Once deemed the bringer of evil, marijuana has had a long journey from rejection to acceptance as a beneficial natural medicine and respected relaxation tool.
Keilah Keiser looks at a 100-year history of marijuana representation, from archaic campaigns that demonised cannabis users, to today’s slick packaging and bright billboards that promote the drug as if it were craft beer.
In 2019, it’s hard not to smirk at the wildly dramatic name for marijuana, ‘The Devil’s Lettuce’, but in the twin-set wearing age where wholesome families gathered around televisions to watch Leave It To Beaver, anti-cannabis propaganda was widely accepted.
A conservative stance on marijuana use had actually been going on for decades. During the 1920s and 1930s, marijuana was already largely associated with minority groups. When massive unemployment during the Great Depression increased the public’s resentment towards Mexican and African-American communities, the government and conservative campaigners used anti-cannabis propaganda as a way to capitalise on this fear.
Fear-mongering became an effective tactic that lead to the social construction of cannabis as one of the most dangerous drugs of our time. It has been 83 years since the Reefer Madness era, but much like the aftershock of an earthquake, there’s damage that follows.
We’ve made some great strides in correcting the common misconceptions of generations past, but in order to alter the perception of marijuana and understand the wealth of benefits this plant offers, both medicinally and recreationally, we need to look at what happened throughout the course of cannabis use.
Consumers come in all forms: entrepreneurs, business executives, artists, tradespeople, grandparents, millennials … But with the traditional stigma around pot, many of these folks are largely under-represented in current cannabis culture.
There is nothing like looking at history from a visual perspective. Most museums today hold old art and artifacts that tell more about the history of a place than our history books can. These things can virtually take us back to a particular period or era by helping us understand how life was back then. Through this visual guide, we’ll highlight the evolution of cannabis campaigns, to get a better understanding of the complicated history that is marijuana, and in particular, the representation of marijuana in what up until now has been considered the centre of the free world, the U.S.
The Rise of Reefer Madness
In the 1930s, American parents were in a state of panic. The propaganda film Reefer Madness suggested evil marijuana dealers lurked in public schools, waiting to entice children into a life of crime and degeneration. The film was started by Harry Anslinger, a government employee eager to make a name for himself after alcohol prohibition ended. And much to his surprise, the campaign succeeded beyond his aims, making him the head of the Bureau of Narcotics for 30 years.
In the decades prior to the 1930s, many American households had cannabis in their medicine cabinets in tincture form. But marijuana began to decline in the eyes of “proper” society when Mexican immigrants and African-American jazz musicians openly smoked marijuana. Anslinger’s played on the racist attitudes of white America in the early 20th century and used the fear of marijuana as an “assassin of youth”. His tactics included racist accusations that linked marijuana to Mexican immigrants, many of whom had fled danger during the Mexican Revolution. His campaign also included stories of black men who enticed young white women to become sex-crazed and instantly addicted to marijuana.
Anslinger and his Reefer Madness film were wildly successful in demonising marijuana, creating stereotypes that we’re still trying to shake to this day.
There’s no better example than Hemp For Victory, an educational film produced by the USDA in 1942 that encouraged farmers to grow hemp. During World War II, imports of hemp and other materials crucial for producing marine cordage, parachutes and other military necessities became scarce and needed by the allies. In response to the demand, the United States briefly reversed its stance on hemp and encouraged farmers to grow it.
After the war, hemp was once again deemed illegal and the government tried to hide all records of the campaign until pro-cannabis activists pressured them to bring it back into the light. Today, you can find Hemp For Victory in the U.S. National Archives, under record number ‘1682’.
“Hemp for Victory” is important not only because it highlights the true benefits and concise history of hemp that has been largely censored from textbooks, but in less than a decade after the war on drugs began, the government had the remarkable ability to flip-flop on a core drug policy overnight.
Despite marijuana’s deep roots in the U.S., the 1960s and 1970s counterculture movement became the face of cannabis that many of us know today. Marijuana became associated with hippies, political activism and the rejection of social, economic and mainstream society. On television and in films, stoner stereotypes were those of jobless and careless characters such as Cheech and Chong, beach bums and beatniks who loathed work and authority. To many people, being a pothead became an insult, ranging from dirty hippies to lazy stoners.
Marijuana’s controversial image was followed by Richard Nixon’s ‘War on Drugs’ in 1971, which placed cannabis, in all its forms, as a Schedule 1 drug, alongside ecstasy, heroin, and cocaine. Furthering Nixon’s initiative, Ronald Reagan increased federal funding for drug-control agencies and proposed strict measures, such as mandatory prison sentencing, for drug crimes, and who could forget Nancy Reagan’s tired slogan ‘Just Say No’ which eventually became a political joke among pro-marijuana / anti-Reagan voting groups.
After two decades as America’s public enemy number one, marijuana was in desperate need of a new image, which is exactly what it would get in 1996 when California voters legalised marijuana for recreational use. Medical marijuana not only helped change the way we view cannabis but opened the doors to recreational legalisation.
Nowadays, we’re seeing everything from anti-stoner campaigns to sleek, modern packaging and billboards that promote small batch, local brands — as if cannabis was a craft beer.
Fast-forward decades later and the way we view cannabis, in an era of legalisation, is a shocking black and white comparison to generations past. Today there are millions of adults who choose to enjoy cannabis both recreationally, and medicinally. Some use it socially with friends, and others to unwind after a stressful day at work, or just to think more creatively. Consumers come in all forms: entrepreneurs, business executives, artists, tradespeople, grandparents, millennials… But with the traditional stigma around pot, many of these folks are largely under-represented in current cannabis culture.
Modern marijuana campaigns aim to change that, starting with busting the 1970s-era, Cheech-and-Chong stereotypes of cannabis users. With regulations around cannabis advertising, determined individually by states, brands have to be extra creative with their marketing efforts, and they’re doing so with flair. Nowadays, we’re seeing everything from anti-stoner campaigns to sleek, modern packaging and billboards that promote small batch, local brands — as if cannabis was a craft beer.
There’s no denying the rich history of cannabis in popular culture and marketing, going right back to the Reefer Madness era. By evaluating cannabis campaigns of the past, we can better understand how to reshape those of the future. The way we view marijuana is not only maturing but celebrating the diversity of its consumers.
Note: No information in this article should be used to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease or condition. See your doctor for further advice.