Do Stoner Comedies Hurt the Legalization Movement?

I’m not much of a pot smoker, but I’m proud to live in a state that’s sensible enough not to lock me up if I were one. California is the closest thing in America to “Hamsterdam,” or for those less familiar with The Wire, a place where the cops are so broke and desperate that they overlook petty drug crimes. Granted, the Golden State isn’t exactly a haven for heroin addicts and prostitutes, but when it comes to marijuana, we’re happy to take in your high, your stoned, your hungry masses. It was the first state to legalize marijuana for medical use, and nowadays it has been so decriminalized that possession will leave you with a mere warning and a $100 fine.

Last fall, California was set to take the final step with Proposition 19, a state ballot initiative that would permit, among other things, people 21 and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use and the state to levy taxes on the new industry. Not only do more people support the legalization of marijuana now than ever before, logic was finally on our side: taxing marijuana sales would generate valuable revenue for a state crippled by bankruptcy. Despite early enthusiasm for Prop. 19 (it received about 260,000 more than the required number of signatures to get on the ballot), it failed at the polls, with 53.8 percent of voters rejecting the measure and only 46.2 percent approving it. In a particularly startling blow, Los Angeles County, a traditionally liberal district and home to thousands of Hollywood stars, rejected Prop. 19 by 52 percent to 48 percent.

What happened? Some argue that the majority of the people who voted in last year’s midterm elections were conservative, while others claim the bill was flawed because it didn’t specify how each district would tax and collect revenue from the legalized marijuana. Meanwhile, growers and sellers of medicinal marijuana worried that too much government regulation would be bad for their business.

Still, there must be a deeper reason why the place that gave us The Big Lebowski, the Friday series, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Pineapple Express, and Up in Smoke couldn’t get its act together. I suspect that reason may lie within these “stoner comedies” themselves, and the lasting image of marijuana use they have left within popular culture.

1. Stoner apathy is voter apathy.

A number of emotions drive people to the polls. Negative emotions are traditionally the most effective — exit polls showed that fear, anger, frustration and anxiety were common sentiments amongst voters last fall, and they produced big results. Positive emotions can also be strong motivators. Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984 claimed “It’s morning again in America,” hoping to evoke grandfatherly nostalgia in voters, and more recently, Barack Obama sailed to victory with his optimistic “Yes we can.”

What emotions does marijuana evoke? Bliss. Euphoria. Serenity. Neutral emotions, none of which produce any urgent call to action. While the masses think more clearly and rationally when they aren’t being manipulated by fear or some catchphrase, that fear or catchphrase are the only things that can make voting feel like a sensible use of one’s time. Otherwise, apathy takes over.

Just look at the heroes of stoner comedy films. Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli is fearless, lovable, and surprisingly witty. Though he’s not Penn’s tireless, impassioned, and ambitious Harvey Milk. The Dude is a great bowler, but he’s certainly no Jack Kennedy. Our heroes have one major personality trait in common — a general sense of apathy. The only signs they’d ever carry at a rally would be ironic. In that sense, the stoner culture depicted in these films is the antithesis of political activism.

2. Stoner comedies do not accurately present the “issue.”

When we consider all the varieties of drugs that have appeared on the big screen, marijuana has the silliest depiction. When a character shoots up or snorts a line on screen, the gut reaction is a sense of dread, that we’re about to see a character drive his car off a bridge or roll over on her baby. Smoking a cigarette or drinking a shot of whiskey makes a character grittier and somehow “more lifelike.” But when a character lights up, we snicker, or, for some douchebags in the back of the theater, hoot and cheer.

Stoner comedies do not “deal” with their subject matter in the way Pulp Fiction “deals” with heroin, Blow “deals” with cocaine, or Superbad “deals” with underage drinking. They instead typically treat the subject of marijuana as comedic primer and leave the stories to matters of guys accidentally witnessing murders, friends unable to remember where they parked their car, buddies getting lost on their way to White Castle.

That’s not to put down stoner comedies as films — indeed, many great comedies are tonally silly and put the plot on the backburner. And perhaps the whole appeal of stoner comedies is the fact that they don’t treat marijuana as heavy subject matter, that they instead shrug, “Hey, smoking this shit isn’t a big deal, so we aren’t going to treat it like it is.”

The issue here is that there are in fact some aspects to the world of marijuana that we do need to seriously think about — among them, the legalization movement. Yet stoner comedies, the primary if not only representation of “high society” in popular culture, does nothing to challenge its audience philosophically or politically. Pineapple Express opened with a scene that presented a possible historical explanation of marijuana’s illegality — in this case, military scientific testing gone awry. Never mind the decades of racial discrimination that actually shaped the country’s early bans on cannabis. I suppose that’s way too dark for a stoner comedy.

3. The objectification of stoner culture.

Forgive me for drawing a comparison to a genre with such negative implications, but if the genre of “stoner comedy” is a stepping stone to a more sophisticated form of social commentary, it helps to look at the history of blackface in film and theater in the vaudeville era. Despite the racial tension the image or mere mention of blackface brings up these days, blackface characters were once the only representation of African American characters in mainstream entertainment. They were highly “satirical,” though not in a particularly sophisticated sense, and they relied heavily on stereotypes. Yet at the very least they provided white Americans with the first image of black people since Birth of a Nation. They helped America stop fearing African Americans or viewing them as the enemy. But obviously the road to racial equality doesn’t end there.

Eventually black leaders took control of the message and shifted focus. They became more organized, presenting America with a more sophisticated image. They took their plight seriously. And eventually, they were able to force the rest of America to listen.

This, unfortunately, is not currently happening within the legalization movement. We’re still stuck in the blackface age, where all our media depicts those who smoke marijuana as walking punchlines (see: Charlene Yi in Knocked Up) or slacker hooligans (see: The Dude). And these characters remain beloved heroes of the genre, pinned up on college dorm room walls and quoted on Facebook profile pages. The legalization movement embraces these Jar Jar Binkses as symbols of what they’re trying to accomplish, and the rest of America isn’t buying it.

Until these characters retire from fathers of the movement to forefathers of the movement, to be replaced by more reasonable, balanced, and realistic human beings who are able to smoke pot without it wrecking their career, we’ve still got a long way to go.

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Let’s be clear: stoner comedies are certainly not hurting the legalization movement. By getting more and more people to laugh about marijuana, these films are slowly but surely stripping marijuana of the negative “gateway drug” stereotypes left over from the war on drugs. Nationally, fewer people oppose legalization than ever before, and that number has been steadily dropping. Stoner comedies are an important part of that familiarization process.

The next step is to shift from a passive state (we can joke about marijuana because it is harmless; let’s decriminalize it) to an active state (we can talk seriously about marijuana because it is beneficial to society; let’s legalize it). In the meantime, trying to appeal to people by offering to balance the budget reads more like a clever trick than push for a fundamental change in policy. Until we’re ready to start convincing America that legalization is not merely a good idea but a moral prerogative, all we’re ever going to get to do legally with marijuana is write jokes.

I guess for some of us, that’ll do.

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Erik Voss would like to pass a bill legalizing marijuana on the left hand side.

Do Stoner Comedies Hurt the Legalization Movement?