Reefer Madness: A Laughable Look At Past Attitudes

Photo via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license

Photo via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license

Mary Kelley, Contributing Writer

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Roll that joint, grab that lighter, and sit down to watch Reefer Madness (1936), a tableau of fall from grace at the hands of that devil’s lettuce. This film is a depiction of madness caused by marijuana, as seen through the eyes of riled up and concerned parents; or marihuana as the drug is spelt out in the opening scroll. The entire story is told from the point of few of a high school principal using fear tactics to convince a room full of parents that marijuana is the number one threat to “today’s youth.” 

The film conveniently skips over alcohol, tobacco, and cigarettes, and includes a brief explanation that opioids, heroin, and meth are too hard to get. The colorized version of the film accentuates the absurd nature of the story being spun. The blunts give off bright pink, green, blue,  and yellow smoke, contrasted by the “perfectly safe” tobacco cigarettes. The symptoms used to tell if someone is under the influence are hysteria, unusual outbursts of violence, incoherent thoughts, and eventual insanity. The teens, who star in the principal’s story, were his former students who met dark fates at the hands of ganja.

The world painted in this film is a utopian society. Teens just go to random people’s nice apartments and get as many joints as they can smoke. The people selling the drugs are a seemingly well-established business or drug ring. Even within the drug dealers, there are several characters who speak out against selling to minors.  

The film’s women are painted as more morally upright in the film, less likely to sell to minors and more ready to confess to misdeeds. Also, the racial tensions occurring at the time are neatly absent, mostly due to the lack of any people of color in the cast..

The teens, specifically the two innocent love-birds, Billy and Mary, who receive two of the worst demises, are lured into the drug den. They are unwittingly invited to a “get-together” involving some funny cigarettes. Billy, clearly the more mischievous of the two, quickly becomes horribly addicted to “America’s newest necrotic menace.” This leads to Mary’s death. I promise there is more plot in between and that plot is one-hundred percent worth a screening or a movie night. His first taste of pot leaves him addicted and ends with him getting his high school sweet-heart shot in the back.

There are plenty of questionable, upsetting scenes in the film; the sex seemingly only happening as a result of the consumption of reefer, the people being given a joint and getting high without their knowledge, and the assault scene could seriously hurt people who had this film as their only form of education around “illegal substances.”

This film shows how easy it is to get with “birds” when they smoke doobies, how it relaxes people, lowers their ambitions, and they don’t seem to get mad afterwards. Instead of demonizing, they practically advertised possible advantages to Mary Jane. The film doesn’t address how horrible sexual assault is no matter the sobriety or how educated consent is always necessary. 

More importantly, Reefer Madness is essentially a PSA to parents across the U.S., with interruptions from the teacher at the PTA group cuts in to better explain plot points of the movie, which essentially means that this could have been addressed. The script could have included one or two throw away lines disclaiming that the girl, who passed the Dutchie to the left hand side, was completely blameless in her assault and is a victim rather than a “troubled girl.”

If this movie came out even 30 years ago, then it would be horrible. The fact that it was made before WWII gave it much more leeway. This is the sort of PSA that our parents had to sit through back in the day, similar to how we watched ones made in the ‘80s. It is outdated and over dramatized, causing little to no fear and far more laughter. Maybe the first generation to see this film, or people brought up in really sheltered environments, would be scared off by Reefer Madness. It seems that the world had some bigger problems to handle for the next generation or so, and marijuana floated further from their mind.

The film’s message was a message emphasizing the importance of educating students about the dangers of “magic dragon,” but in a “scared- straight” way, rather than an open dialogue. The message is actually kind of important, and a real way to combat substance abuse, but the actual delivery of that message is flawed. The resurgence of the film, as a laughably bad PSA, could foster communications about how to keep teens educated and safe, and really that was the intent of the film, albeit in a convoluted way.