Stoners On-screen: The Problem with the Portrayal of the Pothead

James Franco and Seth Rogen in 'Pineapple Express'/Photo © Columbia Pictures
James Franco and Seth Rogen in 'Pineapple Express'/Photo © Columbia Pictures

Consider the role of the couch in contemporary cinema. I'm not talking about the well-worn, bodily fluid-stained casting couch or the overstuffed sofa that sends its kapok flying when hit by automatic weapon fire in action films and police dramas. The couch I'm referring to is the one typically parked in front of a large screen television with a couple of stoners glued to it. The couch under James Franco and Seth Rogan in "Pineapple Express" is a perfect example. As is the sofa under Nick Frost in "Attack the Block" and the stylish modern divan that Jonah Hill and Russell Brand smoke "the Jeffrey" on in "Get Him to the Greek." Even Harold and Kumar start their great adventures smoking weed on a sofa.

Sometimes directors like to see their characters get "proactive" so they substitute the couch for a parked car or van: Cheech & Chong, Method Man and Redman in "How High," the offenders in the opening scene of the comedic masterpiece "Super Troopers," and the iconic Jeff Spicoli character in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." But, seriously, a parked car is just a couch with wheels.

You don't see couches getting that kind of screen time in political thrillers, action movies, or Superhero films -- although they do occasionally have supporting roles in romantic comedies. So why is the couch, or parked car, so crucial to movies about smoking marijuana? Hollywood is sending the public a not-so-subtle message: People who smoke weed spend their lives sitting on their asses.

When stoner heroes are finally roused to get up off the couch by some combination of murderous criminals, school principals, law enforcement, alien invaders, or just a bad case of the munchies, they ricochet from one misadventure to the next, rarely displaying a moment of lucidity. Oftentimes when they do, as in "Pineapple Express," the epiphany comes as a "Dude! We smoke too much weed!" anti-drug copout that seems like product placement for D.A.R.E. Stoners are routinely depicted as lazy, inept, and, while not without a certain charm, disassociated from reality. They are characters who rely on their couches in more ways than one.

While the Hollywood stereotype might be an accurate representation of some pot smokers, it doesn't represent the majority of cannabis users. Contrast the typical movie stoner with a few real-world cannabis users: successful entrepreneurs Steve Jobs, Ted Turner, and Sir Richard Branson; Olympian Michael Phelps, two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, and Ricky Williams; bestselling authors Stephen King and Carl Sagan. A much different picture emerges: These are not people who have a close relationship with their couch.

And where would contemporary music be without cannabis? From Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to Bob Marley and The Beatles, all the way to NWA and Snoop Dog, Alanis Morissette and Lady Gaga. Slackers? Couch potatoes? I don't think so.

I've spent the last two years surrounded by hardcore cannabis users while researching my nonfiction book Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup. These botanists and business people smoke a ton of weed, but they don't spend much time with their butts glued to a couch; they're running multimillion-dollar businesses, using state-of-the-art equipment to grow the world's best marijuana, supervising a workforce, involved in marketing meetings, paying taxes, dealing with customer service, all the while avoiding the scrutiny of the Department of Justice.

The problem with Hollywood's depiction of stoners is -- as fun and funny as some of the movies are -- that the prevailing stereotype of a "stoner" is the image the general public perceives as reality. Parents are rightly concerned that their children might end up stuck on the couch for the rest of their lives and John Q. Public doesn't want to encourage fecklessness and sloth in society. Those prejudices, and the false stigma associated with cannabis use, are what keep people from supporting an end to prohibition and the failed war on drugs.

Think of how cinematic portrayals of African Americans and homosexuals have changed over the years. That evolution has gone a long way toward making American society more tolerant and open. I'd like to encourage filmmakers to break with the stoner stereotype and portray cannabis smokers as the energetic, visionary, creative individuals they are in real life, even if this does cause some couches to have to take jobs on basic cable.

Mark Haskell Smith is the author of four novels: Baked, Salty, Delicious, and Moist, and has written for film and television. A contributor to the Los Angeles Times and a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, Smith is an assistant professor in the MFA program for Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside, Palm Desert Graduate Center. Check out his Tumblr page here.