The first entry in our new list of movies about marijuana easily merits an entire column of its own. It’s the infamous, over-the-top 1936 cautionary tale Reefer Madness. What is there to even say about this notorious piece of drug-war propaganda that isn’t (probably) a lie? Well, here’s one truth: People took such blatant nonsense quite seriously at the time. The film features tropes that would define perceptions of cannabis for generations: unscrupulous dealers pushing weed on teenagers, precipitating a rapid descent into rape, hallucinations, suicide and, of course, jazz.
Reefer Madness was released at the height of the Swing Era, and folks like former Federal Bureau of Narcotics Director Harry J. Anslinger had already been explicit about the threat posed to proper society by the intersection of weed and jazz. This film checks almost every box for the government propagandists of the day. Hell, if it weren’t for the super-racist production codes of yesteryear, some of the movie’s villainous roles would’ve even been played by black people, such was the producers’ commitment to kayfabe.
The filmmakers had high hopes, so to speak, for their movie, but it was not to be—at least not the way they would’ve preferred. Reefer Madness bombed, rightly ruining the careers of everyone involved in it and tarnishing the credibility of all such efforts that followed. It did not achieve cult status until decades later, too late for the principals, but just in time for the home-video market. I was working at a bookstore at The Jacksonville Landing when I bought my VHS copy at Musicland, down at the other end of the mall. It was probably the best $3.99 I ever spent. My friends and I watched it at least a dozen times that first week, and conversations were punctuated with dialogue from the film for months thereafter. I lent the tape to others, and it made the rounds, relentlessly. I let the tape rock until it popped, and then I bought another one from another store (also for $3.99).
Personally, my favorite visual is of a wild-haired—and wilder-eyed—piano player toking up in a closet, half-illuminated through the slats in the door, barely able to keep it together. I have always wondered if he understood what foolishness he was perpetrating on the world, or if he really was that high. We will never know. Ironically, though it’s intended as an anti-drug warning, it’s impossible to watch sober, and it has become a foundation piece of stoner culture. It’s inspired several remakes, all of which are also terrible, mostly on purpose. They stay fairly faithful to the source material, but they’re more blatantly conceived as obvious satire.
It’s worth reiterating that the original film was meant to be taken at face value; satire of such depth and complexity wasn’t a reality at that point in American culture. It’s a shame the producers didn’t live long enough to see what became of their would-be masterpiece. Alas, one imagines they were perfectly content to wipe their minds of the memory, forever.