DPA Podcast Episode 33: “Puff or Pass”: Can The Simpsons Really School Us on Cannabis?

We’ve all been there: you’re watching TV or a movie, playing a video game or listening to some music, when drugs enter the storyline. This can go well -- and it can also go really badly. On this episode, we’re introducing a new series we call “Puff or Pass.” It examines how drugs and people who use drugs are portrayed in pop culture, for better or worse. Kicking this series off for us is Brian Hackel, currently interning for DPA’s communications team. He digs into a recent episode of The Simpsons called “Highway to Well” -- and his analysis is as brilliant as it is hilarious. Will he puff or pass on this portrayal? Listen to find out.

Note that the opinions on Puff or Pass are the guest's own, and don't necessarily represent the official position of DPA.

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Welcome to Drugs and Stuff, a podcast from the Drug Policy Alliance.

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Gabriella Miyares  (0:08) 
Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of Drugs and Stuff. I'm your host, Gabriella Miyares. Now, over the past few weeks, we've been sharing episodes centered around how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected drug policy and the work that we do. Today, we're taking a little bit of a lighthearted turn, and introducing a new series on Drugs and Stuff that we're calling Puff or Pass. Now, since we're all working from home these days, we're also watching a little more TV, movies, playing more video games than usual. And sometimes drugs show up in what we're watching. And that's what Puff or Pass is all about -- how drugs and drug use are portrayed in pop culture, for better or worse. We watch and analyze for your entertainment and education. Kicking this series off for us is DPA's current intern Brian Hackel, looking at an episode of The Simpsons, season 31 episode 17. You don't need to be a Simpsons fan to appreciate this episode. Keep listening to see what I mean.

Brian Hackel  (1:19)  
Hey, guys, welcome to Puff or Pass. This is Brian Hackel. And I'm interning right now with the DPA's Media Relations Department. I'm doing this internship while I finish up my Master's in addiction studies for my education. And right now most of the work I'm doing is around tracking the media coverage of the kind of work that the DPA is doing, and just what's happening in the drug policy world. Especially, you know, now that we're in the coronavirus pandemic, and a lot of our initiatives have both changed, or become more urgent. So a big part of what I doing is just tracking our media coverage, and seeing how what's happening to the outside world is affecting, you know, drug policy. And yeah, I'm doing this episode of Puff or Pass. The Simpsons is my favorite single TV show. And it's, I mean, it's one of the oldest and greatest TV shows of our time. It's won 34 Emmys, which is kind of insane, and it's been on 31 seasons. And The Simpsons, for those who haven't watched it before, it's a very, it's a, it's a satirical take on blue-collar, Midwest American life, and it touches on an array of social issues throughout its -- in the entirety of the show, whether it's just about, you know, societal cultural norms, politics, religion, the environment, there's no issue that goes untouched by this series. And interestingly, the show doesn't really discuss cannabis, it only does so on a few separate occasions spaced out few and far between. So, an instrumental part of one of the main protagonists of this show Homer Simpson's character, you know, it's his excess. He eats a lot. He drinks a lot. He's kind of a buffoon, but very rarely does cannabis come into play, even in his character, and I originally thought I was going to be discussing one particular episode in the 13th season which aired way back in 2002, which has Homer using medical cannabis for an eye injury he got. And you know, in 2002, even the idea of using cannabis medicinally was revolutionary, way ahead of its time. But I think an even better episode to talk about is from this most recent season, season 31, which is called "Highway to Well." And it's centered around Marge getting a job as a sales clerk in a cannabis dispensary, and what I love most about this episode is that it hits the issue of cannabis use in so many different angles. It's really, you know, in its content, it's really a jam-packed 22 minutes of this episode touching on a lot of changes in cannabis culture that we've been seeing over the years. And it deals with the stigma and disapproval that many older adults, people of a, you know, in, of an older generation still having with cannabis, and also discuss the fact that culture is changing. You know, gone are the days of the long-haired hippies at Grateful Dead concerts, you know, cops breaking up house parties. We now know more about the science behind the relative harmlessness of cannabis and its medicinal benefits and different ways that people can really use it constructively. And obviously spoiler alert. I'm just going to get into a few different parts of the episode, and kind of how it relates, and making a commentary on the issue. So yeah, it's, the episode is centered around Marge getting a job at a cannabis dispensary. And the dialogue establishes early in the episode that the state is a recreational cannabis state, even though it's a running gag on the show that it's never actually revealed which state the Simpsons reside in. The funny thing is, at first, Marge just wants a job, any job, because she's bored during the middle of the day. And she walks into this place, not realizing it was even selling cannabis. It's a really high end, nice boutique store. So she goes in the first few hours of the shift without knowing what she was selling. And she was just told to call herself a healer that sells healing products. I mean, she looks in the store. She sees a lot of, you know, like skin creams, tinctures, ointments that are used to heal people, reduce pain, so she kind of just goes with it. But when she's told that these products are actually cannabis, she quits, because she doesn't want to be a "drugs dealer." Yes, she says drugs dealer, not drug dealer. A funny thing about Marge's character is kind of her motherly naivete. And again, this is a high end shop. So the environment is very clean and modern. And it really kind of speaks to how industrialized dispensaries have become. It almost has like a Bath and Body Works feel to it. The store has a lot of pain relieving, you know, skin creams, tinctures and ointments, and there's a joke about how a soda, one singular soda that contains THC, costs $30. So, this dispensary, it's not some person's sketchy, dirty basement, or alley, where drug dealing and buying in a more traditional sense may happen in the movies and whatnot. The employees are wearing really nicely tailored white outfits. They're very well spoken, very educated. So this store that Marge is working at, the show is, this is kind of the show's way of saying, we're in the 21st century now. Cannabis is legal, cannabis is medicine, and it's being used and endorsed by smart, sophisticated people as a legitimate, healthy way of healing. So, Marge, you know, is angry that she thinks she got tricked into this drug dealing job, so she's having family dinner, and when Marge is describing her experience with getting this job and quitting, she explains why she quit, and Lisa -- Lisa interjects, saying that there's nothing wrong with it, and cites the fact that cannabis is legal in their state. And what I find so interesting about this dialogue is that Lisa is supposed to be the super goody two shoes one, always very obedient, straight-A student, and is generally the brains of the family. So I think it says a lot that she is speaking up to make her mother Marge feel okay about the job. And it almost has like a bit of commentary to it, because Millennials, Generation Z, they've grown up in conjunction with this huge increase in knowledge that we've gained about cannabis over the past 10-15 years. And we're now living at a time where the vast majority of young people support legalizing cannabis. So I think that this scene, that it really nicely highlights the knowledge gap and difference in attitudes between today's young people, the Millennials, Generation Z, and their parents on this subject, and, you know, how those were -- who were brought into and born into the 90s and 2000s, see cannabis very differently than those who were brought up in the 60s, 70s, and even 80s. So Marge is persuaded into, you know, she feels better about taking this job, so she ends up taking it. And in another scene where she's working in the store, it's the middle of the day, and the school bus driver character named Otto walks in. And, for those who don't watch The Simpsons, Otto is a long-haired, hard rock loving guy who's a school bus driver. He's always wearing these large headphones, even when driving the school bus. One gag about his character is that he's the quote, unquote, the "druggie." From what I understand, he prefers psychedelics. But yeah, he's like this grungy, hard rock loving kind of guy. But anyway, he walks into the store, and in his shaggy voice pretty much says, "Yo, can you hook me up with some bud?" And the sales clerk is wearing a very fancy uniform, is wearing glasses, a bow tie, and starts asking him a lot of questions. You know, like, do you want a head high or a body high, he starts going into different strains, the types of products, like edibles or tinctures, and Otto doesn't know what to do. He doesn't know what to say. He's completely out of his element in this setting. And he just says, "Listen, man, I just want some weed!" And he becomes overwhelmed with all this new information that he's getting about cannabis. And instead of just staying in the store, wanting to learn, and dealing with this complication, he decides, you know, screw it, I'm just gonna go to a bar just to get some kind of a feeling or a buzz on. And in the larger context of the series, alcohol has never been a big part of Otto's character, like it is Homer's. So he's going into this bar and he's taking his real first sip of beer, and he hates it. He hates the way it tastes, he hates the way it makes him feel. And what's also significant is that Otto is one of the younger characters on the show. He's probably in his late 20s, early- mid-30s. He's part of a generation that's beginning to prefer cannabis over alcohol. And a big cultural turn, for example, over the past few years in several of the states in which cannabis is recreationally legal, including Colorado, cannabis sales have been exceeding alcohol sales. So this is another commentary on how the generational gap between people of, you know, his generation, the 20 to 30 year olds, versus that of Homer's, they just have this -- there's just been a shift in preference that has taken place in a pretty revolutionary way. So Homer and his friends, they catch on to this demand of cannabis, and he decides to open up a dispensary of his own. However, he goes back to a more old-school aesthetic, kind of reminding him how it used to be in the 70s and 80s. And in his quote, unquote "dispensary," he and his friends you know, they're bumming out, they're playing video games, eating junk food, they're hitting the bong. There's a, you know, trippy psychedelic tapestry on the wall. They even pretend that it's an illegal speakeasy dispensary, even though they're in a legal state, just for the sake of adding to the customer experience. So they're, you know, part of the joke in this scene is that Homer and his buddies are actors. They're pretending that cannabis is illegal, just kind of to maintain that, you know, the familiarity of what they know from back in their time. I don't know exactly how old Homer is supposed to be in the show. Especially since these characters don't actually age with time. But episodes that feature flashbacks to his childhood suggest that his growing years took place in the 70s. So he definitely comes from the time period where he and his friends, you know, going back to his days, cannabis was still illegal and everyone thought that cannabis is for hippies, and makes you lazy and unmotivated. But this is part of Homer's schtick. It's what he knows, it was how he was brought up. So then Marge, who again works at this boutique upscale place of healing. She hears about Homer's operation, making the dispensary manager, her manager, unhappy. He's not thrilled that the husband of one of his star employees is opening his own place. The episode really highlights the clash between the old school and the new school. The idea of cannabis being this sophisticated modern medicine, the way that Marge sees it, is flying in the face of the stoners who really just kind of want to get high, chill out and do nothing. And just to wrap up the plot of this episode, Marge tries to set Homer up by getting the local authorities involved, trying to bust him, she goes through this deliberate plot, where she wears a wire to catch Homer selling food illegally. And once he's actually raided, he's just slapped with a $25 fine, which is definitely the show's way of taking a dig at the fact that authorities who will actually bust those who sell cannabis and cannabis related products aren't really using their time or resources very wisely. That's kind of what that part of the episode is saying. So overall, this episode of The Simpsons, I think, does a great job in showing how far we have come in terms of our knowledge about the benefits of cannabis. And different ways that it can be used. But I think even more so, it shows how we've changed in terms of our attitudes, not only about cannabis, but about the people who use it. Smoking marijuana doesn't mean that you're dumb. It doesn't mean that you're some loser, or jobless hippie who will never make it out of his mommy's basement. Tens of millions of people across the country use it, and legitimately benefit from it, you know, due to a variety of medical conditions, and it's definitely gone from the devil's lettuce that we thought it was during the Nixon and Reagan eras and has created a more legitimate multibillion dollar industry. And all this ties in very nicely to the kind of work that we're doing at the Drug Policy Alliance. Um, you know, obviously like we're playing a big role in pushing towards cannabis legalization in the state and the federal level. But the Simpsons episode also reminds me of our efforts towards destigmatizing cannabis use, and destigmatizing the people who use it. Outlawing cannabis and punishing those who use, or having these negative ideas about those who use it has done exponentially more harm than good for us, in our country, in our history. And this episode highlights that, okay, that approach does not work. Yup, so, thanks for listening. I hope that you enjoyed my little synopsis. Again, the episode it's season 31, episode 17, called "Highway to Well." I definitely recommend you watching it. It's up and running on Hulu right now. And I think it's not only just generally a hilarious episode, but it just kind of hits on the issue of where we used to be, and where we are now in terms of cannabis in so many different ways. So definitely watch it if you have the time. And thank you for listening and having me on.

Gabriella Miyares  (17:16)  
Huge thanks to Brian for that amazing breakdown, and for all of the incredible work he's done for us here at the Drug Policy Alliance. I can personally vouch for the fact that he's a total rock star. I also just wanted to note that the opinions on Puff or Pass are the guest's own, and don't necessarily represent the official position of DPA. So that's it for today's episode. If you have an idea for a new episode of Puff or Pass, tweet us @drugsnstuffDPA. Thanks for listening, and hope you'll tune in next time.

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Drugs and Stuff is brought to you by the Drug Policy Alliance. If you like what you hear in the podcast, do us a favor and rate the show on iTunes. Give it five stars and a nice review. Also, we'd love to hear from you. Tweet at us @drugsnstuffDPA. Use the hashtag #drugsandstuff. Check out our website to see the other work we do, sign up for our emails, and donate. Special thanks to our producer Katharine Heller, and to the hard working staff of the Drug Policy Alliance for all of their work. Thanks for listening.

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Marijuana Legalization and Regulation