From “Devil’s Weed” to “Reefer Madness,” here are four of the most inaccurate depictions of cannabis in film

The Devil’s Weed, lobbycard, 1949. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

It’s no secret that there are many inaccurate assumptions about cannabis out there.

The negative stigmas surrounding cannabis — that it makes people more violent, less intelligent, and so forth — are not new. And many of these exaggerated or completely inaccurate rumors have been propagandized and normalized by incorrect depictions in television and film.

Here’s a look at some of the most inaccurate (and, in some cases, downright hilarious) represenations of cannabis in film.

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1. Reefer Madness (1936)

Released on Jul 12, 1936, “Tell Your Children” — or “Reefer Madness,” as it’s also called — was a propaganda film meant to instill fear in people surrounding cannabis use. It was one of several anti-cannabis films made to “fuel hysteria” and came as the U.S. made cannabis illegal with the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937, the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum reported.

The film was produced by George A. Hirliman Productions, as noted by IMDB.

The film begins with a foreword describing cannabis as a “new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers” and refers to it as “The Real Public Enemy Number One!”

In the film, a high school principal tells a group of parents how cannabis can be detrimental to teens. He recounts a story where drug dealers give a group of high schoolers cannabis, and their lives begin to spiral. Brother and sister Jimmy Lane (Warren McCollum) and Mary (Dorothy Short), and Mary’s boyfriend, Bill (Kenneth Craig), then begin regularly going to a “reefer house,” and a series of violent events occur.

While under the influence of cannabis, the film shows people “hit and kill a pedestrian with a car; accidentally shoot a teen girl, killing her; beat a man to death with a stick (as others watch and laugh hysterically); and jump out a window to their own demise” as reported by JSTOR Daily.

The movie is so outrageous that it inspired a comedy musical with the same title in 2005, starring Kristin Bell, Neve Campbell, Christian Campbell, Alan Cumming, and Ava Gasteyer, among others.

A study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health noted 14 cases where people committed acts of violence while under the influence of cannabis. But most people report cannabis doesn’t make them violent, and has the opposite effect — that it’s calming and helps them relax. One 2014 study in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that couples who used cannabis had lower rates of domestic violence.

The Journal of Drug Education notes that more research is needed on cannabis and violent behavior.

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2. She Shoulda Said “No!” (1949)

Released on July 20, 1949, “She Shoulda Said ‘No!’” — also marketed as “The Devil’s Weed” and “Wild Weed” — depicts a chorus girl’s life ruined by cannabis.

The movie has been dubbed an “exploitation film” as it starred Lila Leeds, who had been arrested with Robert Mitchum the year before its release for possession of marijuana.

In the film, Anne Lester (Leeds) begins smoking cannabis and becomes involved with dealer Markey (Alan Baxter). She is then fired from her job as a chorus dancer.

Then, Lester begins selling cannabis with dealer Markey to help pay for her brother’s college. When her brother learns of her job, he commits suicide. Lester then gets in trouble with the police, is introduced to other women who worked with Markey and got involved with hard drugs, and is arrested.

After her release, she works with the cops to track down Markey.

Later, the film shows Lester’s guilt over being “a kid killer” after her brother killed himself when learning she was selling cannabis. Her guilt then evolves into paranoia, and she is hospitalized.

The film inaccurately implies cannabis use leads to promiscuity, a claim with no credible scientific evidence to back it. It also shows cannabis as a gateway to hard drugs. While this issue is still hotly contested today, there is currently very little evidence to suggest cannabis is a gateway drug, as noted by the CDC and Public Health Ontario.

As the film exploited Leed’s story, it wildly dramatizes and distorts how cannabis generally affects people.

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3. Friday (1995)

In a scene of “Friday,” released on April 26, 1995, Craig Jones (Ice Cube) and Smokey (Chris Tucker) smoke cannabis from a dealer.

Jones then gets paranoid about how fast his heart is beating and runs into the house. He begins hearing and seeing things that aren’t there and asks Smokey if he heard his phone ring.

After going into the kitchen, Jones hallucinates a floating head in the kitchen cabinet.

While it’s well known that cannabis can cause hallucinations, it’s certainly not a common effect of the drug.  A study published in the journal “Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research” notes that while cannabis was historically classified as a hallucinogen, such effects “are rare” and primarily occur with purified THC, as opposed to whole-plant cannabis.

4. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

While beloved for its laid-back, comedic plot, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” — released August 13, 1982 — shows one of the early depictions of the “stoner” stereotype with character Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn).

Spicoli is depicted as a spacey, goofy character, seen tumbling out of a van with his peers in a cloud of smoke, wearing a button-down shirt with his chest showing and a bagel stuffed in the front of his pants, and accepting a pizza delivery while in class.

The movie was just one among a slew of films in the 70s, 80s, and 90s that perpetuated the “stoner” stereotype. In reality, a wide range of people from all walks of life — including parents, working professionals, those affected by certain medical conditions, and more — use cannabis for a variety of reasons.

Whether it’s recreational, medicinal, or to wind down at the end of the day, despite inaccurate representations in film, cannabis is increasingly popular and enjoyed by a wide range of people.

Kassidy Vavra