For all the shifts in American television culture since the birth of the medium—from the way we make and consume news, to advertisements and the shows themselves—many folks raised by the boob tube likely share a common experience: scoff-laughing at anti-pot PSAs.
From trippy animations in the 1960s that tried to speak to the era’s hep cats by labeling weed “the hoola-hoop of the jet generation,” to this 2007 spot featuring a sadly judgmental dog, hokey ads trying to scare or shame teens away from the demon weed have been an eternal TV trope. Often relying on stilted scripts, logical fallacies, or blatant lies, these ads follow in a pre-TV tradition of anti-pot propaganda films as well. This unending wave of PSAs has basically become a sub-genre of ironic humor. You can waste an entire day perusing compilations of these relics.
Anti-pot PSAs didn’t emerge through a slow process of social change, but in a rapid eruption of self-serving bigotry divorced from science or fact. The force of that paranoid thrust dulled over the years, but it was still a vital part of the DNA of most historic PSAs—and their humor. But in a mixed blessing to society (and a curse to comedy), paranoid anti-marijuana PSAs may be on their way out in favor of a new, more sober breed of ads made for the era of legalization.
No one’s entirely sure when weed, which likely originated in Central Asia thousands of years
ago, made its way to the United States. Although the early colonies notoriously promoted hemp production in the 17th century, there’s no evidence the intoxicating strain of the plant was ever grown. It seems most likely that cannabis came north in tiny spurts and sputters with immigrants from or folks who’d visited the Caribbean and several Central and South American countries, where it was brought over by Indian workers as part of their pre-existing culture. Colonizers also transported it here to inebriate enslaved Africans.
For centuries, the low-level presence of pot in ports and insular communities was a non-issue. It was used in 19th-century US patent medicines without concern, and at least one mid-century medical periodical described the effects of cannabis resin fairly accurately and bluntly as leading to “inebriation… of the most cheerful kind, causing the person to sing and dance, to eat food with great relish, and to seek aphrodisiac enjoyment,” with no big side effects.
Things started to change around 1910 with the Mexican Revolution—a messy affair that would lead to decades of sporadic violence, forcing periodic and substantial waves of refugees into the American Southwest. As with today’s refugees from the Middle East, these victims of war and instability were greeted with fear and quickly associated with violence and social disruption—especially toward the dawn of the Great Depression, which naturally called for a racial scapegoat.
Law officers and locals began to credit violent crimes to Mexicans’ use of weed, which came north with them, painting it as a substance granting users great strength and sending them into murderous rages. Of course, these stories seem laughable. (Some historians note that we don’t know exactly what these immigrants could have been mixing their weed with—but, also, come on.) By this time, marijuana was also firmly associated with port town underworlds and the (literally) dark subculture of jazz, taking on a broad sheen as an agent of general moral decay.
In 1914, the Texan town of El Paso passed the first laws against the sale or possession of marijuana, which had, prior to its Mexican association, been known simply as cannabis in much of the US. Numerous other cities and states—including Mexico itself—followed suit over the next couple of decades. Dark tales of the dank herb flowed from the border into a few early films, like the 1924 western Notch Number One in which a man turned into a murderer after smoking weed, or the 1932 romantic crime flick Jewel Robbery, in which a robber used pot to dupe his victims in a jewel heist.
But as Richard Stringer and Scott R. Maggard of Old Dominion University wrote in a paper last year on the media’s effects on American attitudes toward weed throughout history, “Prior to 1936, concern over marijuana was mainly concentrated in a select few cities… Even Harry Anslinger, the Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and ‘the world expert’ on drugs, regarded it as a nuisance, unworthy of his organization’s time.”
That year, though, Anslinger suddenly glommed onto weed, likely just because he needed a new drug scare to keep funding for his agency alive. Whether because he knew nothing and believed the hyped-up local stories, or because he was a shrewd and self-serving G-man, Anslinger perpetuated and expanded tales of weed directly causing violent crimes and the notion that bad (read: colored) people were pushing it on good (read: white) citizens. According to Stringer, this led Anslinger to not only author or push for articles spouting these views in papers like the New York Times, but to help in the production of what were arguably the earliest anti-pot PSAs.
In 1936 and 1937, Anslinger had a hand in the production or dissemination anti-pot propaganda films like Assassin of Youth, Marihuana, and most famously, Reefer Madness, the latter of which ridiculously presented weed as a substance that could turn a young girl into a reckless harlot and, in just one puff, trigger actions that could leave scores dead. This media blitz coincided with the push to pass the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which was the first national effective pot ban.
As Stringer points out, the depictions in those films represented most US citizens’ first introduction to weed, fueling the idea that it could steal away young people’s’ innocence. Egged on by Anslinger’s blunt rejection of science in favor of scare tactics, dire warnings about the imminent physical risks of weed kept coming: The Devil’s Harvest (1942) sold audiences on the tagline “a fifth column sowing destruction in the youth of America,” while the poster for 1949’s She Shoulda Said “No”! advertised “pain & anguish… hopped-up harlots… psychotic dope fiends.”
As white upper-middle-class baby boomers got into weed in the 1960s, the racially biased reputation of the drug faded, as folks largely became aware that the anti-weed films of the past point had been spouting some utter bullshit. (As Stringer put it to me in conversation, after someone’s tried pot, they “would not believe that marijuana will cause someone to kill their family with an ax.”) So the ads shifted toward a groovier feel, admitting that weed itself wasn’t a deadly substance—but still took every opportunity to try to convince kids that pot could fuck over their lives, pushing the risk of bad experiences while using the drug as well as potential dependency, while advancing the narrative of weed as a “gateway drug.” This copasetic and understanding—yet fallacious and menacing—push was what led to Sonny Bono explaining the dangers of a little toke to the era’s youths in a 32-minute 1968 feature.
This strain of gentler, albeit still hyperbolic, PSA got a massive boost with Richard Nixon’s war on drugs in the 1970s, and after a brief lull under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the PSAs persisted for the rest of the century. From the late 80s into the 90s, coalitions of anti-drug advocacy groups, willing advertising firms, and media companies annually pumped out hundreds of millions of dollars worth of PSAs that largely built on the faux-hipness and specious arguments that folks like Bono spewed decades earlier. In 1998, the federal government consolidated these efforts into a central program, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign (which targeted other substances as well), with hundreds of millions of dollars in its war chest.
In the early 2000s, researchers finally got around to testing how effective these fear-mongering ads really were at reducing teen drug use—and the results were not inspiring. The federally backed campaigns were not only largely unsuccessful, but they could actually lead teens to believe that drugs were more prevalent than they actually were, thereby increasing the desire to see what using them was actually like.
The feds tried to shift their tone around 2005, focusing on bids like the Above the Influence campaign to stress the value of overcoming peer pressure and building an independent identity—but as the aforementioned 2007 ad with the talking dog suggested, strains of the paranoid exaggerations of the 1930s still shone through. These ads often played on the fear of social stigma—of one’s status being forever diminished by weed—and painted pot as oddly potent implicitly as psychedelic. The ads got better practical results than what preceded them, but a combination of insufficient impact and changing federal priorities caused the government to ax the program in 2012, while its collaborators slowed their efforts as well.
The rapid escalation of legalization efforts and the concurrent mainstreaming of the drug have simultaneously been eroding the social patience for the scare tactics of the past. Case in point: The Colorado Department of Public Health tried to launch a Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign to convince teens that smoking pot would damage their young brains in 2014—two years after recreational legalization. The campaign bombed hard and faded fast. The following year saw the state adopting a value- and drama-free campaign, Good to Know, focusing on basic facts of real value for sensible and informed usage.
Stringer predicts that “increases in legalization are going to lead to more media attention about the responsible use of marijuana” in the near future—but the ill-informed and fear-based moralistic ads of the past are unlikely to vanish completely. In 2014, there was an anti-medical marijuana campaign in Florida with ads echoing the paranoid tones of the 1930s, including a poster suggesting edibles could become a widespread tool for date rape. Folks who were nursed on a steady drip of Reefer Madness–style moral paranoia are still in positions of power, too: Most notably, there’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s hatred of marijuana as a moral evil, as well as his vigor for a new drug war.
Regardless, in the future we’re likely to see fewer PSAs shaming people for general pot usage and trumping up its inherent risks. Instead, Stringer suggests that “we can expect media attention and PSAs regarding marijuana to more closely resemble alcohol PSAs.” Granted, PSAs about alcohol still often resort to social shaming tactics and focus on physical risks; but pot PSAs following in that vein will be a far cry from old messages of moral decay and character flaws in the “dope fiend.”
In Reefer Madness, Dr. Alfred Carroll (Josef Forte), a high school principal whose supposedly informative meeting with local parents frames the film, conjures visions of “A young boy… under the influence of [marijuana]… who killed his entire family with an ax.” Compare that with Colorado’s Good to Know campaign, which at its most fearful intones things like: “Brain development is not complete until age 25. For the best chance to reach their full potential, youth should not use retail marijuana.” The horror, the horror—or, not quite.
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