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Movies | Cannabis History

The year was 2005. Or maybe 2006? It’s been so long that I barely remember the year but I almost perfectly remember the night. The night I smoked cannabis for the first time. It was around – or possibly on – New Year and my mom and stepdad were away for the weekend. My aunt was babysitting and I was at an age where I had confidently experimented with alcohol and was openly curious about cannabis. Likely, this was also the dawn of my experimentation with other substances, but nothing made me feel quite like cannabis does.


Back to that Phoenix December night and my aunt and I are staying up late and talking on the back patio. We’ve always been close so I told her that I had recently gotten drunk for the first time. I still clearly remember my first “world is spinning” stumble down my then girlfriend’s hallway to throw up flavored vodka. It was important to me that she knew that I felt like I had made a good decision, I had been safe and I had had fun. I don’t remember exactly how it came up nor could I repeat it verbatim, but I’ve always remembered that the gist of her response was “I’m glad you trusted me with that and I’m trusting you with this; I smoke cannabis” and she revealed a Winnie the Pooh keychain tin with a few joints in it. We smoked and laughed and munched and had a really great night but one of the things I remember most now is the movie we watched: The 40-Year-Old Virgin.


I had been watching movies with my aunt since I was little but my usual picks were repeated watches of movies like Labyrinth, The Princess Bride, or what I would still consider one of my favorites, 1985’s Legend. Watching more “adult” media with my family was still new to me, let alone doing it stoned, but it was one of the best nights I had ever had. We laughed until we cried, stuffed our faces with delicious food and I fell asleep like a baby. Compared to a night of drinking, not eating enough, and getting sick, cannabis was winning the race by a mile. We continued to smoke joints and watch movies together for years after that night and I still consider those movies my favorite “weed” movies; not because they have anything to do with cannabis, but because they are some of my personal favorites to watch with a blanket and a bong.


In my opinion, there’s a difference between your standard “stoner film” and a movie you want to watch when you’re stoned. Sometimes they overlap, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Full disclosure, I’m terrible at watching movies and being able to smoke a joint or pipe or hit a bong makes sitting still through an entire movie much more comfortable. Being terrible at movies means that there are a lot of “stoner films” – and frankly just regular ol’ popular movies – that I haven’t seen, but there are still quite a few that I have and I want to share some of my favorite “classic stoner films” with you as well as some of the movies I just like to watch stoned.


Reefer Madness

Before we talk about some of my favorite stoney day movies, it feels necessary to talk about what could be called the original “stoner movie”: the 1936 propaganda film Reefer Madness. All wrapped up in the cannabis panic of the 1930s, Reefer Madness (formerly titled “Tell Your Children!”) was not at all intended to turn into the cult classic cannabis film that it has inadvertently become, but as a cautionary tale of the literal havoc that “marihuana”, the “burning weed with its roots in hell”, would wreak on their children’s innocent lives and souls.

Reefer Madness is just as outrageous as you would expect a 1930s anti-drug propaganda film originally financed by a church group to be. High School students attend a jazz party, smoke some “marihuana cigarettes” and wind up hopeless addicts that proceed to be involved in what the trailer proclaims as “debauchery, violence, murder, suicide, and the ultimate end of the marihuana addict: hopeless insanity.” Tragedies upon tragedies befall these all-American teenagers all because of that terrible, worst ever drug to exist, reefer.


Although Reefer Madness was intended to be a film warning parents and families about the ever-present dangers of “marihuana”, it was purchased by producer Dwain Esper and recut for distribution in the exploitation film circuit of the 1940s and 50s. The recut and redistribution of Reefer Madness in the late 1930s and into the 40s and 50s took advantage of the appeal of salacious and often taboo content, like drug use and “loose” sexuality, while skirting the censorship laws by billing itself as a morality tale and warning for parents. Capitalizing on the education-exploitation genre of filmmaking at the time was popular, and cannabis became an especially popular theme after the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act.


The film regained popularity in the 1970s when Keith Stroup, founder of NORML, “rediscovered” Reefer Madness in the Library of Congress, bought a print for $297, and played it on college campuses to fundraise for the 1972 California Marijuana Initiative.

Reefer Madness has all of the campiness and over-the-top, downright unbelievable moments that we’ve come to expect from satirical drugsploitation films with the caveat that it was made with (almost) every intention to be a serious film about the dangers of cannabis. Watching it nearly 90 years later is a trip. Do I recommend it? Definitely. It’s at the very least interesting to see what was influencing some of the cannabis takes that seem to have persisted through the decades. But… Maybe only watch it once unless you really love it. I saw it described as “one of the most absurdly earnest exercises in paranoia you’ll ever have the good fortune to see” as well as one of “the worst movie[s] ever made”. 


Stoney Day Movies

When I think of all of the movies that I grew up watching with my aunt, Ridley Scott’s 1985 film Legend is an almost surprising inclusion. I was (Ok, I am) a huge wimp and was especially terrified of “scary” movies as a kid. While Legend is by no means a horror movie, it definitely deals with some darker elements and based on trends, should have scared the hell out of me. Instead, the film has become one of my favorite movies of all time and I try to watch it once or twice a year if the streaming gods allow it.


Jack, played by a young Tom Cruise, must rescue his love, Lili (Mia Sara) from the Lord of Darkness and save the world from an eternal winter. You know, standard fantasy stuff. There are fairies and unicorns and magic, but there is also Tim Curry as the literal hottest demon lord you will ever lay eyes on. The practical effects that transform Curry into the Lord of Darkness are some of my favorite movie magic to date. Legend was released in the same era as movies like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and has very similar vibes, in my opinion. Low lighting and cozy blankets with a fancy ashtray and copious joints is my ideal viewing scenario for this film.

While Legend is on my “top 10 favorites of all time” list, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (2004) is probably my favorite of the “stoner film” genre. Now, it’s more likely than not been at least a decade since I’ve seen it, so I’m not going to promise that the comedy holds up, but I remember thinking that of the stoner movies that I had seen, Harold & Kumar was somehow really relatable for me. I say “somehow” like I’m not constantly stoned, hungry, and attempting to attain some kind of Holy Grail food item.


As outlandish as the conundrums that the titular Harold and Kumar find themselves in are, going on stoned fast food adventures with friends is an altogether relatable thing for me and I couldn’t count the times that every single thing that could go wrong on one of these “burger quests” did go wrong. While we never ended up smoking with cheetahs or hanging out with Neil Patrick Harris, seeing a theatrical, over-the-top interpretation of what was kind of a typical night for me was a lot of fun. Not to mention the fact that White Castle burgers are delicious and no one will ever change my mind. I would absolutely go through that much effort too.


This article wasn’t an effort to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen before unless you live under the same rock as I do, so much as it is a way to share the things that I enjoy and that I find are often enhanced by or reflective of my cannabis use. When I do sit down to watch a movie, cannabis can help me further suspend disbelief and more fully immerse myself in a story or a world that I enjoy. I find myself more open to the fantasy or absurdity of the genres that I’m drawn to. Most importantly when I consume cannabis before or during a movie, I’m able to actually focus much better.


As a regular cannabis consumer and a person who occasionally watches movies, it’s rare that I do one without the other, so I don’t think I’m suggesting anything revolutionary here. Getting absolutely blazed and watching something ridiculous or fantastical has likely been around since the time of Reefer Madness, but I think it can be a lot of fun to pick an aspect of existence and think “is cannabis making this more fun?” While for me the answer is usually yes, it isn’t always. For example, while I’m able to enjoy some horror movies now that I’m an adult, there are strains that have negatively impacted my anxiety, and combining that and a horror movie sounds awful.


Adding cannabis to my movie-watching ritual wasn’t a conscious decision that I made, but I’ve found that, like with most things, it has a net positive effect on the experience. Movies that I’ve always watched are easier to get swept up in and new experiences pull me in faster. What are some of your favorite films to watch stoned?


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