"Gimme Some Reefers!"

The Politics of Fear

Fear is a tremendous motivator, and in the hands of a very skilful propagandist it can mobilize the masses to action, mostly in unpleasantness (Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the Ku Klux Klan, George W. Bush’s false “War on Terror”). 

Any program originating from a position of groundless fear and misinformation is ultimately doomed.  The action itself more than likely is bred from ignorance: ignorance of common sense facts, ignorance of research, and ignorance of gathered intelligence about any particular issue.

The so-called “War on Drugs”, holistically, is an epic failure for the same reasons the Volstead Act was a miserable failure and was bad for America.  Prohibiting a desired commodity (whether drugs, alcohol, or pornography) and criminalizing it creates criminals and ends up costing society more in the end than what is gained (usually the “gain” is only a smug sense of morality upon which no relevant price can be affixed).

The debate about whether or not to legalize certain drugs, or de-criminalize them, is a raging one.  Arguments against marijuana legalization always focus on a fearful belief the entire US population would magically start smoking weed if it were suddenly available at the corner store.  This is untrue. Marijuana is so readily obtainable now that anyone who wants to smoke it can, and does.  People who currently don’t smoke marijuana would most likely not take up the habit if it were legalized.  Thus, no new smokers would be added.

Legalizing marijuana would actually have the opposite effect: fewer people would smoke it. The Volstead Act increased the amount of alcohol consumed in the US during its run (by the natural human tendency to partake of any “forbidden fruit”).  Similarly, by legalizing marijuana it is almost a certainty its consumption would decrease.  Simply put, one major contributor would be the loss of “cool” since any geek or non-hipster could start smoking it.  Part of weed’s allure is its association with the “bad boy” mentality: “We’re rebels, we smoke dope.  We’re non-conformists! We’re baaaaaddd!!!”  Once that cachet is lost, posers who smoke marijuana because they think it makes them “outsiders” and non-conformists will stop smoking it.  That’s what hipsters do – the minute the masses catch on, they move on.

The “War on Drugs” is not only “fought” on the ground (battling importation) but in the minds of the masses as well.  Propaganda purports to present “known facts” about a particular issue or substance.  The agenda behind fear propagation is to bend the masses to the will of a select group, whether it was Temperance Unions in the late 1800s, Labor Unions in the early 1900s, Pro-Life groups, or Anti-Drug advocates.  All use fear to motivate, to legislate, and to coerce.

Many times these propagandists prevail.  [The Temperance Unions succeeded in getting the disastrous Volstead Act passed.  They were successful in their goal; the epic fail was Prohibition.]  Likewise, anti-drug advocates have always used fantastical distortions of truth and outright fabrications to meet their agendas.  Fear, however, is always present in the message: “Do this or this will happen…”; “Don’t do that, or this will happen…”

“Smoke a little bit of marijuana and you’ll turn into a homicidal psychopath!” Basically, that was the fear message of one of the greatest epic failures of all time, the classically campy cult movie, Reefer Madness

Dat Ol' Debbil Weed
The history and usage of marijuana is long and, frankly, uninteresting.  Unlike opium, countries have never warred, had regimes toppled, or had entire economies built or ruined by marijuana. It is a simple plant that grows wild all over the planet and humans have been consuming it in one form or another for millennia.  Careful cultivation by imbibers over the centuries has yielded a fairly potent herb. 

Marijuana is a stupefying depressant that de-motivates and causes lethargy and general malaise.  These are all tolerable conditions: the average stoner sits around, talking about weed, smoking weed, looking for where he can get more weed, and talking about how buzzed he his.  Also, he will sleep, overeat, and play some video games, and watch Lord of the Rings movie marathons.  Overall, while not a terribly productive existence, it is harmless.

What marijuana will not do to anyone regardless of his or her brain chemistry is cause him or her to become a raging psychotic.  But that is the premise behind one of the most unintentionally hilarious propaganda movies of all time, Reefer Madness.

In the mid 1930s, there was almost no one who did not know what marijuana was.  Many popular swing, blues, and jazz musicians, be-boppers, and many actors and actresses (as well as some common folk) smoked the stuff, either occasionally or regularly.  Almost everyone knew what marijuana was and what it did.  And no one gave it much thought.

Church groups, often, will create a crisis where one doesn’t actually exist.  For some bizarre reason a particular group (with more money and resources than usual) got it in its collective head that marijuana consumption was somehow destroying the country when there was, in reality, no rampant “problem” with weed consumption (unlike the alcohol problems in the 1920s created by Prohibition).  It wasn’t the devastating Depression, rampant unemployment, or other social ills, it was marijuana that was ripping apart the social fabric. 
This little group, to be fair, actually intended to create an informational, educational film (of the type everyone has seen in school: How Can Johnny Get a Date? With Good Grooming!).  This film concerned the “evils” of marijuana.  The intent was harmless.  The sad truth, however, is there aren’t really any “evils” associated with marijuana.  For example, there are no recorded instances of any man ever killing his wife in a stoner’s frenzy (such a murder would probably involve the weedhead’s talking his poor wife to death about inane things, like where he could score more dope).  There are thousands of cases of husbands killing wives while in drunken rages, however. 

So, sadly, for this little civic-minded group of do-gooders they didn’t pick a very good drug for their fear-based movie (heroin or cocaine would have been more appropriate for the “fear factor”).  So, they imagined a social problem where one previously did not exist and created a movie about it (roughly akin to making an educational film about Bigfoot). 

Reefer Insanity
Reefer Madness’ original title was Tell Your Children.  Its origins were innocuous enough.  It was meant to educate about marijuana, its usage, and its effects.  The movie was designed for screenings at parent-teacher gatherings, and other such civic small group meetings. 

It was never intended for general release.  The goals of the movie (to educate and inform) were admirable if presented in a clinically detached and factual manner.  Reefer Madness, though, is neither factual nor clinically detached.  Reefer Madness is manic, hyperbolic, and ridiculously melodramatic.  The goal, in short, was to show parents how “good boys and girls” from “good homes”, once they fall under the spell of dat ol' debbil weed, turn into juvenile delinquents, sluts, hit-and-run drivers, and ultimately killers.

The world became blessed with this artistic endeavor as it is now known today thanks to an exploitation film producer in the mid 1930s named Dwain Esper.  In 1936 he obtained a copy of the in-house Reefer Madness (movie poster, 1936)educational film, tweaked it a bit, and released it nationally in the sleazy movie houses.  The movie’s poster, with its garish red-and-yellow graphics, advised “Adults Only” on it.  That restriction along with the poster’s vampiric dope fiend in the upper right corner and the zombie-esque woman in the lower left corner certainly guaranteed full houses wherever it played.

The movie, however, is much tamer than the lurid pulp poster would have one believe. It is a fairly straightforward morality tale.  The plot concerns a slag named Mae and her drug-dealing boyfriend, Jack.  They move from town to town, taking up residence in crummy apartments, and they sell weed.  Mae, being the more moral of the two, only deals to adults.  Jack, along with his crony, Ralph (a slightly psychotic older lad who smoked his way out of college after his first year) have no such morals.  They not only want to sell as much dope as they can, but they want to sell it fast by “hooking” the local kids on “reefers” (the jargon in the movie is side-splitting).  The “addictive” nature of marijuana is hit very hard and heavy at the outset of the film.

A very short time passes as the “good boy”, Bill Harper, gets hooked on weed.  Mary, Bill’s best girl, has a younger teenaged brother named Jimmy, who also gets hooked on weed.  One day, soon after becoming a raging marijuana addict, Jimmy gives Jack the Dealer a ride in Mary’s car to run an errand.  Jack gets out of the car at their destination and slips Jimmy a joint.  The kid proceeds to sit in the convertible parked in the open on the street and torches up. Jack comes back out, gets in the car and asks the kid if he’s okay to drive.  The kid says, "Sure, I’m red hot!” and zooms crazily away from the curb, swerving around a corner, and clipping an old man who stepped into the street.  The two race off in Mary’s car, leaving the old man in the gutter (he later dies off-screen of his injuries).

Bill Harper meanwhile tokes up in Mae’s and Jack’s apartment as often as possible.  One afternoon whilst imbibing he gets to have sex with another girl (Blanche) who is also there smoking dope.

seated (l-r): Blanche & BillCredit: standing (l-r): Jack, Ralph & Mae


Ralph (the ex-college boy psycho) has the hots for Bill’s steady girl, Mary.  Bill hasn’t been coming around Mary much (he’s been off smoking a lot of weed) so Mary goes looking for him.  When she gets to Mae’s place, she doesn’t know her boyfriend is in the other room finishing up with Blanche.  She sits down.  Everyone in the movie, regardless of age, smokes cigarettes – Ralph hands Mary a smoke.  She starts toking away, apparently not noticing she is not smoking regular tobacco. She gets extremely giddy, Ralph sits there toking away with her, and then he gets handsy.  He starts to rape her, tearing at her clothes. 

While Ralph is molesting Mary on their couch, Mae and Jack are in the kitchen talking (to add to her slatternly behaviors, Mae is also a booze-hound). Jack is complaining to Mae about how much liquor she packs away.  They apparently are oblivious to Mary’s raised voice and the sounds of struggling just a few feet away.

Bill, meanwhile comes out of the bedroom, and sees the struggle.  In his cannabis-fogged brain he visualizes Mary as a willing participant in her sexual assault.  He hauls off and slugs Ralph.  A gun is produced, and in the struggle, Mary gets shot.  She’s dead.  Jack, who heard the ruckus, pistol-whips Bill, knocking him out.  Ralph, who was the shooter, is told to leave.  Jack puts the gun in the hand of the unconscious Bill and the cops are called.

There is a “learned” professor who pops up throughout the movie (he is some type of educator).  In a discussion with a police officer the audience learns of a 16-year old boy in Michigan who recently hacked his whole family to death with an ax while under the influence of marijuana.  The Professor nods knowingly, and says, “Yes, I recall the case.” His take on the “deadly narcotic marihuana” is fascinating.  When Bill is brought to trial the Professor testifies about the evils of weed, and how Bill was a great kid gone astray.  Swell kid or not, Bill is found guilty of shooting and killing Mary. 

Ralph, the doper who actually shot Mary, is slowly cracking up.  Mae and Jack try to keep him under wraps by feeding him as much dope as he can smoke.  His psychotic and manic behaviors finally get under their skin.  He's on the verge of spilling his guts to the cops.  Jack and he argue, and Ralph beats Jack to death with a fireplace poker.  The cops show up and catch Ralph red-handed.  Blanche (Bill’s casual sex partner) was there, saw the whole thing, and she blabs.  Ralph goes to prison to await execution; Bill is released from custody, and the kid Jimmy is left with a major guilt problem.

Ummm...You Were Saying?
The movie on its surface is entertaining.  The hyperbole and overacting (all the actors were unknowns, people the church group found) make it watchable and frankly amusing.  However, the message is all wrong and was certainly ill-timed.  The movie’s failure was its pretense of authority.  Ironically, no one in America believed marijuana was either addictive or could lead to the maniacal behaviors displayed in the movie (terrific violent outbursts, cackling hysterically after a few puffs on a hooter, etc.).  

For context to understand why Reefer Madness failed, one has to recall when crack cocaine first popped up on the radar.  Not many people knew anything about it.  A movie like Reefer Madness about crack could have been made then with just as much hand-wringing and exaggerations and could have been wildly successful.  It is because the general public did not know much of anything about it.  One could say almost anything about crack and no one would know the difference.

Marijuana, though, was a well-known intoxicant.  The equivalent would have been to make a movie called Alcohol Madness or Milk Madness —the absurdity is obvious.  The fear element thrown in is particularly overwrought at the end when the Professor dramatically claims that the bad things in this movie could happen to anyone’s children.  He finally points into the camera and tells the viewer his or her child could be in danger, too.

Other propagandist fear-mongering in the name of “education” also stalked the silver screenThe Pace that Kills is the Reefer Madness of cocaine (and was actually made a year earlier by an"The Pace That Kills" (movie poster, 1935) unrelated outfit).  Again, the story is hyper-driven with paranoia about the country’s usage of cocaine and the pitfalls awaiting the innocent person who becomes addicted. The funniest line (unintentional) in this movie is when a girl, with her cocaine jonesin' boyfriend, tries to get a room to crash.  The girl tells the landlady her boyfriend is sick.  The elderly landlady, very clipped and snooty, says, “He don’t look sick to me!  He looks like a hophead!”

Much better, but still mining that same fear-based vein, is Sex Madness.  This movie was released in 1938 and was produced and directed by Dwain Esper, the man who co-opted Reefer Madness.  This movie actually works on its most basic level, discussing the dangers of syphilis. If one can ignore its ham-fisted sermonizing and scenery-chewing acting it’s not a bad movie (the underlying moral message, of course, is that any kind of sex outside of marriage is bad, even evil, and can kill). 

The heroine in Sex Madness is a young woman with a “past” that includes syphilis (no laughing matter – syphilis actually can kill).  She takes “The Cure”.  [Before the discovery of "Sex Madness" (movie poster, 1938)penicillin this was a horribly drawn out process that involved ingestion of mercury and other heavy metals and “sweating” – a treatment wherein the body’s core temperature is raised to a dangerous fever level and then sustained, burning the syphilis out of the diseased carrier.]  Any treatment took many weeks to complete, and one could not be guaranteed of the efficacy of “The Cure” until one had follow-up blood testing done. 

Syphilis, like AIDS, can be asymptomatic for long periods (which is why people used to be required to take blood tests before marriage – it was to detect if syphilis were present and for no other reason).  In any case, the young woman in the movie doesn’t follow up with her syphilis cure, she meets a man, they fall in love, and they get married.  Her not telling him about her syphilis, though, ultimately leads to the moralizing end where the man is in bed, blinded by syphilis, going insane, and dying.


still from 'colorized' "Reefer Madness" (2004)

Reefer Madness, though, despite being chronologically in the middle of The Pace That Kills and Sex Madness, is considered the true classic in this exploitation genre. Part of the reason is the over-the-top histrionics and its earnestness – the makers of Reefer Madness were as serious as cancer when this movie was put together.  The movie gained a cult following in the 1970s.  It was even remastered into a “colorized” version in 2004.  It has earned its bones as one of America’s great movie debacles.  It educated no one – in fact, it probably caused more mirth than anything else. 

Today, though, the film is affectionately regarded as one of the all-time great “bad” movies.  Not too shabby for an epic fail.


Author’s Note: This article in no way endorses the use of marijuana for any reason whatsoever. It is a recreational drug, and nothing more.  Unlike opium derivatives (which'W' Pictures Presents: "Terrorist Madness"Credit: Bill G. Chambers, 2011 have true and proven medical uses) I remain unconvinced marijuana has any medical value except to make one feel better about being sick. The glaucoma argument doesn’t hold – marijuana does not cure glaucoma.  It only relieves the pain from the ocular pressure and this dubious achievement may, in itself, simply be the placebo effect at its finest.   

Commentary herein about legalizing marijuana is grounded in rational, well-reasoned thought and common sense: drug-related crime (the violence associated with transport and transactional violence) would diminish and a tremendous source of excise-tax revenue could be realized.  The latter is more important; with the almost incalculable cash blood-letting of the US economy that is the “War on Terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan the United States could use the fiscal infusion.  Legalization would follow the same regulations as alcohol.  No sales to minors.  Any infractions (such as driving under the influence) would be the same as for alcohol usage under similar conditions. 

People who want to smoke marijuana are going to smoke marijuana no matter what anyone does.  The US Government should at least keep the cash in the country.

Reefer Madness - The Movie Musical
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