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Prime Time Goes to Pot



Since the earliest days of the 20th century, there have been legal prohibitions against the use of marijuana. This legal disapprobation was generally accompanied by societal disapproval of the substance, at least until the late 1960s when an extensive drug subculture manifested itself and began to flourish. Yet even then, the enthusiasm for marijuana was an “underground” one, rarely acknowledged or even mentioned in mainstream entertainment (with the exception of some rock music).


This situation has altered in recent years. With the exception of the Cheech & Chong movie series, prior to the mid-1990s, “stoner films” glorifying the use of marijuana were rare; but popular culture since that time has seen an explosion of pot-themed movies. This trend shows no signs of abating; indeed, the new movie Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is set for release on Friday, April 25th. This film, a sequel to the 2004 picture Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, will again enlist teen viewers’ enthusiasm for the dope-smoking duo – an enthusiasm hyperbolically proclaimed on certain Internet sites. One Internet Movie Database commentator says that the movie’s “multicultural slackers” are “American every-men that we can all relate to…incredible human characters who are struggling with real challenges around parents, romance, friendship, the law, and race.” One wonders whether today’s teens and young adults universally agree that two moronic potheads are the finest representatives of their generation; but regardless, this movie will join many others in displaying a casual attitude toward marijuana consumption, if not actually glorifying it.


And where movies and other pop cultural phenomena tread, TV follows.


Television programming, like most other mainstream American popular culture, has generally avoided positive portrayals of drug use, especially by teens; but under the influence of other forms of entertainment, now TV is also taking a more casual attitude toward marijuana.  For many years, the stereotype of the use of marijuana by musicians has been a mainstay of late-night talk-show banter; but only relatively recently has such dialogue expanded to prime time.


That ‘70s Show, given its time-period setting and its obsession with the raciest and most counter-cultural elements of the era, made endless references to the use of marijuana. That program is still prominently to be found in reruns on local and various cable channels. Newer shows have done nothing to diminish the enthusiasm for marijuana.


In an extended storyline last November on the CW network’s teen-targeted sex series Gossip Girl, teenager Nate’s father was shown to be a cocaine abuser. Nate’s mother was in denial, and later blamed Nate for his father’s drug problem, saying that Nate’s misbehavior caused his father’s stress. And on the March 3rd episode, Blair complains about her mother using a hookah at a Moroccan-themed party by asking, “Why do you have to celebrate by turning our penthouse into an opium den?” Blair’s mother callously replies, “Why not?” Such scenes demonstrate that drug use is a bad thing, and portrays teens as noble and virtuous for opposing the use of drugs by their parents.


However, the program has also multiple instances of teen drug use without any stigma attached to such behavior. On the September 19th episode, Chuck asks Nate if he wants to go get some "fresh air" and mimics smoking a marijuana joint.  Blair pulls Nate away, causing him to tell Chuck he will smoke pot with him later. And in a later episode in the series, several teens are shown passing a joint around.


Gossip Girl rightly condemns parental use of drugs like cocaine, pointing out the tremendous harm drug use can cause -- but then assumes that underage teens drinking and smoking marijuana is harmless and normal.


The latest example of the casual attitude towards marijuana use on television occurred on the April 17th episode of the formerly family-friendly but now louche NBC comedy My Name Is Earl. This program has gone to pot in more ways than one in recent seasons – but never more literally than in this episode, which finds Earl’s father Earl Sr. narrating a flashback which shows how an encounter with a would-be drug dealer’s satchel of marijuana caused comedic hijinks (such as Earl’s mother cutting off and trying to eat her own hair). But while throughout lip service is paid to the fact that marijuana is illegal, nevertheless it is shown to be a positive influence. At the end of the episode, Earl Sr. reveals that the dope-filled incident made him happy, because buying from the drug dealer gave him a chance to become a hero – with the result that, indirectly, marijuana was a beneficial presence in his life.


In addition to the many moments portraying marijuana use as comedic and not harmful, this episode offered an additional wink to the pro-marijuana crowd. Like the upcoming Harold & Kumar movie, the Earl episode was released as nearly as possible to the date April 20th – the number “420” being drug subculture code for marijuana use.


Thus prime-time television has joined the growing enthusiasm for portraying marijuana use as harmless and even beneficial – even among teens. For parents concerned about their children’s health and the possible ill effects of such use, this trend is one more source of concern…and one more way the entertainment industry makes being a parent a greater challenge than ever.

TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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