Marijuana Greatest Moments in Popular Culture

Stephen Andrews
11 Oct 2021

From seeing Rihanna rolling a joint at Coachella to Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart hosting a cooking show together, marijuana has become an indelible element of contemporary pop culture. To the point, it's not even news anymore. But it wasn't always like that.

Marijuana has had its highs and lows in popular culture history. Whether it was Beatniks or the Counterculture movement, each generation left its trace to normalizing cannabis in the public domain. Famous people in general began more explicitly referencing it in the 1960s and 1970s when more than a few performers used marijuana-centric lyrics, including Bob Dylan, Black Sabbath and The Beatles. The first "stoner" films also appeared during this period. As did began the "War on Drugs," which sealed the fate of the soft substance.

The road to making sharing a spliff as routine as taking a glass of wine has been long. Here's a rundown of the "golden moments" of marijuana throughout each decade.

1928: Louis Armstrong releases "Muggles"

Long before it designated a person who has no magical abilities throughout the "Harry Potter" series, the jazz musicians of the Roaring Twenties used the word "muggle" as a slang term for "marijuana." Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra recorded the tune "Muggles" in 1928, referring to the psychedelic plant, and a wonderful new world in pop culture was born. 

1936: "Reefer Madness" debuts on the big screen

"These high school boys and girls are having a hop at the local soda fountain," begins the trailer for Louis Gasnier's film called "Reefer Madness." "Innocently they dance. Innocent of a new and deadly menace lurking behind closed doors: marijuana! The burning weed with its roots in hell!"

Originally titled "Tell Your Children," the low-budget exploitation film was the first in a series of anti-marijuana propaganda movies to be produced in the U.S. Marijuana prohibition began taking root by and large in the 1930s. The film sparked mass hysteria among parents who sometimes even broke up relationships with their children because of pot. "Reefer Madness" was rediscovered by the "Hippies" in the 1960s, who began screening the movie in an act of mockery.

An advertisement distributed by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1935.
In anti-marijuana propaganda, the plant was often associated with murder, insanity, and death. As seen in this harsh language handbill distributed by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1935.

1943: "Hemp for Victory" premiers during the war

Not all propaganda material was to "satanize" cannabis back in the day. At least 1% was in favor. "Hemp for Victory" came out as an informational film at the peak of World War Two, encouraging farmers to cultivate hemp to help the war effort. The film said that hemp could be used for clothes and ropes production.

1948: The first celebrity is busted for pot 

Believe it or not, there were days when smoking marijuana was disapproved of even in Hollywood. Not even big-screen names were safe. When film noirs star Robert Mitchum was caught smoking pot at a small party in L.A., it landed him 60 days in jail. 

Mitchum, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 1945 for his appearance in "The Story of G.I. Joe," was devastated by the scandal. He reportedly said at the time: "Well, this is the bitter end of everything—my career, my marriage, everything." After serving his sentence, the actor returned to cinemas around the country with the title "Rachel and the Stranger," which instantaneously became a box-office hit.

1954: Aldous Huxley publishes "The Doors of Perception"

In one of his most significant works, author Aldous Huxley elaborates on his mescaline-induced psychedelic experiences. "The Doors of Perception" largely influenced how drugs, including marijuana, are perceived in arts, culture, and society. The book was a cog in the wheel to the Hippie movement of the next decade.

1969: "Easy Rider" premiers

Wyatt and Billy, played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, respectively, are two Harley-riding hippies that head to New Orleans to conclude a drug deal in the iconic title "Easy Rider" from 1969. The movie brings on the spirit of the decade's counterculture movement. An immediate success, it sparked a new era in American cinematography. 

"Easy Rider" is ranked second on this ultimate stoner movies list from Rotten Tomatoes. 

Woodstock kids.
A photo taken near the Woodstock venue on August 18, 1969. Photo credit: Ric Manning, CC BY 3.0

1969: "Woodstock" festival takes place 

The "Woodstock" festival most certainly symbolizes "the golden days" of cannabis culture. It was the event of the decade, if not the entire 20th-century when almost half a million people turned up at a dairy farm in Bethel, New York, where artists such as Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, and Joan Baez were scheduled to play. 

For young people, Woodstock represented an escapade of the harsh American reality. The Vietnam War was at its peak on the other side of the world. Then the longest war in American history, the average age of combat soldiers in Vietnam who typically served a 12-month duty was 19. During World War Two, the average age was 26. Paul Hardcastle later encapsulates these grim facts in his synthpop tune "19." 

Woodstock was a platform to send messages for peace and unity. The event became almost legendary in the decades since its happening. Smoking a lot of weed is just one bit of the hazy Woodstock history.

1972: The first Michigan Hash Bash

Under the Nixon administration in the 1970s, drug laws became more rigid and restrictive than ever. When Michigan-born author and political activist John Sinclair was put in jail for carrying two joints, people went out on the streets and protested the court decision in Ann Arbor in April 1972. The mass gathering eventually evolved into an annual event, known as the Ann Arbor Hash Bash, one of the first cannabis-centered events in the U.S.

The first Saturday of every April continues to be reserved for the annual Ann Arbor Hash Bash. By tradition, the event starts at noon at the University of Michigan. Today, Ann Arbor has advanced drugs laws and is one of few jurisdictions where hallucinogenic mushrooms have also been decriminalized.

1978: "Up in smoke" premiers 

This cinematographic gem of the 1970s follows Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong star as two young men who accidentally meet and share a spliff. The duo eventually forms a band and has a hit called "Earache My Eye." 

The movie is noted for its abundance of "dudes" dialogue, contributing to stoner vocabulary. Cheech and Chong today run their own cannabis brands called Chong's Choice and Cheech's Stash, respectively.

Grateful Dead concert ticket from the 1990s.
1990s memorabilia. Fortunately, this Grateful Dead ticket survived not to be made into filters. Photo credit: Msact, CC BY-SA 4.0

1990: The Grateful Dead helped establish 4/20

According to popular lore, the American rock band Grateful Dead is found guilty of popularizing 4/20, the unofficial marijuana holiday. There are many myths as to how 4/20 started. But this one story relates to a handbill that circulated concert crowds as they waited for The Grateful Dead to kick off their gig in Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. "We are going to meet at 4:20 on 4/20 for 420-ing," the piece of paper read.

"There's something magical about getting ripped at 4:20, when you know your brothers and sisters all over the country and even the planet are lighting up and toking up right along with you," the flyer said. "Now we are talking about the day of celebration, the real time to get stoned, the grandmaster of all holidays, 4/20 or April 20. This is when you must get the day off work or school."

Cannabis magazines eventually picked the story, and 4/20 became a thing.

1991: The first Hempfest in Seattle takes place

Originally known as the "Washington Hemp Expo," the first Seattle Hempfest took place in 1991 and was attended by an audience of around 500 people. The early Hempfests were known for blatant pot smoking. As many as 60 people were cited for the illegal use of marijuana at the 1997 edition of the event. Seattle's Hempfest has however grown into one of the world's biggest annual gatherings advocating the legalization of marijuana. Famous artists, politicians, and activists regularly headline the event, including Ohio congressman Dennis Kuchinch and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn in the 2011 edition of Hempfest.

1992: Dr. Dre releases "The Chronic"

Dr. Dre's debut solo album is named after a slang term for high-grade cannabis, and the album's cover art is an homage to Zig-Zag rolling papers. Perhaps what makes the record even more iconic is the significant guest contribution from a rapper who would a year later release his own debut album called "Doggystyle." Snoop Dogg today is probably the most famous person in the world who has crafted his own image around big fat king-size rolls.

Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog performing together on stage in 2012.
Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog performing together at Coachella in 2012. Photo credit: Jason Persse, CC BY-SA 2.0

1993: Alright, alright, alright, "Dazed and Confused" is out

Despite "Doggystyle" being released in 1993, Matthew McConaughey debuted as stoner David Wooder in "Dazed and Confused." The movie follows a high school story set in 1976, and in one of its more famous scenes, the teenage characters conclude George Washington smoked pot and cultivated his own at his home mansion. Ranking #1 at Rotten Tomatoes, "Dazed and Confused" is a quintessential stoner flick.

1998: "The Big Lebowski" debuts on the big screen

Jeff Bridges plays Jeffrey "the Dude" Lebowski in the cult crime comedy. The film has even led to the creation of "Dudeism," a religion devoted to spreading the principles and lifestyle of Big Lebowski. Also called "The Church of the Latter-Day Dude," Dudeism has reportedly converted over 200,000 "Dudeistt Priests" all over the world via an official website designated just for that. Of course, all of this totally sounds like something you come up with only when you're super high. Needless to say, to be ordained as a "Dude", you must love bowling and blowing weed.

In case you are interested in Dudeism, just take it easy, here's the website.

2000: Afroman releases "Because I Got High"

The turn of the millennia saw Afroman's ultimate ode to smoking weed conquer global charts. "Because I Got High" peaked the number one positions in Australia, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, and the UK.

The music video where Afroman is seen smoking next to Jay and Silent Bob made the song all the more iconic. This once-in-a-generation dope anthem depicts how Afroman has a plan to get his shit together in life, but after getting high, all he can do is sing the La da da da la da da la la da da.

2005: "Weeds" season 1 is out

The plot of "Weeds" revolves around a widowed mother of two, played by Mary-Louise Parker, who begins to sell pot so she can pay the bills and sustain her family. This American dark comedy aired from 2005 until 2012. Parker won at the Golden Globe Awards for Best Performance by a TV Actress in a Musical or Comedy in 2006.

The TV show glided America into a new era where cannabis became a welcome household commodity. Both for fun and as a medicine.

Stephen Andrews