In this episode of The Hemp Community Podcast we take a look at Cannabis in Pop-culture through the ages.Support the show
Episode 6 – Cannabis in Pop-Culture
Hi there and welcome to the hemp community podcast, my name is Dan and in this week’s episode we’re going to talk about cannabis in pop-culture.
Its difficult to know where to begin, because cannabis has always been with us. Products of the cannabis plant were used by humans across the ancient world for a variety of reasons. Many cultures saw cannabis as a gift from the gods and so consuming the plant became part of religious rituals.
The cannabis plant pre-dates human civilization by eons; by the time our species emerged, cannabis was already well established. Humans have cultivated cannabis and hemp for millenia, and the discovery of hemp ropes and fibres at archaeological digs suggests that humans have been using the kind herb for a multitude of uses since pre-historic times. Written records of medicinal cannabis use date back about 7000 years, and even now the plant continues to fascinate and inspire culture all over the world.
When THC bearing cannabis was first introduced to the west, it was initially considered a medical marvel and only later emerged as a popular recreational curiosity; The most common forms of cannabis used were oils and hashish respectively. Cannabis oils were sold at pharmacies, and even until the middle of the 20th century they were routinely prescribed for a range of indications and generally without harm. Hashish, also known as hash, is typically a brown solid substance, similar in appearance to chocolate. Hash is made by sifting the crystals and trichomes of the cannabis flower and then compressing them into a solid form. There are numerous methods of hash production, and it is as much an art as it is a science. Hashish can be consumed by smoking in a pipe, bong or shisha, but it can also be eaten. When hash was first investigated by scientists it was heralded as a potential psychiatric wonder drug, and it was soon adopted by wealthy European socialites and creatives, particularly those who moved in literary circles. Famously, hash houses sprung up around the European continent where people young and old would congregate to consume and enjoy hash; they may not have known exactly what it was, but they knew they enjoyed the experience of it. These hash-heads included famous writers such as Baudelaire, Balzac, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas and Fitz Huw Ludlow who wrote the 1857 book “The Hasheesh eater” inspired by his cannabinoid experiences.
Authors were not the only creatives who celebrated cannabis in their work; the early 20th century saw the rise of jazz music which frequently referenced weed. The association was strongest among black jazz musicians, and many slang terms from this period still persist today. Words like “pot”, “reefer”, “grass” and “Mary Jane” were used in reference to the plant, and even the use of the word “high” describing its effects can be contributed to black jazz musicians in the 20’s and 30’s. Part of the appeal for these musicians was the reduced cost and risk; cannabis is a cheap drug and has less impact on fine motor control than alcohol, which was itself prohibited during the 1920s. Safer to avoid alcohol entirely in those circumstances. While cannabis is not necessary for creativity, it does provoke “out of the box” thinking which can lead to interesting improvisations and compositions. Many musicians even now value cannabis’s effect on their perception of time, and many use the drug as both a social lubricant and a tool to enhance the creative process. Cannabis became synonymous with jazz music, but prohibitionists seized on the opportunity to make the link between black and Hispanic immigrants and crime.
You may remember from previous podcasts that cannabis was outlawed in the US during the 1930s following a campaign led by hardline prohibitionist Harry J. Anslnger. What you may not know is that Anslinger coordinated his efforts with journalists to demonise cannabis. Using overtly racist tropes Anslinger targeted black jazz musicians and saw them depicted as villains corrupting American youth. Famously Anslinger handcuffed Billie Holiday on her death bed, arresting her for drug use.
The early 20th century saw the release of a series of salacious propaganda films with inflammatory titles such as “Reefer Madness” and “The Devil’s Harvest”. These films are available to view on youtube if you fancy a bit of a laugh, but to summarise, the productions tend to follow a similar pattern of youth corrupted by consuming cannabis products and their subsequent descent into madness and delirium. Of course it is possible to have a bad time with any drug, weed included, but these early pop-culture depictions of the plant attempted to paint a picture of a green menace that preyed on innocence and part of what makes these films amusing in hindsight, is how wildly off the mark they are with their highly sensationalised renderings of the jazz cabbage.
During the early years of the cannabis prohibition era, many American cannabis advocates went quiet for their own safety, including household names like Louis Armstrong who was a well known cannabis user, or “viper” as the slang at the time would call him.
Around the same time, the UK had its first moral panic regarding cannabis in the 1950s; mass immigration from the colonies brought new communities with an appetite for cannabis, and soon Britain was host to its own jazz and swing clubs. Described as being diverse and exciting, the new clubs offered British youth a new kind of dance-hall experience. Ethnic mixing was a relatively new phenomenom in post-war Britain, and the tabloids of the era saw an opportunity to drum up sales with stories of teenage girls in bobby socks being courted by men in zoot-suits and wide brimmed hats. It is clear from the reporting that drug misuse was not the focal issue; racial mixing was the hot topic and tensions between Britain’s indigenous population and migrants from the commonwealth were expressed openly. In this context, cannabis was merely caught in the fray. Young women were characterised as vulnerable waifs, lacking in agency and incapable of defending themselves against the charms of be-bop and reefer. Throughout the 1950s, the British public’s imagination was stoked with these kinds of stories, laying the foundations for what would become a multigenerational campaign of disinformation against the cannabis plant.
The 1960s for many will be synonymous with psychedelic drug experimentation, and of course cannabis played a big role. On both sides of the Atlantic, cannabis was popular among young creatives, spreading from the jazz circles out into the wider arts community. Musicians like Bob Dylan consumed cannabis and even introduced others to the plant; namely the Beatles. Jimi Hendrix smoked weed and shared it with Alice Cooper. The Grateful Dead were among a long list of west-coast American bands that embraced counter-culture and cannabis. As groups of musicians travelled the globe to perform, they took their stash with them, and in some cases even used their equipment to smuggle large quantities of hash and oil. Business aside, it is tempting to overestimate the direct influence of cannabis on songwriting in this era, but its useful to remember that for many of these musicians, cannabis represented a safer alternative to drugs like alcohol and cocaine which are also prevalent in the entertainment industry.
Moving into the 1970s, after the official commencement of the so called “war on drugs”, cannabis had become a mainstay in the biz . Beyond jazz and rock music, cannabis was already being used by a wide array of performers from different backgrounds. Bob Marley and the Wailers brought the Jamaican political music known as Reggae to the masses, and to this day an unfathomable amount of unlicensed Marley-merch bears his likeness. Bob has long sinced passed away, but his son Damian Marley carries on in his father’s footsteps making music, and he has even started his own cannabis company in California where he employs reformed convicts who otherwise would struggle to find legitimate employment. No mention of reggae music would be complete without paying homage to Peter Tosh who’s cannabis anthem “Legalize it” captured the imagination of the world in 1976.
Reggae isn’t the only genre of music that embraced cannabis; heavy metal pioneers like Black Sabbath commemorated the plant in their song “sweet leaf”, and at the same time prog bands like Rush flaunted their experience of exotic hash on songs like “A passage to bangkok”. When afro-caribbean music met the white working class of Britain, two-tone and ska music was born, and bands like UB40 promoted a more positive view of race mixing alongside an appreciation of cannabis.
In tandem with the music industry’s growing acceptance of cannabis, Hollywood began producing movies that were able to show the funny side of cannabis. Of particular interest is the seminal comedy movie “Up in Smoke” starring none other than Cheech and Chong. Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong were a pair of comedians who celebrated cannabis, and to this day are still involved in the industry and in activism, raising awareness of cannabis’ medical value. In their landmark movie, the hapless pair drive a van made of cannabis plastic, that inadvertently gets bystanders stoned from the fumes of the engine melting the chassis. All sorts of scenarios unfold as the two stoners make their way from Mexico to Los Angeles. Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke may have been the first stoner buddy comedy, but it would not be the last as the 90s and noughties saw a slew of stoner movies, including “dude where’s my car”, “Harold and kumar get the munchies” “grandmas boy” “how high”, “pineapple express” and “Friday” to name but a few. There are of course other movies to which cannabis is not a central theme, but it is featured. Famously, dolly parton’s movie “9 to 5” has a scene where the 3 protagonists smoke a joint and fantasize about killing their horrible boss. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s film “50/50” is the tale of a young man undergoing cancer treatment, and the movie features a handful of scenes where the lead character is using cannabis with other chemotherapy patients.
It is worth noting that California has had relatively liberal access to medical cannabis since the mid 90s, so it is likely that almost every movie made in Hollywood in the last 20 years has had a cannabis patient on set if not in the cast.
In the last 5 or 10 years, there has been a growing trend of cannabis-toking celebrities starting businesses or attaching themselves to cannabis brands. We mentioned Damian Marley a few moments ago, but he isn’t the only artist/cannapreneur on the scene. Justin Bieber has his own line of pre-rolled joints, Whoopi Goldberg has a whole range of cannabis infused period care products, and notorious cannabis enthusiast seth Rogen’s brand “House Plant” has an amazing selection of stylish accessories and proprietary strains of cannabis. Pop-star Rhianna has been open about her love of cannabis for years, as has Oscar winner Lady Gaga and even Miley Cyrus. No list of 420-friendly celebs would be complete without acknowledging hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg who has promoted the herb in his music and work for decades. Speaking of long careers on the green; country musician willie Nelson has been an outspoken toker for 65 years, and recently announced that he was quitting smoking and bought himself a good dry herb vaporizer instead!
Moving away from musicians and actors, there are plenty of sports stars who enjoy both CBD and THC. MMA fighters, especially brazillian jujitsu fighters are notoriously pro-cannabis with fighters like Nate Diaz smoking joints at press conferences, touting the anti-inflammatory and stress relieveing qualities of the product. Even the world most dangerous man, Iron Mike Tyson has become a convert to the peaceful world of weed, and as well as speaking out in support of the plants healing potential, he runs a cannabis spa on his ranch where you can consume weed grown on site. Of course, not all cannabis news is positive, and during the most recent Olympics, American athlete Sha’Carri Richardson was banned for cannabis use, despite the alleged use taking place weeks prior in her home country. Unfortunately for Richardson, cannabinoids like THC remain detectable in the bloodstream for weeks after consumption, and so her career was derailed on a technicality not related to her athleticism, but merely her metabolism.
Importantly, these celebrities are not just praising cannabis’ hedonic qualities, they are actively promoting the plants’ health benefits. This I believe is one of the unique qualities of cannabis, and characteristic of cannabis users; the plant has the potential to heal us body and mind, and those who have experienced that wish to share it with others. It’s a very human instinct; bringing flowers to someone who’s sick.
Obviously a lot of the most vocal cannabis users are from legal American states, but there are plenty of UK cannabis stars. Whether its musicians like Ed “My Eyes are Red” Sheeran or the late, great hip-hop activist Black the Rapper. We also have pro-cannabis role models in theatre with actors like Brian Cox and Patrick Stewart who have both recommended that people try getting stoned for the good of their health! Soap operas like Emmerdale and Eastenders have featured storylines where characters grow cannabis illicitly, and a few years back ITV even sent a group of celebs on a road trip across America to visit states where medical and recreational cannabis are legal.
The unfortunate truth however is that the cannabis’ plant ability to capture and stimulate our imagination does not translate into legislative change. As a rule of thumb, only about 10% of the population in the UK use cannabis regularly, and for the rest of the population legalisation is perceived as a niche and non-urgent issue. Thankfully the tide is turning and there is already a comfortable majority of the electorate who support medical cannabis and a slim but growing majority of the general public in support of a legal and regulated cannabis industry that caters to all adult use of the plant.
The moral of today’s podcast is not that cannabis is required for creativity, but that is part of the human experience. Whether or not you partake, there is a near certain chance that you have consumed content that was influenced by cannabis in some way. Pop-culture incorporates a broad range of experiences, and while the representation of cannabis on screen isn’t always flattering or accurate, at least we can all get a wee laugh at it from time to time. I kind of like the fact that cannabis is worst kept secret in showbiz.
I should mention as well that not every musician, actor, athlete or celebrity is a stoner, but there are plenty out there.
As a final thought; I do wonder what kind of new pop-culture offerings there will be in a Britain with legal cannabis; Bake off with edibles? Clarkson’s weed farm? Do you have any suggestions? Get in touch on social media or Send us your ideas to our email address: email@example.com
Thanks for listening and until next time, take care!