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Casual marijuana use becomes common on TV

Puffs just part of the performance

The “Mad Men” characters Megan and Don Draper are played by Jessica Pare and Jon Hamm.

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The “Mad Men” characters Megan and Don Draper are played by Jessica Pare and Jon Hamm.

Only minutes into this season’s “Mad Men” premiere, Megan Draper giddily pulled out two joints she’d hidden in her bikini, and she and Don proceeded to get high, setting the tone for the season. Reality shows about the cannabis market abound, from “Weed Country” and “Pot Cops” to pot-
related material in scripted series such as “The Office,” “Parenthood,” “The Big C,” “Homeland,” and “Hot in Cleveland.”

Pot is everywhere on TV. Weed has become almost as common as romantic tensions on sitcoms.

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The cultural shift parallels a legal one. It comes as Massachusetts joins 17 other states (and Washington, D.C.) in legalizing medical marijuana, and just as Washington state and Colorado allow legalized recreational use.

The kids on “Shameless,” the adults on “Californication,” the grandmother on “Malibu Country,” the dog on “Wilfred,” everyone on “Workaholics,” they’ve all been seen blazing, a.k.a. baking, a.k.a. getting toasted, a.k.a. catching a buzz.

And the pot use on these shows is mostly portrayed as casual, and in a nonjudgmental way. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, as the Reagan-era War on Drugs continued to escalate, pot on TV was yoked into the same category as cocaine, heroin, and other hard drugs; now it’s more in league with adult alcohol use — relatively safe, if used responsibly.

Forget about the “very special episode” on the dangers of smoking a joint and beginning a downward spiral into the gutter. Now Joan Rivers and a friend light up on WE’s “Joan & Melissa,” have giggle fits, and chant for a food truck.

“Mad Men,” the 1960s-set show, has sent up a number of pot smoke signals, including Don wryly proclaiming “I smell creativity” as the aroma of weed wafts through the ad agency.

The generally lighthearted way that weed is now represented on TV parallels the role it plays for casual users, many of them baby boomers who came of age during the pot liftoff of the 1960s. The drug is deployed as comic relief, complete with classic stoner types lifted out of Cheech & Chong movies; the “Workaholics” characters on Comedy Central fit this bill.

But then there are images of more functional smokers, such as the group on “How I Met Your Mother” or the literary guys on “Bored to Death.” The pot smoker doesn’t always need to be an exercise in hippie self-parody. On TV, smoking pot arguably carries less of a stigma than smoking cigarettes.

Early on, says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, “You’d have ‘Reefer Madness’ on the one hand or Cheech & Chong on the other. Now you still have ‘Harold & Kumar,’ but it has become less and less of a thing. Marijuana represents something about the context of the scene, but not a major part of it anymore.”

He points to “Six Feet Under” as a series that showed “the good, bad, and indifferent” aspects of marijuana; “It committed to a realistic portrayal.”

As goes the nation and the law, so goes TV?

As more states relax toward cannabis with legalization, decriminalization, and medical use, are TV writers weaving in more pot use with less moral evaluation? In April, a Pew Research Center poll revealed that 52 percent of Americans support legalization, an 11 percent increase since 2010, with the largest bumps from Hispanics and Republicans. So TV lineups are finally mirroring the social change?

Actually, TV has been portraying weed in a casual fashion for almost two decades now, long before Zach Galifianakis smoked a real-looking joint on “Real Time With Bill Maher” in 2010, long before the three dudes on “Workaholics” were cheating on their regular dealer with a new dealer in order to buy more pot to get stoned enough to get hungry enough to win a pizza-eating contest.

From “That ’70s Show” (1998-2006) to “Weeds” (2005-12), pot has not been an occasion for preachy TV lessons in the dangers of all drugs. It has been positioned by writers as a sort of nationwide in-joke and as a fact of life. Yes, “Mad Men” has shown carefree pot use this season, but it included it back in season 1, too, when Don smoked with his beatnik girlfriend Midge.

The longtime presence of casual marijuana use on TV is a classic example of how art and entertainment sometimes reflect new ways of thinking before that thinking actually changes laws. Our TV shows are our culture’s collective stream of consciousness, a blending of social and political leanings, and consciousness is often a few years ahead of the legal system.

Just before President Obama came out in favor of legalizing gay marriage last spring, for example, Vice President Biden linked the nation’s growing comfort with gay equal rights to the highly rated sitcom “Will & Grace.” “When things really begin to change is when the social culture changes,” he said on “Meet the Press.”

“Will & Grace,” along with “Ellen,” “Roseanne,” “Six Feet Under,” and daytime soap operas, were exploring same-sex relationships and inequality with mainstream audiences long before Massachusetts led 11 other states (plus D.C.) in allowing gay marriage.

The real turn regarding pot on TV came in the mid- to late 1990s, long after the first waves of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, just before Homer Simpson on “The Simpsons” got a medical marijuana prescription and silliness ensued. Back in the ’90s, says Dan Skye, editorial director of High Times magazine, “TV shows were being paid to put antidrug statements into their plotlines. . . . We’ve come a long way since then, and I don’t think that anybody would do that anymore.”

Since 2000, we’ve seen steady though not particularly troublesome indulgence by the gangs on “Entourage,” “Freaks and Geeks,” and “Gossip Girl.” “South Park” and “Family Guy” have had a heyday with legalization, including a “South Park” episode in which locals give themselves cancer to get a pot prescription. And scared-straight episodes of shows such as “The Facts of Life” have become objects of ironic amusement for their “Reefer Madness”-like telegraphing

Is the frequency and ease of marijuana on TV part of a liberal agenda, with Hollywood foisting a pro-legalization message on passive viewers?

“Some of it is reflecting culture as it is,” says professor Elayne Rapping, author of a number of books about pop culture, including “Law and Justice as Seen on TV.” “At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, TV was in the forefront of calling attention to the existing epidemic in a positive way. In the case of marijuana, yes, it’s already on the radar and being picked up on by TV. That’s the big secret that’s being revealed on all the shows — that people do it. And that white people don’t get arrested for it, either.”

Nadelmann says the fact that screenwriters may be more comfortable with the marijuana subculture than the average American is “a variable.” But Hollywood isn’t shoving it down our throats and into our lungs.

“You don’t see the glamorization or glorification of drug use. There are many depictions of addiction and stupid drug use, as well. It’s less about being pro-marijuana or pro ending the drug war, and more about a feeling of how TV is supposed be about reality.”

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MatthewGilbert.
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