We've come a long way since Cheech and Chong's 1978 movie "Up in Smoke" single-handedly created the stoner stereotype. How marijuana use is portrayed on the big screen is rapidly changing. Gone are the days of a faded Matthew McConaughey slowly drawling "Alright, alright" while checking out some underage tail. While Hollywood has done more than its fair share to perpetuate the stoner stereotype, real-life celebrities and Hollywood culture are now reflecting a much more modern, sophisticated smoker.
Cheech and Chong officially made it okay to move past the "reefer madness" era of anti-pot propaganda and laugh at the humor that a light (or heavy) toasting can provide. Still, the stoners that we fell in love with in the '80s and '90s all pretty much fell within a slim margin of stereotypes.
Societal losers, layabouts, idiots, surfer brahs or complete fucking lunatics—pot smokers in film were on the fringe. At his chillest, the stoner was Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. At his worst, the pot smoker was Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; sure, he was packing two bags of grass, but Depp's stoner was an overall drug enthusiast. His character linked pot with a plethora of other, harder drugs, reinforcing the whole "gateway drug" mentality for audiences everywhere.
It wasn't until the late nineties and early 2000s that the stoner would come in from the Hollywood fringes and start to be celebrated in their own right. Yeah, he was still a dude. And yeah, he was a bit of a dud. In 2000, Ashton Kutcher and Sean William Scott searched for their car (and their girlfriends' approval) while occasionally taking tokes with their cool guru friend. Harold and Kumar went to White Castle in 2004, putting marijuana at the center of a plot where the goal was simple: cheeseburgers.
An important shift in how cannabis users were portrayed occurred when Judd Apatow came on the scene. He made Seth Rogen and his bros the unofficial kings of the stoners, launching the recreational marijuana user into the mainstream. He was still a screw up most of the time, but he could hold down a job and even solve semi-complex problems when he put his mind to it. The stoner was finally awarded a layer of human complexity, one that would grow in Hollywood over the following decade.
Off-screen, the recreational stoner has gained significant clout in the Hollywood Hills. Rihanna smokes and is still allowed to be an ultra-successful artist and public figure. Famous faces like Snoop, Willie Nelson and Wiz Khalifa are cashing in on celebrity weed brands the same way that Diddy once did with booze. Smoking pot would have once relegated these figures to the stereotype of lazy, snack-driven goofs in the Hollywood public eye; but not anymore.
If you want to realize just how far we've come, consider Miley Cyrus's performance at the 2015 VMAs. It may not have been an exemplar of artistry, but it speaks volumes that afterwards, commenters were more concerned about her insane outfit than the fact that Miley smokes—a fact made painstakingly obvious as she sang "Yeah, I smoke pot/Yeah, I love peace/But I don’t give a fuck/I ain’t no hippie."
This celebration of marijuana use is still part of an alternative culture, but the fact that someone like Miley Cyrus, whose career was born in the bosom of the Disney machine, can take up that mantle proves the point: the Hollywood stoner has evolved.
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Today, the on-screen stoner can be anyone. Zac Efron smokes at a frat party in Neighbors; Selena Gomez takes a toke in Spring Breakers. Smoking doesn't have to be a character's main personality trait or part of a hilarious side-adventure. More and more, in Hollywood as in mainstream society, cannabis culture is becoming just another part of the scene.