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We live in a nation in which marijuana use is tolerated, accepted, sanctioned, and even celebrated to a degree that would have shocked Americans not so long ago. Once, Bill Clinton was compelled to deny having inhaled; today, young people feel no compunction about openly inhaling on city sidewalks, inside department stores, and seemingly everywhere else.

Who, or what, bears responsibility for this sad state of affairs? Surely the widespread legalization of marijuana—initially under the pretext of its alleged medical benefits, later on the more honest grounds that its users like to get high without getting busted—bears the blame. But attitudes changed before laws, and attitudes, in this society, are often shaped by movies.

In assigning blame, then, we must turn to stoner comedies, especially the sort that make marijuana users, at worst, lovable losers and, at best, nonchalant dudes who seem to have it all figured out. Consider just a few: Dazed and Confused (1993), Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), Knocked Up (2007), Pineapple Express (2008), and, of course, the most beloved of them all, The Big Lebowski (1998). Some of these movies actively promoted marijuana use as a ticket to happiness; others merely included it as a harmless feature of their characters’ lives. But they all helped to wear down audiences’ shock at the open, uninhibited smoking of dope.

Drug use is not a novel subject for Hollywood, although openly reveling in drug use is. The notorious 1936 exploitation film Reefer Madness aimed to expose marijuana as an agent of mayhem among a cast of high school–age characters, responsible for sending its users into states of agitation, apoplexy, and anxiety. Because of its overripe plot—which involves characters committing assorted felonies while high—Reefer Madness was, decades later, repurposed as a cult object to scoff at by the pro-marijuana crowd. However, with credible links now established between cannabis use and schizophrenia, perhaps the movie ought to be credited for its prescience.

Drug addiction was handled with greater seriousness and solemnity in midcentury Hollywood productions such as Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) and Andre de Toth’s Monkey on My Back (1957). Following the maxim of “love the sinner, hate the sin,” the protagonists in these films were worthy of pity and compassion but never envy. Their habit was ruinous but not alluring, in much the same manner as the great alcoholism melodramas, like Blake Edwards’s Days of Wine and Roses (1962).

Eventually, the collapse of Production Code–era censorship unburdened Hollywood of its previous moral restraints. Still, the best movies used this loosening of limits not to glamorize drug use but to show the full extent of its destructive power. For example, in Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 drama The Panic in Needle Park, Bobby (Al Pacino) and Helen (Kitty Winn) are heroin addicts whose addiction is not only ugly, unpleasant, and vile on its face, but also commits them to a life of indigence, itinerancy, and zombie-like stagnancy. Sometimes it seems that only divine intervention could save them from their habit, and indeed the original poster to the movie read: “God Help Bobby and Helen.” Co-written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, this is a grave, despairing film.

By the late 1970s, though, the purported innocuousness of marijuana invited a wave of stoner comedies, including the Cheech and Chong series: Up in Smoke (1978), Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie (1980), Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams (1981), and so on. Cheech and Chong were obvious oddballs—zonked ex-hippies who were likely to be laughed at by suburban audiences—but their effect was corrosive over time. The deleterious effects of marijuana on one’s health and character were obscured by the seemingly harmless hijinks of these movies and others that inundated theaters by the late 1990s. 

Remarkably, in a single year during that decade—1998—no fewer than four marijuana-centric comedies were released by major studios. In the manner of the Cheech and Chong comedies, Half Baked, starring Saturday Night Live’s Jim Breuer and a young Dave Chappelle, rendered marijuana use harmless by embedding it in an idiotic comic context. Homegrown, starring Billy Bob Thornton, presented marijuana cultivators as sympathetic protagonists in a crime comedy, while Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, with Johnny Depp in an incarnation of Hunter S. Thompson, made drug use more generally an essential feature of being a hip gonzo journalist. 

The most culturally damaging of this crop of stoner comedies, though, was the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, starring Jeff Bridges as the Dude, a likeably laidback loser and perpetual dopehead. The Big Lebowski offered a near-beatific vision of marijuana use: For the Dude, smoking a joint was the principal means by which he attained a state of imperturbable tranquility. Because they are uniformly awful, many stoner comedies are quickly forgotten—as transient as marijuana smoke—but this movie has had dangerous staying power.

Through the popularity of individual scenes and bits of dialogue (“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man”), the film has become embedded in our culture, familiar even to many who have never seen it from start to finish. And for those who know it backwards and forwards, the movie comes with the trappings of an alternate lifestyle: There are Big Lebowski–themed beer tastings—at which, one suspects, more than just beer is consumed—and more than twenty Big Lebowski–themed books, including The Big Lebowski and PhilosophyGot Any Kahlua: The Collected Recipes of the Dude, and The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski

When The Big Lebowski came out, it was not obvious that the marijuana liberalization playing out on-screen would actually play out in real life. “I just think that the humor in The Big Lebowski is uninspired,” said Gene Siskel on his movie review program Siskel & Ebert in March of 1998. “Jeff Bridges’s character wasn’t worth my time. There is no heart to him.” Nowadays, though, the Dude no longer merely abides; the Dude sets the agenda. 

We cannot blame stoner comedies for a society overrun by cannabis, but all the same, we cannot forget that human beings are followers. If we see someone commit bad behavior, we are likely to excuse our own bad behavior; and if we see a wretched habit again and again presented as a pretext for easygoing humor, we are likely to regard it in such a manner, too. Comedies intrinsically simplify and soften their subject matter; to laugh at a stoner is often to cease to be afraid of becoming one. Yes, movies reflect culture, but they also modify attitudes and help justify actions.

The friendliness of the Dude, the alleged wisdom of his sayings, and the undeniable creativity of the Coen Brothers—it all makes “living like Lebowski,” and marijuana itself, seem just fine and dandy. Of course, it is anything but, and The Big Lebowski and its kind deserve a share of the blame for our present state of affairs. Gene Siskel was right: There is no heart in this movie, only a roadmap for confused souls looking to turn on, tune in, and drop out.

Peter Tonguette, a contributing writer at the Washington Examiner magazine, writes for the Wall Street JournalNational Review, and the American Conservative

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Image by Skalle-Per Hedenhös licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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