Hollywood started booming at a unique time in the history of cannabis. The American film industry took off right before the age of prohibition, when the public’s opinion on marijuana started shifting dramatically. In the early 1900s, cannabis was a legal, normal part of life. Some people used cannabis recreationally and many people used it medicinally. But by the 1930s, prohibition was in full swing. Cannabis was suddenly illegal and it had become very much villainized in popular culture.
Movies and television shows are a reflection of the period in which they were made. They can tell you a lot about the culture of their era, which makes looking at the way cannabis has been depicted in the movies a captivating exercise. When you compare the way cannabis is portrayed now to the way it was portrayed a century ago, the difference is staggering. Cannabis has gone from bad to good, from demonic to harmless— or even beneficial. But when did this transition happen? How did we get here?
If you’re curious to learn how cannabis went from bad to good in Hollywood, read on. Here’s our overview of the fascinating history of marijuana and the movies.
The Reefer Madness Era
In the very early days of film, before the Motion Picture Production Code started being enforced, marijuana occasionally showed up in movies as a gag that led to giggling, an activity enjoyed by jazz musicians, or an indicator of criminal activity. But after the Code was fully in place, there would be no positive depictions of marijuana in American movies for decades.
Marijuana did make it into some movies— anti-marijuana propaganda movies. The most notable of these was 1936’s Reefer Madness, a melodramatic morality tale that was originally financed by a church group. In Reefer Madness, marijuana addiction ruins the lives of high school students who were lured into trying the drug. In the famously over-the-top film, using marijuana leads to insanity, murder, hallucinations, attempted rape, and more.
The anti-marijuana hysterics within Reefer Madness and other propaganda films of the period indicate how demonized the drug became around the time marijuana became fully illegal in the United States. Reefer Madness actually debuted a year before federal marijuana prohibition, which shows how negative public opinion became on marijuana in the years leading up to hemp plants becoming illegal.
Notable 1930s Cannabis Propaganda Films
- Reefer Madness (1936) – Originally titled Tell Your Children, Reefer Madness is a melodramatic propaganda film that shows a descent into madness caused by marijuana addiction.
- Marihuana (1936) – This exploitation film tells the story of Burma, a confused party girl whose life descends into chaos after she unknowingly smokes marijuana at a party.
- Assassin of Youth (1937) – Often considered a clone of Reefer Madness, Assassin of Youth is a film about a high school girl who gets involved with a ring of marijuana smokers, starting her on the path to ruin.
Cannabis in the Golden Age of Hollywood
The most striking thing about the depiction of marijuana in the Golden Age of Hollywood is its almost total absence. The 1940s, 1950s, and much of the 1960s were dominated by the studio system, which was all about glamour and creating stars. While many stars of the era were using marijuana in private, they certainly weren’t using the then-illegal drug on screen.
Marijuana did pop up in some Hollywood movies of this period, but mostly in rare morality tales that followed the blueprint set by Reefer Madness.
Notable Depictions of Cannabis in the Golden Age of Hollywood
- The Cool and the Crazy (1958) – The Cool and the Crazy is an anti-marijuana drama that follows Ben Saul, a reform school graduate whose life spirals out of control after he uses marijuana.
- High School Confidential (1958) – In this morality tale, a young police officer goes undercover in a high school to investigate a narcotics ring involving marijuana.
Cannabis in Counterculture Films
Marijuana started popping up in movies again just before the start of the 1970s, thanks to the 60s counterculture movement paving the way. This was the period of free love, drug experimentation, and hippies.
An early counterculture film from this period is Easy Rider, which featured marijuana use within a complex story about searching for spiritual truth. In the film, marijuana use was still depicted as something only bad people do, but it’s notable for having a much more realistic and grounded depiction of marijuana compared to prior films.
Once the 1970s were upon us, 60s counterculture made its way into the comedy genre to great success. The 70s saw the birth of the stoner stereotype in movies, as well as a whole new category of movie, the stoner comedy. Comedy team Cheech and Chong are widely credited for creating this new genre with their debut film, 1979’s Up In Smoke.
Up In Smoke started a trend that dramatically shifted how marijuana was depicted in movies. The silly, lighthearted stoner stereotype was a hit in Up In Smoke and other filmmakers found it was a hit for them too. This marks a major shift in the depiction of marijuana users in Hollywood productions. Instead of being evil and dangerous, marijuana users became the comic relief.
Notable Counterculture Cannabis Films
- Easy Rider (1969) – This counterculture landmark film tells the stories of two hippie drug dealers on a cross-country journey in search of spiritual truth.
- Up In Smoke (1978) – Counterculture comedy team Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin make their feature film debut in Up in Smoke, a buddy comedy that tells the story of two stoners who unknowingly smuggle a van made of marijuana from Mexico to Los Angeles.
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) – In the coming-of-age teen sex comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a group of high school students experiment with sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.
- Dazed and Confused (1993) – Directed by Richard Linklater, Dazed and Confused is a coming-of-age film that tells the story of Texas teenagers on the last day of school in 1976.
Stoner Comedy Boom
It’s hard to overstate just how popular stoner comedies became after Cheech and Chong started the trend. In the 1990s and 2000s, there were dozens of major hit movies within the stoner comedy genre. These films have become more diverse in perspective and casting, but they all tend to follow similar formulas. Usually, stoner films are either coming-of-age movies, capers, or odysseys.
The success of so many different stoner comedies signals an important development in culture around this period: marijuana was becoming more normalized.
Notable Stoner Comedies
- Friday (1995) – In this buddy comedy starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker, two unemployed friends must come up with the money to pay a local drug dealer by Friday.
- Half Baked (1998) – Dave Chappelle, Jim Breuer, Harland Williams, and Guillermo Diaz star in this cult classic stoner comedy, which tells the story of three friends trying on a journey to get another friend out of jail.
- The Big Lebowski (1998) – In the Coen Brothers directed crime comedy The Big Lebowski, slacker Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is mistaken for a millionaire of the same name.
- Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000) – In this stoner comedy starring Ashton Kutcher and Sean William Scott, two best friends struggle to find where they parked their car after a reckless night out.
- Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001) – In this buddy comedy written by Kevin Smith, real-life stoners Jay and Silent Bob seek revenge when they discover that they won’t be getting any royalties from a film featuring their fictional comic book counterparts.
- How High (2001) – Rappers Method Man and Redman star in this stoner comedy that follows two underachievers after they smoke something magical and ace their college entrance exams.
- Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004) – The first of the Harold and Kumar franchise, this film follows office worker Harold (John Cho) and stoner Kumar (Kal Penn) on their quest to satisfy their craving for White Castle.
- Smiley Face (2007) – Notable for being a stoner film with a female protagonist, Smiley Face tells the story of stoner Jane F (Anna Faris) after she impulsively eats marijuana-infused cupcakes at the start of a busy day.
- Pineapple Express (2008) – In this stoner comedy and crime drama hybrid, a process server (Seth Rogen) and his marijuana dealer (James Franco) witness a murder and wind up on the run from hitmen.
- American Ultra (2015) – This action comedy follows the journey of a stoner who finds out he was part of a secret government program.
As legalization spread to more places across the United States, more people started taking it seriously. The result has been a small wave of marijuana documentaries.
One particularly notable marijuana documentary is 2014’s The Culture High, an award winning look back at marijuana prohibition and the war on drugs in the United States. The fact that this movie could even be made shows just how far we’ve come from the hysterical representation of marijuana we saw in films like Reefer Madness.
Notable Marijuana Documentaries
- Super High Me (2007) – In this documentary, comedian Doug Benson documents the effects of smoking marijuana for 30 days and the effects of abstaining from smoking marijuana for 30 days.
- A NORML LIfe (2011) – This documentary discusses the current state of medical marijuana in the United States.
- Clearing the Smoke: The Science of Cannabis (2011) – This PBS documentary examines how cannabis acts within the brain and how it may be able to treat pain, epilepsy, and possibly even cancer.
- The Culture High (2014) – This award-winning documentary takes a look back at marijuana prohibition and the war on drugs in the United States.
- Rolling Papers (2016) – Rolling Papers tells the behind-the-scenes story of The Denver Post as it became the first major media outlet to appoint a marijuana editor.
- Grass is Greener (2019) – This Netflix documentary examines marijuana’s influence on jazz and hip hop music.
Final Thoughts on Marijuana and the Movies
Movies and tv shows are a cultural time capsule, a mirror that reflects their era. So, the fact that marijuana has gone from bad to good in the movies makes perfect sense. Culturally, we’ve come so far from the age of Reefer Madness. Some form of cannabis use is legal in most states and the majority of Americans now have a positive opinion of marijuana. It’s no wonder that marijuana has gone from being depicted as “the devil’s lettuce” to being the subject of award-winning documentaries.