The representation of cannabis (also known as marijuana, marihuana, pot, or weed) in the media has evolved over time. In the past, media coverage of cannabis primarily focused on its potential harms and association with criminal activity, pervasion, and addiction. From 1980 to the early 1990s, news stories about drug busts and the dangers of smoking cannabis dominated headlines, while print media, movies, and TV shows depicted cannabis users as dangerous. In popular culture, smoking cannabis was considered a forbidden ‘rite of passage’ spoken about in whispers. This type of coverage was the norm for several years and contributed to the low prevalence of cannabis use and the stigma and criminalization of cannabis users (as shown in Figure 1).
However, with the rise of medical marijuana legalization in the early 2010s, the media shifted its narrative. Journalists started reporting on the potential benefits of cannabis for treating various medical conditions, such as chronic pain, anxiety, and epilepsy. News stories featuring medical cannabis patients and their stories became common, and documentaries exploring the science behind cannabis and its medicinal properties gained popularity.
This shift in the narrative was also reflected in popular culture. TV shows and movies began to portray cannabis users differently. Shows like “Breaking Bad” and “High Maintenance” notably depicted cannabis users in a different light than previous shows. In Breaking Bad, Walter, a down-to-earth chemistry teacher with terminal cancer, smokes cannabis for psychological and physical benefits. Since Walter is such an ordinary man living an ordinary life (before he becomes entangled in drug deals), the audience can connect with him, and his use of cannabis does not seem dangerous or offensive. After all, he is a good man in a bad situation, using a harmless drug to cope. In High Maintenance, cannabis is portrayed as simply a business venture. These shows helped to normalize cannabis use in popular culture, portraying it as a part of everyday life. As more states and countries legalized cannabis for recreational use, the media portrayal became even more positive. News stories about the booming cannabis industry and the millions of dollars in tax revenue generated by legal sales became common. Celebrities like Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa tapped in on the changing narrative and began to openly talk about their cannabis use. Before long, even mainstream news outlets began to question the criminalization of cannabis.
Today, the media portrayal of cannabis is more nuanced than ever before. While there are still negative stories about the dangers of cannabis use, there are also many positive stories about its potential medical benefits, its impact on the economy, and its role in social justice reform. Movies and TV shows continue to explore cannabis in different contexts but with a more balanced and realistic approach. One could argue that there has been a more accurate representation of cannabis in the media than ever in history. Now the media has started to cover cannabis from a more informative and educational perspective, focusing on the science behind its effects. There are now shows on streaming platforms dedicated to cannabis use in different contexts. Perhaps one of the most exciting contexts we now see cannabis in is in cooking shows. In the last five years, cannabis cooking has become a sophisticated art form worthy of the same recognition accorded to other popular cooking shows. One of my favorites is Netflix’s 2020 cannabis show, Cooking with Cannabis, where contestants cook a three-course cannabis-infused meal for a chance to win $10,000. The show is hosted by famous singer/songwriter Kelis and chef Leather Storrs. Cooking shows are arguably one of the fastest-growing programs on daytime TV. They are also typically considered family-friendly entertainment, so the emergence of cannabis cooking shows is proof of its normalization in popular culture. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about most of these shows, including Cooking with Cannabis, is that contestants explain in great detail the dosing of THC to CBD, the rationale for choice, and how they are blended in the meals for optimal enjoyment so it makes for good entertainment for people scientifically-inclined.
Mainstream media are not the only players in the evolution of cannabis. Social media has provided a unique platform for cannabis advocates and enthusiasts to share their positive experiences with cannabis and spread awareness about its potential uses. Social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit encourage self-disclosure and disinhibition because they allow users to choose anonymity. On these platforms, cannabis users can share their experiences – good and bad – and advocate for cannabis legalization at little to no risk to their social capital. This has helped break down some negative stereotypes associated with cannabis use and created a safe space for discussing the benefits and also side effects of cannabis without judgment.
Overall, the media has played a significant role in shaping public perception of cannabis. While progress is still being made in accurate representation and de-stigmatization, shifting towards more informative coverage is a step in the right direction. The media portrayal of cannabis has changed significantly over the past 20 years. From being demonized and criminalized, cannabis is now portrayed as a legitimate source of medicine, recreation, and revenue for individuals and countries that also has potentially harmful effects. While there is still a long way to go regarding social justice reform, the media continues to play an essential role in changing the narrative around cannabis and its users. Only time will tell what/who the future face of cannabis will be.
Feature image: Cooking with Cannabis (Netflix)
Editorial Note: This post is part of the Pharmaceutical Inequalities series, funded by the Holtz Center and the Evjue Foundation.
Ejura Yetunde Salihu
Ejura Yetunde Salihu is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Health Services Research in Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a masters degree in Sociology from Western Illinois University, a masters degree in Anatomy from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria and a bachelors degree in Anatomy from the University of Ilorin, Nigeria. She has worked as the Editor-in-Chief at Connect Nigeria, Nigeria's largest information portal and as a Customer Service Officer for financial institutions in Nigeria. After a successful freelance career as a freelance Writer, Editor and Education Consultant, she founded Leo Education Hub to help young people acquire the skills and knowledge that they need to be competitive in any industry.