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A Look Back at Anti-Cannabis Propaganda Through Time

Sheldon Sommer

by Sheldon Sommer

February 23, 2024 08:00 am ET Estimated Read Time: 6 Minutes
Fact checked by Kymberly Drapcho
A Look Back at Anti-Cannabis Propaganda Through Time

Propaganda surrounding cannabis use has a complex past embedded in America’s political and sociocultural history. Ranging from the appalling to the comically absurd, anti-cannabis propaganda has played an influential role in shaping legislation, public perception, and societal attitudes regarding the drug and its users for over a century. From the early 20th century to the present day, various forms of propaganda have served to spread misinformation about cannabis use, resulting in a complicated narrative infused with broader issues of economic power, racial prejudice, and political motivations. Here, we explore some prominent examples of anti-cannabis messaging and reveal the insidious ways that these messages have shaped America’s controversial relationship with the cannabis plant and the cannabis community.

1910s: The Marijuana Menace

The Mexican Revolution of 1910 incited a surge of Mexican immigrants to the US, particularly in the Southwest. Rising xenophobic attitudes inspired racially-charged rumors about the “foreign” plant known as “mariguana” or “marihuana” that the newcomers used traditionally for recreational intoxication and medicinal effects.

Escalating racist and anti-immigrant sentiments thus produced a caricatured persona known as  “The Marijuana Menace,” which portrayed Mexican immigrants as violent criminals. Claims that smoking marijuana aroused a “lust for blood” were propounded by authorities and local gossip. Furthermore, it was believed that Mexicans were introducing their “killer weed” to innocent American schoolchildren.

“The Marijuana Menace” stereotype later expanded to include Black and Indigenous people. The caricatured representation of the menacing cannabis user came to represent people seen as members of “inferior” races and labeled these individuals as social deviants. The anti-drug campaign culminated in 1914 when El Paso, Texas enacted one of the first U.S. ordinances aimed at banning the sale or possession of cannabis, with other southwestern states following suit over the next decade.

1930s: Reefer Madness

reefer madness

Perhaps the most well-known piece of anti-cannabis propaganda, “Reefer Madness” is a film series depicting innocent high school students who are lured into smoking cannabis. The events that follow escalate to increasingly ludicrous situations and events for the unsuspecting teens as they descend into “madness.” According to the film, smoking just one joint will lead individuals to a world of insanity and criminality, involving hallucinations, manslaughter, rape, and drowning.

The film, along with the infamous Federal Bureau of Narcotics commissioner, Harry Anslinger, fueled nationwide fear of cannabis with claims based on pseudo-research that linked cannabis use to violence and crime. Eventually, the misinformation spread by this propaganda was able to facilitate the passage of the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act which effectively criminalized the cultivation, distribution, possession, and use of cannabis at the federal level.

1950s: Gateway Drug

In the ‘50s, cannabis was often portrayed alongside more dangerous substances like methamphetamine and heroin, with propaganda asserting that using cannabis would lead to the abuse of “harder” drugs. One PSA titled “Drug Addiction” is a twenty-minute set of scenes portraying cannabis as a gateway drug. There is a particular scene where a hardcore heroin addict explains to a judge smoking cannabis for “4 or 5 months” led him to eventually develop a severe addiction to injecting heroin.

However, it is not scientifically confirmed that cannabis use leads to consumption and eventual abuse of more dangerous substances. In fact, research at UC Boulder compared the experiences of twins living in states where cannabis is legal versus those who live in states where cannabis is illegal. Overall, the researchers found no connection between the heightened risk of drug abuse in individuals from states where cannabis has been legalized.

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1970s-90s: Anti-Cannabis Cartoon Characters

The 1970s through 1990s saw the emergence of popular television characters discouraging drug use.  Anti-cannabis propaganda from the American Medical Association recruited Hanna-Barbera (the creators behind The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo, among other favorites) to target younger audiences and spread anti-drug messaging. The results involved creepy animations of people having strange trips, and the messaging further promoted the idea that cannabis would serve as a gateway to other drug abuse.

Proceeding with the cartoon approach, the ’90s presented a PSA featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles advising kids against using cannabis. The cartoon character theme further expanded into the 30-minute “Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue”, where the quartet of crime-fighting reptiles—along with Alvin and the Chipmunks, Bugs Bunny, the Muppet Babies, Winnie the Pooh, Garfield, and the Smurfs—urge kids to steer clear of cannabis.

Although it is good to discourage underage individuals from using recreational cannabis, these messages fail to recognize the fact that many people benefit medically from the effects of cannabis. These messages propagate messaging that further demonizes and stigmatizes cannabis use when we should instead provide youth with more constructive and less fear-based messaging surrounding cannabis.

2000s: Absurdly Comical Ads

Talking Dog

Who wouldn’t want to have a conversation with their canine best friend while enjoying the effects of cannabis? Well, if this were your dog, you probably wouldn’t. In this 2007 ad produced by Above the Influence, a girl is shamed for her cannabis use by man’s best friend. While grabbing a drink from the refrigerator, the apparently stoned character turns around to find her dog talking to her. “Hey Lindsay, I wish you didn’t smoke weed. You’re not the same when you smoke,” says the canine companion.

The ad overall portrays cannabis users as “changed” for the worse, even though the drug is frequently used for medical benefits, and many people who consume cannabis regularly maintain normal relationships with their human and animal companions. It seems like Lindsay is either having a very bad trip or her dog just needs to shut up and go back to barking!

Flat Friend

Perhaps the most absurdly comical anti-cannabis advertisement is the infamous “couch pancake” scene from 2006. Both creepy and hilarious, this commercial depicts the stereotype that cannabis makes users lazy by showing a pair of friends, one of whom has been reduced to a grotesquely deflated, limp figure sunken into the couch. In the ad, the flat friend is unable to move or speak, and the other sober friend expresses that the two used to have fun together, but now the flat friend is “all lazy and boring.” This ad is yet another example of the way anti-drug campaigners stigmatize cannabis users as unmotivated and useless. The creepy image of the flattened girl also serves to “scare” viewers about the effects of cannabis by associating this grotesque image with cannabis use. 

Just Say No…to Propaganda

In examining the historical landscape of anti-cannabis propaganda in the United States, it is interesting to observe how such campaigns can affect public perception, societal attitudes, and legislative initiatives. This survey illuminates not only how anti-cannabis propaganda manipulates people’s opinions about the use of cannabis and other drugs. These campaigns have also served to foster socially toxic beliefs, particularly concerning certain racial communities. The evolution of anti-cannabis messaging underscores the enduring consequences of misinformation and the importance of promoting informed dialogue surrounding the complexities of substance use and its societal implications.

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