This isn’t a list of the best movies to watch while you’re stoned, or even the best movies about people getting stoned—although every one of these films would belong on at least one of those lists, and several would belong on both. Instead, these are movies that in some way proved game-changing through cultural impact.
To burn through the most obvious example, Reefer Madness (1936) is actually terrible on every level. Not only is the infamous marijuana morality play’s description of cannabis as an “unspeakable scourge” laughably wrong, the story itself is way too long, incredibly boring, and endlessly repetitive, with wooden acting and barely passable production values.
But put all that aside and think of how useful the phrase “reefer madness” has become in pointing out the propensity of cannabis prohibitionists to propagate stories about the plant’s supposed harms so outlandish and illogical that we’ve literally been using the name of this super old movie like a meme since the 1970s to ridicule such nonsense.
And that’s not all—Reefer Madness also helped launch one of Hollywood’s largest production companies, and kickstarted the nation’s earliest cannabis legalization organization. All of which makes the oldest film on our list a definite game changer, one that was released less than ten years after the first “talkie” ended the silent movie era in Hollywood, not to mention a full year before the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 made cannabis federally illegal for the first time.
So what better place to begin our selective filmography of culture-shifting stoner flicks?
And just to prove this list doesn’t take itself too seriously, here’s a recipe for cannabutter to put on your popcorn.
Reefer Madness (1936)
The movie best known as Reefer Madness has had three very distinct lives, and at least as many titles.
First financed by a church group in Texas, and called Tell Your Children,it was originally conceived as a straight-forward plea to parents, all but begging them to put the fear of God into their kids when it comes to the Devil’s Lettuce.
But not long after a lackluster release, the film’s rights fell into the hands of notorious B-movie director Dwain Esper, who promptly re-cut the original footage to heavily emphasize sex, drugs, violence, and other cheap thrills. At the time, Hollywood had just implemented its infamous “production code,” which strictly limited the subjects major movie studios could depict in their films. But Esper—a life-long small-time independent operator—suffered under no such restrictions.
So like many others on the “exploitation circuit,” he specialized in stories that claimed to educate the masses about the terrible price to be paid for indulging in vice, while stealthily giving audiences a cultural license to see all of their naughty desires indulged in from the safety of a cinema seat.
The story of a (gasp!) unmarried couple who sell loose joints to local teenagers, then veers heavily to melodrama as everyone who smokes cannabis in the movie commit crimes, dies, goes insane, or potentially all three before the story ends with some heavy moralizing. Make no mistake, however, the crowds that came didn’t show up for the lecture, they came to be titillated and experience taboo.
The only problem was, nobody really liked it, and so an already obscure film soon fell completely off the map.
Until 1971, when Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), discovered a copy languishing in the Library of Congress. After paying $297 for a print of the film (which had fallen into the public domain), he screened it as part of a NORML legalization fundraiser, and for perhaps the first time ever, a movie was enjoyed ironically, to the tune of much derisive laughter.
Eventually, New Line Cinema founder Robert Shaye decided to put Reefer Madness out on the midnight movie circuit, paired with Martian Space, a half-hour sci-fi comedy. The implication that you were expected to arrive for this double-bill really stoned, or perhaps get stoned in the theater (hey, it was the 70s) couldn’t have been stronger. And at long last the film was a hit, with the profits giving a huge early boost to an upstart production company that later brought you the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Easy Rider (1969)
In many ways, Easy Rider was a bridge from the old exploitation circuit that spawned Reefer Madness to the incredible explosion of independent cinema that shook up Hollywood in the 1970s.
After all, “motorcycle pictures” had already been in heavy rotation for a few years by the time Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper roared onto the silver screen aboard growling choppers, and from a distance, the film appeared to be yet another small budget take on a familiar genre. Fonda had already played a biker in 1967’s The Wild Angels, and nobody expected anything much different or better than that forgettable film.But then the times and the talent combined to catch lightning in a bottle.
To this day, the legendary campfire scene—where Fonda and Hopper get a young, alcoholic ACLU lawyer (played by Jack Nicholson) stoned for the first time—stands among the most famous in American movie history. As assurances that cannabis is not addictive and a quick debunking of the gateway theory quickly give way to a heady late night discussion of aliens from Venus plotting to take over the planet, keep in mind that all three actors are smoking real cannabis on screen.
The Harder They Come (1972)
The first film ever made with an entirely Jamaican cast and crew, The Harder They Come stars Jimmy Cliff and has an incredible soundtrack that brought reggae music to a worldwide audience years before Bob Marley became an international sensation. Cliff plays a poor country boy who comes to the city and gets pulled first into the cut-throat (literally) music business of the era, then into the island’s thriving illegal ganja trade.
While there’s plenty of action and gunplay throughout, the film also takes a highly critical look at who benefits from the prohibition of cannabis, and who suffers the consequences.
Up in Smoke (1978)
Upon its release forty years ago, The Hollywood Reporter praised Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong’s first feature as “the most amusing pot movie since Reefer Madness.” More importantly—at least for the future of stoner cinema—a film the same review summarized as “a day in the life of two spaced-out freaks as they set out to score some weed” became a massive hit. Made for under a million dollars, it earned $44 million at the domestic box office, and spawned a mini-franchise of spiritual sequels featuring the ultimate, all-time stoner buddy comedy team.
Cheech and Chong had developed their characters over the course of a decade, in small clubs and on comedy albums, before getting their big break in the movies. By proving that a stoner comedy starring people of color could yield huge profits, they changed the game in more ways than one, and it’s never been the same since.
Up in Smoke also delivers the duo’s iconic “You mean we’re smoking dog shit, man?”scene. (And by the way, don’t smoke weed while you’re behind the wheel—also, here’s some science about stoned driving)
To Read The Rest Of This Article By David Bienenstock on Leafly
Published: July 13, 2018
Founder & Interim Editor of L.A. Cannabis News