Exploring Classic Anti-Cannabis Propaganda: Reefer Madness

In retrospect, some of the anti-drug PSAs and films we saw as children were not only inaccurate and ineffective but also low-key hilarious. The over-dramatization, campy production value, and lack of self-awareness associated with this particular style of American propaganda often come across as comical, especially when watching while under the influence of cannabis. However funny they may seem, films like these have influenced politicians, lawmakers, and concerned parents—contributing to the fruition of some of the most disastrous drug enforcement policies ever seen.

Today, we’ll take a look at one of the most iconic examples of this type of media: the 1936 film Reefer Madness. Let’s learn more about the movie and how it impacted cannabis in the United States. 

Cinema Of The 1930s 

Cannabis in 1930s cinema

Perhaps the best place to start is by placing the film in a historical context. Reefer Madness is, at its core, a product of its era. The ‘30s were rife with global scale economic and political turmoil. The effects of the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929 sent shockwaves across the globe, hobbling international financing and trade. Fascist political movements began taking hold across Europe, and things felt less certain than ever for the average American working-class family. 

In these precarious times, what regular folks wanted most was liberation from their troubles—to banish their worries behind a wall of fantastical escapism. Technology set out to deliver this relief by way of the “talkie,” a motion picture with the addition of sound. These talkies started as marvels of innovation but soon became commonplace as theaters inundated city centers. This era generally gets referred to as the Golden Age of Hollywood, and it’s where we first begin to see many of the tropes in filmmaking form. Monster movies took the intangible fears of the collective unconscious and translated them into carnate. The hero-worship of newly minted Hollywood stars and starlets allowed the downtrodden Depression-era American to project themselves onto a glimmering image of success. During this time, the studio system churned out products at a blistering pace and was one of the few industries that saw economic growth during the ‘30s. 

When watching these studio-era films, one notices a certain kind of exaggeration. Previously, vaudeville performers and silent-film actors relied heavily on physicality and facial expressions to convey narrative. We see these techniques continue into the Golden Age, and while modern audiences watching may find it a tad silly and put on, this type of performance would be recognizable and palatable to the 1930’s moviegoers as well as appealing to their desire for escapism. You went to the movies to avoid reality, not be reminded of it, and the overacting helps facilitate this separation. 

Reefer Madness

Reefer madness in the movies

The film Reefer Madness, was originally produced by a church group under the title, Tell Your Children. The group solely intended for the film to serve as a warning against the dangers of marijuana, though exploitative filmmaker Dwain Esper quickly purchased the film and spliced in some more titillating shots. 

At the time Reefer Madness first played, film studios faced pretty extreme censorship. The Hays Code, which sought to promote traditional values in cinema by banning things like profanity, nudity, or anything considered immoral by the staunchly conservative Catholics who created it, heavily limited what could be shown on a silver screen. However, one could depict more salacious acts if they were presented as a cautionary tale—a technique Esper helped pioneer. 

So, Reefer Madness functions as both an overt warning against cannabis use, as well as a tantalizing peek into the taboo for repressed middle-class white audiences. It simultaneously disavows the world of jazz and marijuana while inviting the audience to sate their desire to partake in it. This bifurcation may be at least partially responsible for the film’s cult following, which began when marijuana advocate and leader of NORML Kenneth Stroup started screening the movie in the ‘70s as a joke to help raise funds for his legalization efforts. 

The History Of Cannabis Prohibition, And Reefer Madness’ Impact 

When looking at the history of cannabis and why it was made illegal, you see that Reefer Madness didn’t so much spark the national drug panic, so much as it encapsulated it. By the time the film first aired, the push to outlaw all recreational drugs, including marijuana, was already well on its way. The Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act already allowed states to ban cannabis. The Marihuana Tax Act, which in practical effect made cannabis illegal, would be passed a whole year before Esper began distributing the film to wider audiences on the exploitation circuit. These legislative decisions were largely based on racism against Mexican immigrants and African-American musicians rather than the violent and deranged side effects portrayed in Esper’s cut of the film. 

While you can’t blame Reefer Madness directly for creating the drug panic, it very likely helped shape a generational opinion. Despite the myriad benefits of hemp flower, it would be close to a century until we began dismantling cannabis prohibition laws, and films like Reefer Madness, without a doubt, contributed to the unfounded fear of marijuana. 

Reefer madness and cannabis prohibition