Dr. Carl Hart, neuroscientist, best-selling author, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at Columbia University, and outspoken cannabis advocate.
It’s common in our era of limited legalization and cannabis corporatization to hear of a new breed of cannabis consumer that will bring legitimacy to the herb and its lifestyle. The trope of the slacker-stoner has been part of American culture for half a century, and is perennially reinforced by media, both within and outside of cannabis culture. What we seldom pause to ask is when and how this image developed, how cannabis users were perceived before they were clad to a caricature, how these images compare to reality, and what this means for us as cannabis culture re-emerges into the mainstream.
The first mainstream cultural depictions of cannabis users were the outlandish portrayals in the film Reefer Madness—once high, they were overwhelmed by the worst compulsions, from sexual assault to murder to general insanity. The image of the cannabis user as a bloodthirsty madman didn’t hold up well enough to be enshrined by the media, but was seized upon by prohibitionists throughout the 1930s and 1940s, before cannabis was available enough to the average American to debunk the portrayal as obvious propaganda.
While taboos around media portrayals of sex and violence softened in the second half of the 20th century, cannabis use was almost entirely relegated to the stoner comedy. Cannabis users were universally painted with the same brush: generally lovable, amusingly ineffective, and unrelentingly preoccupied with getting high. As M/C Journal put it in 2010, “Stoner films plot the experiences of the wasted as they exhibit wastefulness.”
By the late 1990s, cannabis use in the United States surpassed what it was before the on Drugs was declared, but portrayals of cannabis users became more parodied despite the decades of American cultural development separating Cheech and Chong from Half Baked. In her 2013 academic paper The Trouble with Mary Jane’s Gender, Wendy Chapkis writes, “One of the most common commercial depictions of the cannabis user in the early 21st century is a ‘slacker stoner,’ an unmotivated underemployed [guy] moving in on middle age but holding tight to an arrested adolescence.”
The image remains hard to shake, both in art and in life. The stoner character is relatively new, though, and virtually unknown to mainstream American culture before Cheech and Chong released Up in Smoke in 1978. A generation earlier, underground comics like Fritz the Cat and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers featured reefer-smoking protagonists in bawdy cartoons, but these portrayals were materially different for two reasons: they were intended especially for underground and alternative communities, and their characters were every bit as clever and enterprising as they were far-out and freaky.
The dopehead heroes of the 1960s cartoon strips rhapsodized about philosophy and social justice while getting stoned out of their gourds and never failed to outwit the moral and legal authorities out to oppress them. They weren’t unemployed because they were unmotivated—they opted out of Cold War cookie-cutter conformity with a “duty to get out there and dig the world… to swing with the whole friggin’ scene while there’s still time!” as Fritz the Cat put it.
Between these first portrayals and modern parodies, the image of cannabis devotees shifted from free spirits out to relish the richness of life to failed-to-launch 30-somethings with little ambition beyond the couch and the microwave. In 1973, exactly halfway between 1968’s The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and 1978’s Up in Smoke, the War on Drugs began to tangibly manifest as the Drug Enforcement Administration was founded. At that point, herb smokers, no matter how free spirited, found it prudent to be less outspoken about anything related to cannabis or drug use. In 1976, President Jimmy Carter campaigned on a marijuana legalization platform, softening attitudes to the plant and its devotees. This set the stage for Cheech and Chong to embody hapless stoners to parody the stereotypes of the previous Nixon administration that “started the DEA and began a worldwide persecution of pot smokers,” the duo wrote.
Now in 2015, we can jettison the drug war stoner stereotype as irrelevant and construct a new cultural identity from the vast majority of cannabis users who don’t fit the old cliché. Cannabis users, contrary to the depiction, are not just dreamers but doers.
Researchers have recovered pipe fragments from William Shakespeare’s garden (dating to the 1600s) that are caked with cannabis resin, prompting wide academic speculation that the bard drew inspiration from the noted herb. By the mid 1800s, the leading minds of literature met regularly in Paris to eat imported hash together, from Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers) and Victor Hugo (Les Miserables) to Honoré de Balzac (a founder of realism), Théophile Gautier (the champion of romanticism), and Charles Baudelaire (who Rimbaud called “the king of poets”). The deepest roots of our modern intellectual and philosophical traditions sprang up in these minds, made fertile with hashish. In summary, the thoughts and ideas that fostered the progress of humanity through the 19th century were contributed by regular cannabis users.
Jazz culture, the primary concentration of American cannabis use at the time, shook up American attitudes and values, inspiring the first waves of American counterculture, and creating a lasting musical legacy that has influenced virtually all subsequent musical genres. The jazz scene passed the cannabis torch to the young Beats in the 1940s. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg stimulated literary and youth culture in the U.S. and got Bob Dylan smoking, who in turn introduced The Beatles to herb.
Music and literary culture in the second half of the 20th century are unambiguously rich with cannabis use, but our heritage extends beyond the arts and into the sciences. Francis Crick, the molecular biologist who won the Nobel Prize for discovering DNA, was an outspoken cannabis user and activist. Carl Sagan, noted astrophysicist and critical contributor to pop-scientific culture, was a daily cannabis consumer who contributed (under a pseudonym) to the book Marihuana Reconsidered. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has discussed using cannabis and has advocated for legalization; so did Apple founder Steve Jobs.
When we envision the daily cannabis smoker, we may conjure Harold and Kumar, glassy eyed in pursuit of their fast food. But if we let go of the stoner stereotype, we find ourselves in the company of nuclear physicist and atomic bomb designer Richard Feynman and internationally acclaimed neurologist Oliver Sacks. Today’s music stars from Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga to Snoop Dogg and Justin Bieber are known for sparking up. One of the most pivotal figures in modern music history, the unforgettable Louis Armstrong, once threatened to “put down [his] horn” and quit playing if he couldn’t travel with herb.
Though Reefer Madness and the War on Drugs endeavored to scandalize cannabis use and subsequent portrayals have saddled the cannabis consumer with the slacker-stoner identity, an objective review of cannabis users not only redeems them, but also identifies them as the inspiration and architects of today’s society.