The ravages of hard drugs and alcohol have been thoroughly depicted in books and film. Trainspotting, Requiem for a Dream, and The Basketball Diaries deal with heroin. Bright Lights, Big City and Boogie Nights involve coke. Barfly and Leaving Las Vegas portray the horrors of consumptive boozing. The list goes on. Yet most modern American marijuana flicks depict the lives of daily dope smokers as comic, light-hearted affairs.
Take The Dude in The Big Lebowski. The Dude, aptly named, of course, is a peaceful, beloved bungler who, when he isn’t bowling and tucking back his long hair, stumbles from dramatic event to dramatic event, alternately clueless or baffled by the complexity of his situation. Cheech and Chong, whether parked on a median or trailing plumes of smoke, experience more adventures than problems. The 1990s saw a string of Mary J movies — Dazed and Confused, The Stöned Age, and Half Baked — where snickering characters decked out in tie-dyed and vintage clothing got high, searched for parties in their old V Dubs, and lived blissed lives to the tune of “Slow Ride.” Despite the contraband on their persons and the THC that was clogging their synapses, no real harm befell any of these stoners. Even Shaggy from Scooby-Doo spoke with the telltale pothead’s affect — that, like, uh, total spacey drawl — and he solved crimes!
Although some Americans worry that pot smoking can lead to the use of harder drugs — or at least signal a young person’s increased interest in chemical experimentation — many others don’t take weed all that seriously. The general consensus on marijuana’s dangers might best be summarized by one telling and hilarious line from Half Baked. When the character Mary Jane says, “Marijuana is terrible. It’s a gateway drug. I mean, everybody knows that it leads to other stuff.” Dave Chappelle’s character says, “Yeah, mostly junk food.”
Another example of the hapless, lovable toker is Jeff Spicoli, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. A perma-baked high school surfer, Spicoli is the archetype American pothead: bumbling yet witty, laid back yet subversive, and largely harmless despite his antics. He orders pizza during class, butts heads with the uptight history teacher, Mr. Hand, and even crashes a football player’s car. He’s always out of work and short on cash. But when Brad Hamilton, the movie’s popular male lead, asks him why he doesn’t have a job, Spicoli says, “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, an’ I’m fine.” In real life, such a statement would widely be seen as tragically adolescent, but on screen, the inherent tragedy of his limited ambition is made lovable by the magic of humor. Spicoli functions as the film’s comic relief. He’s the foil to the stiff Mr. Hand, who represents boredom, old age, and oppression in all its forms. Who doesn’t watch a movie like Fast Times and find himself rooting for the underdog? Don’t most people enjoy seeing authority figures get humiliated? Spicoli’s not just a comic stoner; he’s the drowsy antihero who represents all of our suppressed rebellion and hedonistic lust. While we slave away at boring jobs, he coasts through life and hits the beach. While we tell our overbearing bosses, “Yes ma’am, no sir,” Spicoli laughs in authority’s face. As we try to monitor our diets to stay fit, Spicoli inhales slice after greasy pizza slice and innumerable bong hits.
And because Hollywood has immortalized him during his prime years, Spicoli is destined to remain eternally young and free in our eyes, forever the high school joker perched on the edge of self-destruction, yet never having to face the ramifications of his intoxication or the ways in which teenage lifestyles constrict adult career options. If there was a Spicoli biopic that followed his life after high school, it would probably be called Still High in Ridgemont, and it would show him living in his parents’ basement, working the night shift at a suburban convenience store where he chain-smokes Pall Malls and keeps his thinning hair in one of those embarrassing adult ponytails. “Mom bums me out when she gets on my case,” I imagine him telling the camera. “That’s why I stash my buds in the shed out back. Every time she changes my sheets she finds my stuff and takes it!”
I might sound like a buzzkill overanalyzing one of Hollywood’s most memorable creations, but, as much as I still love it, Fast Times reminds me of my own recklessness. In high school and early college, when I wore vintage Hang Ten shirts that I’d found at thrift stores, a few buddies started calling me Spicoli. “Hey Spicoli,” they’d say at parties or at people’s houses, “Where’s the pizza?” Or they’d just call out “No way!” in a gassy drawl. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or offended. The characterization worried me partly because, in addition to my long blonde hair, I knew I’d become as spacey as Fast Times’ stoner prince. Also, paranoia had set in. I was having trouble separating irrational thoughts from reality; I was worrying what people were thinking when they looked at me. And even in Tucson, after I quit smoking pot and had long since cut my hair — while I was in group — the anxiety wouldn’t go away.