The Evolution of Cannabis on TV
From “ Just Say No ” to “ Pussy Weed ”
When I was a kid, if you saw cannabis consumption portrayed on TV you were probably watching an afterschool special with a moral at the end about how drugs are bad. A few family sitcoms took on the issue with more nuance but similar messages. Fast forward thirty years, and marijuana has assumed a much more prominent – and much more positive – role on the small screen. Whether it’s providing guaranteed-to-get-a-laugh gags or compelling storytelling technique, cannabis has become a darling of the modern television industry. And with several more shows currently in development, the trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down.
When I was a kid, if you saw cannabis consumption portrayed on TV you were probably watching an afterschool special with a moral at the end about how drugs are bad
Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign found a mouthpiece and an audience in the network television of the 80s, with memorable mentions on Diff’rent Strokes and Punky Brewster, among others. Made-for-television movies such as 1980’s Stoned and 1986’s Shattered…If Your Kid’s on Drugs depicted pot as a gateway to harder drugs. Parallel plotlines persisted into the early 90s on programs geared toward adolescents, like the time Zach refused to smoke weed on Saved by the Bell or when Blossom and Six got busted before they could try a joint. Only rarely did television show cannabis as an option for responsible adults. Roseanne came close with their nostalgic “A Stash from the Past” episode in 1993, as did the Dinosaurs’ 1992, “A New Leaf,” in which they decide to regulate their own consumption because it’s more dangerous to wage “war on happy plants.”
Cannabis broke out as a comedic strategy on television later in the 90s, both an easy way to earn a quick laugh and a subversive tactic for normalization. Perhaps most beloved was That 70s Show, which never shied away from the topic and featured “the circle,” an obvious nod to a basement smoke session, in nearly every episode. Teens and adults, including Tommy Chong, took part in “the circle” and generated some of the shows funniest moments. In the new millennium, Weeds garnered a lot of attention for its frank rendering of the illicit cannabis market, but not before comedy staple The Simpsons paved the way with its own take on the marijuana movement. “Weekend at Burnsie’s,” in which Homer is prescribed medical cannabis, spawned many hilarious one-liners and didn’t miss the opportunity to satirize current laws and societal norms. Carl tells Homer, “Yeah, we were planning an intervention, but I got alcohol poisoning that night.”
Now, cannabis has risen to a position of privilege on the air, with numerous reality and scripted programs devoted to its consumption and culture. It’s almost a given that Ilana and/or Abbi will hit the Pax in Broad City, whose representation of female tokers flips the script of traditional gender roles in the cannabis community. (“ Pussy Weed ” has my vote for best cannabis episode ever.). High Maintenance takes another tactic, using a bicycle pot delivery guy as a plot device to tell diverse and intimate stories about the people he interacts with in his unconventional job. This new approach serves to destigmatize by essentially ignoring the stigma. These shows transcend the clichéd, moralistic conversation and taboo by presenting cannabis as what it is: a part of many people’s everyday lives that needs no further validation.
What’s on the horizon for cannabis on the mainstream small screen? Will entertainment continue to evolve in its representation of marijuana or revert to a hackneyed tool for propagandists? With a slew of dispensary-set comedies in development for NBC, Amazon, and Netflix, it looks like the momentum is on our side. But those show – “Buds,” “Highland,” and “Disjointed,” respectively – won’t be able to rely on antiquated weed jokes if they want to succeed. Today’s audiences are savvy, and we expect cannabis-themed television to respect our intelligence and our connection to the plant.