“I want you, for the U.S. army”, “We Can Do It!”, “V for Victory”—all of these have something specific in common; when heard they bring to mind iconic images of Uncle Sam, Rosie the Riveter, and a simple hand sign used by an entire force to motivate and mobilize victory in the second world war. However, when it comes to the word “propaganda” many people focus on a feeling or feelings of negative influence, manipulation, even dishonesty. But as critical viewers of propaganda we know this is not necessarily always the case. It is our job and our interest to analyze propaganda and see that it is nothing more than the systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party in order to encourage or instill a particular attitude or response.

We often associate propaganda with posters during war, rallying troops for a better tomorrow. And although an important and prominent use of propaganda techniques, another important use of propaganda is demonization. While there are many forms of demonization, this article will focus on the demonization of marijuana and marijuana use starting in 1930s American popular culture and continuing through the 20th century. It is important to note that when approaching a topic such as the demonization of marijuana it is likely one will find and need to wade through conspiracy theories galore. And while easy to get wrapped up in them or to believe the first thing you read, I urge you to move past that stage and use your knowledge of propaganda and media literacy to help guide your research.

Core Concepts:

For thousands of years the use of cannabis was common practice in the Americas as a form of a traditional, medicinal botanical[1]. However, in 1800s North America, there was a crucial shift in the definition of “medicine” and further a shift in the definition of “doctor.”[2] Traditional healers were soon discredited in favor of hard scientists and cannabis moved from a widely accepted form of pain relief, among other uses, into the realm of soft science, based not on scientific discovery but “subjective experience”[3]. Although these shifts did not create a wide sweeping call for an end to the use of cannabis, it did plant seeds for future movements and the ultimate demonization of marijuana.

The move to demonize marijuana did not come until the 1930s after the creation of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. In 1930 Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, turned the attention of his agency to the move against marijuana, or as it was referred to the “weed with roots in hell.[4]” One major tactic exercised by his agency was the spread of the story of Victor Licata. Licata, know as the “Marihuana Fiend” and the “Kid With the Axe” was a young man from Florida accused and found guilty of murdering his father, mother, two brothers, and sister while under the influence of and severe addiction to marijuana. Licata’s case was paraded throughout American households and used as a prime testimony by Anslinger during the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. While, according to history and doctors at the time, it is unclear if marijuana led to Licata’s psychosis, it is clear that Licata had a history of mental illness in his family and police reports show an attempt by local police to institutionalize Licata before his family convinced officials to withdraw a year before the fatal incident[5]. Although there was not conclusive evidence to the role marijuana played in the Licata case, the panic over the weed from hell spread through American households.

Pulp-fiction novels depicted loose and easy women who could be persuaded by anyone.

In addition to the stories and press surrounding marijuana, the release of the film Reefer Madness in 1938 capitalized on the hysteria and portrayed “immoral acts” under the influence of marijuana including suicide, attempted rape, and descent into insanity[6]. Following this there was a significant rise in anti-marijuana propaganda. This included posters portraying cannabis users as promiscuous, violent, and corrupted. Dime-store pulp fiction depicted un-virginal women, addicted to marijuana[7] and shady men enticing women to shoot up with syringes of misery[8].

Demonization of marijuana and those who use it continued through the 1960s and were brought back into the public view with President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs. In 1970 the Controlled Substances Act was enacted. This act introduced “Schedules for ranking substances according to their dangerousness and potential for addiction.”[9] At the time marijuana was temporarily categorized as part of the group most dangerous drugs, Schedule 1. President Nixon commissioned a report for a recommendation as to whether or not marijuana should stay in Schedule 1 or be moved to a lower, less severe category. The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse commissioned by President Richard M. Nixon in March, 1972 officially suggested that marijuana for personal use be decriminalized, stating: “Considering the range of social concerns in contemporary America, marihuana does not, in our considered judgment, rank very high. We would deemphasize marihuana as a problem,”[10] However, marijuana remained a Schedule 1 categorized substance.

The major signifiers and visual symbols used in mid-century media portrayals of marijuana and marijuana users resurfaced with the continuation of the war on drugs and the rise in interest about drugs from the American public. With the introduction of campaigns such as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” movement came PSA commercials showing the transformation of innocent young men into sketchy potheads. The United States also saw massive increases of incarceration rates with increases in the allotted budget for the war on drugs. Demonization by the government of marijuana and marijuana users increased[11].

Today the cultural narratives the depict marijuana users have persisted from their emergence in the 1930s, their surge in the 1950s and their return in the 1980s. Marijuana users are depicted as sloppy, disorganized, and consistently in a marijuana-induced haze.


Panned by critics as one of the worst films ever made, Reefer Madness capitalized on fear to create the popular movie. This first example of anti-marijuana propaganda is the trailer for the 1938 film. In it you can see classic demonization of the users as amoral, sex-crazed, and ultimately incurably insane addicts. From the first image of someone inhaling the smoke, he turns from an approachable peer to a hand wringing, slimy, and incoherent addict. These visual depictions were common in the portrayal of male cannabis addicts.

Pulp-fiction novels depicted loose and easy women who could be persuaded by peddlers and devils to smoke and become addicted to marijuana.

The next example is a classic piece of pulp-fiction, which depicts a depraved woman selling her body, her virginity, and her dignity in exchange for drugs. This was a common form of demonization and employed a classic propaganda technique of using women to portray a message. While there is not much scientific research to support many claims pertaining to addiction rates in marijuana users, these pieces of propaganda were able to capitalize on the fear of the time and societal expectations of women.

Pulp-fiction novels depicted loose and easy women who could be persuaded by anyone.

Another classic technique used in propaganda is the exploitation of children in convincing and persuasive pieces. This poster sports the slogan “Assassin of Youth! Marihuana”—a popular slogan throughout mid-century anti-cannabis propaganda. This depicts marijuana as a literal devil like monster with young men acting as “peddlers” and delivering addicts and young women to the feet of the devil.



Fourth, this is one example of many anti-marijuana PSAs used in the 1980s. It shows a typical young, smart, and handsome teenage boy who is engaged and curious about a trip to the doctor’s office. He quickly goes from innocent to slimy as can be seen by his facial expressions. The boy clearly follows the pattern the organization hopes to convey—he starts as an everyday, regular teenage but is quickly transformed from someone you trust to a manipulative addict almost instantly after trying marijuana. This PSA shows demonization is fast acting and integral to the campaign against marijuana.


Ultimately, the demonization of marijuana and marijuana users has been extremely effective, as pro-cannabis activists are still fighting today to decriminalize and legalize marijuana for various uses throughout the United States. Even though it is a topic riddled with conspiracy theory and controversy, it is important to walk away with a better understanding of how to analyze this form of media and recognize biases in sources and documents. Propaganda serves to convey and persuade a certain message, as does this module. Using the demonization of marijuana and marijuana users as a guide, readers can see how certain fear tactics, societal expectations, and graphical execution are used to truly drive home a persuasive message.

Discussion Questions:

1) If you are faced with a controversial topics, what tools can you use while researching to wade through conspiracy?

2) Do you think the original images created in the campaign to demonize marijuana are still relevant today? Why or why not?

3) How does this information help you critically analyze social movements today with by pro-marijuana activists?

4) Discuss three techniques used to demonize marijuana and it’s users.

5) What did you learn about media literacy from this article? How will that influence you moving forward with your critical analysis of propaganda?

For More Information:

1) If you’re interested to learn more about the War on Drugs, here is an interactive piece explaining the contributing factors and history of the War on Drugs by long-form journalism site Vox.

2) If you’re interested to learn more about the federal government’s take/views on marijuana, please follow this link to The Office of National Drug Control Policy.

3) If you’re interested to know more about usage of cannabis in the United States, please follow this link to marijuana usage facts on the government’s page for the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

4) If you’re interested to learn more about propaganda in an informal academic setting, please visit Propaganda Critic to learn about the basics of understanding and dissecting propaganda.


[1] A thorough history of the downfall of cannabis in “regular medicine” can be found here: Chapkis, W. & Webb, R. (2008, May 12). How Pot Became Demonized: the Fine Line Between Good Medicine and ‘Dangerous Drugs’. AlterNet. Retrieved from: http://www.alternet.org/story/85205/how_pot_became_demonized%3A_the_fine_line_between_good_medicine_and_’dangerous_drugs

[2] Chapkis & Webb, 2008.

[3] Chapkis & Webb, 2008.

[4] A comprehensive look at the various theories/justifications that led to and describe the reasons for the demonization of marijuana; the database it is retrieved from is sponsored by an anti-drug war organization, but presents a massive amount of unbiased research on the history of drug policy in the US. The thesis can be found here: Lupien, J.C. (April, 1995). Unraveling an American Dilema: The Demonization of Marihuana (master’s thesis). Retrieved from the Schaffer Library of Drug Policy.

[5] The Influence organization is an online publication that focuses on issues dealing with drugs and addiction. Hari, J. Why is Marijuana Banned? The Real Reasons Are Worse Than You Think. The Influence. Retrieved from: http://theinfluence.org/why-is-marijuana-banned-the-real-reasons-are-worse-than-you-think/

[6] The Public Domain Review is an online journal and non-profit organization that explores works that have now fallen into the public domain. “Reefer Madness (1938)”. Public Domain Review. Retrieved at: http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/reefer-madness-1938/

[7] The Reefer Madness museum is a pro-marijuana site that seeks to extend information and theories surrounding marijuana and the demonization of it. “Pulp Fiction – Page C (a.k.a. Dime Store Novels)”. The Reefer Madness Museum. Retrieved from: http://reefermadnessmuseum.org/book/Bk_PulpFiction3.htm

[8] The book cover depicting syringes of misery is fourth down on the page. Gwynne, K. “I’ll Get Mine!” Thirteen Vintage Pulp Book Covers That Depict “Loose Women” Getting High. The Influence. Retrieved from: http://theinfluence.org/pulp-posters-from-the-mid-century-show-loose-women-getting-high/

[9] Burnett, M & Reiman, A. (2014, Oct. 9). How Did Marijuana Become Illegal in the First Place? Drug Policy Alliance. Retrieved from: http://www.drugpolicy.org/blog/how-did-marijuana-become-illegal-first-place

[10] The Report of the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse (1972). Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding. Retrieved from Schaffer Library of Drug Policy. URL: http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/library/studies/nc/ncmenu.htm

[11] “A Brief History of the Drug War”. In Drug Policy Alliance. Retrieved from: http://www.drugpolicy.org/facts/new-solutions-drug-policy/brief-history-drug-war-0


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