The Interesting Origins of “Reefer Madness” (1936)

Reefer Madness is an anti-marijuana propaganda film from 1936 commercialized by Dwain Esper. Reefer Madness is also the loose title for the first ever war on drugs in the United States by the Bureau of Narcotics and Henry Anslinger against cannabis sativa (c.1930s). The two worked in hand to spread hysteria and misinformation about marijuana that still holds some sway today in popular and political sectors.

In 1936, the film Reefer Madness began to circulate as an anti-marijuana propaganda piece. The message of the film is that marijuana is the most dangerous drug affecting the youth of America. The film claims weed destroys one’s humanity, turning men into monsters and women into harlots.

The film was initially funded and produced by a church group under the production of Geoge Hirilman. But the rights ended up with indie filmmaker Dwain Esper. Dwain Esper was a mastermind of exploitation films for the time, peddling 1930’s smut and schlock under the guise of public awareness.

No country is a stranger to propaganda, the US included. An example is pro and anti war films targeting the youth of America to get them more involved. Reefer Madness was used to launch a fake news marketing campaign that supported anti-marijuana legislation, including the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act drafted by Harry Anslinger. Harry Anslinger was the head of the Bureau of Narcotics and an infamous anti-cannabis prohibitionist.

Reefer Madness was Anslinger’s attempt to create a narcotics scare to skew public perception of cannabis because so little was known about it in the 1930s. Anslinger was worried about funding for his department. Between the movie and the Bureau of Narcotics, misinformation spread with no scientific evidence. Horrible claims, like minorities supply marijuana as a form of white slavery, abounded.

Almost ninety years have passed and we still haven’t been able to change some of the negative perceptions and legislation imposed by the 1930s. Claims like marijuana being “highly addictive” and of “no medicinal value” have been proven false in tons of research studies. Hopefully as the legalization efforts for marijuana continue to grow, and studies increasingly demonstrate all the powerful benefits cannabis has to offer, we will finally see positive reform on the issue.

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