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Hazy screens: Is Hollywood pushing marijuana?

A raft of films has some observers citing a generational shift among filmmakers.

By Stephen HumphriesStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 2008

Pot shot: John Cho, Kal Penn in 'Harold and Kumar' sequel.

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Call it cinema's stoned age. Films featuring characters using marijuana have mushroomed.

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"Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay," the second movie to feature the titular pot-smoking characters, grossed nearly $15 million on its opening weekend, which might portend a big opening for August's "Pineapple Express," a Judd Apatow-produced comedy about a pot smoker and his supplier on the run. Also rolling out: "The Wackness," with Ben Kingsley as a bong-using psychiatrist; "Humboldt County," in which a medical student spends a summer in a marijuana-farming town; and "Super High Me," with comedian Doug Benson using the drug for 30 days.

Antidrug campaigners and proponents of marijuana decriminalization disagree about whether such films represent a change in societal attitudes. But the movies, most written by people under 40, seem to represent a shift in Hollywood.

"There seem to be movies that are produced by a younger generation than the baby boomers, [by people] who seem to have had a lot of experience with marijuana," says Jacob Sullum, senior editor at Reason magazine and author of "Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use."

Tom Hedrick, spokesperson for Partnership for a Drug Free America, says he worries that the uptick in such depictions makes the behavior appear too normal, creating bad role models.

But a spike in cannabis use on-screen doesn't appear to mirror any social trend. If government statistics – which rely on self-reporting – and other surveys are accurate, marijuana use has declined modestly in recent years, especially among teens.

One consequence of those statistics: The media by and large hasn't focused on drug stories over the past five years, maintains Mr. Hedrick. "Interest in the issue wanes and then you start to see a rebounding in the sense that this is something that is OK to do."

Prior to now, only a few stoner movies, such as "Up in Smoke" (1978) and "Dude, Where's My Car?" (2000), made money during their theatrical run, thanks largely to low budgets. Others, such as "Half-Baked," "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," and "The Big Lebowski," were underachievers – much like their characters. But these initial flops scored big on home video, which explains why producers continue to invest in fare such as a "Harold and Kumar" sequel and November's little-seen "Smiley Face." Lately, though, a generation of comedy filmmakers who grew up watching Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" has incorporated tropes from stoner movies into frat-humor films targeted at a broader audience. Movies such as "Old School," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" have also featured characters who smoke marijuana.

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