By Andrew Amelinckx
“Reefer Madness” is certainly the most well-known anti-cannabis film of all time.
It isn’t just a poorly made and acted exploitation film from the 1930s (though it is those things as well), it’s also an influential film that helped lay the foundation for cannabis prohibition and misinformation for the next 80 years of American culture. It was part of a concerted effort by Washington, Hollywood, and the mainstream media to demonize marijuana through propaganda. And, in a strange twist, it would also help ignite the movement to roll back the stigmas and laws it brought about to help generate and become a potent symbol for legalization.
The term “Reefer Madness” has become a shorthand way to describe misconceptions about weed that are spread through fearmongering or political motivation.
This is all to say that “Reefer Madness” may also be one of the most important and influential weed movies in film history. All that, and most modern-day American stoners probably haven’t even seen it, much less fully understand how it came to be so embedded in the cannabis conversation. So let’s explore the history of “Reefer Madness,” and examine how it has stayed in weed culture today.
‘Reefer Madness’ was Backed by … a Church?
“Reefer Madness” was produced in 1936 by George Hirliman and directed by the French B-movie director Louis Gasnier. It tells the story of high school kids who after one puff of weed become hopeless addicts with dark circles under their eyes and a penchant for sex and violence. There’s a hit-and-run accident, a near-rape, a shooting, a suicide, and incurable insanity for the characters who fall prey to the real “Public Enemy No. 1,” as the plant is described in the film’s prologue.
The film was financed by a church group under the title “Tell Your Children,” according to a 1987 Los Angeles Times interview with Thelma White, one of the film’s stars. “Tell Your Children” was supposed to be a cautionary film warning parents about the dangers of cannabis, according to Jan-Christopher Horak, the director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. But Dwain Esper, an exploitation film producer and distributor, was able to buy the film, he said. Esper recut the film and added a few racy scenes, including one in which an actress slowly gets dressed, in order to make it more commercially viable for the exploitation market, according to Horak.
The exploitation-film business of the 1930s and ’40s was a sort of “shadow market apart from the official film industry” focused on “radical” social and political content, such as sexually transmitted diseases, drugs, and race relations, according to Horak. They were shown in small independent theaters and weren’t under the same content restrictions as the major studios.
Esper had already made a film called “Marihuana,” along the same lines as “Reefer Madness” and knew what would sell: sex, violence, and scare tactics.
“Because these movies were being shown in these theaters outside of the mainstream the amount of money they were earning was not that great but the films would run and run and run,” Horak said. “Reefer Madness” would run for decades.
But First, Let’s Demonize Weed
While “Reefer Madness” and similar films were not actually produced by the U.S. government (a common misconception), they did help reinforce the propaganda pushed by Harry J. Anslinger, the director of the newly formed Federal Bureau of Narcotics and architect of the federal government’s war on cannabis.
Beginning in 1934, Anslinger, with the help of the “yellow press” — tabloid newspapers prone to sensationalism over facts — began a nationwide campaign against cannabis, according to Martin A. Lee’s “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana — Medical, Recreational, Scientific.”
The exploitation filmmakers, seeing an opportunity to make money, jumped on the bandwagon. While there is a moral perspective in “Reefer Madness,” Esper and other exploitation producers had no qualms with loading their films with sex, drug use, and other images mainstream movies couldn’t show, Horak said. It was their main selling points.
While these movies were simply cash grabs, “Reefer Madness” and other anti-marijuana propaganda films helped push the cannabis prohibition, according to R. Keith Stroup, the legal counsel and founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
“I think the films were an important element in reinforcing the ignorance that was prevalent regarding marijuana during the 1930s when prohibition was first adopted,” Stroup told Weedmaps News. “The government, I’m sure, loved the fact that it was out there, but it was a privately made movie produced to make money.”
“Reefer Madness,” using various titles such as “The Burning Question” and “Love Madness,” continued to be shown all the way into the early 1960s before finally fizzling out.
It would take Stroup and a new generation of weed smokers to revive the film and help turn it into a pop-culture phenomenon.
NORML, the Midnight Movie, and the birth of a Cult Classic
In 1972, Stroup, who had founded NORML two years earlier, bought a copy of “Reefer Madness,” which wasn’t under copyright, from the Library of Congress. He had a friend edit it down from its original 1 hour, 8 minute running time to about 35 minutes and began showing it on college campuses during his lectures. The money generated from the showings helped fund the fight against cannabis prohibition.
“During those early years, I was doing a lot of college lectures as a way to raise money for NORML, but also as a way to organize politically,” Stroup said. “I used [“Reefer Madness”] for years to get press attention, to raise money, and to kind of ridicule the lack of a factual basis for marijuana prohibition.”
Copies of the edited movie were soon being used by various NORML chapters in California, New York, and Texas, helping to spread “Reefer Madness” far and wide. Stroup even put up a “Reefer Madness” poster in his office at NORML’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. A New York Times article on Stroup in January 1973 mentioned the poster and featured an image of it in the report.
“I didn’t intentionally revive ‘Reefer Madness’,” Stroup said. “It was just a byproduct of the fact that once we’d got it out there, campus papers would write a story discussing the movie as part of my lecture and other people began to pick up on it. Then it began to be available in the theaters.”
Soon after NORML began showing the film it was picked up by various theaters during the heyday of the midnight movie craze of the 1970s. It was often paired with old sci-fi films, cartoons, and other exploitation films of the same era. “Reefer Madness” became an underground hit.
“’Reefer Madness’ proved popular with ‘potheads’ and their straight counterparts alike due to its outlandish depictions of the effects of marijuana on its users,” wrote Eric Shaefer in his book “Bold! Shocking! Daring! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959.” “Camp was cool and ‘Reefer Madness’ had become the essence of camp.”
‘Reefer Madness’ Enters the Popular Culture
It became almost a rite of passage for stoners to get high and watch the film. By the 1980s it was being shown on cable channels and was available on VHS. “What could be more fun than laughing watching ‘Reefer Madness’ while you shared your marijuana with your college buddies,” Stroup said.
In 1999, college friends Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy produced a musical stage version that became an off-Broadway hit and was adapted in 2005 for Showtime with a cast that included Kristen Bell, siblings Christian Campbell and Neve Campbell, and Alan Cumming.
Eventually, “Reefer Madness” became a byword for weed-related activities, a yesteryear’s 420.
For instance, consider this January 2014 Newsweek headline for a report on the increase in marijuana-related stocks: “Wall Street’s Reefer Madness.”
Or consider this scene from the “That ’70s Show” third season opener, the appropriately titled “Reefer Madness”:
The film has been sampled or referenced in several hip-hop songs and videos by music artists including Afroman, The Kottonmouth Kings, G-Eazy, and Sir Bigs; and the poster and related imagery can be had on refrigerator magnets, T-shirts, and more.
Stroup believes the film still has cultural relevance because of what it represents. “It was part of the mess we inherited and that we had to take care of,” he said. Beyond this, the film that was originally intended to snuff out cannabis use has helped in the fight to end its prohibition thanks to Stroup who used it to finance NORML’s drug reform efforts.
Today, Horak sees the film as a window into the taboos of the period but also as a way for today’s cannabis users to connect with the past since its use isn’t something that was just invented. “They were smoking [cannabis] back in the ’30s,” he said.
To learn more about how the “Reefer Madness” influenced the world of cannabis, check out the “Age of Madness” exhibit at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed. For ticket information, visit themuseumofweed.com.
Feature image illustrated by David Lozada/Weedmaps