CULTURE
The Devil's Harvest: How "Reefer Madness" Became a Pro-Weed Movie
The camp cult favorite has been cracking up stoners for decades. A new Blu-ray release shows how its hysteria may have actually helped to change the public’s attitude about pot.
Published on February 24, 2020

All photos courtesy of Kino Lorber

In the weird twilight world of anti-drug propaganda films, few can touch 1936's Reefer Madness for its rabid misinformation and wrong-headed execution. Intended as a warning to parents about the dangers of marijuana, its story — about a pair of teenagers whose introduction to weed leads to addiction, insanity, and murder — is crudely executed, performed in near-hysterics, and so devoid of anything resembling rational behavior that it suggests that no actual humans were behind the camera. (The culprit was French director Louis J. Gasnier, a former specialist in silent comedy, whose career ended shortly after its release.)

Despite its kindergarten surrealism, Reefer Madness actually reflected the American government's attitude toward marijuana at the time. Harry J. Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, stoked public fears about marijuana through deceptive and decidedly racist stories about its ability to loosen the sanity and morals of users. He did this in order to sway public opinion against weed and to enact the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which levied fees for selling or prescribing cannabis. Support for the act from newspaper tycoons like William Randolph Hearst and films like Reefer Madness helped to push the bill into law, where it remained until its repeal in 1970.

The people responsible for Reefer Madness may have faded into obscurity — Gasnier reportedly died broke, while the 1952 obituary for producer George Hirliman cites numerous low-budget productions, yet not Reefer Madness — but the film itself would enjoy a second act in the decades that followed, although as propaganda of an entirely different kind than its creators intended.

In 1972, Kenneth Stroup, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), discovered a print in the Library of Congress film archives. Hirliman had apparently forgotten to retain its copyright, allowing the film to lapse into the public domain. Stroup then screened it as part of a 1972 benefit. Audiences were floored by its incredible naivete about cannabis, and word of mouth made Reefer Madness not only a staple of the midnight movie circuit alongside The Rocky Horror Picture Show and El Topo, but also a new catch phrase for out-of-date and out-of-touch attitudes toward weed.

(Not everyone appears to have gotten the joke, as evidenced by author Alex Berenson, who employed the original title of Reefer MadnessTell Your Children — for his fear-mongering anti-marijuana book).

Due to its public domain status, Reefer Madness has long been a staple of cheap home video releases, but a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber — which partners the film with the equally out-to-lunch Sex Madness — offers what Lisa Petrucci of Something Weird Video (which teamed with Kino for its release as part of the new series "Forbidden Fruits: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Film") calls the "best quality restoration [of the film] out there!" The Blu-ray also features commentary by Eric Schaefer, Ph.D, Professor of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College, and author of "Bold! Daring! Shocking! True: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959." Dr. Schaefer spoke with MERRY JANE about the legacy of Reefer Madness, its cult appeal, and its convoluted history as both an anti-pot and pro-weed movie.

1582582257341_Reefer_Madness_(1936).jpg

MERRY JANE: Reefer Madness is a textbook example of an exploitation film. For some, that term simply means "trashy" or "sleazy," but as an exploitation film scholar, can you tell us what criteria defines an exploitation film?

Dr. Eric Schaefer: The term "exploitation film" originally referred to a movie that did not have big stars or fall into an easily recognizable genre and thus needed additional “exploitation” beyond the usual posters and advertising to find an audience. Such films included early documentary features, religious films, and movies that dealt with sensitive or sensational topics that often defied state or local censorship or the film industry’s efforts at self-regulation. By the time you get into the late 1920s and early 1930s, “exploitation” was most often applied to low-budget movies that were made by independents operating on the fringe of the mainstream industry and dealt with forbidden topics like sex hygiene, nudism, and drug use. When we get to the mid-1950s, the term came to encompass almost any cheaply-made film designed to make a quick buck.

When did you first encounter Reefer Madness?

I didn't see it until well into the 1970s. But as a kid growing up in the suburbs during the 1960s, we were still being bombarded by educational movies that were straight out of the Reefer Madness playbook. And for me, the thought of trying marijuana was, Oh my God, I'll go crazy… until I was at least in my twenties.

1582582397100_be022503_1024x1024.jpeg

As you mention in the commentary track for the Blu-ray, Reefer Madness was one of three marijuana exploitation films traveling the country in roadshow presentations in the late '30s, including Marihuana and Assassin of Youth. What made marijuana such an issue of concern — and a topic for exploitation — during the period?

Marijuana really burst into the public consciousness in the 1930s as a result of the efforts of Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics [which became today's Drug Enforcement Administration]. Marijuana use was primarily associated with African-Americans and Mexican laborers, and Anslinger perpetuated the idea that its use was spreading to white, middle-class teens and would “degrade” them, making them unproductive. 

Drug policy has historically been used in the United States to control minority groups, going back to the anti-opium policies used against the Chinese in the 19th century to crack cocaine policies used against black Americans in the 1980s. These programs have almost always been misguided and have had devastating unintended social and economic consequences. 

Most of the anti-marijuana effort was rooted in racism and classism, and Anslinger spun stories about average kids becoming murderers or hopelessly insane under its influence. There was also the suggestion that cannabis broke down sexual inhibitions and could lead to mixed-race parties and unwanted pregnancies. Of course, by that time, any mention of drug use was forbidden in Hollywood movies by the Production Code. And since exploitation movies depended on the sensational and the taboo to bring in ticket-buyers, the campaign against marijuana made for a perfect match.

It's safe to say that the film's enduring popularity is due to its campiness, but what sets Reefer Madness apart from those two previously mentioned films and the others that followed?

The whole opening introduction, with the lecture by Dr. Carroll, is so pedantic and over-the-top, and that sets the tone for the rest of the movie. When it was issued on the midnight movie circuit in the 1970s, that was what set people off.

INTERVIEW
HISTORY
MOVIES
PROHIBITION
MORE...
Paul Gaita
FOLLOW
Paul Gaita has written for Variety, the Los Angeles Times, Costco Connection, The Fix, The Los Angeles Beat, and many other publications and websites. Visit his website http://bypaulgaita.com/
Share this article with your friends!
MORE FROM MERRY JANE