Marijuana In America: History, Culture And People

History, Culture And People

Photo: Getty Images

For some, it’s a way to relax or relieve pain; to others its a dangerous and addictive drug. Whatever your thoughts on marijuana, it’s hard to deny the impact it has had in American culture and history. In this slideshow, we take a look at different people, laws and films that played a role in shaping marijuana's image in the minds of Americans.

George Washington/Thomas Jefferson

Photo: AP

Both presidents grew hemp—a sister plant to marijuana used mainly as a fiber crop—on their farms. George Washington grew the crop on his plantation, Mount Vernon, near Alexandria, Va. to make fabrics and rope, according to Historic Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson did the same at his Monticello estate outside Charlottesville, Va, according to historians at Monticello. Both presidents wrote numerous letters about the advantages of growing the crop for fabrics, here's one written by Washington and click here to read several notes written by Jefferson.

"Reefer Madness"

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This government propaganda film was released in 1936, exaggeraing the dangers of the drug to warn parents and children of cannabis use. A musical satire was released in 2005 on a TV cable channel.

Making It Illegal

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The first step to criminalizing the drug was 1937 Marijuana Act that put a tax on marijuana. Those who didn’t pay the high taxes could be arrested and/or fined. In 1969, the 1937 Act was ruled unconstitutional, leading to marijuana being added to the Controlled Substance Act in 1970, making it outright illegal.


Photo: Bill Eppridge|Time & Life Pictures|Getty Images

One of the most famous music events in history, the 1969 event in Bethel, N.Y. brought together some 500,000 people for three days of peace, love, music and marijuana. Some reports at the time said about nine in ten people were smoking marijuana at the concert. Of course, there was a little LSD use too.

State By State Guide: New York Marijuana Facts

"Easy Rider"

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In the 1969 movie, two bikers, played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, take a road trip filled with marijuana and LCD use, meeting Jack Nicholson along the way. In October 2009, Fonda told celebrity news program “Extra” that real marijuana was used in the campfire scene where Nicholson’s character tries pot for the first time. The movie soundtrack was something of a hit and featured one of the songs on our marijuana quiz.


Photo: Carol Moore

Founded in 1970, NORML—the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws—works to decriminalize marijuana for adults. More recently, its sister organization, the NORML Foundation, debuted an ad on March 2010 in New York City’s Times Square with a message that legalizing marijuana could add much needed tax revenue.

Vietnam War

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Daily marijuana use among soldiers stationed in Vietnam reached 14 percent, according to a 1971 Department of Defense survey.

Cheech And Chong

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The pot-loving comedy duo Cheech and Chong released several marijuana-related movies and comedy albums in the 70s and 80s such as 1978's "Up in Smoke" and the 1972 album "Big Bambu."

Oregon Decriminalizes Marijuana

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Oregon became the first state to decriminalize small amounts of non-medical marijuana in 1973. Those caught with small amounts of the drug paid only a fine.

State by State Guide: Oregon Marijuana Facts

Drug Enforcement Administration

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The DEAwas founded in 1973 by then-President Richard Nixon to combat drug use and distribution in the United States and around the world.

"Fast Times at Richmond High"

Photo: Refugee Films

Actor Sean Penn played stoner and surfer Jeff Spicoli in this 1982 comedy, at one point saying: "All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz and I'm fine."

Partner Ship For A Drug Free America

Photo: Partnership For a Drugfree America

The organization was started in 1986 and released its first, and one of their most successful, anti-drug commercial a year later—showing a man frying an egg in a pan saying, “This is your brain on drugs.” Other memorable ads followed including one in 1991 that featured the then popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles warning children against marijuana use: "Drug dealers are dorks," declared one of the characters.

Bill Clinton

Photo: Chris Wilkins|AFP|Getty Images

Asked during the 1992 presidential campaign whether he ever smoked pot, Clinton famously answered: “When I was in England, I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it, and didn’t inhale; and never tried it again.”

"Dazed And Confused"

Photo: Alphaville Films

This 1993 movie, staring Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck, followed a group of pot-smoking teenagers on their last day of high school in 1976.

"Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle"

Photo: New Line Cinema

In this 2004 comedy, two stoners, played by John Cho and Kal Penn, go on a hunt for a White Castle after watching a commercial for the fast food restaurant while smoking marijuana.



This Showtime television series, which began airing in 2005, follows a single mother (Mary-Louise Parker) who sells marijuana in her suburban community.

Barack Obama

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During his campaign for the 2008 election President Obama had a decidedly different answer than Bill Clinton on whether he ever smoked marijuana, “When I was a kid I inhaled frequently,” said Obama. “That was the point.”

Michael Phelps

Photo: News Of The World

British tabloid News of the World published a photograph of the Olympian inhaling from a marijuana pipe at a house party in early 2009. Phelps quickly released a statement apologizing for his behavior and promised, “It will not happen again.”