Propaganda has existed throughout history, acting as a way to control popular opinion and the thoughts of the masses.
In the United States, propaganda has varied over the years, taking various forms. Donald Duck has told people what to think, just as commercials have instilled lessons on parents and families.
And, as you've likely seen, drugs fit nicely into the public service announcement (PSA) arena. Especially when it comes to weed.
Anti-marijuana PSAs have been blessing the media in the U.S. for a long time, and have been a symbol of misinformation for much of their lengthy tenure. Fear, stereotypes, and nonsensical ideas have filled televisions, posters, and even films for decades, proving that sometimes facts don't matter as much as public opinion.
One of the first anti-weed messages released to the masses was a film titled Reefer Madness, in 1936. This infamous marijuana PSA was designed as a morality tale, warning parents against the terrors that come with cannabis use.
Reefer Madness was ridiculous, detailing a melodramatic plot about a group of teenagers that faced wild consequences after smoking weed; they got wrapped up in murder, suicide, and general madness that all centered on marijuana.
While seeming silly now, Reefer Madness set the stage for public perception. According to the film, consuming the herb literally got you into the worst kinds of morally incorrect situations. From there, other spin-off creations were released, including Assassin of Youth (where smoking weed led to violence) and Marijuana (where a young girl puffed a joint and ends up pregnant, planning a kidnapping, and addicted to heroin). That's a significant contribution to any hesitation in today's culture or even some politics: parents passed on to their kids that weed is very, very bad, and in turn, smoking it makes you a bad person.
Thankfully, these ideas have been presented as outdated, as more and more people understand that people can smoke pot and not be morally compromised.
War on Drugs
While film was a good starting point for propaganda, the accessibility of the television changed the game. In the 1960s and 70s, the medium evolved to coordinated public service announcements, shown both in schools as short films and on TV as commercials.
Dangers of Dope
Anti-cannabis rhetoric was reinforced in full in this marijuana PSA, which associates hippies and free thinkers as rebels and misguided consumers. In this 32-minute video, a bunch of young people are arrested for smoking weed. They take turns to speak their minds, and give their reasons for why they think marijuana isn't so bad, and why it should be legalized. At the end, Sonny Bono appears on screen, and disputes each argument. He talks about teenagers "on grass" and that their rage against authority and the establishment only contribute to their own downfall.
This PSA was shown in classrooms and schools all across the country, and stuck with many young and impressionable minds that would forever associate free thinkers with fools, and weed smokers as dopes.
These days, you'd likely be hard-pressed to find very many musicians or rock stars that wouldn't sing praises for legalization and rebranding of the herb. Many well-known people are even medical marijuana consumers.
Users are Losers
This 1970s cartoon uses a fast-paced animation style to get one message across: marijuana is bad and will destroy your life.
One of the biggest themes in this wordless marijuana PSA is that weed is a gateway drug. By consuming it, you will eventually try harder and more dangerous drugs, eventually spiraling into a cycle of addiction, then death (as seen by the closet of skeletons). By their logic, smoking that joint almost directly relates in dying.
Besides being incorrect, this commercial had other damaging effects: one of the main arguments today, in modern society, against cannabis use is its status as a gateway drug. This lesson has stuck and garnered a reputation for weed that hasn't been easily shook.
Just Say No Marijuana PSAs
Some of the very best-meaning, most ridiculous, not to mention hilarious marijuana PSAs took place in the 1980 and 90s. The war on drugs was in full pursuit, and no one was letting go of their anti-weed perceptions.
In this cringe-worthy marijuana PSA, the scene is set with a surgeon about to perform surgery while also toking up. He's smoking a joint, getting confused, and dismissing his patient's plea that he has tonsillitis and not appendicitis. A voice comes in, crooning, "Imagine if the joint was in someone else's hands, like your surgeon, your lawyer, or your local police officer? Would you still say marijuana is harmless?"
This obvious fear tactic enforced stereotypes that cannabis makes you lazy, inept, and unable to be a productive member of society.
Additionally, this marijuana PSA also implied that it could be used on the job, which is such a bogus and fantasy scenario. No wonder people are still hesitant about legalizing marijuana, if they believe that anyone would be able to smoke it at any time – especially when lives are on the line. Nowadays, though, there are clear guidelines and rules about consumption, including where to smoke weed and not doing so in public.
This is Your Brain on Drugs
Arguably the most popular marijuana PSA of all time, this brief commercial came out in 1987 and influenced how people view anti-cannabis messaging. It got its point across in one distinct style: scare tactic.
This dramatic marijuana PSA shows a direct link between frying an egg in a pan and frying your brain on drugs. It's quick and to the point, and leaves no room for any other interpretation: drugs are bad and will kill your brain. It's also so certain, with no time or opportunity to question; this has been a theme in throughout all anti-drug announcements – this is final, and the only truth. The message was menacing and catchy enough to stick with the public for years, and reinforce strong, damaging imagery. Now, there are more opportunities for conversation, as well as scientific studies that address the validity of consumption.
Modern Times Call for Advanced Propaganda
Melting into the Couch
As later parodied on Family Guy, this ad used CGI to let kids know that smoking pot will lead to a soul-crushing life of nothingness.
This marijuana PSA shows a girl on a couch, literally all skin and no bones, similar to a deflated balloon. Hinting at couch-locking effects, the girl's friend says, "This is the way it's been since she started smoking pot." She labels her as boring and lazy.
This extremist views of cannabis' effects are laughable, starting with the imagery of muscle mass disappearing with any weed in your system. While there is validity to the possibility of getting drowsy after smoking, this is a clear, intense exaggeration. This is just one of the many campaigns that contributed to an incorrect portrayal of stoners, labeling them as lazy, inept, and wasting away.
Created by the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign is this outlandish marijuana PSA. This 2007 gem features a teenage girl getting a scolding from her pet dog, saying "You're not the same when you smoke, and I miss my friend."
Laughable? Yes. Made without any factual basis? Totally. Though it probably hasn't made any lasting impressions on curbing weed use, this commercial did result in a new cannabis strain. Rumor has it that "Talking Dog" is a high-THC strain that is designed to be so potent that you imagine your pet having a conversation with you.
The Next Big Tobacco
Even as legalization is taking hold of many U.S. states, there is some vocal opposition. This anti-marijuana PSA campaign, shifting to editorial-style and print media, has shifted gears dramatically; instead of attacking consumers and making claims related to changes in personality (becoming boring, careless, lazy, stupid, dangerous, etc.), the new thing is questioning the industry as a whole.
Prohibitionist groups are now drawing a parallel between the cannabis industry and big tobacco, bringing up concerns with ethics and health. This campaign is another form of fear-mongering, but aimed more at those who do not consume weed and might not have any personal investment, and less toward parents and potential consumers.