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Marijuana Media

How Marijuana has influenced American Culture
Many would be surprised to learn that the use of Marijuana, both legal and illegal, has a long and complex history in the United States. From recreational and medicinal beginnings, to underground and criminal use, and most recently, the legalization of Marijuana in certain States, the plant has had a profound and almost unparalleled impact on American culture.

Marijuana in the Early Years
For someone of recent generations, the 1960s would probably represent the tipping point of Marijuana and its influence on the culture of Americans. However, even before then, Marijuana was a popular recreational drug, most notably during the period between 1900 and 1920.
Marijuana was first introduced into the mainstream public consciousness as a recreational drug in the early 1900s. As Mexicans began to immigrate to the United States in large numbers, they brought the Cannabis plant, and the concept of smoking it. The early Mexican immigration was already a strain on the established American society, as many lacked an understanding of the Mexican culture, which combined with a language barrier, caused feelings of distrust from some of the US population. Marijuana became largely associated with Mexican immigrants, and those of lower social standing. Even today, Marijuana use is still considered to be of ‘low class’, by a number of Americans, although understanding and tolerance is growing in many States across the country.

Stigmatization and Repression Campaigns
Although the so called ‘War on Drugs’ is a fairly recent political concept, the legal fight against Marijuana has been ongoing for almost a century. The Great Depression was a massive strain on not just the economy, but American family units. High levels of unemployment and unprecedented poverty meant that the public resentment towards working Mexican immigrants was rising again. Marijuana use became a social stigma. Still heavily associated with the Mexican population, the government scrambled to conduct, fund and endorse research into the negative effects of Marijuana. Crime and violence became associated with the drug, and there were widespread campaigns to prohibit the use of the cannabis plant. A majority of the States had banned Marijuana by 1930.
It wasn’t just the prohibition of the drug that would impact culture, but there was also an all-out media assault on the drug culture. Reefer Madness is a notable example. This 1936 propaganda film attempted to further stigmatize the use of the drug and create a fear of it in American communities. The film used almost hysteric taglines such as ‘Drug Crazed Abandon’ and ‘The Sweet Pill That Makes Life Bitter’. The production told an over exaggerated story of how marijuana use would destroy lives. The timeline included high school students initially being lured into the use of the drug. The situation then escalated into a vehicular accident, killings, suicide, rape, and eventually, total madness.
marijuana journalist
Marijuana’s influence on American culture was also evident when the Motion Pictures Association of America made an agreement between all major studios to ban the depiction of narcotics in their films. Although Reefer Madness is now looked at with amusement and is often referenced in a satirical sense, its message represents a fairly widespread fear and misunderstanding of the effects of marijuana in the earlier 1900s.

Further Legal Action
There’s no better way to witness the impact of something on society, than when the Federal government makes moves to intervene and ban the use of a substance or product. By the end of the 1930s, the US government had made moves to effectively outlaw the use of Marijuana at a federal level, and Cannabis could only be used legally for medicinal purposes under strict conditions, or in approved industrial applications.

After World War II
World War II was a defining moment in American history. The war united the country, brought America closer to European allies, and established America’s position as a world superpower. The decades after the war were marked by growing liberal feelings in the public, and a huge youth counter culture in the 1960s.
Experimentation in drugs was massive in this decade, and Marijuana was a hot topic again. Youths were experimenting with, and embracing the recreational and medicinal uses of Marijuana. Even more surprising was that the traditionally conservative demographics were also involving themselves in the action. Marijuana no longer carried the stigma of being a low class drug, and was instead looked at as an expression of freedom open mindedness. Usage increased, although illicitly, and this even spread to households in the white upper middle class.
Most importantly, a number of studies were performed during this period, and they contradicted previous views found on marijuana. There was no longer a clear link between marijuana usage and crime, violence, or the tendency to gravitate towards harder drugs. A 2006 Biography on John F. Kennedy, researched and written by Michael O’Brien, cited credible sources claiming that even the famous President used marijuana for abdominal pain (caused by Addison’s disease) and chronic back pain.

Through to the Modern Day
After the 1960s counter culture and hippie movements, marijuana faded from the limelight. There were other concerns on the public agenda, such as the Vietnam War, the War on Drugs – which mostly focused on heavier, dangerous narcotics, and later, the War on Terror. Marijuana had become something that everyone was aware of, but it wasn’t necessarily on the top of anyone’s mind. It retained its status as a counter culture drug, but also became increasingly popular as a medicinal aide, especially as it is widely accepted to be a powerful pain reliever.
By the 1990s, there was a resurgence of Marijuana in the public eye, although this time the perception was often positive.
Hip Hop and Gangsta Rap cultures were instrumental in raising the profile of marijuana as an acceptable recreational drug. Notable artists like Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Jay Z, and Nas, all made references to the use of Marijuana in their earliest works, and even on their recordings today. Marijuana imagery and props were used heavily in sellout world tours by Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and the artist Eminem. Marijuana was as much a part of the youth culture throughout the 1990s and 2000s, as it was during the counter culture revolution of the 1960s.

Massive Public Interest in Recent Years
Most recently, marijuana has been the subject of debate and widespread public attention as movements have gained traction to decriminalize or fully legalize the drug in a number of States. There hasn’t been a time in the history of marijuana when it has been as prominent or as important in American culture. Legalization advocates call for the freedom to choose marijuana as a recreational drug, as well as medically endorsed one. Supporters of marijuana point to studies that represent marijuana as a drug that is less destructive than alcohol and nicotine. Even United States President Barack Obama famously opined that “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol”. A growing public perception that current marijuana laws are unfair and inconsistent when compared to alcohol and tobacco, means that there is growing support for personal marijuana purchase, use, and cultivation, as well as medicinal purchase from dispensaries.
Some States have gone as far as legalizing marijuana, including Oregon, Washington State, Alaska, and Colorado. Some cities have legalized the drug, including Portland, Maine, and Washington D.C. Other states like California have effectively decriminalized the drug, without completely legalizing it. State and city government legislation is still at odds with federal law, which means that users and suppliers are technically at risk of being prosecuted at the federal level. This split between State and Federal opinion represents an apparent disconnect between the desires of local voters and residents, and what the Federal government feels should be legislated and enforced.

The True Cultural Impact of Marijuana
Looking at the cultural impact of marijuana involves more than simply viewing the history of the drug and how it impacted citizens and political agendas. Perhaps the easiest way to observe its influence is to look at how prominent the drug features in pop culture, which is arguably the truest representation of current opinion and trends. If we look at recent years, there has been a steady stream of marijuana influenced personalities and entertainment properties.
Progressive Rock band Pink Floyd includes marijuana themes in their music, which was popular in counterculture throughout the 1970s. The Beatles, the world’s biggest selling music group, were a huge influence on American and British culture throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Their opinions on marijuana use influenced many youths and young adults during their heyday. American films like 1978’s Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke, unashamedly used counter and drug culture in a lighthearted and comedic context. More recently, TV shows like Weeds (2005 – 2012) and Breaking Bad (2008 – 2013) have used marijuana as a major element of their plots. In the case of Weeds, the entire premise of the show was based around the cultivation of cannabis plants. These are just a few examples, with the point being that the influence of marijuana can be seen in many areas of popular media.
Outlaw Country musician Willie Nelson is a particularly good example of a cultural icon that has influenced public awareness and opinion of Marijuana. A relevant musical figure since the 1970s, Nelson has most recently been campaigning for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a group that is pro-legalization.
No matter how you look at it, marijuana has had a significant influence on American culture. There is still a clear divide in public and political opinion, ranging from negative, to positive, and sometimes impartial. However increasing legal reform and legalization campaigns are indicators that public opinion is making a shift towards a more tolerant view of cannabis use, for both recreational and medicinal purposes.