Marijuana seems to be on its way to legalization. Polls indicate a widespread acceptance of medical marijuana and, to a lesser extent, its use for plain old recreation. Politicians and even presidents do not suffer politically from admitting to having used it, and President Obama has asserted that it is no worse than alcohol. Of course, our tolerance is limited to past use only. The idea of a president smoking a pot while unemployment remains high or war rages in the Middle East is unthinkable. Overall, however, the attitude of the public toward marijuana is becoming increasingly positive, or at least mellowing.
Judging by the movies, the surprise is that legalization is taking so long. We have all heard of Reefer Madness (1936), the most well-known exploitation film depicting the evils of marijuana, leading to rape and murder. Exploitation films justified their existence as being cautionary tales, but much of their appeal lay in titillation, so it is hard to assess what the audience really thought of this movie when first released; but by the 1970s, its popularity in the midnight-movie circuit was strictly camp.
Marijuana was clearly depicted as having baleful consequences in Touch of Evil (1958), where it is used by a bunch of degenerates, while apparently molesting a woman. And in For a Few Dollars More (1965), a psychopath needs to smoke it after killing a man and his family, causing him to dream of the time he raped a woman who killed herself in the middle of the act.
Starting in the late 1960s, marijuana ceased to be associated with evil and perversion: people who smoked marijuana in the movies no longer had horns, but haloes. From that time on, in movies or on television, if a character smoked a marijuana cigarette, you knew you were supposed to like him. In Platoon (1986), there are two sergeants, one good and one evil. And we know which is which, because one sergeant smokes marijuana, while the other does not.
This leads to a rather startling corollary. Since the late 1960s, marijuana is so strongly associated with goodness that no evil character has been allowed to smoke it. When I say “evil,” I am referring to the attitude that the movie has toward that character, and not that he is a criminal. That is, if a character is portrayed as so unlikeable that the audience wants him to die, or at least to come to a very bad end, then he is evil, as I am using the term; whereas if a character is portrayed as likeable, and the audience hopes things will turn out well for him, then that character is not evil, even if he breaks the law.
For example, in American Beauty (1999), there is a subplot concerning a Colonel Fitts and his son Ricky. Now, Ricky doesn’t just smoke marijuana—he supplies it. But that’s all right, because by this time the positive associations with marijuana in the movies is so strong that a marijuana dealer is thought of as promoting the public weal. We can scarcely bring ourselves to call him a criminal, although technically that is what he is. But in any event, he is not evil. On the other hand, his father is not only obnoxious in general, but is a homophobe as well. Because he is evil, in the sense that we detest him and wish him ill, it is absolutely forbidden that such a character be seen smoking a marijuana cigarette.
Those who are opposed to marijuana legalization sometimes argue that it is a gateway drug, that it leads to the use of more dangerous substances. Whatever the truth of the matter, this is generally not seen in the movies, especially when the other drug is associated with evil, for that would create cognitive dissonance. Early in the movie Wolfen (1981), a wealthy couple is seen snorting cocaine, so we know right away something bad will happen to them. And justice is swift, for their horrible death soon follows. Therefore, any movie showing someone progressing from marijuana to cocaine would disturb us, because the former tells us to like that character, while the latter tells us he is doomed.
In the end, however, the positive qualities of marijuana will usually trump the negative qualities of a harder drug. In Breaking Bad (2008-2013), Jesse Pinkman is a user and dealer in methamphetamine, but since he smokes marijuana, all is forgiven. On the other hand, Gus Fring is the most evil character in the whole series, from which it follows with Euclidean certainty that he must never be allowed to profane that sacred weed by smoking as much as a single joint.
And then there is the element of pity. While cocaine has an evil taint, especially when indulged in by the rich, other drugs tend to elicit our sympathy. Heroin is a surprisingly sympathetic drug, and thus we pull for Frank Sinatra’s character in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), and we feel sorry for Jane in Breaking Bad. To a certain extent, we also feel sorry for those who use methamphetamine, for the meth addicts in Breaking Bad were pathetic. But unlike heroin, where people are allowed to keep their good looks, meth addicts are ugly, so our compassion contends with our feelings of disgust. On the other hand, even when used to excess, we never feel sorry for the pothead. Instead, overuse is more likely to be portrayed comically, as with Cheech & Chong. Regarding Obama’s comparison of alcohol and marijuana, the movies may allow us to feel compassion for someone who drinks, as in The Lost Weekend (1945) or Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), but never for someone who smokes marijuana, unless it be for a totally unrelated reason. To suggest that the marijuana user is an object of pity would be to imply that there is something bad about smoking marijuana, and modern movies are not about to do that.
Therefore, if the movies are any indication, I not only expect to see full legalization of marijuana, but I anticipate the day when companies like Altria and R. J. Reynolds begin selling it by the pack as well, possibly filter-tipped and with menthol, returning them to their glory days before tobacco began its fall from grace. A drug that the movies depict as having so many morally uplifting qualities cannot long be resisted.