Call it cinema's stoned age. Films featuring characters using marijuana have mushroomed.
"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.
"I think movies have a weird line to walk," says Wesley Morris, a film critic at The Boston Globe. "They derive a lot of entertainment from drug use and yet, at the same time, they go only so far in endorsing it. 'Harold and Kumar' … doesn't have anything to say negatively about drug use, but, at the same time, there is a stigma attached." In "Knocked Up," a lead character has to stop smoking marijuana because it gets in the way of him becoming a good father.
Producers can land financing for stoner films if they depict the users as out-of-it slackers for comedic effect, some observers say. "If they were to portray it in any other light, they would likely not get the financing; they would get nothing but grief from rating boards and other entities," says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "It is safe."
Legalization advocates argue that signs of societal tolerance, including decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana, hint that casual pot use is widespread – something filmmakers are increasingly less afraid to portray.
"I have to take responsibility for the 'Cheech and Chong' image … but the truth is that marijuana is used in every block of society," says Tommy Chong, who was jailed for nine months for selling drug paraphernalia in 2003. He points to Michael Douglas's role as a pot-smoking college professor in 2000's "Wonder Boys" as one example. Recreational pot use by professional types has popped up in films as disparate as "Eyes Wide Shut" and "Charlie Wilson's War."
But antidrug campaigners say it's time for Hollywood to tighten up.
"Is this the beginning of a major new reflection and glamorization in popular culture?" asks Hedrick. "I think it's too early to tell, but it worries us because it tends to portend, potentially, a return to attitudes that lead to more kids trying, and more kids using."