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Justifiable Concerns or the Usual Scare Tactics?

Chinese organized crime! "Potent Pot" makes people psychotic! Daily cannabis use elevates heart attack risks by 25%! "It's not your parents' pot !" THC Gummies have increased skiing accidents by 1000%!

Okay, let's everybody calm down. While nobody has ever died from a weed overdose, daily overconsumption can be - and already is - a problem for a growing number of individuals. Because like any substance taken "recreationally" (like alcohol), toking up can sometimes evolve into a problematic addiction. But this should be cause for carefully rendered treatment options, not outright hysteria and mass-incarceration.

In this week's Blog we offer a free chapter from ADDICTED IN FILM: Movies We Love About the Habits We Hate about the how "so-terrible-it-was-great" movie REEFER MADNESS tried to warn people about a nonexistent threat, and became part of a cynical decades-long PR campaign against drugs that fed perfectly into the U.S. Government's tragically misguided "War On Drugs."

Be Very Cautious With Cautionary Tales


Any movie or TV show about alcohol or drug addictions is inherently cautionary to a certain extent. Were there ever a film produced that glamorized addiction and celebrated its countless personal and societal benefits free from all costs, it would belong in the realm of dystopian science fiction. But to categorize a movie as “cautionary” in the absolute sense is not accurate; there are degrees of caution. 

Some filmmakers, like those who made Reefer Madness, had a clear goal in mind: Scare the living shit out of everyone by showing how marijuana would lead to the end of the world as we know it. The “movie” was directed in 1936 by French polymath Louis J. Gasnier. I use the term “movie” in quotes because it’s actually a glorified high-budget public service announcement masquerading as a low-budget movie. The intent was very clearly cautionary (no surprise that it was entirely funded by a church group); it’s the movie equivalent of a four-alarm fire, and so utterly terrible that it got Gasnier sentenced to life without parole in movie jail.


It is not known whether Gasnier felt strongly one way or the other about the actual cautions in the film, or whether he was just trying to cash a paycheck. Regardless, the producers must all be turning in their graves. Their very earnest anti-marijuana screed ended up becoming a very funny pro-pot rallying cry and the butt of countless stoner jokes. The film was so kitsch that it was adapted into a hilarious comic book series and a musical. Talk about the Law of Unintended Consequences. 

Theater owners preferred to sell popcorn than kill everyone’s buzz, so Reefer Madness didn’t catch on theatrically until Dwain Esper—a building contractor turned film empresario—snatched up the rights, recut the film, and released it in seedy, bad-side-of-town sticky-floor theaters starting in 1938. Esper’s specialty was crass low budget exploitation films like Sex Maniac and How to Undress In Front of Your Husband. 

Think of him as a poor man’s Ed Wood, with an extra dash of smutty. He got the snazzy idea to market Reefer Madness as a sexploitation flick, with the anti-marijuana message thrown in as an afterthought. Audiences must have seen through the deceptive marketing because the only remotely salacious scenes in the film are when a stoned couple fumble to locate each other’s lips, and a guy makes a lackluster attempt at date rape which is easily derailed by an uncooperative zipper.

After tagging out theatrically, the film was relegated to the dustbin of film history and stored away in a vault somewhere in Burbank, California. And there it would have remained, were it not for an ironic fluke of history. The producers of the original film had bungled their copyright registration so the film ended up in the public domain stored at the Library of Congress. A lawyer by the name of Keith Stroup ran across a 35mm copy and purchased it for $300, rights and all. And here’s where the story gets interesting. 


Stroup worked for the Consumer Product Safety Division alongside notables like Ralph Nader—and was looking for a way to help support his new venture, NORML, or the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He began to offer screenings of the film on college campuses as a way to poke fun at the absurdity of marijuana hyper-criminalization. Some of the stoned college kids who laughed at the film probably went on to become state legislators who decriminalized marijuana. So if you’re on your comfy couch reading this blog, happily buzzed on medical marijuana, you have Keith Stroup and Reefer Madness to thank.

But wait: There’s more. A young enterprising gentleman named Robert Shaye attended one of Stroup’s midnight screenings and noticed that the new copyright had been filed improperly. Public domain meant he could also exploit the film, so Shaye bought a print, copied it, released the film to his nascent college movie circuit, and made a ton of money for his new company, New Line Cinema. New Line would go on to produce some of the most memorable and financially successful films of all time. So if you’re on your comfy couch binge-watching the Lord of the Rings Trilogy this weekend, and possibly stoned on medical marijuana whilst doing it, once again you have Reefer Madness to thank.

So why did Reefer Madness become such a cult hit? Well, for starters, the film is clearly horrible. Midnight movie and college circuits in the ‘70s were fed largely by anti-movie movies, like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and (pick any) intentionally bad John Waters films. I have my own fond, albeit blurry, high school memories of driving from my tranquil Northern Virginia suburb down to Georgetown in DC to watch these midnight movie classics, including everyone’s favorite: The Rocky Horror Picture Show. True to the Law of Unintended Consequences, Reefer Madness became yet another reason to get stoned, not to not get stoned—as the original producers intended. Think about it: It was the late ‘70s, the first head shops opened, we all subscribed to High Times magazine, pot was cool, nobody would actually go to jail for possession, right? I mean, unless they were black.

What made Reefer Madness so hilarious was just how alarmist it was. The film starts out with title cards warning the audience that what they are about to witness may “startle” them. Promise?! I mean, wasn’t that the whole point of the movie? To caution parents and their kids about the impending marijuana apocalypse? More hilarity ensued with the use of old-timey words like “fretful” and “unspeakable scourge.” My stoner friends and I read these titles out loud along with the rest of the audience as we all laughed our asses off. 

Not that the producers hadn’t warned us that laughter was a slippery slope. Our “sudden, violent, uncontrollable laughter” would be followed by “dangerous hallucinations” (seriously?!) and “monstrous extravagances” (count me in!). And it only got better…er…worse from there. Pot would cause us “the loss of power to resist physical emotions, finally leading to acts of shocking violence ending often in incurable insanity.” Wow! It appears that the billions of people who’ve smoked reefer over the last 2,500 years—including me and most of my friends—didn’t get that memo

Duly warned about the horrors we were about to witness, Reefer Madness proceeds to administer horrors of a different kind: completely senseless story structure, inane dialogue, a crazed honky-tonk piano player, a Gollumesque weirdo hot-boxing a joint, a fatal hit-and-run, attempted rape, accidental homicide, a botched cover-up, a melodramatic criminal trial, sordid testimony, a manslaughter conviction, ruined lives all around, and some of the worst white-person dancing ever committed to celluloid. By God, it was all hilarious. And like most things one does when they’re wasted, entirely pointless.

However, at the time Reefer Madness was made, it wasn’t pointless at all. It was a carefully crafted piece of political propaganda—the first shot across the bow in what would subsequently become the very un-funny, catastrophic, and ultimately unsuccessful War on Drugs. If I had known back in Georgetown what the film actually was as opposed to what we all naively thought it was, we would not have been laughing in the least. This is a great example of the famous definition of Comedy, only in reverse: Comedy minus Time = Tragedy.

Before I tell you Reefer Madness’ role in this tragedy, I should qualify the term "War on Drugs." It became part of the national lexicon after President Richard Nixon, pissed off because he was losing an actual war in Southeast Asia, decided in a televised speech in 1971 to declare a fake war against an overhyped enemy: drugs. A year earlier Congress had passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, which laid out categories for drugs based on their medicinal use and potential for addiction.

But the War on Drugs as an overall concept goes back much further. After the U.S. Civil War and World War I, doctors noticed that wounded vets had become addicted to morphine. Addiction itself was not yet fully understood as a pathology and seemed like a medical oddity with limited consequences. Hence you could buy Coca-Cola that contained actual coke, laudanum (an opioid) was in everyone’s medicine cabinets, morphine was added to every manner of “tonic,” and heroin was sold over the counter in cough syrup (great for babies with colic!). Rates of addiction spiked, culminating with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 which outlawed opiates. Actual treatments for addiction were non-existent. “Addicts” were often sent to insane asylums, along with those other poor folks called “alcoholics.”


Enter Harry Anslinger, America’s first “Drug Czar.” In the early ‘30s, after the U.S. had repealed Prohibition, his nascent Federal Bureau of Narcotics was the under-funded bastard stepchild of the U.S. Treasury—the agency responsible for going after the real Public Enemy Number One: organized crime. Anslinger knew that to play with the big kids, he’d have to create the ultimate bogeyman. And for him that bogeyman ended up being the “dope fiend.” Gradually his operating budget increased.

But to really scale up, Anslinger knew he had to influence public opinion. And what better way than to use mass media to scare the living shit out of Middle America. To achieve this, he found a willing accomplice in the form of media magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst’s newspapers specialized in publishing lurid headlines about hellish “Dope Dens”—places where unsuspecting white Americans would be peer-pressured by sinister forces into smoking “The Devil’s Weed.” Which sinister forces, you ask? Why blacks, Asians, and Mexicans of course. 

It was a win-win for Hearst. He sold tons of newspapers, and by vilifying marijuana, he vilified hemp—a cheaper substitute for paper pulp which was a threat to his extensive timber holdings. Some historians go a step further and claim that Andrew Mellon (the Secretary of the Treasury, Anslinger’s boss, and his wife’s uncle!) also wanted to destroy the hemp trade because it threatened his sizable investment in a new synthetic fiber called “nylon” developed by his zillionaire cronies at DuPont. All these players got their way in 1937 when the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, criminalizing marijuana.

Criminalizing pot addressed an imagined problem and distracted away from the real issue of alcohol addiction. No federal funds were allocated to solve that, much less even study it. Anslinger’s War on Drugs was “supported by science,” but only the science that fit his narrative. He completely disregarded the opinion of twenty-nine out of thirty pharmacists surveyed on the subject by the American Medical Association who agreed that pot was harmless and non-addictive. Anslinger also quickly learned how to lie with statistics and link violent crimes to marijuana use. Hearst was only too happy to sensationalize that narrative when he published a salacious account of a 1933 mass-murder where a troubled young man named Victor Licata chopped his family to death with an ax, purportedly under the influence of pot. There was also the insinuation that he had raped his sisters first. Hearst conveniently omitted the fact that Licata, and many members of his family, had been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses.

And so there we had it: “Dope Fiends” were morally weak reprobates whose weed-smoking made them hysterical, violent, psychotic ax murderers and rapists. Especially if you were black. Because let’s face it, this was the real crux of the matter: Race. Anslinger’s “public service” campaigns were grounded in centuries-old fears of marauding gangs of stoned black guys with libidinous superpowers and the inability to feel pain, scouring the streets looking for white women to rape. Worst still, the blacks would force these white women to smoke pot themselves, turning them into nymphomaniac sex slaves. The very idea that a white woman might actually enjoy having sex with a better-endowed black man had been driving white men batshit crazy for generations. Isn’t that what lynchings were all about?

If you think I’m going a little bit over the top here, I invite you to read Johann Hari’s extraordinary book, Chasing The Scream. It details Anslinger’s racist double standards, especially in how he treated singer Billie Holiday. My favorite must-read quote from Hari’s book: 

"The arguments we hear today for the drug war are that we must protect teenagers from drugs, and prevent addiction in general. We assume, looking back, that these were the reasons this war was launched in the first place. But they were not. They crop up only occasionally, as asides. The main reason given for banning drugs—the reason obsessing the men who launched this war—was that the blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people."

Anslinger’s popularization of the term “Dope Fiend” was just the start of his efforts to define reality. Everyone else on the reactionary right—from the churches on down—soon realized that stigmatizing terms could be leveraged as propaganda to stoke anti-drug hysteria. The media were only too happy to parrot the talking points because hysteria sold more newspapers and got higher Nielsen ratings. By the time President Nixon declared his “War on Drugs” in the ‘70s, the terms “junkie” and “pot-head” had become common. When Reagan signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 that hyper-criminalized drug possession and imposed minimum sentencing guidelines, the term “crackhead” also came into vogue. Misogynists took it one step further with the degrading term “crack whore.” 

As a result, addiction stigmas—specifically racially-tinged addiction stigmas—were normalized. And we’ve all been living with the consequences of this ever since: a failed War on Drugs that cost over a trillion dollars, destroyed countless lives (primarily black lives), and ravaged black communities. Can you imagine the staggering loss of human potential as state and federal funds that could have helped people recover from their addiction were instead spent on prison cells to punish them for it? Without any addiction counseling in prison, can you guess what the result was? When you calculate the effectiveness of a war on drugs by how many people you incarcerate versus how many you actually help kick the habit, you know how much of a public policy clusterfuck this all was.


Knowing what we know now, Reefer Madness is a sad example of how a false narrative can be used to further a group’s political, financial, and personal goals. The film billed itself as a cautionary tale about the dangers of pot, and for some people maybe it was. Some may have sworn off the stuff after seeing the film. We’ll never know. Regardless, because of Anslinger and these kinds of “cautionary” films (there were other B-movies made to scare people, by the way) a majority of Americans across three generations came to view addicted individuals through a lens dirtied by stigmatizing language and imagery. 

Mass media were complicit in all of it. They told the story of addiction as a dumbed-down Good versus Evil morality tale. Luckily, thanks to books by Hari and many other great thinkers including Maia Szalavitz, Anna Lembke, Gabor Maté, Stanton Peele, Marc Lewis, and Bruce Liese (to name but a few), society is finally coming to view addiction for what it actually is—a dense and complicated story told with a multitude of characters, interlaced storylines, and no guarantee of a happy ending. 

So the next time you’re sitting on your comfy couch, watching The Wire or Breaking Bad, wondering why the richest country on the planet can’t offer free universal health care but can afford housing the highest prison population on the planet, you have a “movie” like Reefer Madness to thank.

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