A Personal History of Cannabis in Film – part 1

I never heard people talk about smoking pot when I was growing up. Nobody ever spoke about it – at least, not in any self-referential way. ‘Smoking pot’ was ‘doing drugs’ was ‘breaking the law’ was ‘throwing your life away.’ No one (adult or child) could risk admitting to smoking pot, or even having smoked pot in their past. As my teen years ticked by, and I grew curious interested in it, myself – I had to search art, literature, music and cinema in order to get any first-person accounts. I kept my eyes peeled for any mentions or depictions of cannabis consumption.

In my northern Virginian suburb of Washington, D.C., we got the Washington Post delivered every morning. Each Friday, perhaps to help cultured denizens plan their weekends, there was a special extra section to the paper called “Weekend.” I loved it. Extended film reviews, concert / theater reportage, pieces on (and pictures of) the latest museum exhibits. Metropolitan life. I followed the Movies section closest. I loved movies and wanted to know all about what was playing and where.

My point being – cinema depictions of smoking pot have always caught my eye. Whether I wondered what they were doing, judged their skills, whet my own appetite to get high, watched what other cultures do, or rolled my eyes at harmful cliches and predictable tropes ; I noticed. And sometimes I took note. What follows are my memories around ‘when I took note.’

#1.) “Back to the Future”

This came out during the big 1950s craze of the mid-’80s. I was in 5th and 6th grade, with no interest in cannabis. The first several times I watched this movie, I didn’t even notice that cannabis was not only on the screen, but being addressed in the dialogue. It goes like this … During the film’s finale, at the Enchantment under the Sea dance, musician Marvin Berry and his band The Starlighters are on a set-break, smoking a joint in their car. A coterie of henchmen for antagonist Biff is dragging our hero (Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly) across the parking lot and throw him into the trunk of – whose car? – Marvin Berry’s. “What the hell are you doin’ in my car?” asks one of the Starlighters. One of the henchmen – a character named 3-D – taunts Marvin with a racist epithet – “Beat it, spook. This don’t concern you.”

So, there are a few ‘firsts’ for me, in this scene. For starters, I did not know what ‘spook’ meant. I had to ask – was it my older sister? was it my best friend? his mom or brother? I don’t know. Eventually, I was told “it’s a bad name for black people.” Fair enough. By 10 years-old, I regret to admit, I had learned a few of those already. It was a little confusing, to be honest – spook sounded like ghost, which made me think of a white sheet, which made me think of … white. I did a little research, and the origin has something to do with paranoid whites not being able to see dark skin in the nighttime – hence, ghosts. Go figure. But it was widely used, and very derogatory. A little harsh for a white filmmaker to throw into a PG-rated family film.

After 3-D slings the slur, the car doors open, and the rest of Marvin’s [black] bandmembers exit the car, with a ‘we heard that’ look on all their faces [see above photo]. A few clouds of smoke billow and clear while Marvin coolly sasses “Who you callin’ ‘spook,’ peckerwood?” This was my second ‘first’ – peckerwood. Having never heard it before, I just thought it was a generic insult. So I tried using it a couple times. (I hope none of my [white] friends’ parents overheard me). Eventually, I was told that ‘peckerwood’ is an anti-white slur. This blew my 10-year-old mind – there are anti-white slurs? I had never thought of that, but it made sense. The more I thought about it, actually, the more sense it made.

Having just been counter-threatened and counter-slurred, 3-D tries to save a little face and backs off, saying “We don’t wanna mess with no reefer addicts.” A skuffle ensues, and the film’s climax continues to build.

First of all, as far as I cared to notice, that was a cigarette Marvin was smoking. Not uncommon for a 1950s musician on a break – unremarkable, so it went past me. But that word … “reipherattick” … or, wait … what was that word? I liked the sound of it. I kind of wanted to start using it, but wasn’t quite sure what it meant.

Turns out there’s a “t” at the end, and it’s two words. After – again – asking around, I learned that reefer was marijuana. In my mind I connected marijuana to drug, drug to addict. Ah, of course! A reefer addict. It made perfect sense. That puzzle piece slipped right into place. But that’s as far as I thought about it – What is it? Oh, that’s what it is … Like I said, I had no interest in cannabis at the time and went about my 10-year-old life – riding dirt bikes and microwaving boxed food. I probably didn’t even think about cannabis again until I saw it in another movie, a swashbuckling romantic adventure called “Romancing the Stone.”

By the next scene, the Starlighters are back onstage singing & performing – mentally unimpaired by any reefer. Heck, they even do a great job backing up Marty McFly’s guitar shreddery with nothing more than his direction to follow his “blues riff in B, and try to keep up.” Some aspects of the scene have not aged well – a white guy telling black musicians to ‘keep up’ while he invents rock & roll – but that, too, went right over my head and I cheered our hero’s victory over formidable plot-structural odds.

Bonus “reefer” mention – I didn’t think twice about learning the word reefer until it came up in another ’50s (okay, 1962) send-up – John Waters’ “Hairspray,” a couple years later. Our heroes, who just want to racially integrate the dancefloor, are on the lam. They find refuge in a ‘beatnik pad,’ where Pia Zadora (as Beatnik Chick) plays bongos, sings a quick chorus of “The Banana Boat Song,” and gives them the third degree for how square they are; while a wigged-out Ric Ocasek (as Beatnik Cat) struggles with an abstract painting he’s working on. Beatnik Chick recommends they “get naked & smoke,” which excites Beatnik Cat to the extent that he punches his head through the canvas of his painting-in-progress, exclaiming “Reefer?!?” This time, I got the joke! As our protagonists proceed to make their hasty exit, Beatnik Chick begins reciting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” to/at them.

The scene is farcical and over-the-top – imagine that, in a John Waters movie. The pot-smokers are one-dimensional caricatures, gushing painfully outdated slang. In “Hairspray”‘s case, though, it works completely within the satiric nature of the movie, and all the actors seems to be hamming it up with a good sense of humor – they’re clearly in on it. The silliness is worth a chuckle, instead of an eye-roll or groan. And John Waters is an American treasure. For years after this, my friends & I would imitate Beatnik Cat – “Reefer?!?” and then pantomime punching our head through a stretched canvas – anytime an outrageous idea was proposed.

3rd episode – David

Oh, good – you’re here!

This is the last of the three interviews I did the month after legalization, i.e. over two years ago. While I have since refined the trajectory of this podcast, they (the interviews) still do a good job of reflecting those first concerns that come up when yesterday’s crime becomes today’s … hmmm … today’s what? Today’s pioneering? Today’s toleration? There has been very little envisioning of what successful legalization is. The good news is that we (and by we I mean you) get to define what lawful, effective cannabis consumption looks like.

While David is a cis-het white male, he is also a single dad, of a 4-year-old son. While it might be a stretch to qualify him as a “marginalized” voice, it does qualify as a voice that isn’t often included in the Conversation around cannabis use and law reform. David is also a master at empathetic listening (paying attention to another person with emotional identification, compassion, insight) – which is gold in my line of work. Just talking with him helped me tighten up my game.

After 5:17 of introduction, our conversation begins with a check-in about what has[n’t] changed since the full implementation of Measure 91, where we end up sharing stories about interactions with our respective neighbors.  By 15 minutes in, we’ve taken a turn toward the philosophic – what is therapeutic, what is a vice? Because let’s face it, it’s time to move past ‘I know it when I see it.’ It’s time to name it. Once we’re into the narrative arc of David’s booze ⇒ cannabis transformation,  at 28:00 is my favorite quote of the interview – reflecting on the creeping suspicion that smoking early in the day (instead as the topping-off of a night out drinking), David reflects ” … maybe it’ll be great.” The perfect attitude! Our response to cannabis is so often dictated by how we approach it. David’s positive curiosity proves the cornerstone of his advantageous, thoroughly enjoyable relationship to pot nowadays.  At 37 minutes in, he paints a picture of his ‘dealer’ which flies in the face of the negative stereotypes we’ve been taught. After that topic, I wind up walking David through the conversations I’ve had with my own [10 year-old] son regarding marijuana [and my use of it] over the years – what we talked about, at what age, etc. ‘Normalization’ is a bit of a buzzword now, and at 44:00, David points out how an exchange I was describing exemplifies how to normalize cannabis through honest dialogue. Then he tells a story about what consumption looks like in his household. After some speculation on how Washington D.C.’s radically different strategy of legalization might be playing out, we touch on (at 58:00) what I feel to be the heart of this podcast – how the exchange of self-narratives  best prepares us for integrating [with] the status quo. This leads to a humorous tangent about how not to engage across difference. We go a little bit into how much we reveal on social media, until we end with speculations on what else legalization may bring.

Interview date – August 2015 (two months into marijuana legalization)
Recorded on – Tascam DR-05 [handheld] digital recorder
Edited with – Audacity software

Always appreciated are donations in the form of: graphic design know-how, audio recording/editing know-how, website design know-how.

This show is recorded in full compliance with the Cole Memorandum.


Episode 2 – Elena

Good to see you!

Elena was a podcaster’s dream – just wind her up [with a short prompt] and let her go [regale me with real events]. She brought not only her own experiences, but remembrances of the people around her: clients she cared for, family, local community. Barely a minute & a half into her interview, we meet Everett; and through him we begin our walk through the first social experiments figuring out how post-prohibition cannabis plays out, aka Denis Peron’s California. Around the 10-minute mark, Elena & I share a couple quick observations on the interaction of cannabis consumption and fitness regimens. In future episodes, I’d like to invite athletes on the show to talk more about how they integrate cannabis into their work-outs. In between a couple recollections of her days fronting Sacramento punk band Local Chaos, she spoke one of what were to be several short, basic phrases which struck me as heavy at the same time. “Honesty is at the core of coming out.” And then a couple minutes later – “Act like it’s normal and it’s perfectly acceptable.”  Simple sentiments, practically obvious, yet significant and often unapplied to our lives. And if you listen closely, at 25:49, you can hear me bite my tongue when she calls [the] east coat pot [I grew up on] “shwag.”  {ouch!}

We really kick into high gear when the conversation turns toward public consumption sites. Elena was right there when the law was getting “stretched” further with each of Peron’s successive locations. At 35:30, we touch on the topic of who cannabis is not for, while also noting “tell your children that something is forbidden, you might actually be tempting them to try something they didn’t care about at all.” From there on out she must have really had my number, because she was answering every question of mine by introducing me to somebody new – one of her own adult children, or a spunky senior like Hazel, Mary, Pat, Brandy or Pearl. Signing off, Elena walks us through her favorite cannabis recipe, the one that’s treated all the people/patients we’ve met thusfar.


Here is the study by Dr. Harvey Feldman (which Elena mentions at 27:15) on the social interaction piece of cannabis-based health regimens. Madeline Martinez has also spoken & written about this.

Interview date – August 30, 2015 (two months into marijuana legalization)
Recorded on – Tascam DR-05 [handheld] digital recorder
Edited with – Audacity software

Always appreciated are donations in the form of: graphic design know-how, audio recording/editing know-how, website design know-how.

This show is recorded in full compliance with the Cole Memorandum.

First episode – Lasse


I’m so glad you’ve made time for us.

I gotta warn you. This interview was edited with a heavy hand. There is nothing wrong with your listening devise or the mp3 file. What you’re hearing is the sound of my crash course in audio-editing software. But the content is strong – again, thank you Lasse – and there’s a good amount of it to chew on.

The interview begins at 4:48. First, we get into our relationships with (and strategies for dealing with) our parents. His and mine reacted quite differently to suburban conformity – and you can hear how it influences our own views. Once we start smoking at 29:00, there’s a story which illustrates what problematic pot use looks like, then a couple more stories about the decisions surrounding getting high with siblings (or not). Forty-seven minutes in, I describe how I saw the Drug War propaganda effect not only kids, but their parents, significantly. Things lighten up as Lasse details how he uses cannabis today, then I ask him how he approaches the topic of cannabis with his kids. Around the 58-minute mark, you can hear a wonderfully well-timed Doppler effect from a train as it approaches and then recedes. Feel free to skip the BoringGrowerTalk at four minutes past the hour. And it wouldn’t be a proper session without some spiritual philosophies – for us, it was around the nature of stress, and the practice of gratitude.

Interview date – August 9, 2015 (one month into marijuana legalization)
Recorded on – Tascam DR-05 [handheld] digital recorder
Edited with – Audacity software

Always appreciated are donations in the form of: graphic design know-how, audio recording/editing know-how, website design know-how.

This show is recorded in full compliance with the Cole Memorandum.