False representations: Media portrayal of marijuana

By Adrianne Glenn / Columnist

If your only introduction to marijuana is through an episode of “That ‘70s Show” or any comparable comedy featuring marijuana use, you probably think it’s nothing more than a dangerous drug impairing the minds of the impulsive teenagers who use it. 

The media consistently represents marijuana as a dangerous substance that leads to issues with psychological addiction, drug lords, mental problems and inevitable abuse of other drugs. 

For example, Cheech and Chong, probably the quintessential marijuana-related comedy duo, paints users in an unrealistic light by enforcing the idea that marijuana users become less intelligent or competent after using the drug. 

Their 2000 movie “Up in Smoke” chronicles their attempt to smuggle marijuana from Mexico to Los Angeles. The mere idea of attempting a transnational task like this represents a degree of carelessness and stupidity with which people often stereotype the use of marijuana. Films like “Dazed and Confused” or “Half Baked” portray marijuana users in a similar light.

One of the most iconic examples of the referral to marijuana as a “gateway drug” was Dick Harrison on “90210.” His marijuana use led to his abuse of and eventual overdose on heroin.

The show “Weeds,” which aired on Showtime from 2005 to 2012, features a widowed mother of two children who starts selling marijuana in her suburban neighborhood in order to provide for her family. She is a prime example of the depiction of marijuana users or sellers who end up in life-threatening trouble with drug lords or other unrealistically angry users as a result of their association with the drug. 

However, instead of taking the opportunity to examine flaws in the United States economic system that drive single mothers, or other Americans, to turn to illegal activities to stay afloat, the show focuses on the legality and danger of the use and sale of marijuana. 

This is classic scare-mongering. The media paints marijuana as a drug that will inevitably lead to the destruction of lives, instead of as a viable recreational substance with potentially positive health benefits.

As a recreational drug, marijuana is less dangerous than tobacco and alcohol. It has also grown tremendously in popularity in recent years. Last year, about 25 million Americans smoked marijuana. More than 14 million Americans smoke marijuana on a regular basis, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Medical use of marijuana relies on the effects of two cannabinoids, THC and CBD. THC bolsters appetite and decreases nausea, pain and inflammation. It can also help with muscle control issues. CBD is also associated with positive effects on pain and inflammation and has been linked to reducing epileptic seizures and treatment of mental illness and addiction. 

Further, popular television shows do not address that the very reason marijuana use ruins lives is its continually unjust criminalization. 

Criminalization of marijuana has exacerbated racial disparities. 

Despite similar rates of marijuana use between blacks and whites, blacks are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses. Enforcing possession laws is also a costly endeavor, costing about $3.6 billion per year. Meanwhile, criminalization of the drug has hardly made a dent in the drug’s popularity. According to a March Pew Research Center survey, about 48 percent of adults have tried marijuana, which is a record high for the drug.

Yet these realities are absent in media representation. 

In a way, attitudes toward marijuana have become cyclical. Media representation is evidence that people fear the drug, but this representation perpetuates that fear. 

However, when it comes to the portrayal of recreational or medical marijuana use, adequate examples are rare to non-existent. For example, “Transparent,” which streams on Amazon, did feature medical marijuana use, but it was by patients who lied about their conditions in order to get access to the drug. 

Painting this as the norm ostracizes medical marijuana users. More often than not, these people actually rely on the drug to control their symptoms. Perpetuating the belief that the system is just a way for young adults to gain access to legal marijuana does nothing to aid those suffering. 

In order to overcome these stigmas and stand a chance at legalization or decriminalization, we need more diverse and more accurate representations of marijuana. The documentary “Super High Me” is a prime example.

In “Super High Me,” Doug Benson takes a cleanse from marijuana and refrains from using the drug for over a month. After his month-long cleanse, he smokes marijuana every day for a month straight to test its long-term effects. The drug seemed to have no apparent long-term effects on his body or his mind. He even ended up scoring higher overall on the SAT. 

This is the kind of movie that fights to end the stigma. More of this kind of representation is necessary for progress. 

Current media representation simply perpetuates the stigma, adding nothing but fallacy to the national debate.

Adrianne Glenn primarily writes about social and cultural issues for The Pitt News. 

Write to Adrianne at [email protected].