Marvel’s Anti-Marijuana Comic And The Forgotten ‘Fastlane’

By John Lavitt 05/13/14

Fifteen years ago, the U.S. government commissioned Marvel Comics to push a Reefer Madness-like anti-drug message. Public attitudes have since changed, though government tactics still lag behind.

Beware Marijuana Man! Marvel Comics

In 1999, Marvel Comics surprised many readers when they released the polemical Fastlane, a comic insert about an anti-marijuana crusade by Spiderman, into their new comics. For four months, Marvel comic book readers were unable to avoid the eight-page anti-pot screed that would appear in the middle of every single Marvel Comic published. The purpose of the insert was to let the reader know about the dangers of marijuana. With friends in trouble in the story, Spiderman explained how pot could lead to the dangers of addiction.

In a journalistic investigation by Chris Sims, artist Gregg Schigiel, Editor Steve Behling, Head of Marvel Creative Services Mike Thomas, and John Fraser provided an oral history of Fastlane. Though proud of their work, the creatives were frustrated by its failure to have any real impact. What remains intriguing is the actual writer remains unknown, hiding like a superhero behind a secret identity.

As Marvel Senior Vice President for Strategic Promotions and Advertising, Fraser tried to balance the anti-drug message with the brands of the comic book characters. In an interview with journalist Chris Sims, John Fraser explained:

“[Fastlane] was commissioned by the White House Office of Drug Control Policy as part of a media campaign to educate youth about becoming media literate and understand and manage the messages in the market that might negatively influence their choices (specifically with drugs),” Fraser said. “It was the only comic ever to be published (serially in 4 parts in this case) in multiple kid-oriented magazines (Marvel Comics, Boys' Life, Scholastic, Sports Illustrated for Kids, and several other leading boy/girl kids publications) reaching a combined circulation in the multimillions (unheard of today).”

A serious problem was the presentation of marijuana as being exceedingly dangerous, while depicting pot smokers suffering extreme hallucinations and bizarre visions that transcended even the worst acid trip. By going over the top, the comic book lost its chance to convince readers about the dangers of marijuana abuse and fell into the realm of parody.

Today such tactics would be ridiculed in an instant across a vast array of social media, particularly given the rapidly shifting attitudes toward marijuana both in public and by politicians. Still, it wasn't that long ago that the federal government was spending valuable taxpayer dollars on ineffective propaganda, though little has changed in the government's overall approach to the ongoing drug war.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.