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The Insubordination of Private Miller

Updated: Jul 24

Because I have started watching many Seth Rogan films but have finished none of them, it’s lucky for me that the one historical scene of Pineapple Express (2008), which I will analyze below, is also the opening scene. I would hate to have missed it.

Black and white. A deserted stretch of grassland, Badlands rising in the distance. An intertitle reads “1937. The United States of America.” A tank of a sedan rolls up; two men alight. One looks high-ranking, the other lifts a secret hatch shaped like a boulder, and they descend into an underground military testing site. They hear coughing as they reach an observation room where they can see Bill Hader in an Army uniform playing Private Miller, who has been smoking something called “Item 9” in a sealed room for the past seven minutes, a white-coated nerd explains.

How do you feel? this scientist asks the private. “I feel like a slice of butter melting on top of a big old pile of flapjacks,” he replies. Now the real question: When you think of your superiors, what emotions do you feel? Miller does not respond but bursts into a spontaneous musical speed-jazz ditty, playing an air drumkit to the rhythm of his own elaborate beatboxing, then layering on a kazoo-like melodic improvisation—really pretty impressive objectively.

While the General fumes, the scientist presses for an answer. Long scene short, Private Miller proposes telling the whole world about Item 9 (“This stuff is the bees’ knees!”) and rambles animatedly about problems with the military. Only a moment later, he becomes so crudely insubordinate and profane that the General shuts down the experiment and places a furious call to the world outside the compound. And he issues a final order on Item 9, screaming into the telephone, “ILLEGAL!”

Of course 1937 is the year Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act. To me the Private Miller scene is funny because it might as well be true; that is, many historians have tried with little success to explain the cause of this most consequential policymaking moment. To me it remains the central mystery of drug control history, how a relatively safe and mild smokable plant such as cannabis could be forbidden and could thereby make outlaws of so many citizens, could help law enforcement ravage the Bill of Rights in court, could fuel decades of culture wars, mass incarceration, and so on.

Private Miller is one of the more elaborate among the inside jokes that populate Rogan’s and other stoner films. It’s a scene for viewers who know just a little history and who are familiar with cannabis effects; it’s a nod to the absurd and arcane nature of marihuana prohibition. However, it also contains indirect clues to the historical reasons cannabis was criminalized during the 1930s, by illustrating THC effects that have been durable (as recorded or represented) over a long time.

Compare the scene with Private Miller to a passage from pharmacologist Horatio C. Wood’s 1869 essay describing the time he took a huge dose of cannabis extract in his home office (to test whether Kentucky-grown hemp plants contained medicinal properties like those of imported cannabis extracts). Dr. Wood wrote that after taking the drug for the first time, his mind “gladly ran riot, free constantly to leap from one idea to another, apparently unbound from ordinary laws. I was disposed to … make comic gestures—one very frequently recurring fancy was to imitate with the arms the motions of a fiddler, and with the lips the tune he was supposed to be playing. … The mind seemed freed from all its ordinary laws of association so that it passed from idea to idea … at random.”

Certainly, a documented common effect of cannabis is a type of creatively generative impulse manifesting in the one-man riffs of Private Miller and Dr. Wood in two quite different times and settings. This effect was culturally significant in explicit ways. For example, jazz lyrics from the first half of the 20th century refer to the enjoyable use of reefers by working musicians. I would not be surprised to learn that not only was it quite possible to play to a packed house while high on cannabis, but also that the drug itself was a factor in the development of improvisation, or musical free association, within jazz.

In an adjacent vein, historians can glean a broader sensory enhancement of music for cannabis users. In the late 1930s, this effect was portrayed as causing young people to dance euphorically to live music in the exploitation films Marihuana and Reefer Madness/Tell Your Children/The Burning Question.

Long before that, in 1883, Harry Hubble Kane reported for Harper’s magazine on his excursion to a New York hashish house. A friend served to guide Kane through the purchase of gunjeh, evidently smokable cannabis plant matter, while the friend additionally purchased for himself an edible called Majoon made of “the resin of hemp, henbane, crushed datura seeds, butter, and honey.” The two reclined, smoking, amid a haze of silk curtains, fountains, cushions, lamps, and plants. Soon enough Kane detected the faint sound of music, and he wrote:

The music seemed to creep up through the heavy carpet, to ooze from the walls, to flurry, like snow-flakes, from the ceiling, rising and falling in measured cadences unlike any music I had ever heard. It seemed to steal, now softly, now merrily, on tiptoe into the room to see whether we were awake or asleep, to brush away a tear, if tear there was, or gambol airily and merrily, if such was our humor, and then as softly, sometimes sadly, to steal out again and lose itself in the distance. It was just such music as a boatful of fairies sailing about in the clear water of the fountain might have made, or that with which an angel mother would sing its angel babe to sleep. It seemed to enter every fibre of the body, and satisfy a music-hunger that had never before been satisfied. I silently filled my second pipe, and was about to lapse again into a reverie that had become delightfully full of perfect rest and comfort, when my companion, leaning toward me, said:

“I see that you are fast approaching Hashishdom.”

Something about Kane’s ornate attempt to recreate his reverie seems authentic to cannabis smoking, as does the interposition of his trusted friend, signifying a familiar reality in the social initiation of drug use generally. While researching the history of marihuana, I have had to rely on these types of subtle clues concerning drug effects to determine which plant drug was ingested.

The botanical identity of marihuana was barely established as cannabis in 1937, and the effects of many other plants had been associated with marihuana since its appearance in the Mexican and then the U.S. press. Some of these plants—especially those containing tropane alkaloids, such as datura and belladonna—had psychoactive effects that could be described as reefer madness: violent delirium, intense hallucination, perilous dissociation from reality, and death.

When marihuana was being explained to U.S. readers as similar to hashish around the turn of the century, hashish was not the chunk of pure cannabis resin we think of today. Rather, it was often an admixture of cannabis and other plants, whose effects could give rise to mythologies of violence and rebellion associated with hashish. Moreover, hashish was a “hemp drug” in the late colonial period, and hemp did not unambiguously mean cannabis at this time. Rather, it sometimes meant a different fiber plant, an aphrodisiac nettle whose effects could give rise to tales of calculating women employing hashish against weak-willed men.

Given the hodgepodge of ideas about plant effects that reigned in 1937 when Congress passed the Marihuana Tax Act, I have become fascinated with assessing effects (as recorded or represented): are they “real” cannabis effects or do they derive ultimately from some other human experience? This brings me, at long last, back to Private Miller. If Item 9 was cannabis, could it really cause him to throw away his service record on lewd mockery of a general?

There are at least two answers. First, during the Mexican Revolution, marihuana developed a reputation for causing a rebellious frenzy, which might have had some basis in actual effects of plants smoked by actual combatants; and/or it might have been borrowed from “running amuck” hashish mythology. At any rate, it was said to cause problems in the military. Perhaps the scene parodies this historical reputation, but I think it reflects a more recent development: Second, rebellion and cannabis smoking were both part of the hippie identity, but the correlation is not explained by cannabis effects.

Rather, it’s explained by cannabis policy; specifically, U.S. policy as ensconced in the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The cannabis use of the hippie was the rebellion of the rational in full flower. What happened in the 1930s was that cannabis, one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants and one that is rarely if ever found growing wild, became a popular drug because it was pleasant and safe, and people began to clandestinely cultivate and sell it. So marihuana law enforcement, which has all kinds of other purposes besides keeping people safe from harmful drug effects, was ever more commonly applied to the cannabis found among the populations that were being policed—immigrant laborers, radicals, urban Black communities, jazz musicians, and then the hippies.

Cannabis prohibition itself was destined to generate an anti-establishment, and it took less than 30 years to for it to coalesce into a cultural movement with a coherent and highly recognizable message: “F*ck you.” So, is Private Miller’s insubordination a “real” cannabis effect? It’s very hard to say.


Feature image: In Pineapple Express, Pvt. Miller (Bill Hader) experiences the sort of creatively generative impulse that can accompany a THC high.

#Americanfilm #Marijuana

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