A hazy history of marijuana propaganda

By: Adam Cozens

As you watch television this evening (or more likely, passively watch 30-second clips of shows on your phone while Law & Order: SVU plays in the background), take notice of the messages whizzing by. 

“Your skin could be PRETTIER!”

“Your dinner could be TASTIER!’

“Your toilet paper could be BUTT-WIPIER!”

We’ve been ingesting those messages for so many years that we don’t think twice about them anymore. We yawn and roll our eyes and wait for the next piece of sponsored promotion to wash over our pupils highlighting the wonders of “revolutionary new eye cream.”

But what about the other kinds of messages we get. Not the kind that drives you to consume, but the kind that encourages you to avoid.

What about messages of fear?

A matter of the past

One of the oldest fear-based messages that have filled our headspace is anti-marijuana ads.

They stem from a variety of sources but the message is always the same: this stuff is poison! Whether using the “gateway drug” angle, the “this is your brain…this is your brain on drugs” illustration, or the drugged-out stoner motif often portrayed in movies and shows, anti-weed propaganda has been consciously and subconsciously drilled into our minds for over 100 years. 

But with some many battles out there to fight, why was little old weed the target?

As educated History101 readers, you know that folks have been chiefin’ the ganja for at least 2,500 years! It comes from the earth and generally carries minimal side-effects (if any) so why the hoopla?

Well, for starters — look to the dollar signs.

A well-traveled theory highlights that in early 1919, an invention by George Schlichten called the “Hemp Decorticator” was going to turn the fabric world on its head.

Through the use of his new technology, the generally disregarded hemp plant would be a suitable competitor to cotton and would actually be much cheaper to produce.

Not long after, the anti-hemp propaganda began springing up en masse. 

Lined with riches from the deep pockets of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, conjured-up stories of fear about this nasty new varmint plant that was warping the minds of the lower class began appearing on newsstands nationwide.

Fabricated articles about weed-addled Mexican immigrants who run rampant raping and killing innocent white women filled their pages and the panic campaign had officially begun. 

The prejudices and fears that greeted these peasant immigrants also extended to their traditional means of intoxication: smoking marijuana,” said Eric Schlosser in a 1994 issue of The Atlantic.

“Police officers in Texas claimed that marijuana incited violent crimes aroused a ‘lust for blood,’ and gave its users ‘superhuman strength.’ Rumors spread that Mexicans were distributing this ‘killer weed’ to unsuspecting American schoolchildren.”

But why did Hearst care to sully his publications with these dreamt-up lies? Simple: because as a mass printer of newspapers, he was in the paper production business.

Hearst was making a killing using cheap tree-pulp paper. And with hemp being a new alternative, he knew it had to go, least his empire began to show signs of crumbling. 

Now you might be asking, “If he was so rich and connected, why didn’t he just start printing on hemp-paper as well?” And to that, I’d say “Congrats! You are smarter than William Randolph Hearst.” 

A plan so crazy that it … worked

Hearst’s campaign of disinformation began getting passed around like a doobie at a frat party.

Everyone was espousing tales of immigrants driven stir crazy in a drug-addled stupor.

Around this same time, a young government employee named Harry Anslinger saw an opportunity.

Anslinger was a go-getter with a penchant for bending the truth who saw an opening for himself to move up the ladder when the days of alcohol prohibition ended.

Despite having said in the past that “There is probably no more absurd fallacy” than marijuana being dangerous, he understood that nothing brings people together quite like fear.

Thus, they hatched the collective plan to demonize marijuana to the masses.

And how did that pan out? With Anslinger serving a 30-year stint as the head of the Bureau of Narcotics. 

With the help of Hearst and others, Anslinger continued pushing propaganda that distorted facts and replacing them with fear.

In 1936, when the Louis Gasnier full-length film “Reefer Madness” premiered.

A tale of an innocent American high school (a.k.a, a bunch of white kids) turned upside-down by a wave of marijuana usage causes wide-eyed sons and daughters to become drugged-up crime fiends doing anything to get their next hit. 

While the film currently resides as a mockable cult classic, the disc best used to break your nugs upon prior to a toke, the movie spread throughout parent groups nationwide inciting paranoia the nation over. 

More anti-marijuana ads soon followed with comic books, PSAs, novellas, and advertisements dedicated to the subject.

What started as an honest-to-goodness disinformation campaign had taken on a life of its own and now truly intelligent people were passing off the claims they heard as truth.

"Reefer Madness" pot propaganda
A still from the 1936 film “Reefer Madness,” where the police arrest suspects for murder. (IMDB).

As the flower children of the ’60s became the young urban professionals of the ’70s and ’80s, many began to push back on the notion that weed was all evil with pro-pot references beginning to appear in television shows, films, and especially music.

Comedy groups like Cheech & Chong and network variety show like Sonny and Cher (despite this quite hilarious anti-weed PSA Sonny Bono shot while clearly incredibly stoned) celebrated the use of the potent plant.

What used to be considered “no laughing matter” quickly became, well … quite the laughing matter.

Even as Richard Nixon’s “War on Drugs” attempted to re-lignite the anti-marijuana propaganda burners, the majority of mainstream culture had woken up to the idea that a few tokes aren’t going to drive you to become a self-crazed psychopath you.

By the early ’70s, right around the time that middle-class white people began to casually enjoy a smoke after work, criminal punishment for marijuana by-and-large came to a halt.

While not legalized (and still sometimes carrying heavy fines and prison time), marijuana fell off the common list of “hard” drugs like cocaine, heroin, and LSD. 

In the ’90s, a new wave of anti-drug PSAs and messaging became to flood airwaves (who can forget when Zack Morris narc’d on the super-cool Johnny Dakota for blazing a roach in the classic 1991 Saved By The Bell episode “No Hope With Dope”).

And while no one is advocating for minors to give the ganja a go, the sensationalistic sky-is-falling narrative of many of these campaigns were met far more with mockery than any real seriousness.

As of press time, marijuana is 100% legal for adults over the age of 21 in eleven states and legal for medical use in 33 states. Quite a long way from the nightmare-fueling demon drug that mid-20th century would have liked you to believe. 

To smoke or not to smoke? 

Now, despite the use of such hep-cat lingo as “joint” and “toke,” I personally am not a marijuana-user.

Despite having read copious articles on the subject, I can’t deny that a large part of my resistance comes back to the propaganda I was fed as a youth.

While my grade school days occurred well past the demonic-possession era of media, I was still banged over the head with “Just Say No!” and bi-weekly visits from my grade school’s local D.A.R.E. officer (which, I gotta say introduced an entire generation of kids to drugs we never even knew existed!

Every week they’d come in and be like “Have you kids heard of PCP? No? Well, it is bonkers! It’ll make you strong as heck and you’ll see things that aren’t there! Anyway, don’t do it.

It was like we were invited to a Mary Kay party where the host showcased all of the exciting new highs that you couldn’t wait to experience!).

While countless studies have shown that marijuana is healthier for you than a thimble of bourbon or a glass of beer, those have much less stigma attached to them and while Officer Buzzkill probably would probably tell me to “just say no” to any of it, I think I’ll just be content chillin’ my mellow with a fifth of Maker’s and a few reruns of Seinfeld.

Or, you know … a healthy diet and exercise.

Ha! like that’s a real thing.

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