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High Maintenance: “The Stoner” Through the Ages

"The Stoner" is a hazy but crucial figure in the development of American counterculture. Today, the Stoner aesthetic is synonymous with a low-energy, hippie-esque vibe, cherry-glazed eyes, and wafted by the pervasive stench of "skunk." The Stoner's reputation has fluctuated with the popular perception of cannabis. In recent years, opinion on the "pot smoker" has been on the upswing as more Americans push for legalization and decriminalization on a federal level. 

But how did weed culture start in America, and what was the initial public perception of those who chose to be the first to fly high?

1700s - 1920: Hemp-ful Beginnings

It's important to note that cannabis cultivation has been around since the 17th century, when Jamestown settlers grew the plant to use hemp for rope and woven clothing, among other uses. Even the father of our nation, George Washington, participated in the cultivation of hemp. Benjamin Franklin is also rumored to have indulged in a pipeful of pot from his hemp plantation. The 19th century saw a significant uptick in cannabis plantations appearing throughout the states, bringing in substantial revenue for the country. 

During the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexican immigrants began seeking asylum in the U.S., in turn creating a new revolution-- a cannabis revolution (or reefer madness, but we'll get into that). Mexican immigrants introduced the general public to the casual smoke; the drug's psychoactive properties were enticing for those becoming bored of the usual opiate and benzedrine-laced confections. 

With Prohibition rearing its sober head, people began searching for a new way to get a buzz going… legally, of course. At this point, cannabis was not considered a "drug," as it was still lauded for its medicinal properties. Then, things got jazzy.

1920s - 1939: Reefer Madness

New Orleans became the epicenter of the Jazz Age, bringing with it a sense of freedom and spontaneity not yet nurtured in social culture. Speakeasies began cropping up all over the country, allowing for alcohol and cannabis to be consumed in tandem with live jazz. 

Championed by the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Louis Armstrong, paired with the drug's notable use for getting into the improvisational mindset, the plant became synonymous with the groove of jazz. Becoming the quintessential substance for the new sound of the underground came with a mixed public perception. The mythicized jazzy underbelly of New Orleans bore rumors of prostitutes, criminals, and deviants littering the streets. The reputation of cannabis smokers quickly began trending downward as-- record scratch-- the Great Depression began.

Disillusioned Americans desperately sought a scapegoat for the economic decline of their once-prosperous country. The influx of Mexican and Spanish-speaking immigrants became one of those targets. Their use of cannabis, now popularly referred to as "marijuana/marihuana," to exemplify the plant's un-Americanness was juxtaposed in the media as polluting our American way of life with their foreign drugs inciting "violent crimes and a "lust for blood."

By 1931, 29 states banned the use of "marijuana." The release of the 1936 film Reefer Madness contributed to the overwhelming fear of the "Marijana Menace." The movie follows a group of high schoolers who become addicted to the plant after succumbing to peer pressure, resulting in hallucinations and the aforementioned blood lust rampage. The "pot smokers" in the film are represented as twitchy, angry, unpredictable, and incomprehensible, much like how we in modern times would describe someone under the influence of meth or bath salts. The movie ends with a warning directed at parents to "TELL YOUR CHILDREN" about the dangers of pot. Though initially created as an anti-marijuana P.S.A., the film became a cult classic upon its rediscovery in the 1970s. President Nixon, eat your heart out.

In 1937, the Marijuana Tax Act was imposed to socially purify the nation, marking the beginning of serious crackdowns on the drug.

1940s: The Come Up

The 1940s were a transitory time, marking the end of the Great Depression and the birth of the iconic "Hipster" counterculture. Fueled by the jive of jazz, kitted up with snazzy suits and pork pie hats, and a casual smoke in hand (tobacco? cannabis? who wants to know, Jack?), the hipster, or hepcat, were the quintessential trend makers of the decade. Often considered to be the group that popularized the use of AAVE as a counterculture hallmark.

Inspired by the freedom of the jazz lifestyle, white middle-class youth joined the underground scene, emulating the lives and lingo of famous black artists. Notable influences of the time were Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Bing Crosby, and Chet Baker, who are all reported to have smoked a reefer here and there. 

The consumption of certain music, and in turn, drugs, marked a clear social distinction between hepcats and "squares." Squares walked the straight and narrow. No smoking or drugs, no premarital sex (lest God sees), and, for all things good and pure, absolutely no jazz! 

World War II marked a dramatic shift in the cultural zeitgeist. A political fire was ignited among all artists in the nation, leading to a profound shift in spirituality. The youth, using the impulse of jazz as their rally call, sought to untether themselves from the American convention, and with it came a massive influx of creative protest—with a bit of help from mind-enhancing substances, of course.

1950s: The Beats and Grass

By 1953, the Oxford English Dictionary added "Stoned," cementing the term in popular culture, giving the moniker "Stoner" its first proper distinction. 

Stricter, more severe drug laws followed in the 1950s. The Boggs Acts of 1952 and Narcotics Control Act of 1956 saw the first possession charges resulting in jail time and a hefty fine of $20,000 (totaling nearly $26,000 today). But that did little to stop the Beats.

Dawned in black clothing, turtlenecks, berets, and sunglasses at all hours, the Beatnik could usually be found carrying heady books, spouting poetry at anyone who would listen, and smoking a bit of grass in Washington Square Park. Nihilistic and heretical, the Beats faced mounting criticism from the older," lost" generation, who considered them to be a vulgar and dirty representation of all that was wrong with "the youth of today" (see: Beatnik Beauty Makeover). 

The Beats were the tea-smoking, hitchhiking, poetic historians of post-war America. Stifled emotionally by the taxing wartime effort, the heteronormative, white picket fence, fear of damnation, and cookie-cutter suit-and-tie mentality did not fit in with their vision of what the future could or should be. Disillusioned by their parent's American Dream, the beats invented their own private Americana-- filled with jazz, eastern religion, philosophy, and, you guessed it, pot. Beatnik writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burrough, Michael McClure, Amiri Baraka, Anne Waldman, and Diane DiPrirma were incredibly influential in inspiring the youth to reject the status quo, embrace themselves as individuals part of a greater, more spiritual plan. It should come as no surprise that this was around the time that the use of psychedelic drugs like L.S.D., mescaline, and peyote began seeping into counterculture ways. 

The use of marijuana, or "grass," as some liked to call it, was crucial to understanding beatitude. Beatnik literature was rhythmically in sync with the bop of jazz; many live poetry readings were backed with an accompanying improvisational jazz band. Much of the popular Beatnik literature was written in the throes of a drug-induced frenzy, similar to the union of jazz and pot in the 20s and 30s. Both were crucial in each other's social development, as is the case with jazz and the beats, sharing the same fever for spontaneity and rebellion. The same energy followed pot's counterculture perception through the 1960s and 1970s. Beatnik authors and poets inspired artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, helping to spawn the folk genre and its call for radical social change.

1960s - 1970s: Rolling Stoned

Grab your flower crowns and anti-establishment values; we are now entering the quintessential stoner era! Building off the Beatnik subculture, the hippies of the 1960s and 1970s did away with the nihilistic vibe of the hipsters and Beats by preaching a new pacifist mantra of "peace and love." Liberation from gender and social norms, plus a vehement anti-war ethos (especially once the Vietnam War began), were the pervasive ideologies picked up from the previous decade.

The aesthetic antithesis of the Beatnik, the traditional hippie, was stereotyped as wearing free-flowing garments, bell-bottom pants, long beards, and even longer hair, was colorful in design and personality, and had a keen emphasis on naturalism. 

Just like jazz in the 20s and 50s, the music of the time greatly influenced youth culture. Bands and artists popular around this time include The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, The Doors, and a little-known group called the Beatles; ever heard of 'em? This music, alongside the surviving Beat Gen. voices, inspired the festivals and sit-ins that contributed to the anti-establishment angst synonymous with the era. Events such as the Human Be-In and Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, the Love Pageant Rally (on the day L.S.D. became illegal), and Woodstock were all blanketed in the familiar haze of marijuana smoke. These events helped to display the tremendous power of the hippie community and just how widespread this ideology and decree for change had fanned.

It was the hippies that first began popularizing the use of other more "hardcore" drugs such as L.S.D., peyote, and heroin; to them, marijuana was child's play compared to face-melting psychedelia. As a result, this generation was more so inspired by hallucinogens rather than cannabis. But that did not stop the fiendish "dope-smoker" from being labeled a menace to society, as, by this point, the drug had become the embodiment of counterculture itself. Being a generation of "free love" and "flower power," parents and old folks alike were mortified by the decline in morality and piety. 

By 1970, the government had implemented the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Control Act, which repealed a lot of the harsh punishments for marijuana possession that were initially implemented in the 50s; that is not to say that the drug was decriminalized. That same year, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was founded, helping to decategorize pot from other, harder substances. In 1971, President Nixon named drugs as "America's public enemy number one." Proceeding and later influencing Reagen's "War on Drugs." Decades later, John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic policy advisor, came out publicly claiming that the war on drugs was explicitly created to undermine the anti-war movement and America's 

African-American population. 1973 saw the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency (D.E.A.). 

By the late 70s, President Carter tried to push Congress for some level of decriminalization; however, by 1976, a massive movement of parents protested and lobbied against it, resulting in stricter laws being implemented. Sometime in the early 70s, marijuana first became labeled as a "gateway drug." Ironic that those same people pushing for anti-marijuana legislation did not see an issue with alcohol and tobacco… which were eventually referred to as the original "gateway drugs"... ce la vie.

1980s-90s: War on the "War on Drugs"

As stricter drug laws tightened their grip on all the fun and the hippies started to grow up, the 80s marked a dark time for counter-culturalists. Data from the National Library of Medicine shows that in some age groups, daily marijuana consumption went down some 30%. 

During his campaign, Reagan called marijuana "the most dangerous drug in the nation." It should not come as a surprise when, in 1986, President Reagan implemented the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, bringing back the 50s-style punishments for possession and distribution, helping bolster Nixon's previous racist drug policies. The act made possession of a certain amount of marijuana just as legally reprehensible as possessing the same amount of heroin, even enforcing the death penalty for those labeled as "drug kingpins." 

4 years prior, First Lady Nancy Reagen told children to "Just Say No" in response to peer pressure; groundbreaking, isn't it? While Nancy toured schools and rehabs nationwide preaching "Just Say No," she inevitably garnered criticism, with many asserting that just saying no was not enough. 

Similarly, the D.A.R.E. Program, or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, created in 1989, was another one of those initiatives added to school curriculums that, ultimately, did nothing to curb adolescent and adult drug abuse. It was later found that those who were compulsorily educated through D.A.R.E. and "Just Say No" curricula were more likely to try substances as they got older. 

Though cannabis use was on a national decline thanks to Reagan's prohibition-esk laws, musicians, artists, and actors did not slow down their cannabinoid consumption. Cheech and Chong produced 6 cult-classic movies surrounding their marijuana lifestyle, cementing their place among stoner royalty. Speaking of, it was during this decade that Dr. Dre discovered Snoop Dogg, marking the beginning of his prolific rap career and, with it, his still infamous reputation as a pot savant. 

Rebellion against Reagan's attempt at quashing drugs in youth culture helped to breed a new genre of musical defiance. A blend of both psychedelic/acid rock and heavy metal, Stoner Rock (or sometimes called Stoner Metal) is characterized by its distorted mid-tempo sound, heavy guitar and bass riffs, and its trademark hypnotic chords that seem to transport the listener into a "zoned-out" state similar to smoking a little too much weed. Popular bands include Sleep (whose 60-minute track Dopesmoker is truly a feat to behold), Weedeater, Electric Fire, Kyuss, and later Queens of the Stone Age.

Hip-hop and Punk, both heavily influenced by countercultures of the past decades, joined in criticizing unnecessary and racist drug laws. The hip-hop world specifically had major players like Chuck D, the Wu-Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G, Eminem, and Method Man all promoting cannabis as an influence on their music and lifestyle; even as cocaine started to replace cannabis in mainstream popularity. Punk Rock devoted itself to all things shock-value, with groups like Green Day and the Butthole Surfers referring reefers in their music, interviews, and personal brands. 

1996 marked the first truly progressive cannabis law. California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana strictly for people suffering from severe and terminal illnesses such as AIDs and cancer. Later that year, Arizona passed a similar law. The waves of changes have just begun to crash onto the American shoreline.

2000- 2010: Legalization Nation

Decriminalization in California and Arizona was the catalyst for the mass acceptance and widespread use of marijuana. More and more information was hitting the mainstream on pot's medicinal properties, specifically with chronic and mental illnesses and pain management. It also helped that plant cultivation had become much more sophisticated with the hybridization of different, more potent strains. A 2012 study done by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (O.N.D.C.P.) and RAND found that from 2006 to 2010, cannabis use had increased by 30% while cocaine use decreased by almost 50%, part, and parcel due to cannabis's increased potency and access. It is through these more refined growing methods that a proper culture began forming around cannabis, and not cannabis forming around culture like in previous decades.

The newfound "cannabis culture" infiltrated popular media, with shows, movies, and music showing the drug in a "positive," albeit goofy, light. Gone are the days of the bloodthirsty "Marijuana Menace," now we get to watch James Franco and Seth Rogan lose brain cells in 2008's Pineapple Express. These so-called "Stoner Comedies" were quintessential in the zeitgeist, with many youths drawing fashion inspiration from the films. Popular sub-groups of the time were the skater-kids who wore cargo or wide-leg pants, loose-fitting graphic tees, baseball or trucker hats, and big name-brand sneakers, and the grunge-heads, a more casual off-shoot of goth, all influenced by popular media and drug culture. Even if they didn't smoke weed, to look like you did infer a sense of coolness among peers.  

In 2012, Colorado and Washington state became the first U.S. states to fully legalize the recreational use of cannabis, marking a seismic shift in acceptance. By the end of the 2010s, 27 states and D.C. had decriminalized the drug.

2020s: Hooked on Chronic

The domino effect began in the late 1990s and was accelerated by the internet, resulting in our current era of progressive cannabis regulation. As of publication, 24 states have legalized recreational use, 14 have legalized medical use (with 5 also decriminalizing recreational use), 2 just decriminalized, and only 10 remain entirely illegal. 

The internet's prevalence in youth culture helped to dispel old rumors parents had once spread about marijuana. Add to that the unseriousness of the internet; it won't take a casual scroller long to find memes referencing pot or other drugs. 

Celebrities are even launching their own cannabis or cannabis-related brands, like Seth Rogan and his brand Houseplant, which produces ceramic and glass ashtrays, stash jars, rolling trays, and grinders. Cannabis influencers on social media help promote new strains, CBD products, and the newest innovations in smoking. Cannabis culture has transcended subculture, becoming a lucrative and popular business in itself. 

Smoking is well on track to becoming just another American pass-time. Dispensaries (legal or not) have been popping up across all major cities. By 2024, the U.S. cannabis industry is expected to surpass $40 billion. 

We are at a point where you can smoke a joint anywhere you can smoke a cigarette. "The stoner" of the past is your coworker, friend, teacher, or boss today. With this newfound social acceptance, the identity of the "stoner" is threatened by mundanity. The daily smoker, the casual toker, blends into one as weed becomes more and more accessible.

Written by Daniella Fishman

Photography by Mark Bluemle

Production Assistance: Laura Mernagh

Talent: Sophia Querrazzi


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