Reefer Madness: Total Craziness?

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Reefer Madness is a ludicrous glimpse into early twentieth century anti-cannabis propaganda.  Designed to sensationalize and dissuade cannabis use, the movie enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s. It’s now considered by many to be a cult classic

Described as “the granddaddy of all “Worst” movies” by critic and film historian Leonard Maltin, (1)  the 1936 feature has an IMDb rating of just 3.7/10. However, many people believe its “so bad it’s good” quality makes it worth watching, if only to laugh and cringe. Alongside fellow movie duds such as Plan 9 From Outer Space, Troll 2, and The Room, Reefer Madness is unintentionally campy. But why was this bizarre black and white film made? Who financed it? And what can it teach us about American society’s rollercoaster relationship with cannabis?

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Society in the 1930s

In 1936, American society was still recovering from the ruinous Great Depression. It was less than a decade after the stock market crash of 1929, and five years before the United States would join World War II. Despite widespread economic problems, the movie industry developed rapidly during this period. Americans sought escapism in front of the silver screen. The introduction of sound to film in the decade prior meant that “talkies” were now well-established as the most spectacular form of entertainment. And at the same time, some filmmakers realized just how much potential film had to shape public opinion and sensationalize the issues of the day.

Tell Your Children

Reefer Madness was originally intended to be a cautionary tale aimed at the parents of teens. However, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t funded by the United States Government. In fact, the original cut of the movie was financed and created by a church group, with the title Tell Your Children. Shortly after it was made, a director known for his salacious movies bought and re-cut the movie. His name was Dwaine Esper. Esper’s prior credits include such notable classics as, Freak, Sex Maniac, and How to Undress in Front of Your Husband. In the newly re-cut version of Reefer Madness, he had a surefire exploitation hit disguised as a movie with moral messaging.

What is Exploitation Cinema?

By definition, exploitation cinema is sensational, crude, and, well…exploitative! Frequently falling into the “B-movie” category, these films explore taboos and aim to shock their audience with excessive violence, nudity, mayhem, or illicit activity. Reefer Madness portrayed the supposed pitfalls of cannabis use in an exaggerated, melodramatic way. Taglines on posters referred to cannabis as “the deadly scourge that drags our children into the quagmire of degradation.” It’s a wild ride, involving a hit and run, pot parties, hallucinations, murder, and actual madness!

The Devil’s Lettuce

The media in the 1930s considered cannabis and its proponents to be a real threat to society. According to them, opium, morphine, and heroin were dangerous, but “even more dangerous, more deadly, than these soul destroying drugs [was] the menace of marijuana.” (2) Posters of the day candidly linked cannabis use with crime, degeneracy, and wickedness. From a present-day perspective, this scaremongering is almost laughable. However, this vilification of weed had dark undertones. Reflecting on the ideologies of the era, contemporary research highlights the links between the demonization of weed and racism.

The Release of Reefer Madness coincided with the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which made it illegal to grow or distribute cannabis without a special federal stamp. (3)

Cannabis, Morality, and Prejudice

The emergence of jazz was an important cultural development in the 1920s and 30s. A wave of African American influence spread throughout the arts, reshaping nightlife throughout cities all over the country. Unfortunately, many outlets characterized jazz, and its association with smoking cannabis, as morally bankrupt and downright dangerous.

“We permit jam sessions, jitterbugs and cannibalistic rhythm orgies to occupy a place in our social scheme of things, wooing our youth along the primrose path to hell.” (4)

– Catholic Bishop of Duque, Illinois

OK, then.

Moreover, the press added fuel to the fire by highlighting the sensationalistic story of a criminal called Victor Licata. Three years before the release of Reefer Madness, Licata was tried for the murder of five of his family members. He had attacked his parents, his two brothers, and his sister with an ax while they were sleeping. Licata was a cannabis user. So, the press saw the opportunity to link recreational drug use with violent crime, while simultaneously ignoring his long history of unrelated mental health issues. (5) Subsequent cannabis laws were, in part, shaped by these anti-cannabis attitudes and opinions.

Seal of Approval

Although the original release of Reefer Madness coincided with the government’s Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, it was neither produced by the government nor endorsed by them. However, in order to be distributed on a large scale, movies made at the time did have to abide by the strict Production Code of 1930, commonly known as the Hays Code. These regulations prohibited any film from portraying “immoral acts” such as drug use. So how did Reefer Madness slip under the censors’ radar

Under its guise as an  “educational” movie, Reefer Madness was cleared for general release in Main Street movie theaters countrywide. Dwaine Esper had persuaded the authorities that the portrayal of drug use in Reefer Madness was to show the dangers of cannabis use. Therefore, the purpose of the movie was to warn, and educate the masses. But Esper wasn’t really interested in moral messaging. Esper was likely in it for the money alone. His main goal was to ride the commercial success of the film, making green from vilifying green! 

Inaccuracy & Exaggeration

Viewed through modern eyes, Reefer Madness is a comically inaccurate take on the behavioral effects of smoking weed. But in its time, many would formulate a negative opinion of cannabis from its messaging. The film is framed from the perspective of a high school principal’s lecture at a PTA meeting. However, the majority of the action takes place between teenage protagonists. They are enticed to a “reefer-house”, where they engage in wild parties, listen to jazz music, and smoke “reefer cigarettes.” 

In a real-life situation, perhaps we’d expect to see a group of mellow friends relaxing on the couch enjoying their weed in peace. Instead, smoking cannabis is portrayed as having catastrophic effects on the characters’ lives, and the lives of the people around them. Murder, false accusations, guilt, and finally, commitment to a mental hospital painted cannabis use as extremely harmful to society. This is in stark contrast to how it’s viewed by the majority of Americans today.

The Current State of Play

Thankfully, public opinion has changed significantly since the 1930s. we’re better educated on the therapeutic and recreational benefits of cannabis, and it’s legal, or legal for medical use in 38 states. The majority of Americans want it legalized at both the state and federal levels. Many of us enjoy its benefits on a regular basis. The State of California continues to lead the way with legislation, permitting its use medically and recreationally. Manufacturers produce a huge variety of quality cannabis products, allowing consumers to reap the rewards! It’s a far cry from the jazz halls of the 1930s, but the spirit of smoking remains; have fun, take it easy, be creative, or just relax!

Medallion Wellness serves residents of Modesto, Atwater, Fresno, Merced, Waterford and surrounding neighborhoods. Find out about same-day delivery of premium flower, vapes, tinctures and more on our delivery information page!

Cult Classic Status

Reefer Madness is familiar to most modern cannabis users. This is thanks, in part, to its rediscovery by one man in the 1970s. R. Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) acquired a copy of the movie from the Library of Congress after he discovered it was no longer under copyright. (4) Thanks to Stroup, and some enthusiastic midnight movie watchers in the 70s and beyond, Reefer Madness is a piece of propaganda history. 

Where Can I Watch Reefer Madness?

Reefer Madness is in the public domain, which means it’s not subject to copyright law. As a result, the movie is widely available online, so feel free to watch it if you’re interested in seeing it for yourself. If anything, you can certainly sit back, take a puff, and laugh at the absurdity of it all! Viewed by modern audiences, it is seen as an alarmist, over-dramatized B-movie, but it definitely deserves a small place in the annals of cannabis history. And we’re sure that the irony of watching Reefer Madness while enjoying a well packed bowl is not lost on anybody

A-List Weed at Medallion

In honor of camp classics like Reefer Madness, we offer a premium selection of cannabis products that are heavy on the THC not heavy on the melodrama! Shop our full menu online to find the top-shelf products you love the most. Alternatively, you can visit one of our six dispensaries in person in Modesto, Atwater, Waterford, Fresno, or Merced.

Order Cannabis Online in Central California

Browse our extensive location-specific menus, order online, and have your favorite cannabis products delivered by Medallion! Follow the checkout process, receive a text message when your driver is out for delivery, and get your weed with minimal hassle!

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References

  1. Maltin, L. (2004). Leonard Maltin’s Movie & Video Guide. Plume. https://archive.org/details/leonardmaltinsmo00leon 
  2. Stringer, R. J., & Maggard, S. R. (2016). Reefer Madness to Marijuana Legalization. Journal of Drug Issues, 46(4), 428–445. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022042616659762
  3. McKenna, G. J. (2014). The Current Status of Medical Marijuana in the United States. Hawai’i Journal of Medicine & Public Health, 73(4), 105–108. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3998227/ 
  4. Savage, J. (2018). Demonising those teenage dirtbags: The current moral outcry over drill music is so last century. Adults have been scared about what the kids are singing for decades. Index on Censorship, 47(2), 66–69. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306422018784511 
  5. Fisher, G. (n.d.). RACIAL MYTHS OF THE CANNABIS WAR. https://www.bu.edu/bulawreview/files/2021/07/FISHER.pdf 
  6. Bostwick, J. M. (2012). Blurred Boundaries: The Therapeutics and Politics of Medical Marijuana. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 87(2), 172–186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2011.10.003
  7. Hall, W., & Yeates, S. (2020). Reefer Madness: an undeserved classic movie. Addiction. https://doi.org/10.1111/add.15258
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