Is there any illegal substance in America that has been subject to more media distortion than the Cannabis plant, the infamous marijuana? In Part Two of our Six-Part Series on Psychedelics in the Media, I’ll examine some of the images and misconceptions that still prevail in Western society regarding Cannabis through the lens of film and television. Although not really a psychedelic, Cannabis is a potent empathogen (generating feelings of greater emotional openness) and euphoric herb that has been used alongside psychoactive plants such as Datura metel and the unidentified soma in Hindu scripture (which some scholars have speculated may be Cannabis itself) (Touw 1981). Cannabis also holds the distinction of being the most widely consumed illegal substance in the United States (World Drug Report 2011), and possibly in the world; a plant whose use is in fact so ubiquitously referenced in our culture that it’s easy to forget that the United States government still lists Cannabis as a Schedule One drug considered to have a high potential for addiction and no recognized medical value. While state legalizations of Cannabis for medical purposes are turning this tide, at the federal level Cannabis is still illegal.
With so much information about Cannabis available online as well as in film and television, we must ask, “Do narrative media sources accurately portray the context in which people use Cannabis, the market surrounding its use, and the effects of this herb?” While there are literally hundreds of films that feature casual Cannabis use, to get to the heart of this question I’ve selected two films and a television series with plots centered on the use, manufacturing, and sale of Cannabis in the United States.
Context of Cannabis Use: It doesn’t take much exposure to American film culture to develop an image of the kinds of people who consume Cannabis. Much more than with alcohol or tobacco, in the U.S. there exists a solid stereotype of the “stoner”, or habitual Cannabis user. This stereotype is most clearly articulated in the film Pineapple Express, which takes its title from a fictional breed of Cannabis that the main characters use in the film. Dale (Seth Rogen) has a job serving subpoenas in Los Angeles, a dead-end career whose main perk is that it allows him to smoke Cannabis almost constantly as he drives around to deliver the documents. Dale has a quasi-friendship with his dealer, Saul (James Franco), based on their fondness for smoking Cannabis; Saul lives in a ratty apartment and lounges around in his pajamas watching TV when not making a living by peddling varieties of Cannabis he keeps stashed in his sock drawer.
This portrayal of the average life of the Cannabis user is so stereotypical as to be farcical, and as we’ll see later on, filmmaker Judd Apatow exaggerates many aspects of Cannabis culture to satirical effect. One of the ideas Pineapple Express plays off of is the truism that people who use Cannabis often become involved in the illicit manufacture or sale of Cannabis, the idea of the dealer as stoner. Embedded in this concept is the common mainstream perception that Cannabis users’ lives often become sidetracked by use of this plant; that their livelihoods and indeed lives are gradually fated to revolve around their “habit”.
An independent movie that both reflects and challenges this assumption is the 2009 film Leaves of Grass, starring Edward Norton in the role of two twins, Brady and Billy, from a small town in Oklahoma. In a classic prodigal son story of return to one’s roots, Billy has become a philosophy professor at Brown University but returns to Oklahoma upon receiving news that his brother Brady has died. However, upon arriving Billy learns that his brother, a local Cannabis grower, has actually tricked him into returning: Brady plans to have Billy impersonate him while Brady leaves town to hold clandestine refinancing negotiations with a Oklahoma drug lord who financed his high-tech Cannabis growing operation. The film creates tension between Billy—seen as the son who made good by choosing a career that let him use his intellect—and Brady, who at first seems to have settled into a dead-end existence growing Cannabis. However, almost from the start, Leaves of Grass sets about destroying its own assumptions: besides the sophistication of Brady’s hydroponic growing operation, he shows himself to be equal to Billy in his ability to engage in philosophical debate.
The television show Weeds adds another filter of nuance to the context of Cannabis use by setting the story in a suburban California housing development called Agrestic. The main character, Nancy, is a young widow who becomes a Cannabis distributor in order to make ends meet. Not only is Nancy herself not shown using Cannabis habitually, but the characters she sells to mostly do not fit the typical profile of the habitual Cannabis user: i.e., a young male of high school or college age who may or may not be legally employed and who likely works a dead-end, minimum wage job if at all (World Drug Report 2011). Nancy’s clients run the gamut from university students to overworked, middle-aged men—and even her own accountant—seeking solace from the numbing and stressful context of suburban living, not to mention from their stereotypically uptight wives. In an interesting juxtaposition early on, Weeds introduces Nancy’s brother Andy, a consciously archetypal stoner character who can’t seem to get his life together and spends most of his time smoking Cannabis and coming up with failed retail schemes to get rich quick. Yet Andy also provides an objective point of view from which viewers can appreciate the unbearable lightness of being that characterizes the “good life” in Agrestic, as in the scene where he remarks that the people who live there “can’t get stoned enough to forget where they live”. Cannabis use in Weeds also occurs alongside the blasé use of alcohol and prescription sleeping pills, suggesting that the characters who use Cannabis are pursuing it as an alternative to more powerful yet societally acceptable drugs for relaxation and the relief of anxiety.
Statistical Trends in Cannabis Use: Real world statistics reveal that many young people of high school and university age have had some experience with Cannabis: in a 1996 United Kingdom survey, 60% of 3,075 university students surveyed from ten different schools had tried Cannabis at least once; 25% of those had sampled it more than once or twice; and 20% described themselves as regular Cannabis users (Ashton 1999). According to the United Nations 2011 World Drug Report, in the United States the greatest contributing factor to experimental Cannabis use among adolescents is being around peers who also use Cannabis (UN World Drug Report 2011). People who try Cannabis in adolescence are also more likely to have a “sensation-seeking” temperament, and to have already tried alcohol and/or tobacco among their peers. However, of first-time Cannabis users, only about 10% go on to become regular users, and very few ever progress to other illicit drugs, suggesting that the concept of Cannabis as a “gateway drug” is flawed (UN World Drug Report 2011).
The Business of Cannabis: When it comes to public perceptions, Cannabis is perhaps unique in the world of psychoactive herbs in that its recreational use is inextricably tied to a global business that supplies users with their product. Although other widely known psychoactive substances are also tied into a global market — psilocybin mushrooms, Salvia divinorum, and even ayahuasca in the form of ayahuasca tourism — in fictional representations of psychedelic usage, the question of how the characters obtained the substance is rarely addressed. However, when it is specified, the characters have often harvested the psychedelics in nature (as in Shrooms) rather than bought them through a black market. However, in films centered on Cannabis usage, the plot almost always revolves around the global illicit market in Cannabis.
The statistics of the real Cannabis market intersect with its fictionalized version in three ways. Firstly, the global Cannabis market is a lucrative source of income for organized crime groups in the United States and abroad (World Drug Report 2011). The worldwide Cannabis market also exhibits regional variations in products types: most dried herbal Cannabis is grown regionally in operations around the United States and Canada, while more heavily processed forms such as the resinous hashish are mostly produced for export in traditional Cannabis-growing epicenters like India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Morocco and Lebanon (the four top Cannabis-producing countries) (World Drug Report 2011). Criminal groups in North America and Europe often grow Cannabis in operations sited on public land, and Cannabis products make up the majority of the contraband products seized by U.S. border agents at the U.S.-Mexico border (1,253 metric tons), and to a much smaller extent at the U.S.-Canada border (3 metric tons) (World Drug Report 2011).
Furthermore, the average concentration of THC (∆9 tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive compound in Cannabis) has greatly increased since the 1960’s-70’s in most if not all the varietals of Cannabis being sold on the black market, due to the intensive breeding of potent varieties of Cannabis such as skunkweed and sinsemilla (Ashton 1999). While a cigarette of Cannabis herbage rolled in the 1960’s or 70’s might have been about 1-3% THC by weight (about 10 milligrams) per 1 gram dried material, today’s joints may contain 60-200 milligrams of THC, about 6-20% of the herbage by weight! This already impressive figure can increase to 300 milligrams if hashish oil is included (Ashton 1999). More recent U.S. statistics suggest that the average concentration of THC in an herbal Cannabis cigarette has currently stabilized at about 11%, still much more than the original 1-3% (World Drug Report 2011).
Along with greater potency, world Cannabis markets are seeing an explosion in different Cannabis products: the ever-popular dried herbage and hashish (pressed cakes of Cannabis resin) have been joined by highly processed hashish oil and edibles such as Cannabis brownies, cookies, and candies (World Drug Report 2011). The new prevalence of synthetic cannabinoid “herbal incense” products such as Spice, derived from JWH-018, HU-210 and other research chemicals (World Drug Report 2011), is another symptom of a high demand for products that provide Cannabis-like effects.
The Cannabis Market in Film: Given the bevy of publicly available information on the Cannabis market, it is perhaps not surprising that the films under discussion reflect the mechanics of the real Cannabis trade with a fair degree of accuracy. To begin with, the Cannabis market is fictionally represented and satirized in the following scene from Pineapple Express, where Dale pays a visit to his dealer Saul, who has just obtained a new and potent variety of Cannabis:
The iconic image of the dealer as stoner rears its hoary head and begins to do some real narrative work in Pineapple Express, a film whose very title and premise reflect the popular perception of a global Cannabis black market replete with potent hybrid strains that are far beyond the products enjoyed by smokers of an earlier era. By throwing a multitude of “brand names” at the viewer such as Afghan Kush, Blue Oyster, the eponymous Pineapple Express, and Northern Lights (a reference to an actual street name for skunk weed) (Ashton 1999), this scene cements the concept that there is a global business of Cannabis going on in the shadows of the legal economy, with its own marketing, branding strategies, and product rollouts. As the film progresses, the viewer gets to see each level of the presumably worldwide Cannabis market, from the street-level dealer Saul, to his distributor Ted, to the manufacturer who provides the titular variety of Cannabis.
Leaves of Grass also frames itself as a film about the business of Cannabis, introducing sophisticated touches that elevate it above the stereotypical. We have only to refer to the clip in which Brady shows his brother his high-tech growing operation to realize that Brady is not your typical small-time dealer:
The sophistication of his setup, and the confidence with which Brady explains every aspect of the hydroponic growing operation, suggests he has brought a level of professional pride to his illicit career. In this scene, we realize Brady is not growing Cannabis as a lazy alternative to “real” work, but has made it his legitimate profession. He holds his work in every bit as high esteem as Billy regards his philosophy professorship, and sometimes in more esteem, as when he suggests that most of Billy’s scholarly works are no more than commentary on what other philosophers have said. Unlike in Pineapple Express, the characters in Leaves of Grass have lives that revolve around more than smoking Cannabis: while growing and selling Cannabis is Brady’s livelihood, it is not his life; he also has a sharp mind and can engage and even outsmart his academically inclined brother Billy, as the film’s impersonation plot quickly demonstrates.
However, the premise of Leaves of Grass also underscores the difficulties and dangers inherent in the life of a Cannabis dealer: Brady’s creditor has been pressuring him to expand his operation into dealing other substances such as cocaine and methamphetamine against his principles. Brady refuses, subsequently kills the drug lord in the struggle, and is later killed in a retaliatory strike. The abrupt change in tone reminds viewers of the dangers of engaging in a business that is so heavily administered by organized crime in film and in real life.
Weeds brings an initially more lighthearted take on the business of Cannabis: the first few episodes lay out the supply chain Nancy relies on to obtain her product, portraying her business as a cottage industry in which she gets packages of Cannabis from an African-American family of her acquaintance. Nancy’s Cannabis deals are informal, mostly conducted out of her home and minivan.
The shadow side of the business enters into Weeds when Nancy has financial troubles due to her lack of legitimate income: she conducts most of her transactions in cash and maintains a low bank balance, which becomes a problem when one of her sons breaks his arm and she has to find a way to pay the hospital bill. In a later episode, competitors in the Cannabis business shoot up her suppliers’ house, rudely awakening Nancy to the perils of operating a business that, once again, is inexplicably tied to organized crime.
Perhaps the most interesting facet of the Cannabis market in Weeds is the tension between the illegal Cannabis business and the semi-legal gray area of medical marijuana and compassion cafés, brilliantly highlighted in this clip from Episode #3:
Much like the range of sophisticated Cannabis strains and “goodies”—cakes, cookies, and even lollies—being sold in the real Cannabis market, this clip shows the diversity of Cannabis products available and makes Nancy realize that she must diversify her own product line to compete, as her clients gravitate toward the varied offerings of the medical marijuana café. Nancy begins crafting her own versions of Cannabis desserts and candies in her kitchen using basic baking equipment. Once again, the business of Cannabis is very much still a cottage industry in this series. Most interesting for purposes of real world comparison is how Nancy lures her clients back from the enticements of the marijuana café: in a meeting, she presents her newly crafted Cannabis goods, and points out that while they can now buy the same products from her in secret, when they go to the marijuana café their driver’s licenses are registered in a database of medical marijuana clients. The prospect of being registered in a government database is scary enough that many of Nancy’s clients resume buying from her. In the show as in life, Cannabis use for medical purposes is still in a legal gray area: some states have legalized medical marijuana, but it is still illegal at the federal level. The business of Cannabis in Weeds is very much an industry in the shadow of true acceptance.
Effects of Cannabis: Smoking or eating Cannabis produces a cornucopia of distinct effects. Cannabinoids, the compounds responsible for the Cannabis “high”, can affect the body in ways similar to opiates, sedatives, euphorants and even entheogens: they are sedative, analgesic, anxiolytic, stimulate appetite and are occasionally psychedelic (Ashton 1999). As stated above, Cannabis grown today generally contains higher levels of THC than the first samples analyzed in the 1960s and ‘70s, and has stronger and quicker effects on the body. 50% of the THC in a smoked joint is inhaled and absorbed by the body. The THC enters the brain through the bloodstream within minutes, with alterations to perception and mood noticeable in seconds. When consumed orally as a resin or Cannabis dessert, the body absorbs 25-35% of the THC, and psychoactive effects onset about 30 minutes to 2.5 hours after consumption. However, the effects of oral Cannabis may last longer as cannabinoids seep into the blood from the lining of the intestine over time. Because THC and related cannabinoids are very fat soluble, they can sequestrate in lipid (fat) tissue, where they are slowly eliminated over a period of 7 to 30 days (Ashton 1999).
The most well known effect of smoking or eating Cannabis is the infamous “high”. Though rarely described in film or television shows featuring Cannabis use, the euphoric effects of Cannabis include a reduction in anxiety, depression and tension; a decrease in alertness; and increase in pleasurable feelings of relaxation and sociability in friendly surroundings. Dysphoric effects such as anxiety, paranoia and panic attacks can sometimes occur in naïve users or those who are psychologically vulnerable (Ashton 1999), lending credence to the common idea that Cannabis can exacerbate nervousness instead of relieving it. This might be partly due to Cannabis’ ability to induce tachycardia (rapid heart rate) of up to 160 beats per minute in new users, an effect that drops off as users develop a tolerance. Cannabinoids also cause the blood vessels in the eyes to dilate and the eyes to redden, a visual effect that is often accurately reflected in film scenes depicting Cannabis use. Occasionally, users may experience low blood pressure and fainting upon standing, a condition called orthostatic intolerance (Ashton 1999).
Contributing to the pleasurable mental effects of Cannabis are common changes in audio-visual perception: colors can appear brighter, music more vivid, and emotions more poignant. Some individuals experience faint hallucinations or closed-eye visuals. The perception of space and time may also be distorted after Cannabis use, resulting in an effect called time dilation (in which subjective time seems to move faster than clock time), and impairments to coordination (Ashton 1999). Cannabis use can cause other measurable impairments to psychomotor skills that manifest as slowed reaction time, deficits in short term memory, difficulty concentrating, and impairment in performing complex tasks that require divided attention. Many of these effects are similar to those resulting from alcohol or benzodiazepines, and compound when Cannabis is combined with these drugs. The effects start to manifest between doses of 5-10 milligrams of THC (Ashton 1999).
Cannabis Effects in Film: Unlike more impartial sources such as news reports, film narrative often faces a choice between presenting a discourse that is more pro- or anti-Cannabis; most films fall somewhere in between in the effects they choose to highlight. Perhaps tellingly, most film narratives that feature Cannabis use do not feel a need to explain its effects, possibly because the writers expect their core audience to have some personal experience with Cannabis. For instance, in Pineapple Express, the specific mellowing effects of Cannabis are almost impossible to separate from the main character Dale’s generally laidback personality. This begs the question, is he portrayed as eternally relaxed because he constantly smokes Cannabis, or is his Cannabis use a symbolic reflection of his lackadaisical attitude toward life? If the latter, it would reflect the societal perception of Cannabis smokers as unambitious and often unworldly.
In the handful of scenes dealing directly with the effects of Cannabis, Pineapple Express at first seems to dutifully echo the most hackneyed effects associated with Cannabis use: for instance, both Dale and Saul are frequently forgetful, at one point oversleeping a meeting with Saul’s distributor by four hours because they smoked Cannabis the night before. Dale’s girlfriend also accuses him of being irresponsible and immature, and claims that his Cannabis use compounds these character flaws. Of course, this is a film that satirizes every aspect of the Cannabis experience, and its effects are no exception. In an opening scene that sets viewers up for the film’s tongue-in-cheek tone, a drug called Item 9 (Cannabis) is tested by the military:
This scene presents a discourse that suggests Cannabis was outlawed (at least in the United States) because it encouraged irreverence and disrespect toward the authority figures who comprised the military-industrial complex of the 1950s and beyond, rather than because it is physically harmful.
Leaves of Grass mostly downplays the effects of Cannabis in favor of a philosophical discussion over its merits and the problems inherent in running a Cannabis-based business. At only one point in the film do the two brothers actually smoke Cannabis together. Even here the effects are subtle and conveyed through Billy’s reaction to the smoke: he exhibits some reduction in attention span and what familiar users characterize as the mental “spaciness” associated with Cannabis. He also has some trouble regaining his seat, in a nod to Cannabis’ occasional effects on coordination and balance. And although some of the characters also drink alcohol later in the film, the dreamy effects of Cannabis are clearly distinguished from those of alcohol in Leaves of Grass.
Weeds highlights a number of Cannabis’ most well known (and often stereotyped effects), most notably with numerous references to “getting high”, the feeling of which, as in Pineapple Express, is never specified. Other effects portrayed include short-term memory loss (most memorably in the café scene, in which the greeter keeps forgetting what he and Nancy are discussing), increased hilarity and laughter, and reduction in anxiety and stress. The Cannabis café scene lays out a few of the medicinal effects for which many people turn to Cannabis as a semi-legal medicine: besides using it to alleviate anxiety and sometimes depression, the café’s patrons also avail themselves of Cannabis for its anti-nausea and analgesic effects and its ability to lower blood sugar levels. What sets Weeds apart from the other two film narratives is that it portrays characters who don’t use Cannabis exclusively but often take it alongside or as a substitute for conventional drugs such as alcohol and prescription sleeping pills. The illegal use of Cannabis in Weeds occurs side by side with such scenes. For instance, in one episode a female non-Cannabis-using character casually drinks four or five cocktails in a row and then drives home drunk. In a later episode, she asks her husband if he’s taken his Ambien to sleep that night. This blasé use of heavier intoxicants (with heavier risks accompanying their long-term or excessive use) reveals hypocrisy in some of the characters’ negative attitudes toward Cannabis use. It also carries an implicit message that Cannabis may be the drug of lesser impact for the same benefits in the Weeds universe.
Social Attitudes Toward Cannabis Use: A survey of experienced Cannabis users in Toronto, Canada revealed that most of those surveyed considered their use of Cannabis a rational choice, and that they mostly used it to enhance recreational activities and for relaxation (Hathaway 2003). The surveyed results seem to dovetail nicely with the character Dale’s paean to the benefits of Cannabis in the opening of Pineapple Express: “Everyone likes smoking weed. It makes everything better: it makes food taste better, it makes music better, it makes sex feel better for God’s sakes, it makes s***y movies better.” Unlike many psychedelics, which are often used to generate a specific experience that becomes the entertainment, many if not most people use Cannabis to enhance their everyday activities and social life. In a UN survey, attitudes among Cannabis-using teens and young adults indicated that they felt it was a normal recreational activity and reported that the main purpose of their Cannabis use was to “reach a ‘social high’… they also use it to relax, enhance activity, decrease boredom, increase confidence, reduce anxiety or feel better” (World Drug Report 2011, 178).
In people who use Cannabis habitually over a long period of time, the purpose is more likely to be for self-medication, especially to alleviate anxiety, stress or depression. The UN report’s list of reasons for habitual Cannabis use includes “to enhance positive feelings… [Users] perceive the drug as having calming effects and may use it for stress-coping purposes… to escape from problems, alleviate anger and frustration, and ‘get through the day’” (World Drug Report 2011, 178). The UN survey’s findings suggest that for a portion of habitual users, Cannabis may represent a way to cope with underlying emotional problems or a less than satisfactory life situation (Budney and Moore 2002). It also notes that women rarely use Cannabis habitually, perhaps reflecting a societal perception of Cannabis use as a primarily male activity (World Drug Report 2011).
Returning to our film survey, the first thing that jumps out is that in all three narratives examined, it is mostly men who are using Cannabis. Although Nancy is the main character in Weeds, she is mostly shown selling Cannabis but not consuming it. The roster of her clients also appears to be mostly male, but also mostly middle-aged rather than young people. Many of them do appear to be using Cannabis for exactly the purposes reported in the UN report: either to relieve anxiety and stress, or to enhance everyday activities such as watching movies. In Pineapple Express and Leaves of Grass as well, the production, sale and consumption of Cannabis seem to be exclusively the province of men, with women playing very peripheral roles in these films. The male characters use Cannabis both for recreation, as in Dale’s appraisal of Cannabis’ effects, and to relieve anxiety and gain temporary solace from problems. Later in Pineapple Express, when Dale and Saul are on the run from the gangsters searching for them, they take a breather by smoking Cannabis in Saul’s car. Leaves of Grass features a similar discourse in which Brady’s friend, Bolger, tries to get him to think about how they’re going to pay off the creditor who loaned them the money for their grow-op. In trying to get Brady to focus on the problem at hand, Bolger says, “No matter how much weed you smoke, the real world’s still going to be there”, indicating that Brady may be turning to Cannabis to avoid his problems.
Dependence Potential of Cannabis: What happens when habitual Cannabis use turns into dependency? Though once considered only psychologically habit-forming, some studies in recent years suggest that with regular Cannabis use, changes can arise in the way that cannabinoids interact with target cells. The body also exhibits changes in the way it metabolizes THC and related compounds over time (Budney and Moore 2002). Based on metabolic changes that indicate an increased tolerance to cannabinoids, one estimate puts a daily or near-daily Cannabis user’s risk of dependence at between 35-40% (Budney and Moore 2002).
The perceived problems and consequences associated with Cannabis dependence are much lower in surveys of users’ attitudes, which may be why most users are ambivalent about stopping their use of Cannabis. However, as of 2002, statistics revealed that about 23% of Cannabis users had been admitted for treatment related to dependence, compared to about 27% of cocaine users and 23% of heroin users (Budney and Moore 2002). About 50% of regular Cannabis users have been involved with the criminal justice system, which may partly explain the rates of admission for Cannabis dependence: enrolling in dependence treatment is often a court-mandated part of a Cannabis possession charge (Budney and Moore 2002). Furthermore, heavy habitual Cannabis users may experience adverse effects when they stop or drastically cut their use of Cannabis, including irritability, restlessness, stomach pain, lack of appetite, anxiety, and trouble sleeping (Budney and Moore 2002). Given the purposes for which people use Cannabis medicinally and as a form of self-medication, these kinds of symptoms make sense.
However, societal attitudes toward habitual Cannabis use do not reflect these clinical realities. Among regular Cannabis users in Toronto, for example, the main perceived risk of Cannabis smoking was pulmonary damage: users often attributed ailments such as sore throats to their Cannabis use, and would reduce or temporarily stop use to compensate (Hathaway 2003). The survey also discovered no correlation between the amount of Cannabis consumed by users or the frequency with which they indulged and signs of dependence on the DSM-IV scale among users surveyed (Hathaway 2003). These results may cast some doubt as to whether the current rates of admission for Cannabis dependence truly stem from a physiological addiction potential or instead are a result of the court mandate mentioned above.
This collision between the societal and legal perceptions of Cannabis use is nowhere better exemplified than in the episode of Weeds in which Andy, Nancy’s brother and an iconic “stoner”, is arrested for Cannabis possession. His legal counsel explains that the possession of Cannabis in the amount of less than an ounce is in a legal gray area: while not an offense requiring jail time, Andy will be expected to attend meetings of Marijuana Users Anonymous as part of a court-approved rehabilitation. In rehab, he meets some people who are genuinely sincere about stopping their use of Cannabis and do believe it was causing problems in their lives, even though Andy himself is quite unabashed about his use and doesn’t consider it an issue. However, the people around him such as Nancy, who must support him financially while he gets his life together, might disagree. The Marijuana Users Anonymous scene subtly suggests that the question of whether Cannabis is a “problem substance” in the same way that opiates or alcohol can be doesn’t have a single answer. Indeed, just as many people enjoy the occasional drink with no problems, many Cannabis users may partake without negative impact to their lives.
Attitudes Toward Cannabis vs. Other Drugs: The contrast between Cannabis versus other, harder drugs forms an informative tension in all of the films examined. Weeds frequently presents a dialogue between the characters’ use of Cannabis to enhance life and relieve anxiety and stress versus the use of sleeping pills and excessive alcohol consumption, which comes off as more cavalier and potentially harmful to the users and their families. Although subtle, an early scene in Pineapple Express illustrates a similar tension: having just sold Dale some Cannabis, Saul answers the door to let in another customer. The newcomer has brought along a friend looking to obtain some Percocet, a common prescription opiate that some people use illicitly. Saul becomes angry with his regular customer and not only denies that he has anything like Percocet for sale but also tells his regular customer not to bring “these kinds of people” with him next time.
The scene in Leaves of Grass that introduces Brady also highlights the distinction between dealing Cannabis and dealing other types of drugs. Pressured by his creditor’s goons to expand his inventory to include other illicit substances, Brady flatly states, “We don’t deal in crystal meth. We don’t deal in cocaine,” before trying to convince them that his Cannabis grow-op will pay for itself. Early scenes like these subtly suggest a somewhat purist attitude among growers and users of Cannabis that puts the herb in a different functional category than other illicit drugs with large markets such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. It is an attitude that suggests using Cannabis is beneficial and good for one’s health and relationships, in stark contrast to the ruin and social degradation promoted by these “bad drugs”.
Perhaps this is the message at the heart of feel-good Cannabis narratives: in film as in society at large, Cannabis occupies a wholly separate category of “illegal yet largely harmless”, unfairly maligned by the government and large-scale health institutions yet able to enhance the lives of thousands of people. To some extent, the research bears out the idea that people who use Cannabis are not, in fact, putting themselves at risk of entering a spiral of drug abuse: people who use Cannabis recreationally are most likely to have experience with alcohol and tobacco by the time they get to Cannabis (World Drug Report 2011); Cannabis itself is not an introductory drug for most users. The once-common argument that Cannabis use could function as a “gateway” to using more problematic substances has been pretty much demolished by societal surveys and studies that show little sign of this trend (Hathaway 2003).
Film narratives such as Pineapple Express, Leaves of Grass, and Weeds suggest that the biggest problems surrounding Cannabis may stem not from use of this herb in itself, but rather from the entrenched system that places Cannabis in a realm of shadowy legality in which crime lords and small-time dealers, rather than health systems and consumers, determine who gets to benefit and who gets to profit from this ancient medicinal and spiritual herb.
Ashton, C. Heather. November 24th, 1999. “Pharmacology and Effects of Cannabis: A Brief Review”, British Journal of Psychiatry 178: 101-106.
Budney, Alan J. and Brent Moore. 2002. “Development and Consequences of Cannabis Dependence”, Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 42 (supplement): 28-33.
Hathaway, Andrew D. 2003. “Cannabis Effects and Dependency Concerns in Long-Term Frequent Users: A Missing Piece of the Public Health Puzzle”, Addiction Research and Theory 11(6): 441-458.
“The Cannabis Market”. 2011. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime World Drug Report. 175-207. www.unodc.org/documents/dataand…/The_cannabis_market.pdf
Touw, Mia. 1981. “The religious and medicinal uses of Cannabis in India, China and Tibet”. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 13 (1).