FILM REVIEW: ‘Reefer Madness’ 1936 | Public domain | Propaganda, melodrama | Streaming through the Seattle Public Library
The first time I watched “Reefer Madness” (1936), I was in high school and a goody-two-shoes, straight-A student. Even then, I knew it was campy and ridiculous. The second time I watched the movie, I was high as a kite and watching for the irony, like every college student. As a bonafide adult, I now see how this movie has its place not only as a cult classic but as a cornerstone of America’s War on Drugs.
“Reefer Madness” starts with a giant disclaimer stating that the scenes may “disturb you.” The word MARIHUANA fills the screen in bold cursive. The text explains how deadly the drug is, leading to “acts of shocking violence.”
In 2022, when 18 states have legalized weed and its medicinal properties have mostly been recognized, it’s easy to forget that cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug, the same as heroin. Weed is referred to as a “deadly narcotic” in the film, where in 2022, it’s laughable to classify it as more dangerous than OxyContin (developed by Purdue Pharmaceutical in 1996) or fentanyl (developed by Dr. Paul Janssen in 1960).
The opening scene of the somber-looking law enforcement officer talking to a room full of middle-class white onlookers is still relevant today. As he rambles about more creative places to hide drugs than I’ve ever seen, the parents look on in horror and dismay. The movie then goes into the “plot,” or the aspect that’s supposed to scare viewers into never touching the drug.
In a nameless suburban town filled with wholesome white neighbors, two mysterious gangsters who are cohabiting before marriage decide to ensnare the teenage population with cannabis. Instead of showing life as worth living without drugs, “Reefer Madness” jumps into showing the youth of the day having fun with cannabis. They dance, they get together, they flirt — but then they take it to excess with the help of some cannabis provided by the aforementioned shady well-dressed gangster and his salacious femme fatale. These drug dealers are inherently terrible at their job; they give product away freely by approaching random teenagers and then bringing those same teenagers back to their mansion to listen to music, dance and have alone time in a spare room.
As the teenagers devolve into the standard drug-fueled bacchanalian reverie, eventually one ends up running over a man in the street and then killing a girl in a scuffle with another doped-out fiend.
Instead of making cannabis seem like something that will make your life worse, “Reefer Madness” implies life can be explored more richly through drug use. The movie suffers from a lack of a score, so using music mostly in association with drugs results in a more three-dimensional experience when the characters are inebriated. Despite the intention being to show drugs as bad, the movie generally does the opposite. Other than the accidental murder, of course.
The plot and the script don’t make much sense in 2022, and anything that does is usually on accident. As a modern viewer, it’s easy to dismiss the movie as a shock-umentary, but there are still people — particularly brown and Black people — who are sitting in prison for possession of less than an ounce of cannabis. In the face of the opioid crisis, it is interesting that the reason given for cannabis’s danger is because it is grown in all 50 states by small-scale dealers. In reality, giant drug rings and ruthless pharmaceutical companies are the ones flooding the market with deadly drugs, not home-growers.
Just a year after “Reefer Madness” was released, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was passed, which also kept hemp from being used as a viable substitute for logging. While Nixon officially started the War on Drugs, he removed mandatory minimums before his impeachment. Like many harmful policies, the devastating effects of the War on Drugs can be traced back to former president Ronald Reagan. Under his watch, this policy evolved into the discriminatory, racist beast that devastated Black and brown communities and, as cannabis was legalized, even kept them out of the above-board structures (see page 5).
One of the most dramatically racist scare tactics used over and over again in the film is the exaggerated mispronunciation of “marijuana” as “mary-HU-wana.” There is an ongoing conversation in cannabis circles around the use of “marijuana,” as a non-English word in a primarily English-speaking country. Some feel that the language matters and should be changed. Others, such as Latin American history professor Isaac Campos, don’t believe so. In an interview last month with KUOW, Campos stated, “The idea that the word marijuana is racist, I just think it’s nonsense. Marijuana is just the Mexican word [for the] drug cannabis.”
In March 2022, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill into law that will update the Revised Code of Washington to replace any use of the word “marijuana” with what the legislature determined was a less racially coded word: “cannabis.” Cannabis may be the technical term from now on, but it’ll always be known by a variety of names by recreational users.
Recreational users may be some of the only people who can genuinely enjoy “Reefer Madness.” From a technical standpoint, “Reefer Madness” is horrible. The same clip of a man laughing is used several times, and the lack of any music or atmospheric background noise makes it extremely uncomfortable to watch sober. Combined with the false narratives about cannabis, the film feels more like a KOMO hit piece to rile up NIMBYs than anything educational.
As a piece of propaganda, however, “Reefer Madness” was effective in the late ‘30s. Like many propaganda pieces, it isn’t based on anything real. Instead, the film admits, “The scenes and incidents, while fictionalized for the purposes of this story, are based upon actual research into the results of Marihuana addiction.” However, there was not any official research. This movie was written and directed by a church group, which followed it up with two more anti-cannabis morality tale films, “Marihuana” (1936) and “Assassin of Youth” (1937). It helped fuel hysteria not unlike the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s and the moral panic over violent video games in the early 2000s. Misinformation campaigns have been inherently tied to American pathos.
The film “Reefer Madness” had a resurgence in the 1970s, as counterculture claimed the movie as a comedy satire. The irony speaks for itself, but I truly believe this metamorphosis is the only way a movie like “Reefer Madness” can survive in 2022. Today, “Reefer Madness” is embraced as a cult classic for all the things that make it horrible. The stilted acting and lines, the unrealistic portrayal of being stoned and, if you watch the movie in color, prismatic smoke edited onto the regular smoke so you can tell they’re smoking cannabis and not cigarettes, which would have been completely acceptable — even healthy! All of these aspects are satirized even further by the musical by the same name, which had a 2005 film version with much of the original off-Broadway cast.
Whether you toke up, smoke, vape, consume an edible, rip the bong or imbibe in whatever way you see fit, this flick makes for an interesting retrospective and makes for a good laugh. For better or worse, “Reefer Madness” is part of American 420 history.
You may also be interested in:
• “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004).
• “Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave” (2005).
• “Grass Is Greener” (2019).
Leinani Lucas is an Indigenous and Black writer from the Pacific Northwest. She can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas
Read more of the Apr. 20-26, 2022 issue.