Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Although cannabis has become normalized throughout popular culture, anti-weed propaganda still perpetuates the social stigma that has long dampened the reputation of this incredibly resourceful plant.
Gone are the days of flat out unhinged propaganda that portrayed cannabis as a violence-inducing, family-destroying, and all-around life-ruining drug. Still, deeply rooted within the hysteria of anti-weed propaganda is unbridled racism, sexism, and a narrative built on nothing but lies and fears.
Propaganda and misinformation is still there to be thwarted in the present day, but you’ll realize just how far the cannabis movement has come after looking at this insane (and oftentimes rage-inducing) anti-weed propaganda that has been weaponized throughout history.
We’ll dissect the origins of anti-cannabis rhetoric, and also share some examples of how it evolved through television airwaves. Here are 10 of the most infuriating, obscene, and all-around insane examples of anti-weed propaganda throughout history.
Historically Significant Anti-Cannabis Propaganda
Let’s start with a bad trip down memory lane and look at the earliest instances of anti-cannabis propaganda. These examples re-shaped society and transformed an incredibly useful plant into a heinous substance that would be stigmatized for years to come.
The creme de la anti-cannabis propaganda film. This 1936 American exploitation film is now a cult classic beloved for its absurdness, but at the time it was made, it effectively awoken an irrational fear throughout society that subtly persists to this day. The premise revolves around a group of high school students who are lured by marijuana dealers to start indulging. A slew of unsavory acts transpire as a result of their pot smoking and eventual marijuana “addiction,” including manslaughter, attempted rape and murder, suicide, fearful hallucinations and more.
The original intention of the film, which was financed by a church under the title Tell Your Children, was to drive parents into an anti-cannabis frenzy. In the 1970s, Reefer Madness was rediscovered and turned into an unintentional comedy of sorts, but it still provides a shocking visual of how an entire generation was brainwashed into nightmarish delusions about cannabis.
Marijuana, Assassin of Youth by Harry J Anslinger
No single person had a more instrumental role in pushing anti-cannabis propaganda than Harry J. Anslinger. The figurehead of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics throughout five presidential administrations, Anslinger made it his life’s mission to demonize cannabis and enforce harsh penalties for illegal drug use.
In 1937, Anslinger wrote “Marijuana, Assassin of Youth,” a screed that boasted several unfounded claims about cannabis use and its effect on young people. This historic piece of propaganda focuses on the unpredictable nature of cannabis, claiming that the brain could have a severely negative reaction and turn a law-abiding citizen into “a mad insensate or a murderer.” Written just one year after Reefer Madness, Anslinger’s work is essentially a carbon copy of the film. It delves into many of the same themes featured in the movie, claiming that cannabis use could drive well-mannered young people to madness, suicide, or a life of crime.
The Marijuana Menace – Cannabis As A Vehicle For Anti-Immigration Propaganda
Misinformation about marijuana was being spread decades before Anslinger began his crusade against the plant. Decades prior, sparked by political upheaval from the Revolution of 1910, Mexican immigrants started to migrate into the United States in immense numbers. Known to unwind through smoking weed, racially-charged rumors were spread far and wide throughout the American Southwest about how this foreign imported grass would induce heinous actions.
Anti-drug advocates created a persona called “The Marijuana Menace,” a clearly racist caricature that portrayed immigrants and African Americans as social deviants. This propaganda was fueled by claims that smoking marijuana led to violent crimes and a “lust for blood.” All of the hoopla eventually led the city of El Paso, Texas to enact the first law against the sale and possession of cannabis in 1914. It wasn’t long after that other states started to follow suit in criminalizing the plant.
“Murder Weed” – William Hearst and His Crusade Against Cannabis
Decades after “The Marijuana Menace” trope was devised to demonize Mexican immigrants, xenophobia and anti-cannabis propaganda only intensified. Anslinger had a powerful ally in William Randolph Hearst, the press mogul who openly waged a war against immigrants and cannabis. Look no further than a 1933 newspaper article published in the LA Examiner dramatically entitled: “Murder Weed Found Up and Down Coast—Deadly Marihuana Dope Plant Ready for Harvest That Means Enslavement of California Children.”
Attempting to stir up an intense anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the country, Hearst’s relentless barrage of yellow journalism conjured up images of devious cannabis-smoking Mexican immigrants to perpetuate fear and anger within the Anglo-Saxon population. For Hearst and other businessmen, it wasn’t the effects of cannabis use that drove the desire to stomp out the plant, but rather the potential to use hemp as fiber, which would negatively impact their financial interests.
“Voodoo Music” and Dope – Criminalizing Jazz
Similar to the way cannabis was used as a bludgeon against Mexican immigrants, newspapers also used the plant to attack African Americans, prostitutes, and New Orleans jazz music. Numerous articles surfaced calling jazz “satanic music” and claiming that “marijuana causes white women to seek relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” Propaganda fueled fears throughout the white community that black musicians were utilizing “voodoo music” and marijuana to hypnotize women and erase their inhibitions. These racially fueled lies were first spread in the 1910s, but the rhetoric ramped up under the guidance of Harry J Anslinger.
Known to be an ardent racist, Anslinger himself focused much of his anti-cannabis crusade on black jazz musicians. He kept a file called “Marijuana and Musicians,” and even kept famous musician Billie Holiday handcuffed to her death bed due to suspicion of drug possession and use.
Modern Day Anti-Cannabis Propaganda
The hysteria generated by the likes of Reefer Madness and Harry J Anslinger are far behind us, but even in the modern era, anti-cannabis propaganda continues to seep into the psyche of society. The 1990s and 2000s gifted us with a hysterical collection of anti-cannabis commercials that make you wonder how they were ever made in the first place.
“Hey Helen! Want A Hit?”
Imagine living in a world where all your elderly friends and smiling neighbors always greeted you with a freshly packed bowl of bud. For Helen, this stoner’s dream world is a reality. This commercial features a middle aged white woman going about her daily errands. To her dismay, she is offered a hit of weed everywhere she goes, from friendly neighborhood soccer moms to a grocery clerk. For some reason, the creators of this commercial thought this weed lovers’ utopia would come off as some sort of nightmarish hell world. Although it’s probably geared towards middle-aged parents caught up in the anti-weed hysteria of yesteryear – this commercial seems like a hilariously ineffective piece of propaganda in retrospect.
Like Father, Like Son
Not all anti-cannabis commercials are solely focused on impressionable children and teenagers. This 1987 PSA, for example, features an unexpected father and son bonding experience. The commercial begins with a mustachioed father barging into his son’s room wielding a wooden box of pot and paraphernalia, demanding to know where he got the weed and who taught him how to smoke. After some back and forth between the two characters, a plot twist emerges that makes this stereotypical ‘80s dad way cooler than he looks. The angsty kid reveals that he learned about smoking cannabis by watching his father indulge. A narrator puts a bow on this ad with a heartwarming message: “Parents who use drugs… have children who use drugs.”
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Speak Out Against Pot
A life of eating pizza and fighting crime? Let’s face it. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were undisputed cannabis icons – even when you were too young to realize it. That’s why it was completely Kowa-bogus when Drug Free America tried to use our beloved sewer-dwelling superheroes in an anti-weed commercial. This premise starts with a young student getting peer pressured to try a joint, the stereotypical ‘90s bully even goes so far as to call the reluctant kid a “chicken.” The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles swoop in to give some advice to a group of students, and the kid eventually snaps back with a legendary comeback: “I’m not a chicken, you’re a turkey!”
Holy Sh*t! Is My Dog Talking?
If you’re a pet-owning pot smoker, you’ve likely gotten high enough to wonder how cool it would be to talk to your dog or cat. In this anti-cannabis ad from Above The Influence, that thought is actualized in the form of a dog who is outspokenly disappointed about its owner’s cannabis use. Lindsay, the pot-smoking teenager featured in this commercial, must have some seriously strong shit. As she goes to grab a soda from the refrigerator, her dog jumps onto the counter and goes into a verbal diatribe about how cannabis has changed her as a person. Understandably, Lindsay seems freaked out by the fact that her dog is speaking to her. Many stoners, however, would gladly take whatever she’s smoking so they too can conversate with their furry friends.
Couch… Pancake Commercial
Perhaps the most legendary drug awareness commercial among millennials, the images of the flattened pot smoker glued to the couch are etched into the history books of ridiculous anti-pot programming. The premise of this Above The Influence ad is simple: two friends sit in a dingy living room that is overwrought with awkward silence. A narrator asks the sober friend what’s wrong with their stoned friend, who for some reason is completely flattened out and unable to move anything aside from her eyes. I don’t know about you, but if my friend suddenly turned into a deflated sack of skin, I’d probably call a doctor… This advert takes a unique twist on the couch potato stereotype, instead turning a teenage pot smoker into a couch pancake.