the story of women who were isolated for almost 100 days as part of an experiment studying the effects of marijuana.

More recently, we’ve also seen an increase in the variety of documentaries that broaden the stereotype of who the real-life cannabis consumer is. Rolling Papers (2015) is a documentary that delves into the world of pot journalism as it became mainstream with The Cannabist Editor Ricardo Baca as the main character.

Other non-typical consumers who served as main characters in recent documentaries include the nuns in Breaking Habits (2018). Additionally, Weed the People (2018) shares stories about young children who find miraculous healing through medical cannabis. Another film, A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana (2017), focused on the compelling science and cutting-edge research behind the plant’s medicinal properties. It’s clear that nonfiction education on the plant through film has helped round out the portrayal of cannabis in society. 

Cannabis Cinema is Here to Stay

We’ve come a long way from the hysteric propaganda stoner movies that were born from the days of early film. Films today include cannabis consumers from all walks of life. What can we expect from the next generation of pot in film? Will cinema eventually evolve to portray cannabis consumers in even more favorable and positive ways? All we know is that once movie theaters reopen, we’ll be the first in line for any type of movie that involves weed. Until then, we’re ready to stream whatever is on the queue.

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