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.
Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Sarah Brady Siff, avisiting assistant professor at the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University, in affiliation with the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC).
The superb historian of medicine Keith Wailoo has just written Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette (online book talk here). With this fifth monograph, Wailoo places a capacious 20th-century frame around a culturally and economically significant drug—just as he did around opiates in Pain: A Political History (2015). For those of us in the subfield of alcohol & drugs history, both books offer unique insights from a gifted researcher with deep experience writing about the impact of race on health by way of institutions. In Pain, those institutions mostly are public and federal, from the camera-ready 1980s “Just Say No”-style prohibition campaigns to quieter efforts to deny opiates to Medicaid patients—including combat-injured veterans—with chronic pain.
But in Pushing Cool, the institutions are tobacco companies, along with the Madison Avenue firms they hire to pry open particular demographic segments and make them smokers. Wailoo identifies 1964 as the start of an aggressive campaign to attract urban Black consumers to menthol cigarettes, a charge led by Brown & Williamson’s Kool but soon attracting dozens of other menthol brands.
Editor’s Note: From the Collections highlights articles, artifacts, images, and other items of interest from publications and historical collections of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy (AIHP). Points Managing Editor and AIHP Head Archivist Greg Bond writes about a recent AIHP online historical exhibit.
At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, British multinational pharmaceutical firm Burroughs, Wellcome, and Company constructed an elaborate exhibit featuring the company’s drugs, medicines, and pharmaceutical products. Company co-founder Henry Wellcome was on site for the Exposition, and, during the event, he posed for a picture at his company’s exhibit along with several unnamed and unidentified Native Americans.
There might not seem to be an obvious connection between Indigenous North Americans and a European pharmaceutical company, but Wellcome strategically utilized the imagery—and the bodies—of Native Americans to exploit a longstanding Euro-American association between Indigenous peoples and the healing power of natural medicinal plants. By arranging for the presence of the uncredited Native Americans at his company’s exhibit space, Wellcome hoped that fair goers would thereby associate his company’s manufactured pharmaceuticals with the therapeutic healing power of traditional medicinal plants.
Indigenous peoples in North America have long used medicinal plants and botanicals to treat illnesses and diseases. White Americans and Europeans quickly adopted some native plants for therapeutic purposes after arriving in North America, and they also came to strongly associate medicinal plants and natural medicines with Indigenous cultures.
Drug companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers—like Burroughs, Wellcome—in turn, capitalized on these beliefs and co-opted Native and Indigenous imagery and iconography to market drugs and medicines containing plants and natural products. Particularly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, drug companies often relied on these misrepresentations and misappropriations of Native Americans and Indigenous cultures to brand their products as “natural” and safe for therapeutic purposes.
The American Institute of the History of pharmacy recently unveiled an online exhibit titled, “The Misappropriation of Native/Indigenous Imagery in Pharmaceutical Advertising” that explores some of this complicated history. Drawn mostly from the historical collections of AIHP and the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy, the exhibit interrogates how drug companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers have misappropriated Native and Indigenous imagery, customs, and beliefs to market their products.
Public service announcements of the War on Drugs have long been lampooned, and for good reason. Nonetheless, many have accepted such advertisements as a relatively benign, if irritating, collateral consequence of watching network television. Not unlike obnoxious pitches for ShamWow, we shrug our shoulders, chuckle, and move on. As rates of drug abuse have only increased throughout our long War on Drugs, we know that anti-drug PSA’s are at best an ineffective tactic and a poor use of taxpayer’s money. A closer look at anti-crack PSA’s in the Crack Era suggest that drug warrior TV spots were hardly benign. In many ways, this anti-drug effort proved to be socially irresponsible, misleading, and quite possibly, counterproductive.
If TV news of the period had not made it abundantly clear, PSA’s of the period reaffirmed popular assumptions that crack was an urban nonwhite problem which threatened to spill into suburban districts and victimize white youth. Despite the reality that crack was indeed an urban problem, the target audience of most PSA’s appear to be white suburban youth—potential victims. A litany of mainstream white celebrities offer their voices to variations of the same message; beware or the dangerous pusher and “just say no.” Kirk Cameron advises youth, “Come on, say no to drugs.” Bruce Willis also invokes the “just say no” tagline in his PSA, reminding children sternly to “be the boss” and make their own decisions. In the same year (1987), Willis appeared in a series of advertisements for Seagram’s Liquor clad in a white Miami Vice suit with multiple women on his arms. The tagline of the Seagram’s advertisement: “This is where the fun starts.”
In addition to offering an oversimplified message for drug avoidance most spots also advance the myth that one-time crack use kills. Just ask Pee-Wee Herman, “It’s the most addictive kind of cocaine and it can kill you. So every time you use it you can risk dying. Doing it with crack isn’t just wrong, it could be dead wrong.” Before he took to talking to chairs in public, Clint Eastwood also joined the fray as he channeled his best Dirty Harry. “You see this cute little vial here, that’s crack, rock cocaine, the most addictive form. It can kill you.” As with a series of PSA’s geared against crack, the postscript of the spot reads “Don’t even try it. The thrill can kill.” Brat Packer Ally Sheedy appeared in the same line of ads reminding Breakfast Club fans again “crack kills.” Other ads feature an undertaker and a businessman’s funeral, purportedly all casualties of crack. This myth marred the period, advanced most prominently by the overdose of basketball star Len Bias. Unfortunately, Bias was hardly a first-time user, nor did he overdose on crack, but rather, high-grade cocaine.