Cannabis in Cinema

cinema - film projector

If cinema and its auteurs have strived to turn a mirror to society and reflect the cultural norms and messages of the day, one can view the representation of cannabis in films as a roadmap to the shifting ideas and attitudes towards its use as a whole. Over the decades, we have seen the movement of marijuana in cinema from the fear-mongering propaganda of Reefer Madness (1936) to the idolization and celebratory humour of The Big Lebowski (1998). As the various representations of cannabis have evolved in cinema, they are indicative of ever-changing social and cultural beliefs held about cannabis through the decades.

At the start of the 20th century, most of what we think of as illegal drugs today, were actually legal in the United States. Marijuana was sold in drugstores, and doctors even recommended it as medical treatment. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics was created in 1930, with Harry Anslinger, an infamous prohibitionist, as its commissioner. As the use of marijuana continued to grow in the early 1930’s, Anslinger strategically used anti-marijuana propaganda to exploit vulnerable immigrant communities and instill fear among the white population at the height of the Great Depression. It was widely believed that the practice of smoking cannabis was introduced by Mexican laborers crossing the border, and Anslinger used this to his advantage. Anti-marijuana campaigns were launched across newspapers and other media, portraying cannabis users as rapists, addicts, and monsters. The most infamous piece of this propaganda is Reefer Madness, released in 1936. The films existence speaks to the fact that many Caucasian people were not very familiar with the effects of marijuana at the time, and it capitalized on popular stories of people succumbing to madness and extreme acts with its use. 

One year after its release, the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 came into effect, officially making cannabis illegal in the United States. Reefer Madness existed on the fringes of mainstream cinema, as the sensationalism of its content kept it out of regular movie theatres. When the copyright expired in 1972 and the film found its way to public domain, one of the greatest pieces of cult cinema was born. Now a beloved – if atypical – stoner film, adored for the sheer audacity and total commitment to an over-the-top mash-up of violence, gore, sex, and other shocking subjects, Reefer Madness is purely an exploitation flick. The inaccurate, wild, and salacious representation of cannabis use in Reefer Madness is directly associated to the anxiety and fear held about the drug during the 1930’s. In later generations, not only would cannabis be viewed differently, but it would be expressed differently in the artistic expressions of films produced.  

Over time the blatant misrepresentation of the effects of marijuana on display in Reefer Madness slowly gave way as increased use of marijuana by beatniks and other fringe countercultural groups forced filmmakers to portray the effects of the drug more realistically. Easy Rider (1969), a film so influential to cannabis culture that it now has strains, businesses, and products named after it, engaged with marijuana as a more relatable, universal, and even meditative experience. The film’s plotline is secondary to the mood, the thrill of the open road, the heady experience of imbibing in cannabis. The visual style conveys the sense that in their travels the two main characters are transcending cultural, spatial, and temporal limits. The film isn’t admonishing, it’s in many ways encouraging, providing small moments of truthful reflection that the audience can easily relate with. Perhaps the best example of this is when Peter Fonda’s character Wyatt ‘Captain America’ Williams scoffs at the “gateway drug” theory introduced by Anslinger while advising George Hanson (Nicholson) to stop drinking and instead shows him how to smoke a joint. Hanson is then sent on such an intense monologue about space aliens that he completely forgets about everything else, including what he thought he desired most – more alcohol. In this moment of humorous observation about the tangent-inducing effects of cannabis, is also a more subtle suggestion of the medicinal uses of the drug – the dangers of alcoholism are ‘treated’ in this scene, with a joint. In Easy Rider cannabis was utilized as a symbol of the generational free-spirited subculture, almost like the motorbikes themselves, and cannabis use during this time became associated with a free-wheeling and rebellious existence rather than a criminal lifestyle. By combining a relatable and positive expression of cannabis use with the popularity of the beatnik counterculture, Easy Rider and its characters conjured up and promoted the image of the free American individual.

As the baby-boomer generation grew older, it influenced an entirely new and original archetype, the aging hippie, still enjoying their youthful embrace of cannabis. Nowhere is this better captured and celebrated than in The Big Lebowski. One can’t conjure up an image of The Dude without also recalling his relaxed, Zen-like nature, something that many in our current overwrought and over-worked society look upon with envy and awe. The Dude is Eckhart Tolle dressed up as a fun quirky character, but the message is the same: live in the present, enjoy where you are now, because it’s all you ever have. 

There are several unique aspects to the movie that separates the Big Lebowski from other films depicting cannabis use. Firstly, everything seems to happen to The Dude, almost completely without his input. One gets the feeling that if it was up to The Dude, nothing would ever change in his life. Secondly, he is completely malleable. He is adaptable to almost any situation, but approaches them all in the same relaxed state. Thirdly, no matter how bad things get for the Dude, he always seems to have a sort of inner peace. The Dude knows that this will all blow over eventually, and he recognizes that when it does, he’ll be able to go back to his simple life of getting high and listening to bowling ASMR. No matter how awry the plot goes, it can never get that bad for The Dude, because it will take so little to build him back to where he wants to be from zero. The Big Lebowski is play on the film noir genre that also functions as an examination of the American Dream, or the American way of life, and most especially to the material success we associate with it. The Dude is in many ways what society might deem a failure, a loser, or a deadbeat, but what The Big Lebowski makes clear is that the cannabis user can have very little materially but be very rich in valuable and spiritual ways. The Dude may be haplessly pulled along on many misadventures, but when given the chance and the time, he will indulge in cannabis, and sink into a moment of pure being. 

Today’s increased cultural focus on the necessity of mindfulness is linked to the powers of relaxation and enjoyment that cannabis use can offer, and this is reflected on the silver screen in a myriad of ways. The Dude’s ability to remain relaxed while reading a kidnapping-related ransom letter is modern mindfulness on steroids, and if you don’t agree then that’s just like, your opinion man. The Big Lebowski is a stoner comedy with very little weed smoking in it, wanting instead to focus on the lifestyle rather than the act, which is why it’s so much more relatable than Cheech and Chong driving an RV made of weed across the Mexico border, or Ice Cube falling down after a sparse hit off of a blunt in the movie Friday (1995). It seems in many ways that typical stoner comedies were made for people who don’t actually smoke weed, while The Big Lebowski was made exclusively for active cannabis users.

Over the years the depiction of marijuana use has morphed and adapted into what is now a legitimate art form unto itself. In contrast to the fear-based propaganda of the 1930’s, more honest films have emerged. Easy Rider captures a moment in time where real changes around cannabis use were beginning to take hold in people’s minds, and manifests this change on screen. There are films that make you feel nice, warm and fuzzy, that celebrate the pleasures and spiritual profits that cannabis can provide, such as The Big Lebowski. The history of cannabis in film is broad, multi-faceted and amorphous. The relationship we have with marijuana will continue to shape the art and artists of our time, and the road ahead is vast, open and inviting.

© Kanab Inc. – Kanab Inc. is a Toronto based cannabis retail company that honors the historical significance and uses of the cannabis plant across cultures and civilizations. Kanab has now opened its first cannabis dispensary at the intersection of Don Mills Road and York Mills Road in North York region of Toronto, Ontario (South of 401, West of 404 / Don Valley Parkway, and East of Leslie). For more info, please visit:

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