Known by both those who do and those who don’t consume cannabis, “Reefer Madness” (1936) left an indelible mark on American culture – one that has yet to fade after more than 80 years. But why was it made? And why did it focus on marijuana in particular, of all drugs? And why, by the way, does it show women in their underwear when that’s not even part of the messaging? Well, here’s why.

For the Uninitiated

If you’re not familiar with “Reefer Madness,” read on to get a taste of why you should care about this movie at all. Be warned, however, that from this point forward is a fistful of SPOILERS.

Officially, “Reefer Madness” is an educational movie. It’s a cautionary tale that educates its viewers on the harmful effects of marijuana consumption (addiction, really) on people and on society as a whole. What it actually is, however, is an all-dancing, all-singing propaganda spectacular that used terror to rally public support for federal legislation criminalizing marijuana.

In the film, high schoolers are given (that’s right, given, not even sold) marijuana by a super sketchy crime quartet. After just one toke, each new pot smoker turns into a savage, explosively sexual psychopath with a laugh that sounds like a car whose ignition won’t start. Once these kiddies become hopeless pot addicts, their lives spiral out of control as they engage in all kinds of criminal activities with the pushers. In the end, people are dead, crazy, or otherwise ruined – all because of an evil plant, the “weed with roots in hell.”

OK, Now Some Historical Context

It’s the late 1930s. Americans are being suffocated by the Great Depression’s poverty epidemic. They’re unemployed, starving, hopeless and in desperate need of being rescued. That requires focusing on someone or something that can solve everyone’s problems by being eradicated.

Finding Someone to Blame

What’s the easiest thing a group can blame all of its problems on? The answer: another group. To many 1930s Americans, immigrants were the reason why the Great Depression had gone on for as long as it had. As more and more people arrived in the United States to build new lives, it meant that those already in the country had ever greater competition for ever fewer jobs. Basic survival instincts burned an us-versus-them mentality into the collective psyche and pitted existing residents against those newly arrived. In port cities along the Gulf Coast, there were the West Indian immigrants. In the broader southwest, there were the Mexican immigrants. Once the media and politicians set everyone’s sights on these segments of the population, all that was needed was the right voice, carrying the right message.

Transferring Hatred from the People to the Plant

So, sentiment against the newest immigrants was high, and Mexicans and Indians in particular were targeted. But how was that broad-sweeping hatred for certain people converted into a campaign against drugs? And within that campaign, how was marijuana singled out? Well, all it took was racially charged fear-mongering, really.

Once the masses were turned against Mexican immigrants, the plant was basically guilty by association. Mexican immigrants were regarded as having popularized the use of recreational (versus medicinal) marijuana. Some people even claimed that it was Mexicans who had introduced Americans to using cannabis to get high. And Mexicans were accused of distributing marijuana to schoolchildren, too. As a result of allegations like these, Mexican immigrants were inextricably linked in the public eye to the plant. The media even changed the spelling of the word, originally “marihuana,” to make it appear more Spanish-derived and reinforce the connection to Mexican immigrants.

Indian immigrants were socially indicted because, in the 1930s, India was one of the countries that exported cannabis to the United States. Faulted en mass as presumed suppliers, these immigrants were blamed for not only the use of cannabis but also its provision. And on the legislative front, hostility toward Indian immigrants already had a history anyhow. In 1913, California had become the first state to pass a law against marijuana. Sponsored by the California Board of Pharmacy, the law aimed to prevent the spread of cannabis indica (referring to India-exported cannabis) after the majority-white population started consuming it. Never mind that U.S. pharmaceutical firms were actually the primary importers of cannabis indica – specifically for recreational purposes, no less. What mattered was the opportunity to snatch up a ready-made scapegoat to feed to the ravenous xenophobia devouring the southwestern United States.

The Final Straw

As Americans watched society falling to pieces, torn by poverty and poverty-induced crime, they were led to attribute the abject squalor not to economic hardship but to drugs. Not all drugs though, just the ones they had been trained to associate with certain undesirable immigrants. Having brought an end to Prohibition in 1933, they clearly tolerated alcohol consumption, and there was little opposition (outside of temperance advocates) to smoking tobacco at that time. These were perceived as white people’s vices, and tobacco was an American staple. But the consumption of cannabis, presumably procured from the demonized Mexican and Indian immigrants, was moral delinquency for white people. And that had to be stopped.

A New Government Agency and a Man on a Mission

In 1930, the U.S. government created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), with Harry J. Anslinger as its first commissioner. Exploiting public hostility toward Mexicans in particular made marijuana an easy target for the FBN. Plus, Anslinger had fought a losing battle against alcohol during the Prohibition era, and he was determined to succeed in this new crusade. In fact, his funding depended on that success, so his determination sprang from much more than his craving a victory. He had failed to snuff out the whites’ intoxicant of choice, alcohol, but he could ride the tide of blaming Latinos and other targeted groups to tackle marijuana use.

Fodder for the Masses’ Fears

To generate general hysteria, research was falsified that linked the use of marijuana to crime and social deviance. Anslinger himself said that marijuana led to insanity, criminality and death. When the propaganda film series of which “Reefer Madness” was a part debuted, the films exacerbated social malaise over cannabis. Marijuana was even said to be worse than alcohol, opium and cocaine in corrupting the youth of America. (To this day, marijuana is classified by the U.S. government as a Schedule 1 drug, along with cocaine and heroin, just by the way.)

And Here’s Why the Movie Was Made

Condemning Marijuana on Religious Grounds

In 1930s America, the church held sway culturally, and churchgoers were becoming increasingly concerned about marijuana use. The plant was made to look like the chief cause of everyone’s misery during the Great Depression. And while society was falling apart, people wanted an explanation and a way out. The explanation offered by the church (among others) was that cannabis was the cause of society’s downfall. This was proven through circumstantial evidence and pseudo-fact finding efforts undertaken by would-be experts like Anslinger and the FBN. If people could just get rid of marijuana, the one sin that had America pinned to hell on earth, everything would get better.

Remedying the Knowledge Deficit

The church was convinced that ridding America of cannabis would be a panacea of sorts. But it believed that not enough people knew or adequately understood that fact. So, with the support of the government (federal, state and local), the church sought to fix that – via cinema. The church group Tell Your Children asked director Louis Gasnier and producer George Hirliman to make a movie that explained what cannabis was doing to society. Churchgoers and government bodies alike wanted to discredit marijuana use and paint a horrifying picture about marijuana addiction. Thus, “Reefer Madness” was borne of this great commission.

Masking Hyperbole as Reality

Rivaling Joseph Goebbels’ talent for conjuring up fiction that could be packaged and sold as fact, the writers and directors of “Reefer Madness” used creativity sodden with bias to – ahem –educate audiences. The film’s foreword exemplifies this tactic:

“The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Marihuana is that drug – a violent narcotic – an unspeakable scourge – The Real Public Enemy Number One! Its first effect is sudden violent, uncontrollable laughter, then come dangerous hallucinations – space expands – time slows down, almost stands still … fixed ideas come next, conjuring up monstrous extravagances – followed by emotional disturbances, the total inability to direct thoughts, the loss of all power to resist physical emotions leading finally to acts of shocking violence … ending often in incurable insanity. In picturing its soul-destroying effects no attempt was made to equivocate. The scenes and incidents, while fictionized for the purposes of this story, are based upon actual research into the results of Marihuana addiction. If their stark reality will make you think, will make you aware that something must be done to wipe out this ghastly menace, then the picture will not have failed in its purpose. Because the dread Marihuana may be reaching forth next for your son or daughter … or yours … or YOURS!” – “Reefer Madness” (1936) Foreword

To really hit the point home, the film even ends with a psychological jump-scare, with the school principal (Josef Forte) breaking the fourth wall. Delivering the final line from the foreword while addressing a roomful of students’ parents, he faces the camera and points down the barrel of it when belting out the final “or yours!”

Touching Up the Film for Distribution

A couple of years after Gasnier made the movie, ill-reputed distributor Dwain Esper bought it and acquired the rights to it to distribute it to a broader audience. Before passing it around, however, he sexed it up with shots of ladies in their undergarments. In one scene, the camera inexplicably lingers on Mae (Thelma White) while she’s changing clothes, with close-ups of her attaching her stockings to her garters. In another scene, high teenagers are dry-humping on a couch. Now, that might not seem very racy by today’s standards, but things like that were a big deal in the 1930s. Censors in New York actually banned the movie in 1938, in fact.

After Esper had spruced up the wholesome version of the good-intentioned – albeit ludicrously misinformed and hyperbolic – film, he shopped it out on the exploitation film circuit. It was released in four areas of the United States, and each area gave the film a different name, sometimes re-editing it as well. In the south, it went by “Tell Your Children” (1938); in the west, “Doped Youth” (1940); in the southeast, “The Burning Question” (1940); and in the northeast, “Reefer Madness” (1947). The film was then screened all over the country during the 1940s, with “Reefer Madness” becoming the most popular name.

Getting Around Censorship

Esper was able to openly distribute the film because he kept it labeled as an educational film. If he hadn’t, he would’ve been subject to laws and industry codes (e.g., the Motion Picture Production Code) that prohibited showing things like sex and drugs in movies. Under the guise of moral guidance though, he was able to capitalize on vulgarity – and look good doing it, no less.

That was actually a very common practice at the time, with many film makers and distributers lashing out against strict limits placed on films. The Motion Picture Association of America, composed of the major Hollywood studios, had banned the showing of any narcotics in films. After making the original 1930 code stricter in 1934, the association’s efforts unwittingly spawned counterfeit educational films by leaving in an easily exploited loophole. The code forbade the portrayal of immoral acts on the grounds that including these might lead viewers to engage in them out of curiosity. But it allowed educational and instructional films to include immoral acts because these acts would be shown in a deliberately and explicitly negative way. So, as long as you were showing smut and dope to kids to tell them “Don’t do this,” you were in the clear. And you were a hero for preaching the message, too.

The Real Lesson Here

Having watched this film several times (for research purposes and a good laugh), I believe it has more to teach us than, “Marijuana is the antichrist in plant form.” In fact, if you ask me, there’s one really important thing you should learn from this movie – one that stands the test of time. Ready for it? Here it is: If an overly friendly guy in his mid-40s invites you to his apartment while you’re on your way home from high school, seconds after meeting him, decline the invitation.

You kind of have to see the movie to get what I mean by that, but it’s a free life tip all the same. You’re welcome.