6 eye-opening anti-weed propaganda movements of the past

May 15, 2023

Anti-weed propaganda has been used for decades as a way to criminalize cannabis. For the first century and a half of our nation’s history, cannabis was known as “Indian hemp” and was used for a variety of uses from its fibers to medicinally. Anti-weed propaganda wasn’t commonplace until much later in 1906 when the Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted which required 10 specific ingredients in products to be clearly labeled “addictive” or “dangerous”. Cannabis was among them. While this did not limit or prohibit the sales of these items, it did give anti-drug propagandists a lot of misinformation to spread. With the label of “dangerous” or “addictive”, naysayers had a field day masking cannabis, along with other substances, as evil.

Though cannabis use has been legalized in many states and the stigma is dwindling, anti-cannabis propaganda is still something that plagues the community today. Since the early 1900s, cannabis has been criminalized and looked down upon. Today’s propaganda doesn’t quite depict weed as the violence-inducing, life-ruining plant it was once portrayed as. While that is true, they still tend to be misinformed, uneducated, and downright bald-faced lies trying to convince anyone who will listen that this is a dangerous and harmful drug. To quote Bill Murray “I find it quite ironic that the most dangerous thing about the plant is being caught with it.”

While this anti-cannabis propaganda started years before movies and tv, we found some that are more widely known and part of more recent history. (Please take note that some of these use the term ‘marijuana’ for cannabis. While it is still somewhat commonly used today, the term was created in the 1910s to demonize cannabis by associating it with the influx of Mexican immigrants at the time and the fear that was instilled with their migration. At Juniper Jill, we do not use the term unless in references such as these.)

The Marijuana Menace, 1910

Even before the first article was written about the “dangers of weed”, misinformation was being spread about the miracle plant. Sparked by political upheaval in the Revolution of 1910, Mexican immigrants began migrating to the US in massive numbers. As they liked to unwind and enjoy cannabis from time to time, racists and politicos of the time swooped in to use this as a weapon against them. The Marijuana Menace was a racist caricature of Mexican and African American immigrants, portraying them as immoral and reprehensible. The picture, along with the theory that cannabis use leads to the lust for blood and violence, helped spark the first laws against cannabis use and sales in 1914 Texas. Other states soon followed.

“Murder Weed” article by William Hurst, 1933

William Randolph Hurst, a press mogul and powerful ally of Harry Anslinger (a well-known anti-drug crusader of the times), openly waged a war between cannabis and immigrants in 1933. Hurst used his “yellow journalism” (better known today as fake news) to conjure up elaborate images of the deviance of Mexican cannabis-smoking immigrants. Claims were made that those that used cannabis frequently engaged in violence, theft, depravity, and even murder. While they used this imagery for their advancements, deep down it wasn’t the use of cannabis that was a threat to the businessmen of the time. Rather, it was the fiber potential of the hemp plant that would very negatively impact their financial interests.

Reefer Madness, 1936 

Reefer Madness remains a cult classic today but is more revered for its comedic depiction of the harm of weed and outlandish claims of what it can do to a person. The film was originally funded by a church group under the name Tell Your Children, to be shown to parents as a warning of the dangers of weed. It follows the path of high school students who are pressured into trying cannabis and the fallout their lives saw after, including a hit and run, a woman jumping out a window, and murder. In the 1970s, the movie got a rebirth and was used as satire among advocates for cannabis reform. It remains a cult classic today and is viewed for its campy themes and hilariously unrealistic scenarios.

Marijuana, Assassin of Youth by Harry Anslinger, 1937

There may not be one more influential person in the history of cannabis more detrimental and instrumental in criminalizing cannabis use. As the figurehead of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the DEA), he made it his life’s mission to demonize the plant and punish anyone caught using it to the full extent of the law.

His book, Marijuana, Assassin of Youth, portrayed cannabis as unpredictable and that it negatively affects the brain. All of the claims in his book were highly fabricated and skewed to fit his narrative. He claimed that it would turn “law-abiding citizens” into “criminals and murders, and would promote suicide”. Written just a year after Reefer Madness, it’s hard to not see that Anslinger used the movie to rip off their viewpoint on cannabis, as seen with its common themes and narratives.

Similarly, as it was used to criminalize Mexicans, cannabis was also used as a weapon to try to bring down African Americans in the heyday of jazz. Not only did Anslinger try to destroy Mexicans with his elaborate stories of their cannabis use, he also went on an anti-cannabis crusade against black jazz musicians and this is when he went after and took down Billie Holiday.


Your brain on drugs

Ask anyone born in the 70s or 80s and they can recall at least one anti-drug commercial from their childhood. We have all seen the “This is your brain…this is your brain on drugs” commercials where they take an egg, break it into a hot pan, and scrape the cooking egg around to symbolize “the mess” it makes your brain. In addition to commercials and ads, the 80s and 90s were notorious for having actors, celebrities, and even cartoon characters come to life to preach the dangers of weed. Shows geared towards teens and young adults all did at least one special episode dedicated to the dangers of weed and other drugs. (Saved By the Bell’s ‘There’s no hope in Dope’ comes to mind.)

The D.A.R.E. program

The D.A.R.E. program was being taught in almost every school in the 80s and 90s. It was a program designed to help keep kids away from drugs and dangerous substances. Research shows that the program actually backfired and instead introduced otherwise unknowing children to all the different drugs out there. Preaching “just say no” and not going in-depth about what can happen with some of the drugs did little to dial back risky behavior in kids. As has been proven in the past, telling kids to just not do something and not explain the reasoning behind it, has almost always backfired.

The original program was flawed from the start. It was created in L.A. after Nancy Regan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign filled parents with paranoia and fear about their kids getting involved with cannabis and other drugs. That paranoia was what allowed the program to swoop into every school in the country, even though it was not written by any substance abuse or prevention specialists. It was also a program delivered by police officers, not anyone who had an understanding of substance use, only the criminality of it. It was used to fuel anti-drug propaganda and was heavily politically motivated. It has been found that the program did not dissuade anyone from trying drugs but increased the probability of students trying them.

While the mainstream disillusion of cannabis has waned quite a bit, you can still find anti-weed propaganda everywhere. Most of this information is either uneducated, misinformed or an outright lie. We have learned in recent years that cannabis has so many benefits and medicinal uses. Of course, anything done in excess is not good for you. When consumed correctly, this miracle plant offers things that even some modern medicine can’t. Luckily, thanks to modern science and technology, people are starting to see all the good things that cannabis has to offer and it is becoming more and more acceptable. We hope that shortly we will see it decriminalized everywhere and the stigma gone.

Must be 21+. Please consume responsibly.