When the Government Said Marijuana Made You Crazy

A woman rolls a 'joint' in the late 40's.

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Why you should care

Because the first war on drugs was no more successful than the second one.

The opening scene of Reefer Madness — the 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film that’s now a cult classic — zooms in on a high school principal alerting his students about what’s plaguing the nation’s youth. “Not alcoholism, not opium, not cocaine,” he declares, “but marijuana is the worst drug corrupting the youth of America.” The message? Weed is pure evil. Public enemy No. 1. A narcotic that destroys the human spirit, transforming men into violent monsters and women into ravenous whores. Watching the film now, it plays as broadly comedic, but back then it was deadly serious. 

Funded by a church group, the 68-minute morality tale was originally titled Tell Your Children. But it wasn’t until rogue indie director, producer and distributor Dwain Esper acquired the rights, spliced in shots of women rolling down their stockings and began screening the recut version of Reefer Madness that it took off, says Chris Simunek, former editor in chief of High Times magazine.

Not that Esper bothered to pay fees to the movie’s original producer, George Hirliman, says Jack Criddle, director of documentary short Dwain Esper: The King of the Celluloid Gypsies. Esper was a master of distribution on the “exploitation circuit,” bringing movies like Freaks (1932), Narcotic (1933) and Sex Madness (1938) to the masses. He was also “a notorious liar, cheat and crooked businessman,” says Criddle. “We know he claimed to have directed several films that he did not and distributed others that he did not have the rights to.” According to multiple accounts, Esper was vicious and vindictive, delighting in screwing people over.

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New York City police burn marijuana in a yard on Washington Street.

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Esper’s films are unlike anyone else’s. “They’re absolutely insane,” Criddle says. “It’s an aesthetic that can only come from a self-taught, entrepreneurial filmmaker who swung for the fences every time.” His work peddled salaciousness, smut and bad behavior while pretending to serve the public interest.

The Reefer Madness campaign was an attempt to create a narcotics scare and … to paint marijuana as a narcotic that was as dangerous as heroin and cocaine.

Alexandra Chasin, author of Assassin of Youth

“[Reefer Madness] was the ‘fake news’ of its day,” Simunek says. “Then, as now, certain forces of the media enjoyed a cozy relationship with politicians and law enforcement and were willing to help spread their lies to pursue a common agenda.” It’s no coincidence that the movie was made just as anti-marijuana rhetoric was reaching a crescendo that resulted in the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, drafted by infamous anti-cannabis prohibitionist, and head of the Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger.


“The Reefer Madness campaign was an attempt to create a narcotics scare and, in particular, to paint marijuana as a narcotic that was as dangerous as heroin and cocaine,” says Alexandra Chasin, author of Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger’s War on Drugs. Because marijuana was so little known in the early 1930s, the government took it upon itself to create an awareness of the drug — an awareness cloaked in peril and anxiety — while taking plenty of liberties in the process.

“At first, Anslinger didn’t think marijuana was particularly dangerous,” Simunek explains. “But he changed his tune when his funding was threatened.” A veteran Prohibition agent, Anslinger employed the same tactics that had failed to temper alcohol consumption and then upped the ante with a heavy dose of racially charged fearmongering. In contrast to booze, which was the intoxicant of choice among Whites, marijuana was considered a drug used disproportionately by Blacks and Latinos.

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Reefer Madness posters warn the public of “what actually happens” should you dare to travel on the “national high-way.” 

Source Bettmann/Getty

Unknowingly, Anslinger and Esper teamed up to launch America’s first war on drugs, using the double-barreled force of government and media propaganda machines to spew misinformation and generate hysteria. “The image of marijuana was that it caused violent insanity,” Chasin says. “People who take marijuana begin by laughing hysterically but soon go on to rape and murder, and throw themselves out windows,” one message said. What’s more, the same deceptive messaging suggested that marijuana was supplied by people of color — whether musicians or dealers — posing particular threats to White women, including prostitution, “white slavery” and miscegenation.

“It’s a cautionary tale,” Simunek says, “considering that it’s taken 80 years to undo the damage caused by the anti-marijuana propaganda of the 1930s.” Even today, the Drug Enforcement Administration classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, alongside heroin and cocaine. A straight line can be traced back from the categorizing of marijuana as a “highly addictive” substance with “no medicinal value” to the absurdities disseminated about marijuana in the Anslinger and Esper days of Reefer Madness.

However, in one of many comic ironies surrounding the film, Simunek points out, it helped generate the financing needed to launch the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Founder Keith Stroup bought a copy of the film for a couple of hundred dollars in 1971 and started screening it on college campuses to raise money for his organization, which was promoting itself at the time in Playboy and High Times as a lobbying firm for pot smokers. “The film became a kitsch classic for the stoner kids in the 1970s,” Simunek says.

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A truck in Omaha, Nebraska, carrying a poster advertising ‘Assassin of Youth’, a film warning of the dangers of marijuana

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A scene from Reefer Madness.

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“I think [Reefer Madness] is a good example of how the momentum for reform and legalization benefits when the antis go over the top and delegitimize themselves in the eyes of people who are not particularly friendly to marijuana,” says Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance. It’s a scenario we see being played out today as government officials try to prop up the hobbled war on drugs by crusading against legalized marijuana even as public support for legalization reaches an all-time high.

Perhaps the true moral of this cautionary tale is that lurid propaganda gives rise to its own form of insanity — one that can end up serving the very thing it sought to demonize.

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