We Need More People Using Pot in Movies and TV, Not Less

Comparing onscreen cannabis use with tobacco use is lazy and inaccurate.

This month, an NPR article raised the question whether content distributors like Netflix should be as cautious with depicting cannabis use onscreen as they’ve pledged to be with tobacco. Specifically, the story highlights  a July announcement from Netflix that it plans to stop showing characters using tobacco in its original programming unless germane to the story. 

Referencing the Netflix program On My Block — which is rated TV-14 and features a “loveable, pot-smoking grandma,” per NPR — University of California, San Francisco professor of medicine Stanton Glantz told NPR that “rating a film for [14-year-olds] that’s promoting substance abuse — it’s like the peak of risk.”

“Marijuana is not harmless,” he continued. “Secondhand marijuana smoke has the same kind of adverse effects on your blood vessels that smoking a cigarette does. Chemically it’s not all that different from cigarette smoke, except that the psychoactive agent is different.”

This confuses the issue, as the harm posed by marijuana and the harm posed by smoking anything are two different things. While inhaling any material as combusted matter will eventually lead to respiratory degradation of varying levels, the proven dangers of smoking tobacco are simply irrefutable.

The evidence linking tobacco consumption to cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and a host of other serious diseases and conditions is staggering. Smoking cigarettes kills more Americans each year than alcohol, car accidents, HIV, guns, and illegal drugs combined, according to the American Cancer Society. Chewing tobacco also poses numerous health risks (a fun variety of oral cancers instead of lung cancer, for instance).

Conversely, no one has ever died as the direct result of cannabis consumption. Moderation is always key when it comes to smoking, but for those who ingest cannabis by tincture, topical, edible, or supplement, there’s really no valid comparison to tobacco to be made. Though a mysterious vaping illness is currently being investigated by the CDC and has reportedly resulted in one death so far, no one suspects the actual plant material as the culprit.

Creating a media environment for teens where smoking is not perceived as cool is laudable. Painting cannabis use with the same brush is not helpful, even if it’s being smoked. It’s actually downright harmful, given cigarettes amount to highly-engineered poison, while new research confirming the medical efficacy of cannabis in new and life-changing ways continues to arrive each day. 

Normalizing cannabis use is a foundational necessity if federal legalization is ever going to take hold. Even if a Gallup poll last year found that 65 percent of respondents considered smoking cannabis to be “morally acceptable,” that still leaves 35 percent of the U.S. public with an unfavorable view of pot. Though Congress will ultimately be responsible for national legalization (unless one of several current Democratic candidates follows through on the promise to issue the order as an Executive Action), it is the public who will decide whether regulated cannabis works or fails.

A concerted effort to depict cannabis use as it actually occurs today is needed as a result of years of disinformation about marijuana from the government.

Why should we demand a decrease in the presence of cannabis in our film and television when this is the moment for it to be more prevalent than ever before?

Later in NPR’s story, Gantz points to numerous studies proving a correlation between a child’s exposure to tobacco in the media and their later tobacco use as a reason to be similarly cautious of cannabis. It would make sense that studies have found that children who are exposed to smoking in movies and television are more likely to eventually smoke tobacco themselves, given marketing departments and product placement played a substantial role in ensuring cigarettes regularly starred on the silver screen.

The result is that we now see John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart lighting up as a quintessential facet of their character instead of the dangerous addiction it was. Even if the cannabis industry did want to engage in similarly amoral tactics, they can’t.

In the case of Facebook and Google — the two biggest behemoths in the digital ad game — cannabis companies are prohibited from advertising under the companies’ respective rules concerning “drug or drug-related promotions” on their sites. When it comes to radio and billboards, similar policies make life tricky. Then there’s television, which is now essentially just a waiting game to see which network will take the risk of airing a cannabis commercial first.

Showing characters in film and television consuming pot makes sense, given how many of us use cannabis in real life. Why deny that (to the benefit of no one) when we can embrace it? Let’s allow reality to be reflected in the media we watch, for a change.

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