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Blog 丨 2021.11.15

Cannabis in the Media: Portrayals of Smoking and Vaping

Cannabis consumption has been increasing rapidly over the last decade. More people are starting to recognize the beneficial medicinal purposes of cannabis. The rise of cannabis vaping coincides with this trend of the increasing use and acceptance of cannabis. The way the recreational use of these products is portrayed in art and media contrasts with how the various people who use cannabis and vape view these products. The media often showcases cannabis negatively, which diminishes the beneficial associations with this product. However, there are signs that this portrayal is starting to shift. Art and especially media are such significant and influential aspects of everyday life. It is not surprising, therefore, that these mediums convey narratives to monopolize public opinion. However, as information about the safety of smoking and vaping cannabis becomes more widespread, it will be increasingly difficult for the public to be misinformed. 


The Portrayal of Cannabis: Decades of Bias

Through forms of art and media such as comedic television shows and movies, cannabis and its recreational use has often been depicted as reckless, rebellious, and something that makes you act “silly”. In fact, for anyone who has viewed “any comparable comedy featuring marijuana use, you probably think it’s nothing more than a dangerous drug impairing the minds of the impulsive teenagers who use it” (Glenn, 2015). The same statement applies to adults. Think of the characters in films across the decades, such as Cheech and Chong and Pineapple Express. Cannabis users are presented as lacking seriousness. 

In these films, cannabis users are also presented as obsessed with smoking weed, to the detriment of other parts of their lives. Cannabis has often been portrayed through art and media as a debilitating and addictive drug, allowing many people to perceive cannabis in a negative light for years. Art and media have persistently depicted cannabis as a “dangerous substance that leads to issues with psychological addiction, drug lords, mental problems and inevitable abuse of other drugs (Glenn, 2015).” Therefore, it is not surprising that the actual benefits of marijuana have gone unnoticed for so long. 

Luckily, the positive aspects of marijuana use have become more well-known today. This change in perception, for example, is evidenced by the legalization of recreational drugs over recent years. It is also represented by shifts in the media. For example, while Netflix began to remove depictions of tobacco use from content popular with younger audiences in 2019, depiction of cannabis use has proliferated (Ulaby, 2019). The portrayal of cannabis use is slowly shifting through this normalization process. The cannabis user is no longer only seen as the stereotypical “pothead,” a la Seth Rogen. Instead, media increasing shows how anybody can use cannabis, from the high-powered business professional to the 60-year-old aunt. 

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Cannabis Vaping: A New Cultural Niche 

Burning cannabis to inhale results in some health implications, despite the overall positive health impact. Over the last decade, consumers have begun to become informed of the relative benefits of atomization. When cannabis is vaped, many of the drawbacks are mitigated. Despite a rapid rise in popularity over the last decade, weed vaping does not yet have a massive presence in media. The public impression of cannabis vaping is still being formed, as people are less likely to have been exposed to representations that let them construct an opinion on vaping. 

Nonetheless, representations in the media demonstrate some of the reasons why cannabis vaping has become so popular. For example, one study that looked at a sample of 214 YouTube videos about vaping found that about a quarter of the videos mentioned the convenience of easily concealing cannabis vaping (Yang et al., 2018). Depictions of vaping can also be found across social media. These depictions provide insight into the cultural attitudes towards the developing cannabis vaping industry. For example, one study of Instagram posts that depict cannabis vaping found that 84% of posts depict female users (Columbia, 2020). This indicates the increasing popularity of vaping among women. 

The majority of current cannabis users are men. Therefore, the prevalence on social media of vaping by women demonstrates the potential for vaping to expand its demographic reach. In general, portrayals of vaping are establishing a new cultural attitude towards cannabis vaping that is different from how the public views smoking. Cannabis vaping does not have decades of cultural baggage associated with it as smoking does. Therefore, the spread of vaping in the media contributes to a new cultural niche formed with little pre-existing bias.

At the same time, some media reports have also presented an alarmist view of cannabis vaping that exaggerates the dangers and can skew the public’s view. For example, alarmist media reports in 2019 repeated news about users who had suffered health complications from cannabis vaping. However, researchers had already demonstrated that the health complications were caused by additives such as vitamin E acetate (Cohen, 2019). Nonetheless, as the regulated cannabis market begins to grow in states across the US, it will become harder for consumers to be confused by the media over the safety of vaping. Cultural attitudes towards cannabis are shifting, and vaping will continue to grow its own distinct cultural aesthetic. 

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Cannabis has been depicted by art and media extensively over the decades. Often, it is presented as a dangerous and unhealthy drug, yet attitudes towards cannabis are changing quickly. As the public becomes more informed about the health benefits of cannabis, preconceived notions about cannabis users are becoming less influential. However, representation in the media of cannabis smoking is weighed down by decades of cultural biases. Attitudes towards vaping are not informed by such baggage. Evidence demonstrates that the public is becoming more socially accepting of weed. The portrayal of vaping also shows the unique cultural niche that is being formed by cannabis vapers. From Cheech and Chong to Pineapple Expresscountless movies heavily portray cannabis use as a key element. With the rising popularity of cannabis vaping, it is only a matter of time before Hollywood stars are seen across the silver screen hitting a classy vape pen instead of smoking a joint.